Monarch Butterflies Among the Most Intriguing of Earth’s Insects

This photo card of Sitting Bull was produced in the 1890s. Look closely and you can see a Monarch butterfly tucked into the brim of his hat.

By Jim O’Neal

For every single human being on Earth, there are 200 million insects. Both in terms of species and sheer numbers, insects outnumber all other animals on the planet. More than a million different species of insects have been described and named, and thousands more are discovered each year … some estimates exceed 30 million total in existence.

Over 70 percent of all known animal species are insects and almost half of them are in the beetle category. Among the more infamous are boll weevils, which crossed into the United States from Mexico in 1892. They proceeded to destroy great swaths of the cotton grown in the South. Even today, efforts to eradicate them in both countries is problematic.

Thanks to the amazing adaptation skills of insects, they flourish in every land habitat and play a key role in the global ecosystem, recycling dead plants and animals, pollinating flowering plants, and providing food for a host of animals. In fact, insects are so vital to life on Earth, we could not survive without them.

Insects are also the most numerous of the arthropods – animals with tough external skeletons and jointed legs.

A remarkable example of biodiversity is the beautiful Monarch butterfly, which starts life as a wingless caterpillar that spends most of its time eating. Its metamorphosis into a butterfly is one of the most dramatic changes in nature. Within two hours of emerging, the butterfly is ready for flight and launches into the air to start looking for a mate so it can breed and create a new generation.

Monarch butterflies spend the winter asleep in the warm woods of Mexico and California. In spring, they awake and fly north to find milkweed plants that do not grow in the warmer southwest. Then, they lay their eggs and die. The next generation then flies further north and does the same thing. After two generations, they reach the Canadian border. Then, the fourth generation migrates all the way back south again, clear across the United States.

It’s not clear if they seek approval from the Department of Homeland Security or simply rely on special TSA exemptions for frequent flyers. Hopefully, they make it safely, since our fortunes seem to be linked in some mysterious way.

Go Monarchs!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

As Civil War Loomed, Buchanan Failed to Act, Assumed the Worst

James Buchanan Carte de Visite Signed
This James Buchanan carte de visite, signed and dated September 1866, sold for $6,572.50 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

James Buchanan was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1834 and represented Pennsylvania for 11 years during the administrations of presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison and Tyler. He turned down offers to serve as U.S. attorney general for Van Buren and an appointment to the Supreme Court by Tyler. After campaigning for Polk in the election of 1844, he finally accepted the position of secretary of state, since it seemed like a clear path to the presidency.

This was a bad decision and when he and President Polk could not agree on major issues, Buchanan would complain to a friend, “My life is that of a galley slave.”

Buchanan then failed to win the Democratic nomination in 1848 and 1852, but at the age of 62, was given the post of U.S. Minister to Great Britain. There, he gained unexpected notoriety when he secretly joined with other ministers (Pierre Soulé in Spain and John Mason in France) to draft the infamous “Ostend Manifesto,” which proposed to buy Cuba from Spain. If Spain refused, then “we shall be justified in wresting” the island from its owners … a strong inference of war.

Cuba was especially important to Southern Democrats since it was primarily a plantation-slave economy based on sugar and having it as a state would add two senators and nine members to the House of Representatives. However, anti-slave Northerners were not about to go to war with Spain to add more slave states to the Union and the effort was easily defeated.

At the Democratic National Convention in Cincinnati in June 1856, Buchanan bounced back, winning the nomination and then the election.

Two days after Buchanan was sworn in as president, the Supreme Court handed down the Dred Scott decision, which affirmed the right of slave owners to take their slaves into Western territories. This bolstered Buchanan’s belief that slavery was rooted in the Constitution and could not be legislated out of existence; it was an issue for each state to decide.

Then came the Panic of 1857, which was caused by the failure of Ohio Life Insurance Company of Cincinnati. The sudden demise of a once-solid institution touched off a wave of bank runs across the nation that plunged the nation into a deep economic depression. Many railroads failed due to over-expansion as did many state banks that were operating under flimsy regulations. The only areas that were unaffected were the cotton-growers exporting to England (and they needed more slaves to expand production).

It was clear that the slavery issue would lead directly to a civil war and James Buchanan was too inept or unwilling to provide leadership to avoid one. He just assumed the worst and declared that he “would be the last president of a United States.”

Fortunately, he was wrong, but it would take four long years and 620,000 dead Americans to prevent it.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Van Buren’s ‘Palatial’ White House Not Popular with Voters

martin-van-buren-large-oval-sulfide-brooch
This Martin Van Buren oval sulfide brooch with the slogan “The Country Demands his Re-election,” sold for $12,500 at a September 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Martin Van Buren achieved the unique distinction of holding the offices of state senator and attorney general of New York, U.S. senator, governor of New York, U.S. secretary of state, vice president and then president.

However, he was never able to win popular support for himself or his policies at the national level.

The nation’s first major economic depression, the Panic of 1837, was undoubtedly the primary cause for undermining his popularity, although he was not responsible for the causation. Nearly a century later, another president, Herbert Hoover, would suffer nearly the same unfortunate fate.

Van Buren was the first president to be born an American citizen (1782) and he became adroit at behind-the-scenes political maneuvers. Yet, the general impression of him was that he was snobbish, autocratic and a conniver (“The Fox”). Van Buren became an obvious target for the poison darts of the Whigs as they characterized him as the antithesis of Andrew Jackson’s common-man philosophy.

Van Buren did little to combat criticism of this kind and in some respects even seemed to encourage it in his use of the White House. Adverse comments on the high style of living and aristocratic pretension in the WH increased each year of his presidency. By 1840, newspaper slurs on Van Buren as a princely pretender escalated and the continuing agony of the Panic made good copy in the Whig press.

On the afternoon of April 14, 1840, the House of Representatives sat as a committee to hear a prepared address by Charles Ogle, a Whig from Somerset, Pa., on the subject of President Van Buren and his “palatial” White House. One of the president’s supporters refuted the allegation, but then Ogle unleashed a dramatic rebuttal. This time he kept the house floor for three days and by the second day, the galleries were packed with spectators. This highly unusual attack made Ogle famous and printed copies of his remarks were circulated, first around the Capitol and then nationally by most newspapers. It was a devastating indictment of a president.

Martin Van Buren was too seasoned a politician to lose his temper, but his detachment from the storm of protest against him by the Whigs surprised even his closest friends.

When it came time for the 1840 election, the Whigs took a cue from the Jacksonians of 1828 and drafted a common-man hero – General William Henry Harrison. By then, sentiment had turned against Van Buren and he was defeated. A record number of citizens voted, 2.5 million, with Van Buren losing by 150,000. In the Electoral College, it was worse, with Harrison capturing 19 of the 26 states.

For all the bitterness of the campaign, Van Buren was determined not to be a poor loser. He not only witnessed Harrison’s oath-taking, but was among the first to shake his hand. The “Little Magician” offered every courtesy, gaining the admiration of a skeptical press. He left Washington by train. However, it was not his intention to be gone forever. He would try to regain the presidency in the next two elections.

Despite his efforts, he would never live in the White House again.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Zachary Taylor was First President Elected With No Political Experience

zachary-taylor-half-plate-daguerreotype-from-the-taylor-family
A half-plate daguerreotype of Zachary Taylor circa 1844, once owned by the Taylor family, sold for $47,800 at a November 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Washington, D.C., that said farewell to James Polk in 1849 and greeted General Zachary Taylor was similar to many American cities with a combination of town and pasture. However, even after 50 years, it still looked unfinished. Pennsylvania Avenue was the principal commercial street, lined with buildings from the Capitol to the White House. But beyond, it was a town of monotonous red brick houses interspersed with seas of grass.

There were schemes for improving public lands in various places, but only one was significant to the White House. The marshy expanse to the south was believed to give off vapors, especially in the summer. In 1849, the most feared disease was cholera – particularly from May to November when the first frost quelled it. Those who could afford it left town for the summer and President Polk’s insistence on staying probably contributed to his early demise.

Taylor was the first president elected to office with no political experience. He was ill-prepared for the politics and problems involved. Like William Henry Harrison, Taylor was chosen by the Whigs as their presidential candidate solely because he was a war hero. Taylor spent 40 years in the Army, fighting Indians and winning glory in the war with Mexico. He was called “Old Rough and Ready” by his men. He preferred civilian clothes to military uniforms, even in battle. Short and plump, he had none of the appearance of a military hero and had to be given a leg-up when he mounted a horse.

Taylor was inaugurated in March 1849 and as he moved from the Capitol to the WH, the police had trouble holding back the throngs. Nodding and smiling, he waved his hat and seemed approachable, if not particularly presidential. Those who got a close look found him heavy and scruffy, his face deeply wrinkled, gray hair tousled. After four years of the dour Polk, the public was eager to idolize someone friendly.

But Taylor was an odd hero. Lacking the presence of General Jackson or General Harrison, he looked more the Louisiana planter he was in private life. The general had become president at age 64 and was considered an old man. The hope was that he would prevail through the sheer force of his prestige. Plus, Taylor’s greatest asset was his integrity, which he wore like a medal. Voters seem to have willingly accepted that he would allow his advisers to run the government. It seemed logical to have a chain of command with an honest, experienced general at the head.

The strategy failed since their hero-president provided little leadership and Democrats controlled Congress. The Taylor family circle included few intimates with one notable exception: Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. He had been their son-in-law after he married the second-eldest Taylor daughter in 1835, but she died three months later of cholera.

Then it was suddenly 1850, a most pivotal year and possibly the last chance to prevent a civil war. The slavery issue came to a boil and debates raged in Congress over allowing the people of California and New Mexico to determine their own status. Perhaps with a different president, a workable solution could have held the Union together, but Taylor scorned compromises.

On July 4, 1850, at the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument, President Taylor remained in the hot sun for many hours and became ill. He died five days later. The winds of war only became fiercer and there was nobody on either side who could temper them.

Next stop: an all-out Civil War that would come close to permanent disunion.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Despite Being a Talented Diplomat, President Adams was Abrupt, Stuffy, ‘Kingly’

john-quincy-adams-important-miniature-portrait-on-ivory-by-noted-artist-edward-dalton-marchant
This miniature portrait of John Quincy Adams (measuring 2.25 x 3 inches) by Edward Dalton Marchant sold for $8,365 at a March 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In the 1820s, the American people felt more independent than ever before. Although Europe’s monarchical systems had been reintroduced, democracy prevailed in the United States. The war had loosened most of the chains that had bound the ideology and economy to England.

War had also turned American businessmen from importing to domestic production. It helped limit foreign competition, and now manufacturing was a conspicuous special interest group, wielding power to seek government protection and special allowances. One acute need was for transportation and this put extra pressure on the government for roads and canals.

These circumstances helped to put Washington in the national focus. The spirit of nationalism was nearly universal and the challenge was to strengthen the country so that independence would be perpetual. Virtually all political factions were in agreement.

President James Monroe’s successor was John Quincy Adams, a member of the second generation of leadership, son of a Founding Father. However, many deep hatreds grew out of the election of 1824 and JQA could only hope they would be temporary. He shared Monroe’s belief that the party system would never return to plague the political system. His daily diary entries reveal much uncertainty, but he nevertheless believed it was possible to heal the divisions. He knew his duty was to foster nationalist goals and create institutions that would ensure a continuation of the “Era of Good Feelings.”

In reality, the majority probably did favor him at first, but he lost his hold very soon, failing in his policies and public performance. Despite being a talented diplomat, his manner was abrupt, stuffy and chilly, leading to deadly epithets by his enemies as “kingly” and “monarchical.” This reputation was exacerbated by his patrician wife, Louisa, who remains the only first lady born on foreign soil.

The result was a failed one-term presidency, just as his father experienced, and neither of their lives were particularly happy during their time as president. Without attending the inauguration of his successor, Andrew Jackson, he returned home for an expected retirement. However, politics was in Adams’ DNA and he was soon back in Washington in the House of Representatives, the only former president to do so. He had a remarkable career in the House that lasted 17 years.

On Nov. 20, 1846, he suffered a mild stroke, recovered and resumed his Congressional duties. On Feb. 21, 1848, in the middle of a heated debate, he had a massive cerebral hemorrhage and slumped over his desk. He was carried to a sofa in the Speaker’s Room, slipped into a coma and died two days later.

He was 80 years old.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

With Discovery of Gold, President Polk Opened Massive Migration West

half-plate-daguerreotype-of-california-gold-rush-mining-scene-ca-1850s
This half plate daguerreotype of a California gold rush mining scene, circa 1850, sold for $28,680 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Reports of gold in California came to the president as early as June 1848. Part of the talk was idle speculation; part was based on tales of settlers and soldiers plus myths of Spanish treasure troves. A succession of adventurers, spies and famous Western characters like Kit Carson had slipped quietly up the stairs into President James Polk’s office to tell of the vast domain far to the west.

The lost mines of El Dorado had long fascinated nearly everyone.

The first official report on “gold diggings” came to Polk in August 1848. Navy Lieutenant Edward Fitzgerald Beale showed the president some actual gold nuggets. Authoritative and “eyewitness” accounts of California gold started popping up in various newspapers. In a message to Congress on Dec. 5, 1848, Polk outlined the possible scope of the precious metal mines and the extraordinary potential that had been corroborated by authentic reports.

Two days later, a courier from California arrived at the War Department with a mysterious package and more dramatic evidence of western riches. As soon as Secretary of War William Marcy unwrapped the parcel, he took it directly to President Polk. It contained a tea caddy crammed full of gold nuggets and dust that weighed over 230 ounces.

They quickly decided to send the largest “lump” to Philadelphia to be minted into coins and put the rest on display in the War Office. Visitors of every class stood in long lines just to see it and it became the dominant subject everywhere. On Dec. 12, Polk predicted the coming 12 months would witness “a large population … attracted to California by its mineral wealth.”

In his History of California, historian Hubert Bancroft wrote of Polk’s prophecy. “The interest in California became all-absorbing, creating a restlessness which finally poured a human tide into San Francisco Bay, and sent hundreds of caravans over the plains and mountains.”

However, the Polks moved out of the White House on Saturday, March 3, 1849, to 10 rooms prepared for them at the Willard Hotel. He had promised to only serve one term and his time in the WH had taken an enormous toll on his health. He had the shortest retirement of any president and died of cholera 103 days after leaving office. Along with George Washington, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, Calvin Coolidge and LBJ, he was one of six presidents to die while their direct successor was in office.

He totally missed the Gold Rush and the massive migration west he was responsible for.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Ineffective Leadership is the Last Thing Needed in the White House

franklin-pierce-daguerreotype
This Franklin Pierce daguerreotype, housed in a leatherette case, sold for $15,525 at a November 2003 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Millard Fillmore was the last Whig president and also the last to represent the kind of American nationalism that had appeared during the War of 1812. His successor, Franklin Pierce (1853-57), was a northern Democrat who supported the extension of slavery and a nominee selected by his party in order to win both northern and southern votes. He had praised the Compromise of 1850 and promised to prevent slavery from becoming a national issue.

He was swept into office with the greatest electoral landslide since James Monroe.

A politician’s politician, the curly-headed Pierce never lost an election. At his inaugural ceremony, he stood away from the lectern and spoke extemporaneously; it was more of a sermon than an inaugural address. He challenged the nation with the promise of a bright, prosperous future and his listeners cheered as though they had been delivered at last.

He was also a master of knowing how to get along with all people – evidenced by the fact he is the only president in history who served a complete term without making a single change in his Cabinet. But he totally misjudged the temper of the time, since he regarded the abolitionists as a lunatic fringe that should be ignored. And when he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the repeal of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, he unwittingly let loose a storm that made slavery a greater national issue than ever before.

Unable to accomplish much due to a deeply divided Congress, President Pierce still desperately wanted to be nominated for a second term. But just before the Democratic Convention began in Cincinnati on June 2, 1856, reports of bloodshed in Kansas alarmed the country. Armed battles raged between anti- and pro-slavery factions, firing up public anger.

The telegraph wires clicked constantly, with Pierce anxiously reading each dispatch. In the oval room, he read newspapers until his eyes grew too tired and then had his wife read them to him. He followed every detail of the convention, considerably more confident than he should have been. At the convention, Pierce’s supporters abandoned him in favor of Stephen A. Douglas, but the strategy failed and James Buchanan took the prize home to Pennsylvania.

Buchanan was the last of the weak, compromising northern Democratic presidents, more sympathetic to slave owners than to northern abolitionists. When he tried to push through Kansas as a slave state, he infuriated the North and shattered the Southern Democratic Party. As Southern states seceded from the Union, one by one, in the last months of his administration, Buchanan stood by helplessly, unable to take resolute action.

This string of three weak, ineffective men – Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan – clearly demonstrate the unequivocal effects of poor leadership, as the catastrophic violence of a civil war nearly destroyed our young nation.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Railroads Helped America Claim Position as Most Powerful Nation on Earth

Lightning Express broadside
This 1876 “Lightning Express” broadside promoting the first through train service connecting the gold and silver fields of Virginia City, Nev., with San Francisco realized $13,145 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The first American railroad was only 13 miles of track and formally known as the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. The “B&O Line” was started by a group of Baltimore merchants in 1828 and opened in 1830. At the time, turnpikes, rivers and canals were the primary modes of travel and transport.

By the beginning of the Civil War, railroads had become a major American industry, with numerous companies competing in a broad geographic area over 30,000 miles of track. The first railroad to link the East to the West was completed in 1869.

The Central Pacific Railroad had started in Sacramento and immediately had to confront the Sierra Nevada mountains … 7,000 feet up from the Sacramento Valley to the summit of the Sierras. Then there was the critical issue of labor since the mines were paying premium rates and workers were a scarce commodity.

A controversial decision was made to bring in Chinese laborers. Creative companies sprang up to organize these activities and, ultimately, 12,000 Chinese workers were digging and blasting through the mountains. For $30 a month, they had to feed themselves and live in makeshift camps alongside the tracks. When it snowed, they carved out entire galleries under the snow and lived there for weeks at a time.

The Union Pacific Railroad began in Omaha, Neb., and their laborers were primarily Irish, up to 10,000 at times, although a few Civil War veterans and other migrants were used. Brigham Young, one of the original incorporators of the Union Pacific, was instrumental in steering the railroad through Utah. This provided badly needed jobs for Europeans who had come to join the Latter-day Saints.

When the two railroads finally met, it was in Promontory, Utah, and the Promontory Spike was pounded into the ground on May 10, 1869.

Big projects, big money and big government always seem to include corruption. And so it was with the Transcontinental Railroad. During the 1872 reelection campaign of President Ulysses S. Grant, a major scandal erupted that ground Washington, D.C., to a standstill. Major members of the administration and other ranking politicians were charged with enriching themselves. By then, railroads had become a major force in politics and everyday life. To have the industry linked to wild accusations of bribery and corruption was a significant letdown.

The House of Representatives was forced to start hearings after scandals erupted in newspapers almost daily. They started in closed session, but were soon open as crowds of reporters and spectators overflowed the rooms. It was the center of attraction for the nation’s capital on a daily basis.

Eventually, they caught fewer than 25 politicians who had profited off the railroads, but a larger group was actually linked to the scandal, including cabinet members, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, Vice President-elect Henry Wilson, Speaker of the House James Blaine and Representative James Garfield, the future president. All were tainted with the same scandalous brush, although some were able to mitigate the charges and salvage their reputations.

In spite of the scandals, the nation obviously benefited significantly from railroads, primarily because of their influence on settlement patterns of those who ventured West. The large, empty space that was still generally called “The Great American Desert” flourished.

Wagon-train caravans were largely abandoned and huge areas of land were transformed into productive farms to help feed a growing country. Ranch land developed all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Everyone seemed to benefit with the exception of the Plains Indians, who were exploited as their lands, mineral rights and even their way of life were lost.

The United States was entering the Gilded Age and gearing up to leverage the enormous opportunities waiting in the 20th century. The American worker was the envy of the world as compulsory education created large pools of labor that were literate and competent. They were eager to hone their skills with the new technologies that Edison, Bell, Ford, et al. were churning out. When combined with its natural resources, rule of law and a Constitutional Democracy, America was poised to become the most powerful nation on Earth.

Railroads played an important role in that achievement.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Bubbles, Tulips, Dikes, a Dutch Boy and Making Lemonade

TIFFANY STUDIOS PATINATED BRONZE LAMP WITH TULIP GLASS SHADE
This Tiffany Studios lamp featuring a tulip glass shade, circa 1900, realized $35,000 at a June 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1637, a tulip bulb called the “Viceroy” was advertised in a Dutch catalog for 3,000-4,200 guilders, or about 10 times the annual income of a skilled artisan. This was probably the apex of the “tulip mania” period that is generally thought to be the first of the economic bubbles that we’ve seen in the last 400 years.

The U.S. housing bubble peaked in early 2006, declined in 2007 and reached new lows in 2012. The credit crisis that followed was probably the primary cause of the 2008-2009 recession that required capital infusions by the Federal Reserve, followed by multiple quantitative easing actions to increase system liquidity and cheap money.

Tulips were not native to Holland and neither was the little Dutch boy, who saved his town by plugging a hole in a dike with his finger. This story first appeared in Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, an 1865 novel by Mary Mapes Dodge, an American.

The Dutch had never heard the story until American tourists started asking about which dike was involved. Rather than being amused or annoyed, they simply erected a statue of the little boy near the Spaarndam lock, presumably to increase tourism and boost the economy.

They may not have been prudent about tulip prices, but the statue bears the following inscription: “Dedicated to our youth, who symbolize the perpetual struggle of Holland against the water.”

I’ve also seen the other statue at Madurodam near The Hague, which is a miniature city with a collection of Dutch landmarks.

Moral: If you inherit a lemon, think about opening a lemonade stand.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].