President Ford’s Primary Task was Healing a Nation

A letter by Gerald R. Ford, signed and dated April 16, 1979, sold for $5,078 at an April 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Gerald Rudolph Ford (Leslie Lynch King Jr. at birth) was an uncomplicated man tapped by destiny for one of the most complex jobs in history. The first non-elected president and first vice president confirmed by the Senate, he was tasked with healing the nation’s wounds caused by the Vietnam War and the severe divisions resulting from the Watergate scandal. Atypical from the usual driven personalities in the Oval Office, Ford restored calm and confidence to a nation while ushering in a period of renewal for American society.

A year before his inauguration, it would never have occurred to Ford (1913-2006) that he would be thrust into the presidency. The highest office he ever aspired to was Speaker of the House of Representatives; and that seemed out of reach because the Democratic Party had a stranglehold in the House. As a result, Ford had decided to retire after the November 1974 elections.

President Ford

Suddenly, in October 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed him vice president in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation. “Remember, I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” he said modestly when he assumed responsibility on Dec. 6, 1973. He was at peace with himself and provided a sense of restored purpose, blissfully unaware of the collapsing presidency and seemingly endless revelations of misconduct at high levels in the administration.

One bright spot was that even as it approached dissolution, the Nixon administration managed to navigate the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and diminish the Soviet position in the Middle East by successfully sponsoring a complicated triangular diplomacy with Moscow and Beijing. The disintegration of executive power did not lead to a collapse of our international position. Nixon’s prestige after five years of foreign policy now came close to a policy of bluffing, but the sleight of hand grew more difficult and it was unsustainable.

As impeachment proceedings gathered momentum, Nixon’s personal conduct began to mirror his political decline. He kept abreast of policy issues and made key decisions, but Watergate absorbed more of Nixon’s intellectual and emotional capital. Routine business became more trivialized by the increasingly apparent inevitability of his downfall. His tragedy was largely self-inflicted and the only question was, “How long can this go on?”

Then on July 31, it was revealed that one of the tapes the Supreme Court ordered to be turned over to the Special Prosecutor was the long-sought “smoking gun”— conclusive proof of Nixon’s participation in the cover-up. On the tape, Nixon was clearly heard instructing Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to use the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary.

With the tape’s release, Ford took the unprecedented step on Aug. 6 of disassociating from the president at a Cabinet meeting. He would no longer defend the president and said he would not have done so earlier had he known. Publically, he maintained silence as a “party in interest” (probably another first).

But it was the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, that witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in American history. At 9:30 in the East Room, Richard Nixon bade farewell to his staff. At 12:03 that same day, in the same room, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.

Earlier, General Alexander Haig had handed Nixon’s formal resignation to Henry Kissinger in his role as Secretary of State. All presidential appointments are countersigned by the Secretary of State and, by the same token, resignations of a president and vice president are made to the Secretary of State as well. With the resignation of Spiro Agnew on Oct. 10, 1973, and Richard Nixon as president on Aug. 9, 1974, Kissinger achieved what we must hope will remain the permanent record for receiving high-level resignations … forever!

Our long national nightmare had finally come to an end.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

General Lee’s Decision Avoided the ‘Vietnamization of America’

Robert E. Lee declined President Lincoln’s offer to head up the Union Army since it would require him to bear arms against his home state of Virginia.

By Jim O’Neal

In late 1955, the Tappan Zee Bridge – spanning the Hudson River in New York – was opened with seven lanes for motor traffic. Two months ago, it was closed and is systematically being demolished. The deteriorating bridge, known in the governor’s office as the “hold-your-breath bridge,” was featured in the documentary The Crumbling of America, the story of the infrastructure crisis in the United States.

Also in this same category is the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which connects the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery and is metaphorically described as what rejoined the North and South after the Civil War. First proposed in 1886 as a memorial to General Ulysses S. Grant, it was blocked in Congress until President Warren G. Harding got snarled in a three-hour traffic jam in 1921 en route to the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Congress quickly approved his request for $25,000 to build the bridge and it finally opened in January 1932.

Nearby is Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. This was the home for the Lee family for 30 years and where R.E.L. made the fateful decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army on April 21, 1861, and join the Confederate States. He had declined President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to head up the Union Army since it would require him to bear arms against his home state of Virginia.

In June 1862, Congress enacted a property tax on all “insurrectionary” land and added an amendment in 1863 requiring the tax to be paid in person. Ill and behind Confederate lines, Mary Lee was unable to comply and the Lees never slept there again. The property was auctioned off on Jan. 11, 1864, and the high bidder ($26,800) was the U.S. government.

Secretary of War William Stanton approved the conversion of the Lee estate to a military cemetery in 1864. On May 13, a Confederate POW was buried there (renamed Arlington National Cemetery) and more than 400,000 have joined him, including President Taft, President JFK and my dear friend Roger Enrico.

For 15 years, I passed a statue of Robert E. Lee driving to my Dallas office. It invariably invoked memories of the wisdom of this soldier who surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox in April 1865. Most of his top aides tried to dissuade Lee from surrendering, arguing they could disband into the familiar countryside and hold out indefinitely in a stalemate. Eventually, Northern soldiers would simply return to their homes and then the South could regroup.

Thus did Robert E. Lee, so revered for his leadership in war, make his most historic contribution – to peace! By this one momentous decision, he spared the country the divisive guerilla war that would have followed … a vile and poisonous conflict that would have fractured the country perhaps permanently. Or as newspaper columnist Tom Wicker deftly put it, “The Vietnamization of America.”

Alas, Dallas city leaders recently removed the Lee statue and I sincerely hope they find some relief from the anguish they have suffered from this piece of marble sequestered so long. However, I suspect they will just move on to some other injustice. It reminds me of feeding jellybeans to pacify a ravenous bear. When you (inevitably) run out of jellybeans, he eats you.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Chester Arthur Surprised His Critics, Overcame Negative Reputation

This ribbon with an engraved portrait of Chester Alan Arthur, issued as a souvenir for an Oct. 11, 1882, “Dinner to The President of the United States by The City of Boston,” sold for $437 at a November 2014 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Chester Alan Arthur to the lucrative post of Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. Arthur held the job for seven years, and with an annual gross income of $50,000, was able to accumulate a modest fortune. He was responsible for the collection of about 75 percent of the entire nation’s duties from ships that landed in his jurisdiction, which included the entire coast of New York state, the Hudson River and ports in New Jersey.

In 1872, he raised significant contributions from Custom House employees to support Grant’s successful re-election for a second term. The spoils system was working as designed, despite occasional charges of corruption.

Five years later, the Jay Commission was created to formally investigate corruption in the New York Custom House and (future president) Chester Arthur was the primary witness. The commissioner recommended a thorough housecleaning and President Rutherford B. Hayes fired Arthur and then offered him an appointment as consul general in Paris. Arthur refused and went back to New York law and politics.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, eventual nominee James Garfield first offered the VP slot to wealthy New York Congressman Levi Morton (later vice president for Benjamin Harrison), who refused. Garfield then turned to Chester Arthur, who, when he accepted, declared, “The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.” It would be the only election he would ever win, but it was enough to foist him into the presidency.

The Garfield-Arthur ticket prevailed and after being sworn in on March 4, 1881, the 49-year-old Garfield’s first act was to turn and kiss his aged mother. It was the first time a president’s mother had ever been present at an inauguration. She would outlive her son by almost seven years. President James Polk (1845-1849) also died three years before his mother, the first time that had happened.

On the morning of July 2, President Garfield was entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., where he was to board a train to attend the 25th reunion of his class at Williams College. A mentally disturbed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, shot him twice. He died 80 days later and for the fourth time in history, a man clearly only meant to be vice president ascended to the presidency.”

“CHET ARTHUR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! GOOD GOD!”

Although President Arthur’s greatest achievement may have been the complete renovation of the White House, he surprised even some of his harshest critics. Mark Twain may have summed it up best: “I am but one in 55 million, still in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration.”

Faint praise, yet probably accurate. (First, do no harm.)

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Sanctions Didn’t Stop Germany from Roaring Back After WWI

A 1939 political cartoon by Charles Werner (1909-1997) for Time magazine comments on the worldwide mood 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles. The original art sold for $836 at a February 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

From 1939 to the winter of 1941, the German military won a series of battles rarely equaled in the history of warfare. In rapid succession, Poland, Norway, France, Belgium, Holland, Yugoslavia, Denmark and Greece all fell victim to the armed forces of the Third Reich. In the summer and fall of 1941, the USSR came close to total defeat at the hands of the Wehrmacht, losing millions of soldiers on the battlefield and witnessing the occupation of a large portion of Russia and the Ukraine. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, played a central role in this remarkable string of victories.

It was even more startling to those countries that had participated in WWI and taken draconian anti-war measures when it ended. This was simply something that was NEVER supposed to happen again, much less a mere 20 years later. How was it even possible?

The Allied powers had been so impressed with the combat efficiency of the German Luftwaffe in WWI that they made a concerted effort to eliminate Germany’s capability to wage war in the air. Then they crippled their civilian aviation capability just to be certain. The Allies demanded the immediate surrender of 2,000 aircraft and rapid demobilization of the Luftwaffe. Then in May 1919, the Germans were forced to surrender vast quantities of aviation material, including 17,000 more aircraft and engines. Germany was permanently forbidden from maintaining a military or naval air force.

No aircraft or parts were to be imported, and in a final twist of the knife, Germany was not allowed to control their own airspace. Allied aircraft were granted free passage over Germany and unlimited landing rights. On May 8, 1920, the Luftwaffe was officially disbanded.

Other provisions of the Versailles Treaty dealt with the limits of the army and navy, which were denied tanks, artillery, poison gas, submarines and other modern weapons. Germany was to be effectively disarmed and rendered militarily helpless. An Inter-Allied Control Commission was given broad authority to inspect military and industrial installations throughout Germany to ensure compliance with all restrictions.

However, one critical aspect got overlooked in the zeal to impose such a broad set of sanctions. They left unsupervised one of the most influential military thinkers of the 20th century … former commander-in-chief of the German Army Hans von Seeckt. He was the only one who correctly analyzed the operational lessons of the war, and accurately predicted the direction that future wars would take. Allied generals clung to outdated principles like using overwhelming force to overcome defensive positions, while Von Seeckt saw that maneuvers and mobility would be the primary means for the future. Mass armies would become cannon fodder and trench warfare would not be repeated.

The story of the transformation of the Luftwaffe is a fascinating one. Faced with total aerial disarmament in 1919, it was reborn only 20 years later as the most combat-effective air force in the world. Concepts of future air war along with training and equipment totally trumped the opposition, which was looking backward … always fighting the last war.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cuban Missile Crisis ‘News’ Gave Us a Preview of the Internet Age

An original October 1962 news photograph of President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy taken as tensions grew during the Cuban Missile Crisis sold for $527 at an August 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”

An unusual statement, especially at an emergency session of the somber United States Security Council, and uncharacteristically bellicose for the speaker, U.N. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson. It simply was the most dangerous time in the history of the world … the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stevenson

Ambassador Stevenson was interrogating Soviet U.N. representative Valerian Zorin while accusing them of having installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the U.S. coastline. Tensions were sky high. The Joint Chiefs had recommended to President John F. Kennedy an airstrike, followed by an immediate invasion of Cuba using U.S. military troops.

Then with the world’s two superpowers eyeball to eyeball, as Dean Rusk commented, the other guy blinked. Cuba-bound Soviet ships stopped, turned back, and the crisis swiftly eased.

Over much of the world, and especially in Washington and New York, there was relief and rejoicing. With crucial backing from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), nuclear war was averted. Success in avoiding a war of potential global devastation has gradually clouded the fact that the United States came perilously close to choosing the military option.

The arguments of those who fought for time and political negotiations have been blurred and gradually obscured by widespread euphoria. Even for Ambassador Stevenson, the sweet taste of success soon turned sour. First, there was the death of his dear friend Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly followed by a vicious personal attack on him that he never fully recovered from.

When Mrs. Roosevelt reluctantly entered the hospital, it was thought she was suffering from aplastic anemia. But on Oct. 25, 1962, her condition was diagnosed as rare and incurable bone-marrow tuberculosis. She was prepared and determined to die rather than end up a useless invalid. Her children reluctantly decided Stevenson should be allowed one last visit to his old friend, although daughter Anna warned she might not recognize him.

On Nov. 9, two days after her death, the U.N. General Assembly put aside other business and allowed delegate after delegate to express their personal grief and their country’s sorrow. It was the first time any private citizen had been so honored. Adlai told friends that his speech at the General Assembly and the one he gave at her memorial service were the most difficult and saddest times of his life.

Then a harbinger of a brewing storm started on Nov. 13 when Senator Barry Goldwater issued a sharp attack on Stevenson by implying he had been willing to take national security risks to avoid a showdown with the Soviets. The Saturday Evening Post followed with an article on Cuba that portrayed Stevenson as advocating a “Caribbean Munich.” The headlines at the New York Daily News screamed “ADLAI ON SKIDS OVER PACIFIST STAND ON CUBA.”

For months, Washington was abuzz with rumors that it was all a calculated effort by JFK and Bobby to force Stevenson to resign as U.N. ambassador. It was all innuendo, half-facts and untrue leaks, but it was still reverberating a quarter of a century later when the Sunday New York Times magazine, on Aug. 30, 1987, published a rehash of all the gossip.

In truth, all we were witnessing was a preview of things to come: the internet age of “Breaking News” (thinly veiled opinions parading as facts), 24/7 cable TV loaded with panels of “talking heads,” and a torrent of Twitter gibberish offering a full banquet of tasty goodies for any appetite.

Stevenson, born in Los Angeles in 1900 – the year his grandfather ran for vice president on a losing ticket with William Jennings Bryan – lost his own bid for the presidency twice (1952 and 1956). He died of a heart attack in 1965 in London while walking in Grosvenor Square – finally getting some peace.

The rest of us will have to wait.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Artists Recognized James Monroe as a True American Hero

A charcoal sketch of George Washington aide Lt. Col. Robert Hanson Harrison that artist John Trumbull did for his epic painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton sold for $8,962 at a May 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Trumbull (1756-1843) deservedly earned the sobriquet as the “Painter of the Revolution.” He actually started out as an aide to General George Washington, but ended up in London, where he developed into a highly respected artist. One of his paintings, which illustrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, graces the $2 bill that features Thomas Jefferson. The bill was issued in 1976 to observe the bicentennial of that historic event.

Another of his numerous works is the The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776. This one naturally features General Washington again, but there is also a depiction of future president, Lieutenant James Monroe, being treated for a near-fatal damaged artery.

An even more famous painting of the times is an 1851 oil on canvas that also features Washington – Washington Crossing the Delaware on Dec. 25-26, 1776. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), a German-American immigrant. Once again, we find James Monroe holding the American flag – the Stars and Stripes – which critics are always quick to remind was a flag not adopted until the following year, 1777. Some nitpickers also harp that the time of day is wrong, the ship is incorrect, and (sigh) even the chunks of ice in the river aren’t right.

But the role of James Monroe as a true hero is beyond any doubt.

Often called the “Last of the Founding Fathers,” he was the fifth president of the United States and like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, the son of a Virginia planter. It is sometimes overlooked that in the first 36 years of the American presidency, the Oval Office was occupied almost exclusively by men from Virginia. Somehow, John Adams (Massachusetts) managed to squeeze in a quick four years as president (1797-1801) before sneaking out of Washington, D.C., when Thomas Jefferson ousted him.

James Monroe entered politics after his service in the Revolutionary War and systemically worked his way up after serving in the Virginia legislature. He was a U.S. senator, a minister to France, and then governor of Virginia. After helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, he served as minister to Britain, followed by another stint as Virginia’s governor. But after only four months, President Madison offered him an appointment as secretary of state to help draft the recommendation to Congress that led to the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.

When the war got off to a poor start, Madison wisely appointed him secretary of war and Monroe held both of these critical Cabinet positions until the war ended. After the war, the prosperity of the country improved dramatically and with Madison’s strong support, Monroe easily was elected president in 1816.

Taking office when the country finally had no unusual problems, the 58-year-old Monroe was bold enough to declare during his inaugural address: “Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy … the heart of every citizen must expand with joy … how near our government has approached to perfection…”

It was truly the “Era of Good Feelings!”

Things change … and they will again.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

How We Record History Has Evolved Over the Ages

A 1935 copy of The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Nonesuch Press) sold for $1,125 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

We often fail to remember that history (itself) has a history. From the earliest times, all societies told stories from their past, usually imaginative tales involving the acts of heroes or various gods. Later, civilizations kept records inscribed on clay tablets or the walls of caves. However, ancient societies made no attempt at verification of records, and often failed to differentiate between reality and mythical events and legends.

This changed in the 5th century B.C. when historians like Herodotus and Thucydides explored the past by the interpretation of evidence, despite still including a mixture of myth (“history” means “inquiry” in Greek). Still, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War satisfies most criteria of modern historical study. It was based on interviews with eyewitnesses and attributed actual events to individuals rather than the intervention of gods.

Thus, Thucydides managed to create the most durable form of history: the detailed narrative of war, political conflict, diplomacy and decision-making. Then, the subsequent rise of Rome to dominance of the Mediterranean encouraged other historians like Polybius (Hellenic) and Livy (Roman) to develop narratives to capture a “big picture” that made sense of events on a longer time frame. Although restricted to just the Roman world, it was the beginning of a universal history to describe progress from origin to present, with a goal of giving the past a purpose.

In addition to making sense of events through narratives, there was a tradition growing to examine the behavior of heroes and villains for future moral lessons. We still attempt this today with a steady stream of studies of Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, as well as Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

But there was a big hiccup with the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire era, which fundamentally changed the concept of history in Europe. Historical events started to be viewed as “divine providence” or the working of God’s will. Skeptical inquiry was usually neglected and miracles routinely accepted without question. Thankfully, the Muslim world was more sophisticated in medieval times and they rejected accounts of events that could not be verified.

However, neither Christians nor Muslims produced anything close to the chronicle of Chinese history published under the Song Dynasty in 1085. It recorded history spanning almost 1,400 years and filled 294 volumes. (I have no idea how accurate it is!)

By the 20th century, the subject matter of history – which had always focused on kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents and generals – increasingly expanded to embrace common people, whose role in historical events became more accessible. But most world history was written as the story of the triumph of Western civilization, until the second half when the notion of a single grand narrative simply collapsed. Instead, the post-colonial, modern world demanded the study of blacks and women’s histories, in addition to Asians, Africans and American Indians.

Now we are in another new place where it is increasingly difficult to know where to find reliable accounts of real events and a flood of “fake news” is competing for widespread acceptance. Maybe Henry Ford was right after all when he declared that “History is bunk!”

Personally, I don’t mind and still enjoy frequent trips to the past … regardless of factual flaws.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Cotton Gin Extended America’s Abhorrent Practice of Slavery

The 1796 patent signed by George Washington for “new machinery called the Cotton Gin” realized $179,250 at a May 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1776, Scottish economist, philosopher and teacher Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations, a book that helped create a new understanding of modern economics. A pervasive theme was the idea that any economic system could be automatic and self-regulating if it was not burdened by monopolies or artificial trade barriers. This theory has become widely known as “the invisible hand.” It heavily influenced my favorite economist Milton Friedman and his Free to Choose basic philosophy.

One highly topical insight was that slavery was not economically viable and contributed to inefficient markets. Aside from the obvious moral issue, Smith believed slave owners would benefit by switching to a wage-labor model, since it was much more inexpensive to hire workers than own them and provide decent conditions. Buying slaves was much more costly due to ongoing expenses of feeding, housing and caring for workers with a high mortality rate, workers who eventually would have to be replaced.

In the United States, there was also a major disconnect between the concepts of all men being created equal and the cruel practice of slavery, which was prevalent especially in the agrarian states of the South. Although many sincerely believed that slavery would gradually die out, powerful Southern states needed some kind of assurances before they agreed to the new federal Constitution. Section 9 Article 1 of the Constitution barred any attempt to outlaw the slave trade before 1808. Other provisions prohibited states from freeing slaves who fled from other states, and further required them to return “chattel property” (slaves) to their owners. Kicking the issue down the road 20 years enabled the delegates to reach a consensus.

Historian James Oliver Horton wrote about the power slaveholder politicians had over Congress and the influence commodity crops had on the politics and economy of the entire country. A remarkable statistic is that in the 72 years between the election of George Washington (1788) and Abraham Lincoln (1860), in 50 of those years, the president of the United States was a slaveholder; as was every single two-term president.

The passage in 1807 of the Act of Prohibiting Importation of Slaves in America, and the Slave Trade Act in Great Britain marked a radical shift in Western thinking. Even as late as the 1780s, the trade in slaves was still regarded as natural economic activity. Both U.S. and European colonies in the Caribbean depended on slave labor, which was relatively easily obtained in West Africa.

However, it was really the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793 that dramatically extended the abhorrent practice of slavery. Cotton was suddenly transformed from a labor intensive, low-margin commodity with limited demand into a highly lucrative crop. Production in Southern states exploded as demand skyrocketed. The number of slaves grew concurrently from 700,000 in 1790 to 3.2 million by 1850. The United States quickly grew into the largest supplier in the world and snagged 80 percent of the market in Great Britain, whose appetite seemed insatiable.

As an economist, Adam Smith was undoubtedly right about hiring workers versus owning them, but everybody was too busy getting rich to worry about optimizing labor costs. And the more demanding abolitionists in the industrializing North denounced slavery the more Southern states were determined to retain it. It would take a bloody four-year Civil War and 630,000 casualties to settle it.

Harry Truman once explained why he preferred one-armed economists: It was because they couldn’t say “On the other hand…”

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Wall Street was Booming Just Months Before the Great Depression

Vintage photograph shows Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth, Vt., shortly after learning of President Warren G. Harding’s death.

By Jim O’Neal

After the 1928 election, President-elect Herbert Hoover met with incumbent Calvin Coolidge to make a special request. There were four months to go until inauguration and Hoover planned to use six weeks of that time to tour Latin America. He asked the president to place a battleship at his disposal since he wanted to include Mrs. Hoover, who spoke fluent Spanish.

Initially, Coolidge suggested a cruiser “since it does not cost so much,” but finally relented and gave Hoover the battleship USS Maryland one way and then the USS Utah to come home from Montevideo, Uruguay. This was classic Calvin Coolidge, always looking for creative ways to avoid federal spending.

Then Coolidge dispatched his final annual message to Congress on Dec. 4. The document revealed the optimism felt by Coolidge and the nation as a whole: “No Congress of the United States, on surveying the State of the Union, has met with a more promising prospect than that which appears at the present time. In the domestic field, there is tranquility and contentment, harmonious relations between management and wage earner, freedom from industrial strife and the highest record of years of prosperity.”

In his budget address, read to Congress the following day, Coolidge said estimated revenues for 1929 were $3.831 billion with expenditures of $3.794 billion. Since the surplus was smaller than hoped for, he would not ask for yet another tax cut.

Calvin Coolidge – who assumed the presidency when Warren Harding died in 1923 – had a simplistic fiscal philosophy: hold the line on spending and if possible reduce it, while at the same time cutting taxes. He believed this would result in greater personal freedom and a more moral population. In 1923, federal expenditures were $3.1 billion and fell to $3.0 billion by 1928. Despite tax cuts, revenues were the same at $3.9 billion and the national debt fell from $22.3 billion to $17.6 billion. The number of federal employees in Washington fell from 70,000 to 65,000.

By 1929, automobiles jammed the roads, spurring a major construction boom. The Ford Model A was enthusiastically greeted in 1927, but the talk of the industry was Walter Chrysler, who came from nowhere to build the third-largest company in the industry. Auto sales zoomed and the Federal Oil Conservation Board announced the country was in danger of running out of petroleum.

The front-page news of early 1929 was Britain’s ailing King George V, whose sons were rushing home to his bedside. But the business pages focused on RCA’s purchase of the Victor Talking Machine Company, following the acquisition of Keith-Albee-Orpheum, which was renamed RKO. The stock of RCA was now selling at a P/E of 26 and there was talk of a 5-for-1 stock split.

Wall Street was booming and dividends were at an all-time high. The Federal Reserve was complaining about the banks using their money to fuel speculation, but the only response was from the small Dallas Reserve, which raised their discount rate to 5 percent (yawn). A few months later, Wall Street crashed and the entire country spiraled down into the Great Depression, which would last the next 10-plus years.

Welcome to Washington, D.C., President Hoover. It’s all yours!

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Explorers Traded Insults, Verbal Attacks in Quest to be First

Robert E. Peary was included in a 1910 tobacco card set of the “World’s Greatest Explorers.”

By Jim O’Neal

In September 1909, two men, both Americans, emerged from the frozen tundra of the Arctic, each claiming they had accomplished something no other explorers had in recorded history. They had reached the North Pole!

The North Pole is a rather strange place. A point with no dimensions, no thickness or breadth, where every direction is south and a year is divided into one day and one night. At the time, it was 400 miles from any solid ground, across an ocean more than 5 miles deep, covered by a jumble of enormous blocks of ice drifting with the wind and the gravitational pull of the moon.

Of the two men, Frederick Cook’s claim had priority – he said he had been at the Pole in April 1908, but had been forced to winter in the Arctic another season because of bad weather. However, his veracity was strongly contested by rival explorer Robert E. Peary. Peary disputed Cook’s claim and proceeded to assert that he’d reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. His message to The New York Times stated, “I have the pole, April sixth. Expect arrive Chateau Bay, September seventh. Secure control wire for me there and arrange expedite transmission big story. PEARY”

Thus began a series of insults and verbal attacks that the newspapers reveled in. A classic example comes from The Philadelphia Record in 1909: “Dr. Cook is either the greatest and at the same time the stupidest charlatan who ever attempted to impose upon a skeptical world, or he is the victim of the most malignant and devilishly ingenious persecution that hatred and envy could devise.”

The controversy widened after Cook’s ascent of Mount McKinley (Denali) was also questioned. Perhaps inevitably, it devolved into a litany of charges that included bribes, death threats and even sexual improprieties. Cook’s claims gradually came to be regarded as elaborate hoaxes. Attempts to ascertain the truth through impartial commissions and Congressional hearings all ended inconclusively.

However, what was proved (without any doubt) was that Frederick Cook – physician, explorer, author and lecturer – was also a crook who sold fraudulent stock in oil companies. A Fort Worth, Texas, judge sent him to jail for almost 15 years. President Franklin Roosevelt pardoned him in 1940, 10 years after he had been released from prison. He died shortly after that on Aug. 5 the same year.

Meanwhile, despite having been certified by the National Geographic Society, Peary’s claim about the North Pole was never secured. Even modern scholars have pointed out major discrepancies in his assertions and it seems unlikely he actually made it. He died embittered and exhausted by the long struggle despite receiving numerous medals, honorary degrees and international recognition.

Today, the only fact we know for certain is that in 1985, Sir Edmund Hillary (first to summit Mount Everest) and astronaut Neil Armstrong (first man to stand on the moon) actually landed at the North Pole in a small twin-engine plane. This allowed Sir Hillary to claim to be the first to stand on both the South and North Poles and on the summit of Everest.

It’s not clear to me why some ambitious reporter like Anderson Cooper didn’t simply ask some of the local residents about Cook and Peary … Santa and his elves are generally hanging around assembling the toys and stuff. That old North Pole is still a very strange place.

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 chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].