People Flocked to California in Hopes of Finding Instant Riches

A daguerreotype of a California gold-mining scene by Robert Vance, circa 1850, sold for $83,650 at a May 2011 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Brigham Young heard that fellow Mormon Sam Brannan had been tithing the gold miners at the Mormon Diggings in California, he sent an envoy to demand the church’s money. In a version of the story circulated by sawmill operator John Sutter, Brannan replied, “You go back and tell Brigham Young that I’ll give up the Lord’s money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord!”

Brannan’s success transcended his dealings with local miners. As the rush to the mines accelerated, his Sacramento store did huge business, as much as $5,000 a day. With the proceeds, the wily entrepreneur opened additional stores throughout gold territory and constructed hotels, warehouses and other commercial buildings. In San Francisco, he organized a consortium that built the city’s first large wharf at a cost of $200,000. By quickly repaying all owner-investors, Brannan’s reputation and wealth continued to grow.

Sam Brannan is widely recognized as the first authentic millionaire in California.

When gold was discovered on the American River above Sutter’s Fort in January 1848, California was a sparsely populated frontier. The gold had been formed over a 200-million-year period with the constant recycling of the earth’s crust as minerals precipitated out in streaks or veins. Gold occurs in the crust of the earth at an average concentration of 5 parts per billion. But, the melting and cooling that produced the Sierra Batholith yielded veins of gold-bearing quartz as high as 100 parts per billion.

Most of this gold was trapped far below the surface of the earth, where it remained for tens of millions of years until the crust crumbled and the glaciers took over. The heat of the earth – which had driven the crystal plates to their collisions with the western edge of North America – then melted the rock and boiled out the precious metal. All that remained was for humans to harvest what the earth had collected. And they did so with enormous zeal.

The astonishing news of “Gold! In California!” prompted hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to flock to California in hopes of finding instant riches. They sailed from Australia and China, from Europe and South America. They ventured across the disease-plagued Isthmus of Panama and through the treacherous waters of Cape Horn. And they traveled by foot, wagon and horseback and over the towering Sierras. They abandoned wives and families, homesteads and farms.

Sacramento and San Francisco popped up overnight as did scores of mining camps. Entrepreneurs such as Leland Stanford, Sam Brannan and merchants like Levi Strauss amassed fortunes simply by supplying miners with picks and shovel, tents, food and other items needed to harvest the gold. By 1850, California had become a state … marking the fastest journey to statehood in United States history.

Sam Brannan hit a bad streak when a divorce forced him to liquidate his entire holdings to pay a court-ordered 50/50 division of assets … in cash. He died penniless and establishing a precedent that would plague future husbands who were divorced in California.

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].

‘We Must Elect World Peace or World Destruction’

An original drawing of the New York City skyline by Donald J. Trump sold for $20,000 at a December 2017 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Bernard Baruch (1870-1965) was a financial wizard who earned his sobriquet as “The Lone Wolf of Wall Street” by sticking with his own brokerage firm. In addition to being a highly regarded financier, he became a trusted adviser to a series of U.S. presidents that included Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

On June 14, 1946, he made a speech to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission that included a proposal (the Baruch Plan) for the United States to turn over all of its nuclear weapons if all other nations pledged not to produce them. They would also have to agree to an adequate inspection system to ensure compliance. The Soviet Union rejected the plan – despite the fact that America still had the only nuclear weapon monopoly – primarily because Joseph Stalin was paranoid about the West’s control of the United Nations.

Donald Trump

On that same day, the future 45th president of the United States was born in the New York borough of Queens. In 2017, Donald John Trump, the oldest (70) and wealthiest to assume office, became the 19th Republican to become president. The Republican Party has won 24 of the last 40 presidential elections, the most for any party. The first was Abraham Lincoln, who became the 16th president and served until his assassination in 1865.

The Republican Party was founded primarily by anti-slavery activists, ex-Free Soilers (a single-issue party) and ex-Whigs who had thrived from 1834-1854 (electing two candidates, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor to the presidency). However, both of these Whig Party presidents died in office. Millard Fillmore, who became president after Taylor’s death in 1850, was the last Whig president.

History has not been kind to Fillmore and even the Wall Street Journal piled on in 2010 by declaring that Fillmore’s very name connotes mediocrity. One bright spot of his administration that is consistently overlooked is the mission he assigned to Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1852 to force Japan to open its ports to American trade (or else!). Perry and his fleet of American “Black Ships” with 1,600 men made gunboat diplomacy an effective strategy to force an isolationist country into international trade.

When Commodore Perry’s steamship Mississippi sailed into New York Harbor on April 23, 1855, and he hauled down his flag the following day, Fillmore was long gone. However, the expedition to the China Sea and Japan had been a rousing success. The locked gates of Japan had been opened by virtue of a trade treaty. Today, Japan is our fourth-largest trading partner (behind Canada, China and Mexico) and we have a long-standing, post-World War II security agreement where the United States is obliged to protect Japan in close cooperation with Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

Our current areas of focus are the South China Sea and the North Korean nuclear threat that (theoretically) could lead to world destruction.

The Baruch Plan was remarkably prescient in this regard, as Baruch started his speech in the most provocative way, saying, “We are here to make a choice between the quick and the dead,” and included the line, “We must elect world peace or world destruction.” The baby born while this was going on will be one of the few people directly involved in decisions that guide the outcome of these issues.

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].

Dewey Had It All – Except Maybe a Genuine Connection with Voters

Two scarce Tom Dewey buttons sold for $1,075 at a May 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The political tidal wave that washed over the American continent in November 1946 left in its wake a vastly altered landscape. The triumphant Republican Party had polled 3 million more votes than the Democrats, gaining 54 House seats and 12 in the Senate. Even Democratic President Harry Truman’s old seat would be occupied by a conservative Republican and Kentucky elected its first Republican Senator in 22 years.

It was a rout.

It was also a referendum on Truman’s two-year stewardship and a belated rejection of a New Deal without FDR. Senator J. William Fulbright suggested Truman appoint a Republican Secretary of State and then resign, turning the country over to a president the electorate preferred. U.S. News & World Report declared the president’s chances of winning another nomination at less than 50 percent and predicted Tom Dewey of New York would be in the White House in two years.

Dewey then went on the offensive, attacking the Truman Doctrine as inadequate – “Unthinkable we would surrender the fruits of victory after a staggering cost in blood and resources” – and citing the broken pledge to China, failure to give Chiang Kai-shek airplane parts, and grossly inadequate supplies of arms and ammunition. Also, allowing the Soviets to hold the northern half of Korea and building a well-trained army of 200,000, while the American half had no civil government and no military – a political void with ominous consequences. Dewey predicted “23 million Korean people would move from Japanese tyranny to Soviet tyranny and China would be next.”

America was in a hurry to disarm and Truman’s people were not standing up to the Soviets with sufficient conviction, distracted into debating Universal Military Training. Was it courage or inexperience?

Soon the answer would become apparent to everyone. First, labor leader John L. Lewis and 200,000 striking coalminers were humbled by a contempt citation, fined $3.5 million and ordered back to work immediately. “He couldn’t take the guff,” the president wrote. “No bully can. Now I have the autoworkers, steel workers and railroad men to look forward to. They will get the same treatment.”

This was followed by Truman’s promise to protect Greece and Turkey from the communist threat, the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (replacing the OSS) and the Marshall Plan to rescue Europe. Suddenly, the man who had seemed a political dead duck six months before was flying high. The polls reflected a remarkable comeback by the president. After trailing Dewey 50 to 28, he had drawn even with him in the polls!

Dewey was not naive. He knew the incumbent president would be a tough opponent and any future election would be closer than the pundits were predicting. But he was an experienced politician and had a terrific record of making government work on whatever level he was at. As New York’s famous district attorney, he made the judicial system work as he rounded up the city’s most powerful and infamous gangsters. As governor, he founded a state university, built a thruway, battled cancer and tuberculosis, and never submitted an unbalanced budget. When he left office, state taxes were 10 percent lower than when he had taken office.

Then, after he accepted the nomination to be the Republican candidate for president in 1948, he was buoyed by a steady stream of congratulations. Winston Churchill wired his discreet best wishes from “the English friend who met you on March 12, 1946.” The editors of Who’s Who sent an advance copy listing Dewey’s address as 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C. Pollsters and the press almost unanimously projected him as the winner. Ernest Lindley in Newsweek predicted “only a miracle or a series of political blunders not to be expected of a man of Dewey’s astuteness can save Truman from an overwhelming defeat.”

Even Truman’s closet advisors were worried. “We’ve got our backs on the one-yard line with only a minute to play,” explained presidential adviser Clark Clifford.

Amidst the euphoria, the “first lady of American journalism” Dorothy Celene Thompson – who in 1939 was recognized by Time magazine as the second most influential woman in America next to Eleanor Roosevelt – struck a cautionary note. She wondered aloud if Dewey was the man to rouse something more from voters. It takes understanding to really connect … human feelings, humor, compassion, loyalty – qualities that evoke affection and faith, which is different from confidence.

Thompson seemed to be saying only Dewey could defeat Dewey. We know now that may have happened in 1948, and it also may have happened again in 2016. Voters are savvy people and it takes a special quality to really connect – something polls can’t seem to capture.

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].

No President has been Removed by Impeachment, Conviction

A 1996 letter President Clinton sent to a journalist, regarding an article that had moved the president, sold for $10,755 at a February 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Jan. 7, 1789, members of the Electoral College cast 69 votes for George Washington to become the first president of the United States, while John Adams, who finished in second place with 34 votes, became the first vice president.

These electors, who had been chosen by white men who were landowners in 10 states, also cast votes for John Jay (9), Robert Harrison (6), John Rutledge (6), Samuel Huntington (2), John Milton (2), Benjamin Lincoln (1), and Edward Telfair (1). Forty-four electors failed to cast a vote.

Bill Clinton

North Carolina and Rhode Island were ineligible since their statehood had not been ratified. New York did not appoint the eight electors they were eligible for since they were deadlocked in their state legislature.

We still use the Electoral College, as established by the Constitution, which has been modified several times and today gives all citizens age 18 and over the right to vote for electors, who in turn vote for the president and vice president (only). On the first Monday after the second Wednesday in December, each state’s electors simultaneously cast their ballots nationwide.

Then on Jan. 6, the electoral votes are counted before Congress and, finally, on Jan. 20, the president is sworn into office. In the case of George Washington, he wasn’t sworn in until April 30, 1789, since Congress didn’t count the electoral votes until April 6.

Exactly 210 years later, on Jan. 7, 1999, the impeachment trial of President William Jefferson Clinton began in the U.S. Senate, with senators sworn in as jurors and Chief Justice William Rehnquist sworn in to preside. President Clinton was formally charged with lying under oath and obstruction of justice.

Four years earlier, he had sexual relations with a 21-year-old unpaid intern in the White House before she was transferred to the Pentagon. Contrary to his sworn testimony in an unrelated sexual harassment case, President Clinton admitted to a grand jury (via closed-circuit television) that he had not been truthful.

On Dec. 11, 1998, the House Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment. On Dec. 19, the full House approved two articles of impeachment: lying under oath to a grand jury and obstructing justice. On Feb. 12, the Senate voted on the perjury charge and 45 Democrats and 10 Republicans voted “not guilty.” On the charges of obstruction of justice, the Senate vote was split 50-50.

This was the third and last time the Senate Judiciary Committee had voted to impeach the president of the United States. Two were found not guilty (Andrew Johnston in 1868 and Bill Clinton), while a third, Richard Nixon, resigned to avoid what was an almost certain guilty verdict. (In 1834, the Senate voted to “censure” Andrew Jackson).

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].

Mussolini’s Reach for Power Ended in Total Failure, Disgrace

The clothing worn by Benito Mussolini and mistress Clara Petacci during their attempted escape sold for $6,325 at a September 2011 Heritage auction.

“Let us have a dagger between our teeth, a bomb in our hands, and an infinite scorn in our hearts.” – Benito Mussolini

By Jim O’Neal

Known as a man who possessed remarkable oratorical skills, Benito Mussolini often referred to himself as a “man of the people.” His father named him after Benito Juárez, the 26th president of Mexico, the most prominent 19th century Mexican leader and the only person whose birthday (March 21) is celebrated as a national holiday in that country.

Mussolini served in World War I and when he returned home, he began pushing the idea that only a dictator could lead Italy out of its economic and political problems. He was inspired by Plato’s “The Republic” – a series of writings on the role of man and government (circa 360 B.C.) that is considered a major influence on politics in most Western societies even today. As Mussolini’s ideas gained popularity, he developed support and modern Fascism was born.

Benito Mussolini

By the early 1920s, Fascist groups led by Mussolini began gaining control of the country and these Black Shirts used tactics that included terrorizing local populations and attacking government institutions. In 1922, Mussolini was named Prime Minister, the youngest in history to that time (a record that lasted until 2014). In 1925, he dropped all pretenses and declared himself Italy’s dictator and took the title of “II Duce” … the leader.

He probably understood that peace was in the country’s best interest (due to its weak economic situation) and was ill prepared for a long war, but he allied himself with Adolf Hitler and signed the Pact of Steel in 1939, thus creating the Rome-Berlin Axis. While Germany and Italy were now linked militarily and politically, Italy was definitely the junior partner.

When the war started, it went badly for Italy almost immediately and the Italian people became increasingly disenchanted with their leader. Mussolini was forced to retreat and establish a new Fascist government in Northern Italy. His one-party dictatorship became a puppet government and he was deposed by King Emanuel III when Italian communists seized control. He tried to escape to Switzerland, but was captured by resistance fighters near Lake Como (one of my favorite spots on Earth) and executed by firing squad on April 28, 1945.

His body was taken to Milan and hung upside down in a public place to prove he was dead … and Fascism along with it.

Another prime example of history’s strongmen – with remarkable verbal skills and a ruthless ambition to gain control over gullible people – dumped on the ash heap.

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].

Taft Waited Patiently to Fulfill a Dream Beyond the Presidency

An oil portrait of William Howard Taft as chief justice, by Emily Burling Waite (1887-1980), realized $3,883 at a May 2010 auction. The painting originated from the collection of the American Red Cross.

By Jim O’Neal

The election of 1920 brought to the presidency a man universally regarded as less than mediocre: Warren Gamaliel Harding of Marion, Ohio.

He was clearly not up to the job and his scandal-ridden administration was perhaps the worst. It was widely known that he soon became disenchanted. “My God,” he told renowned editor William Allen White, “this is a hell of a job! … My friends, my damn friends, they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights!” And in a moment of retrospection, he admitted to Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here.”

His associates, dubbed the “Ohio Gang,” and his senate colleagues had chosen Harding, a “presidential-looking man,” possibly because they sensed opportunity. Yet Harding’s public embrace of a “return to normalcy” had widespread popular support and it had been a long eight years since Republicans controlled the White House. But still, the evidence of financial scandals penetrating his administration could hardly be ignored. Although some of the worst, such as the Teapot Dome Scandal (which involved his departments of Interior, Justice and the Navy), did not break until after his demise, he was far from unpopular.

One man who was delighted with Harding’s election was ex-President William Howard Taft, who was obsessed with joining the Supreme Court and had been patiently waiting for another Republican president. However, he made it abundantly clear that it had to be as chief justice and not a mere associate. The sitting chief justice – Edward Douglass White – had been elevated by Taft in 1910, and had purposely delayed his retirement pending a Republican in the WH. He even conveniently died on May 19, 1921, just three months after Harding’s inauguration.

The public was expecting an instant appointment. But President Harding procrastinated and the 63-year-old Taft, filled with anxiety and anticipation, used intermediaries to lobby the president vigorously. Finally, Harding concurred and in June 1921, Taft was confirmed 61-4 as chief justice on the same day he was nominated … without even a committee meeting. In a first, the chief justice was succeeded by the president who had nominated him.

New Chief Justice Taft exulted: “I love judges. I love courts. They are my ideas on earth of what we shall meet afterwards in heaven under a just God.” The greatest aspiration of his life had been fulfilled at last!

Few worked as hard on the court, and his dedication and affection for the court are unparalleled. During his time, he wrote 20 percent of the opinions and provided administrative and technical leadership second to none. His orchestration of consensus, of amassing the court into a majority, was often spectacular. He proved to be a superb judicial leader, even in the face of a seriously divided, backlogged, contentious court – skills rarely displayed for many years.

William Howard Taft served in his beloved center chair until acute circulatory ailments resulted in a series of crippling strokes. The result was a grief-stricken resignation on Feb. 3, 1930. He died one month later and became the first president and the first Supreme Court justice to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The fat gentleman finally got to sing – and then it was over.

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].

Adams Family History Shows How Fate Can Be Generous, Cruel

A Liverpool Creamware Pitcher showing President John Adams sold for $6,875 at a December 2016 Heritage auction. Liverpool pitchers were produced for the nation’s first four presidents, with examples picturing Adams among the rarest.

By Jim O’Neal

Abigail “Nabby” Adams (1765-1813) was the first presidential child in American history.

Nabby had a difficult personal life, despite having both a father and brother become president of the United States. Her marriage to William Stephens Smith was rocky, not made any better by Smith’s financial difficulties due to poor investments and business ventures.

In 1810, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, tantamount to a death sentence in those primitive medical times. Her treatment started with a mastectomy (without anesthesia) with typical 19th-century surgical tools: a large fork, a pair of six-inch prongs, a wood-handled razor, and a thick iron spatula heated in a small oven.

Within 2½ years, she was dead as the malignant cells left behind spread throughout her body, rendering her inoperable.

She had three younger brothers. John Quincy Adams is arguably the greatest of all presidential children. Charles Adams was a bright, engaging lawyer who died an alcoholic at age 30. Thomas Adams – also a lawyer – drank excessively and died in debt.

John Quincy Adams’ story is legendary. He would become the sixth president of the United States and, until George W. Bush, the only president’s son to become president himself.

His 1778 voyage to France with his father proved to be a defining event in both their lives. An important bond filled the emotional needs of an adolescent boy, and he became indispensable to his famous father. Fellow commissioner to France Benjamin Franklin was fluent in French, but often too busy to offer help. In a foreign country and ignorant of the native tongue, the future president had only his son to alleviate the striking boredom.

It developed into a strong intellectual, emotional and spiritual relationship, clearly evident in their correspondence for the remainder of their lives. Writing to wife Abigail, John Adams declared their son “is respected wherever he goes, for his vigor and vitality, both of mind and body. His rapid progress in French and general knowledge is highly unusual for a boy of his age.”

John Quincy Adams

When their work in France was done, father and son returned to America. But Congress dispatched Adams back to France, and then to the Netherlands with JQA in tow. Then fate struck again. When he was 14 years old, John Quincy Adams was asked to join a diplomatic mission in Russia to obtain recognition for the new United States.

In 1794, JQA was appointed by President Washington as Minister to the Netherlands, an assignment that would take him all the way to the White House. At various times, he also served as ambassador to Prussia, England and Russia. He would help negotiate the end of the War of 1812 and find time to squeeze in service as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts. Like father, like (some) sons.

In 1789, John Adams learned that son Charles was bankrupt, an alcoholic and faithless. The Founding Father, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and second president of the United States, renounced him. He died a hopeless alcoholic, just days before John Adams learned he had lost the 1800 presidential election.

Fate can be a cruel master and Lady Luck a fickle companion.

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].

It’s Hard to Overestimate the Role of Washington in our Independence

A 1776 $1 Continental Dollar, the first representation of the basic unit of the U.S. coinage system, sold for nearly $1.53 million at a January 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

From Sept. 4 to Oct. 26, 1774, a group of delegates from every colony except Georgia met in Philadelphia in response to the British imposition of the Intolerable Acts. Although declaring independence was not the purpose of the meeting – sympathies ranged from loyalty to rebellion – they did pass 10 resolutions enumerating their rights and agreed to meet again if their grievances were not addressed by the Crown.

They met again in May 1775 and in June they appointed George Washington commander of a newly founded Continental Army. On July 4, 1776, the Congress issued a Declaration of Independence.

This upset King George III, who was an insecure man of average intelligence, but bewildered by the rash of constitutional arguments the Americans were asserting. He was the third of the Hanoverian Kings (his father had died and his grandfather still spoke with a deep German accent) and was firmly convinced the welfare of Great Britain was heavily reliant on the American Colonies.

The Colonies had become a major importer of British goods, surpassing even the West Indies, and his greatest nightmare was any interruption of this trade. “If we lose the American Colonies, we shall sink back into obscurity and be just a small, insignificant island once again.” He was adamant about not letting this occur.

George Washington by Joseph Christian Leyendecker.

By then, the population in America was 2.5 million (500,000 slaves, of which 200,000 were in Virginia), living in 13 Colonies and uniting for independence, despite the government being in total disarray. Some had colonial governments in place, but in colony after colony, revolutionary leaders had supplanted official British rule.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775 in Philadelphia right after the Battles of Lexington and Concord and soon evolved into a national entity. After the formal Declaration of Independence, all that was left to do was defeat a vastly superior British Army, which was supremely confident its 5,000 soldiers could march the entire length, quashing any resistance as they went. We all know how this ended, but the tribulations of an underfunded, out-manned army are still inspiring.

It would be hard to overestimate the personal contributions and leadership that George Washington provided, and to call him “indispensable” is an understatement. Absent his presence, a very different outcome was highly likely. The “Father of Our Country” is one individual who will not be lost in the sands of history.

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].

Bell’s Invention Had Rocky Start, But Has Conquered Nearly 7 Billion People

A letter from Alexander Graham Bell, on Volta Laboratory letterhead, sent to Joseph Stanley-Brown, private secretary to President James Garfield, and dated Aug. 2, 1881, sold for nearly $6,000 at an April 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1861, a German schoolmaster named Johann Philipp Reis built a device he called a telephone. Apparently, many Germans tend to credit him with the invention instead of Alexander Graham Bell.

The one thing that Reis’ device didn’t do was work. It only produced a series of clicks like a telegraph might. After his death, it was discovered that when the device got dusty or dirty, the contact points were able to transmit speech with remarkably clear fidelity. Reis had kept his equipment impeccably shiny and clean in the finest Teutonic tradition.

Three other men, including American Elisha Gray, were close to perfecting their versions of a telephone when Bell made his famous “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you” breakthrough in 1876. Gray actually filed a patent caveat (a sort of holding claim) on the exact same day Bell filed for his patent. Alas, it was a few hours too late and Bell prevailed.

Bell displayed his invention at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, but it did not attract much attention. Most people considered it a novelty with no real understanding of its purpose.

Bell tried to explain what it did by writing: “The telephone may be briefly described as an electrical contrivance for reproducing in different places the tones and articulation of a speaker’s voice so that conversation can be carried on by word of mouth between persons in different rooms, in different streets or in different towns. … The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus is that it requires no skill to operate the instrument.”

Say what?

It is not clear how much this helped, but some expect cellphone subscriptions to soon exceed 7 billion – or more than the total population of Earth.

Reach out and touch someone.

P.S. An interesting obscure fact is that Thomas A. Watson had about 40 patents himself and one was for the bell that rang with a call. For the first seven years, people had to pick up the phone occasionally to see if anyone was on the line.

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].

Washington Recognized the Chaos of Autonomous States

The bronze sculpture George Washington at Valley Forge by Henry Merwin Shrady, modeled in 1905, cast circa 1906, sold for $54,970 at an April 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It had been a long war and George Washington was both tired and relieved to be returning to his plantation in Virginia for a well-deserved retirement. Mount Vernon was badly in need of his full-time attention and his finances were frayed.

However, he was apprehensive about a central government that consisted of a chaotic, ramshackle Congress considered by GW to be “wretchedly managed.” The legislature was a one-vote, one-state body that required a quorum of nine states to operate and a unanimous vote for major laws. This was no “United States,” but a loosely governed confederation of 13 states that were largely autonomous.

It seemed clear that the Articles of Confederation were impotent and in need of major revisions. However, it would probably require a crisis to force the changes and GW could sense that others would be looking to him (once again!) to provide the leadership needed, retirement or not.

He was right on both counts.

The crisis came when thousands of farmers in rural Massachusetts rebelled against tax increases on land the state had imposed to help pay off heavy debts. The farmers, many of whom had lost their land to foreclosure, swamped courthouses and threatened judges using their pitchforks.

They were led by Daniel Shays (hence “Shays’ Rebellion”), an ex-militia captain, and they finally marched on the Springfield arsenal intent on seizing muskets and powder. This anarchy was met by the Massachusetts militia, who fired point-blank into the crowd, and then by General Benjamin Lincoln, who arrived the next day with 4,000 soldiers to quell the rebels.

Washington was mortified by these events, since he feared disgrace from the Europeans who were still skeptical of American self-rule. More importantly, it galvanized him to join James Madison, James Monroe and Edmund Randolph to strengthen the Articles of Confederation they had fought so hard for.

Eventually, an executive branch was established and in February 1789, all 69 presidential electors chose GW unanimously to be the first president of the United States. In March, the new U.S. Constitution officially took effect and, in April, Congress formally sent word to Washington that he had won the presidency.

He borrowed money to pay off his debts and travel to New York again, this time to be inaugurated. After a second four-year term, he was finally able to resume his retirement. This time, it only lasted two years since he died on Dec. 14, 1799.

President Jimmy Carter bestowed the rank of “six-star general” and “General of the Armies of Congress” in the hope that Washington would be the highest-ranking military person of all time. Irrespective of future grade inflation, I’m betting this rank will not be surpassed.

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].