McKinley Skillfully Assumed More Presidential Power

This William McKinley political poster, dated 1900, sold for $6,875 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

William McKinley was 54 years old at the time of his first inauguration in 1897. The Republicans had selected him as their nominee at the St. Louis convention on the first ballot on June 16, 1896. He had spent several years as an effective congressional representative and more recently the 39th governor of Ohio. Importantly, he had the backing of a shrewd manager, Mark Hanna, and the promise of what turned out to be the largest campaign fund in history – $3.5 million – largely by describing the campaign as a crusade of the working man versus the rich, who had impoverished the poor by limiting the money supply.

In the 1896 election, he defeated a remarkable 36-year-old orator, William Jennings Bryan, perhaps the most talented public speaker who ever ran for any office. McKinley wisely decided he could not compete against Bryan in a national campaign filled with political speeches. He adopted a novel “front porch” campaign that resulted in trainloads of voters arriving at his home in Canton, Ohio.

Bryan would lose again to McKinley in 1900, ducked Teddy Roosevelt in 1904, and then lose a third time in 1908 against William Howard Taft. The three-time Democratic nominee did serve two years as secretary of state for Woodrow Wilson (1913-15) and then died five days after the end of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

William and Ida McKinley followed Grover and Frances Cleveland into the White House after Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms as the 22nd and 24th president. Cleveland’s second term began with a disaster – the Panic of 1893 – when stock prices declined, 500 banks closed, 15,000 businesses failed and unemployment skyrocketed. This significant depression lasted all four years of his term in office and Cleveland, a Democrat, got most of the blame.

His excuse was the 1890 Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which required the Treasury to buy any silver offered using notes backed by silver or gold. An enormous over-production of silver by Western mines forced the Treasury to borrow $65 million in gold from J.P. Morgan and the Rothschild family in England. Since Cleveland had been unable to turn the economy around, it virtually ruined the Democratic Party and created the era of Republican domination from 1861 to 1933, with only Woodrow Wilson winning in 1912 when squabbling between Roosevelt and Taft split the vote three ways.

It’s common knowledge that McKinley was assassinated in 1901 after winning re-election in 1900, but there’s little attention paid to the time he spent in office beginning in 1897. 1898 got off to a wobbly start when his mother died, leading to a full 30 days of mourning that canceled an important diplomatic New Year’s celebration. Tensions between the United States and Spain over Cuba had electrified the diplomatic community and it was hoped that a White House reception would have provided a convenient venue to discuss strategic options.

Spain had mistreated Cuba since Columbus discovered it in 1492 and in 1895, it suspended the constitutional rights of the Cuban people following numerous internal revolutions. Once again, the countryside raged with bloody guerilla warfare; 200,000 Spanish troops were busy suppressing the insurgents and cruelly governing the peasant population. American newspapers horrified the public with details that offended their sense of justice and prompted calls for U.S. intervention. Talk of war with Spain was in the air again.

On Feb. 9, two days before a reception to honor the U.S. Army and Navy, the New York Journal published a front-page article revealing the details of a Spanish diplomat denouncing McKinley as a weakling, “a mere bidder for the admiration of the crowd.” The same day, the Spanish minister in Washington retrieved his passport from the State Department and boarded a train to Canada.

A rapid series of events led to war with Spain, including $50 million that Congress placed at the disposal of the president to be used for defense of the country, with no conditions attached. McKinley was wary of war due to his experience in the Civil War, but he carefully discussed the issue with his Cabinet and key senators to ensure concurrence. This was the first significant step to war and ultimately the transformation of presidential power. On April 25, Congress formally declared war on Spain and the actual landing of forces took place on June 6, when 100 Marines went ashore at Guantanamo Bay.

McKinley’s skillful assumption of authority during the Spanish-American War subtly changed the presidency, as Professor Woodrow Wilson of Princeton University wrote: “The president of the United States is now … at the front of affairs as no president since Lincoln has been since the start of the 19th century.” Those who followed McKinley into the White House would develop and expand these new powers of the presidency … starting with his vice president and successor Theodore Roosevelt, who had eagerly participated in the war with Spain with his “Rough Riders at San Juan Hill.”

We see their fingerprints throughout the 20th century and even today as the concept of formal declarations of war has become murky. Urgency has gradually eroded the power enumerated to Congress and there is almost always “no time to wait for an impotent Congress to resolve their partisan differences.”

The Founding Fathers would be surprised at how far the pendulum has swung.

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].

Tremendous Challenges Awaited the Plainspoken Truman

Fewer than 10 examples of this Harry Truman “60 Million People Working” political pin are known to exist. This pin sold for $19,717 at an August 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Harry Truman became the seventh vice president to move into the Oval Office after the death of a president. Truman had been born during the White House years of Chester Arthur, who had followed James Garfield after his assassination (1881). And in Truman’s lifetime, Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge had ascended to the presidency after the deaths of William McKinley (1901) and Warren Harding (1923). However, none of these men had been faced with the challenges awaiting the plainspoken Truman.

FDR had been a towering figure for 12 years, first leading the country out of the Great Depression and then deftly steering the United States into World War II after being elected a record four times. Unfortunately, Truman had not been involved in several important decisions, and was totally unaware of several strategic secrets (e.g. the development of the atom bomb) or even side agreements made with others, notably Winston Churchill. He was not prepared to be president.

Even the presidents who preceded FDR tended to exaggerate the gap in Truman’s foreign-relations experience. Woodrow Wilson was a brilliant academic and Herbert Hoover was a world-famous engineer. There were enormously important decisions to be made that would shape the world for the next half century. Even Truman had his sincere doubts about being able to follow FDR, despite the president’s rapidly failing health.

The significance of these decisions has gradually faded, but for Truman, they were foisted upon him in rapid order: April 12, FDR’s death; April 28, Benito Mussolini killed by partisan Italians; two days later Adolf Hitler committed suicide; and on April 29, German military forces surrendered. The news from the Pacific was equally dramatic as troop landings on the critical island of Okinawa had apparently been unopposed by the Japanese. It was clearly the apex of optimism regarding the prospects for an unconditional surrender by Japan and the welcomed return of world peace.

In fact, it was a miracle that turned out to be a mirage.

After victory in Europe (V-E Day), Truman was faced with an immediate challenge regarding the 3 million troops in Europe. FDR and Churchill did not trust Joseph Stalin and were wary of what the Russians would do if we started withdrawing our troops. Churchill proved to be right about Russian motives, as they secretly intended to continue to permanently occupy the whole of Eastern Europe and expand into adjacent territories at will.

Then the U.S. government issued a report stating that the domestic economy could make a smooth transition to pre-war normalcy once the voracious demands from the military war-machine abated. Naturally, the war-weary public strongly supported “bringing the boys home,” but Truman knew that Japan would have to be forced to quit before any shifts in troops or production could start.

There was also a complex scheme under way to redeploy the troops from Europe to the Pacific if the Japanese decided to fight on to defend their sacred homeland. It was a task that George Marshall would call “the greatest administrative and logistical problem in the history of the world.”

Truman pondered in a diary entry: “I have to decide the Japanese strategy – shall we invade proper or shall we bomb and blockade? That is my hardest decision to date.” (No mention was made of “the other option.”)

The battle on Okinawa answered the question. Hundreds of Japanese suicide planes had a devastating effect. Even after 10 days of heavy sea and air bombardment on the island; 30 U.S ships sunk, 300 more damaged; 12,000 Americans killed; 36,000 wounded. It was now obvious that Japan would defend every single island, regardless of their losses. Surrender would not occur and America’s losses would be extreme.

So President Truman made a historic decision that is still being debated today: Drop the atomic bomb on Japan and assume that the effect would be so dramatic that the Japanese would immediately surrender. On Aug. 6, 1945, “Little Boy” was dropped on Hiroshima with devastating effects. Surprisingly, the Japanese maintained their silence, perhaps not even considering that there could be a second bomb. That second bomb – a plutonium variety nicknamed “Fat Man” – was then dropped two days ahead of schedule on Aug. 9 on the seaport city of Nagasaki.

No meeting had been held and there was no second order given (other than by Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbets). The directive that had ordered the first bomb simply said in paragraph two that “additional bombs will be delivered AS MADE READY.” However, two is all that was needed. Imperial Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, thus ending one of history’s greatest wars.

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 Far Will We Go In Amending American History?

A collection of items related to the dedication of the Washington Monument went to auction in May 2011.

By Jim O’Neal

Four years ago, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bill Murray starred in a movie titled The Monuments Men, about a group of almost 400 specialists who were commissioned to try and retrieve monuments, manuscripts and artwork that had been looted in World War II.

The Germans were especially infamous for this and literally shipped long strings of railroad cars from all over Europe to German generals in Berlin. While they occupied Paris, they almost stripped the city of its fabled art collections by the world’s greatest artists. Small stashes of hidden art hoards are still being discovered yet today.

In the United States, another generation of anti-slavery groups are doing the exact opposite: lobbying to have statues and monuments removed, destroyed or relocated to obscure museums to gather dust out of the public eyes. Civil War flags and memorabilia on display were among the first to disappear, followed by Southern generals and others associated with the war. Now, streets and schools are being renamed. Slavery has understandably been the reason for the zeal to erase the past, but it sometimes appears the effort is slowly moving up the food chain.

More prominent names like President Woodrow Wilson have been targeted and for several years Princeton University has been protested because of the way it still honors Wilson, asserting he was a Virginia racist. Last year, Yale removed John C. Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges because he was one of the more vocal advocates of slavery, opening the path to the Civil War by supporting states’ rights to decide the slavery issue in South Carolina (which is an unquestionable fact). Dallas finally got around to removing some prominent Robert E. Lee statues, although one of the forklifts broke in the process.

Personally, I don’t object to any of this, especially if it helps to reunite America. So many different things seem to end up dividing us even further and this only weakens the United States (“United we stand, divided we fall”).

However, I hope to still be around if (when?) we erase Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence and are only left with George Washington and his extensive slavery practices (John Adams did not own slaves and Massachusetts was probably the first state to outlaw it).

It would seem to be relatively easy to change Mount Vernon or re-Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capital. But the Washington Monument may be an engineering nightmare. The Continental Congress proposed a monument to the Father of Our Country in 1783, even before the treaty conferring American independence was received. It was to honor his role as commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War. But when Washington became president, he canceled it since he didn’t believe public money should be used for such honors. (If only that ethos was still around.)

But the idea for a monument resurfaced on the centennial of Washington’s birthday in 1832 (Washington died in 1799). A private group, the Washington National Monument Society – headed by Chief Justice John Marshall – was formed to solicit contributions. However, they were not sophisticated fundraisers since they limited gifts to $1 per person a year. (These were obviously very different times.) This restriction was exacerbated by the economic depression that gripped the country in 1832. This resulted in the cornerstone being delayed until July 4, 1848. An obscure congressman by the name of Abraham Lincoln was in the cheering crowd.

Even by the start of the Civil War 13 years later, the unsightly stump was still only 170 feet high, a far cry from the 600 feet originality projected. Mark Twain joined in the chorus of critics: “It has the aspect of a chimney with the top broken off … It is an eyesore to the people. It ought to be either pulled down or built up and finished,” Finally, President Ulysses S. Grant got Congress to appropriate the money and it was started again and ultimately opened in 1888. At the time, it was 555 feet tall and the tallest building in the world … a record that was eclipsed the following year when the Eiffel Tower was completed.

For me, it’s an impressive structure, with its sleek marble silhouette. I’m an admirer of the simplicity of plain, unadorned obelisks, since there are so few of them (only two in Maryland that I’m aware of). I realize others consider it on a par with a stalk of asparagus, but I’m proud to think of George Washington every time I see it.

Even so, if someday someone thinks it should be dismantled as the last symbol of a different period, they will be disappointed when they learn of all the other cities, highways, lakes, mountains and even a state that remain to go. Perhaps we can find a better use for all of that passion, energy and commitment and start rebuilding a crumbling infrastructure so in need of repairs. One can only hope.

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].

Fillmore Among Presidents Who Juggled Balance Between Free and Slave States

This folk art campaign banner for Millard Fillmore’s failed 1856 bid for the presidency sold for $11,950 at a June 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On his final day in office, President James Polk wrote in his diary: “Closed my official term of President of the United States at 6am this morning.”

Later, after one last stroll through the silent White House, he penned a short addendum: “I feel exceedingly relieved that I am now free from all public cares. I am sure that I will be a happier man in my retirement than I have been for 4 years ….” He died 103 days later, the shortest retirement in presidential history and the first president survived by his mother. His wife Sarah (always clad only in black) lived for 42 more lonely years.

Fillmore

The Washington, D.C., that greeted his successor, General Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough and Ready”), still looked “unfinished” – even after 50 years of planning and development. The Mall was merely a grassy field where cows and sheep peacefully grazed. The many plans developed in the 1840s were disparate projects. Importantly, the marshy expanse south of the White House was suspected of emitting unhealthy vapors that were especially notable in the hot summers. Cholera was the most feared disease and it was prevalent until November each year when the first frost appeared.

Taylor

Naturally, the affluent left the Capitol for the entire summer. Since the Polks had insisted on remaining, there was a widespread belief that his death so soon after departing was directly linked to spending the presidential summers in the White House. The theory grew even stronger when Commissioner of Public Buildings Charles Douglas proposed to regrade the sloping fields into handsome terraces under the guise of “ornamental improvement.” Insiders knew the real motive was actually drainage and sanitation to eliminate the foul air that hung ominously around the White House. (It’s not clear if Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” was another effort or a political metaphor.)

President Taylor was inaugurated with a predictable storm of jubilation since his name was a household word. After a 40-year career in the military (1808-1848), he had the distinction of serving in four difference wars: War of 1812, Black Hawk War (1832), Second Seminole War (1835-1842), and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). By 1847, Taylormania broke out and his picture was everywhere … on ice carts, tall boards, fish stands, butcher stalls, cigar boxes and so on. After four years under the dour Polk, the public was ready to once again idolize a war hero with impeccable integrity and a promise to staff his Cabinet with the most experienced men in the country.

Alas, a short two years later, on July 9, 1850, President Taylor became the second president to die in office (William Henry Harrison lasted 31 days). On July 4, after too long in the hot sun listening to ponderous orations and too much ice water to cool off, he returned to the White House. It was there that he gorged on copious quantities of cherries, slathered with cream and sugar. After dinner, he developed severe stomach cramps and then the doctors took over and finished him off with calomel opium, quinine and, lastly, raising blisters and drawing blood. He survived this for several days and the official cause of death was cholera morbus, a gastrointestinal illness common in Washington where poor sanitation made it risky to eat raw fruit and fresh dairy products in the summer.

Vice President Millard Fillmore took the oath of office and spent the rest of the summer trying to catch up. Taylor had spent little time with his VP and then the entire Cabinet submitted their resignations over the next few days, which Fillmore cheerfully accepted. He immediately appointed a new Cabinet featuring the great Daniel Webster as Secretary of State. On Sept. 9, 1850, he signed a bill admitting California as the 31st state and as “a free state.” This was the first link in a chain that became the Compromise of 1850.

The Constitutional Congress did not permit the words “slave” or “slavery” since James Madison thought it was wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that men could be considered property. In order to get enough states to approve it, it also prohibited Congress from passing any laws blocking it for 20 years (1808), by which it was assumed slavery would have long been abandoned for economic reasons. However, cotton production flourished after the invention of the cotton gin and on Jan. 1, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law that “Congress will have the power to exterminate slavery from our borders.”

This explains why controlling Congress was key to controlling slavery, so all the emphasis turned to maintaining a delicate balance whenever a new state was to be admitted … as either “free” or “slave.” Fillmore thus became the first of three presidents – including Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – who worked hard to maintain harmony. However, with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it was clear what would happen … and all the Southern states started moving to the exit signs.

A true Civil War was now the only option to permanently resolving the slavery dilemma and it came with an enormous loss of life, property and a culture that we still struggle with yet today. That dammed cotton gin!

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].

Here’s Why Washington Remains Our Greatest President

A George Washington inaugural button, perhaps the earliest artifact that refers to Washington as the “Father of His Country,” realized $225,000 at a February 2018 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Presidential scholars typically list George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as our finest presidents. I tend to favor Washington since without him, we would probably have a much different country in so many aspects. If there were any doubts about the feats of the “Father of Our Country,” they were certainly dispelled in 2005 when David McCullough’s 1776 hit bookstores, followed five years later by Ron Chernow’s masterful Washington: A Life, which examined the man in exquisite detail. They didn’t leave much ground uncovered, but there are still a few tidbits that haven’t become overused and still interesting for those interested in fresh anecdotes.

For example, Washington wasn’t aware that on Nov. 30, 1782, a preliminary Treaty of Paris was signed that brought American Revolutionary hostilities to an end. The United States was prevented from dealing directly with Great Britain due to an alliance with France that stipulated we would not negotiate with Britain without them. Had he known, Washington would have been highly suspicious since King George III “will push the war as long as the nation will find men or money.” In a way, Washington would have been right since the United States had demanded full recognition as a sovereign nation, in addition to removal of all troops and fishing rights in Newfoundland. The king rejected this since he was still determined to keep the United States as a British colony, with greater autonomy. Ben Franklin naturally opposed this and countered with adding 100 percent of Canada to the United States. And so it went until May 12, 1784, when the documents bringing the Revolutionary War to an end were finally ratified and exchanged by all parties.

It was during these protracted negotiations that Washington was concerned that the army might lose its fighting edge. He kept drilling the troops while issuing a steady stream of instructions: “Nothing contributes so much to the appearance of a soldier, or so plainly indicates discipline, as an erect carriage, firm step and steady countenance.” After all these years of hardships and war, Washington was still a militant committed to end the haughty pride of the British. To help ensure the fighting spirit of his army, Washington introduced a decoration designated as the Badge of Military Merit on Aug. 7, 1782. He personally awarded three and then authorized his subordinate officers to issue them in cases of unusual gallantry or extraordinary fidelity and essential service. Soldiers received a purple heart-shaped cloth, to be worn over the left breast. After a lapse, it was redesigned and is now the Purple Heart medal, awarded to those wounded or killed. The first was awarded on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birthday.

The victorious conclusion of the Revolutionary War left many questions unanswered concerning American governance, prominently the relationship between the government and the military. At the end, army officers had several legitimate grievances. Congress was in arrears with pay and had not settled officer food and clothing accounts or made any provisions for military pensions. In March 1783, an anonymous letter circulated calling on officers to take a more aggressive stance, draw up a list of demands, and even possibly defy the new government! Washington acted quickly, calling for a meeting of all officers and at the last moment delivered one of the most eloquent and important speeches of his life.

After the speech, he drew a letter from a pocket that outlined Congressional actions to be undertaken. He hesitated and then fumbled in his pockets and remarked, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.” By all accounts, the officers were brought to tears, and the potentially dangerous conspiracy collapsed immediately.

He gets my vote.

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].

Sea Battle off Coast of France a Crucial Union Victory

The USS Kearsarge’s sinking of the CSS Alabama gave the North a much-needed boost in morale. This image appeared on an 1864 Union ballot.

By Jim O’Neal

On Sunday, June 19, 1864, in the English Channel off Cherbourg, France, one turbulent hour brought to a climax the worldwide struggle for sea power between the North and South. Within sight of the French cliffs, lined with hundreds of people who came to see the announced spectacle of duel, were the USS Kearsarge and the Confederate warship the CSS Alabama.

French spectators munched from food baskets as the drama unfolded.

These ships, so far from home, appeared to be twins as far as the landsman could see. However, major differences in guns, crews, armor and ammunition could not be seen from shore. The Kearsarge’s 11-inch guns outmatched those of her foe. Her sides were sheathed in metal chains – covered with boards. She had been in dock for repairs the past three months, engines carefully tuned and both powder and shot in excellent condition.

By coincidence, the two captains, Raphael Semmes of the Alabama and John Winslow of the Kearsarge, were longtime friends as messmates, roommates and shipmates in the pre-war Navy – and both were Southerners. As they maneuvered their ships into position, a French warship played Confederate music as the Alabama steamed out of harbor.

The Alabama had long been on her way to this historic destiny.

Built in Liverpool, England, under subterfuge, christened anonymously as Erica and variously known as “The 190” and the “Emperor of China’s Yacht,” she had almost literally swept United States merchant shipping from the seas. In 22 months, she had cruised 75,000 miles – equal to three times around the world – overhauled 295 vessels of many flags, taken 29 Union ships as prizes, and burned another 14 valued at over $5 million!

She had been fitted with guns in the Azores to complement her large sails, modern engines and a special propeller that could be raised for greater speed under sail. It was not by chance that she caught virtually every quarry sighted. However, she had not changed her black powder (now foul) and most of her shells were possibly defective. She had arrived in port at Cherbourg to repair and take on coal. In a rare stroke of bad luck, Napoleon III could not be reached to grant the obligatory asylum needed by any belligerent.

Alerted at Flushing, the Kearsarge pounced and was at Cherbourg in two days, patrolling the harbor and visually inspecting the Alabama through glasses. Captain Semmes, basically trapped, announced he would fight rather than sneak away at night. Cherbourg was crowded with sightseers … all had come to see the Americans in action. Semmes wisely sent ashore all the ship’s valuables and had his men compose their wills before engaging to fight.

The gunners went to their posts and Semmes and his officers, in full-dress uniforms, steamed out of the harbor ready for battle. Soon, the Alabama deck was littered with bodies, many badly mutilated, and there were gaping holes at the waterline. The Alabama, with her graceful black hull, which bore no name and marked only by a motto on the stern, Aide Toi, Et Dieu T’Aidera (God Helps Those who Help Themselves), was no more.

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].

Bikes Symbolized Progress for a Nation Ready for Growth

A rare campaign button shows presidential candidate William McKinley riding a bicycle at the height of the bike boom of the 1890s.

By Jim O’Neal

As the bicycle became more popular in the latter part of the 1800s, it was inevitable that millions of new enthusiasts would soon be demanding better roads to accommodate this object of pleasure, so symbolic of progress. It was hailed as a democratizing force for the masses and neatly bridged the gap between the horse and the automobile, which was still a work in progress.

The popularity of this silent, steel steed had exploded with the advent of the “safety bicycle” (1885), which dramatically reduced the hazards of the giant “high wheelers.” The invention of the pneumatic tire in 1889 greatly enhanced the comfort of riding and further expanded the universe of users. However, this explosion in activity also increased the level of animosity as cities tried to cope by restricting hours of use, setting speed limits and passing ordinances that curtailed access to streets.

There were protest demonstrations in all major cities, but it came to a head in 1896 in San Francisco. The city’s old dirt roads were crisscrossed with streetcar tracks, cable slots and abandoned street rail franchises. Designed for a population of 40,000, the nation’s third-wealthiest city was now a metropolis of 350,000 and growing. On July 25, 1896, advocates of good streets and organized cyclists paraded in downtown with 100,000 spectators cheering them on.

The “Bicycle Wars” were soon a relic of the past as attention shifted to a product that was destined to change the United States more than anything in its history: Henry Ford’s Model T. Production by the Ford Motor Company began in August 1908 and the new cars came rolling out of the factory the next month. It was an immediate success since it solved three chronic problems: automobiles were scarce, prohibitively expensive and consistently unreliable.

Voila, the Model T was easy to maintain, highly reliable and priced to fit the budgets of the vast number of Americans with only modest incomes. It didn’t start the Automobile Age, but it did start in the hearts and souls of millions of people eager to join in the excitement that accompanied this new innovation. It accelerated the advent of the automobile directly into American society by at least a decade or more.

By 1918, 50 percent of the cars in the United States were Model Ts.

There were other cars pouring into the market, but Model Ts, arriving by the hundreds of thousands, gave a sharp impetus to the support structure – roads, parking lots, traffic signals, service stations – that made all cars more desirable and inexorably changed our daily lives. Automotive writer John Keats summed it up well in The Insolent Chariots: The automobile changed our dress, our manners, social customs, vacation habits, the shapes of our cities, consumer purchasing patterns and common tasks.

By the 1920s, one in eight American workers was employed in a related automobile industry, be it petroleum refining, rubber making or steel manufacturing. The availability of jobs helped create the beginning of a permanent middle class and, thanks to the Ford Motor Company, most of these laborers made a decent living wage on a modern five-day, 40-hour work week.

Although 8.1 million passenger cars were registered by the 1920s, paved streets were more often the exception than the rule. The dirt roads connecting towns were generally rutted, dusty and often impassable. However, spurred by the rampant popularity of the Model T, road construction quickly became one of the principal activities of government and expenditures zoomed to No. 2 behind education. Highway construction gave birth to other necessities: the first drive-in restaurant in Dallas 1921 (Kirby’s Pig Stand), first “mo-tel” in San Luis Obispo in 1925, and the first public garage in Detroit in 1929.

The surrounding landscape changed with the mushrooming of gas stations from coast to coast, replacing the cumbersome practice of buying gas by the bucket from hardware stores or street vendors. Enclosed curbside pumps became commonplace as did hundreds of brands, including Texaco, Sinclair and Gulf. The intense competition inspired dealers to distinguish with identifiable stations and absurd buildings. Then, in the 1920s, the “City Beautiful” movement resulted in gas stations looking like ancient Greek temples, log cabins or regional Colonial New England and California Spanish mission style fuel stops.

What a glorious time to be an American and be able to drive anywhere you pleased and see anything you wished. This really is a remarkable place to live and to enjoy the bountiful freedoms we sometimes take for granted.

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].

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].