Johnson’s Battles with Congress Strengthened Office of the President

This sepia-toned photograph of Andrew Johnson, signed as president, sold for $3,346 at a June 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On the night President Abraham Lincoln was shot, John Wilkes Booth and his little band of assassins had also planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth’s fantasy theory was that decapitating the North’s leadership would cause enough chaos to bring the Civil War to an end. Seward survived a brutal stabbing and Johnson’s assigned assassin, George Atzerodt, got cold feet at the last minute. Johnson had gone to bed at the Kirkwood hotel unharmed.

Awakened by a friend, Johnson rushed to Lincoln’s bedside until the president was declared dead. Johnson then returned to the hotel, where he was sworn in as the 17th president by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The members of his Cabinet assembled in the hotel parlor, where he told them: “I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”

Despite Johnson’s humble tone, he was actually a fearless, even reckless, fighter for what he believed in. As a result, he became embroiled in the bitterest intra-governmental conflict the nation had ever seen. Like Lincoln, he favored a “mild reconstruction,” in effect turning state governments over to white citizens, with only the main leaders of the Confederacy excluded. However, the Radical Republican leaders demanded “radical reconstruction,” enfranchising former slaves and barring most former Confederates from government.

Initially, Republicans were pleased with Johnson, mistaking him as weak and easier to control than Lincoln. They were confident he would support their plans for severe treatment of the defeated South. “By the Gods! There will be no trouble now in running the government,” declared Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Two years later, this same man, now president pro tempore of the Senate, was so confident the Senate had the votes to evict Johnson from the White House that he had already written an inaugural speech and chosen his Cabinet!

But now, by the time Congress finally met in December 1865, the former states of the Confederacy had elected governors and state legislators. And although they approved the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, they had also passed “Black Codes” binding ex-slaves to working the land. In his first annual message to Congress, Johnson railed against this situation, warning Congress of the dire consequences. But Northern Republicans had no intention of welcoming back Democrats from states that had seceded. Instead, they passed new legislation to reinstate military governments throughput the South. Then they established the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist the 4 million freed slaves.

Johnson promptly vetoed everything Congress had passed.

Republicans were not strong enough to override a presidential veto until early 1867, when they passed into law even more harsh Reconstruction Acts, with military governments replacing civil governments set up by Southern Democrats. Johnson warned they were fostering hatred and creating a state of permanent unrest. Radical Republicans answered by slashing back at Johnson and passing the Tenure of Office Act. This total rebuke now forbade the president of the United States from removing ANY federal official without the express consent of the U.S. Senate.

This was tantamount to a declaration of war and Johnson answered by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The House quickly voted to impeach the president on 11 counts. The Senate trial lasted two months and the final tally was 35 guilty and 19 not guilty … one short of conviction. Johnson served out his term, but his political career was over. His fortitude in the face of overwhelming Congressional pressure strengthened the office of the president and helped preserve the separation of powers intended by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Not bad for a former illiterate tailor who never spent a single day in a formal schoolroom.

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 Andrew Johnson Narrowly Escaped Removal From Office

A cotton bandanna made to celebrate the end of the Civil War, featuring President Andrew Johnson, sold for $9,375 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Andrew Johnson was Abraham Lincoln’s second vice president after they won the 1864 election running on the National Union Party ticket (a one-time name change for the Republicans).

After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson was drunk at his own inauguration and later was the first U.S. president to be impeached. He was acquitted in the Senate by a single vote.

A classic Southern slavery advocate, Johnson was elected to the U.S. Senate after his presidency (a first).

This William Howard Taft and James Sherman jugate pocket mirror sold for $2,629.

James “Sunny Jim” Sherman was vice president No. 27 under William Howard Taft. He was the first VP to throw the first pitch on baseball’s opening day, and the last VP to die in office.

His death right after the convention on Oct. 30, 1912, didn’t give Taft a chance to select an alternate so Taft campaigned alone (finishing a weak third despite being the incumbent president). Taft and Theodore Roosevelt (who was attempting to make a comeback) split the vote, giving Woodrow Wilson the win.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for the WH five times (for VP in 1920) and was successful four times. His mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, was the first woman to cast a vote for a son in a presidential election (1920).

Roosevelt famously had White House matchbooks printed with “Stolen from the White House,” perhaps to cut down on souvenir-seeking guests.

Levi Parsons Morton, the 22nd vice president, missed the chance to be president when he declined James Garfield’s offer to be his running mate in 1880.

Garfield then turned to Chester Arthur, who accepted and became president upon Garfield’s assassination in 1881.

After his term as VP, Morton became the only one to then become a governor (of New York). He lived exactly 96 years – dying on his birthday in 1920 (another first and only).

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].

Jefferson Davis was a Genuine War Hero When He Arrived in the Senate

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation.

By Jim O’Neal

Thirteen-year-old Jefferson Davis was tired of school. He returned home from Wilkinson Academy, a few miles from the family cotton plantation, put his books on a table, and told his father he would not return. Samuel Davis shrugged and told his youngest son that he would now have to work with his hands rather than his brain. At dawn the next day, he gave young Jeff a large, thin cloth bag, took him to the cotton field and put him in a long line with the family slaves picking cotton.

Three days later, he was back at Wilkinson, happily reading and taking notes with his bandaged hands.

By 16, Jefferson had mastered Latin and Greek, was well read in history and literature, and eager to study law at the University of Virginia. Instead, he spent four years at West Point, graduated in the bottom third of his class and then entered the Army. He was 20 years old and fighting in both the Black Hawk War and the Mexican-American War.

Jefferson Davis’ arrival in Washington, D.C., as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi was like a coronation. A true war hero at age 36, he was recognized by everyone and warmly greeted by all he met. After all, Jeff Davis was the first genuine war hero in the Senate in its entire 58 years!

His rise to prominence occurred as one generation of leaders died or retired – Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster – and a younger one was set to take over, led by Stephen Douglas (39), Andrew Johnson (39), Alexander Stephens (35), Salmon P. Chase (39) and William Seward (35).

Jeff Davis began to give important speeches in the Senate and everyone sensed he had a future in politics.

The Senate proved comfortable and prestigious, providing an intimate venue to discuss and debate the great issues of the time. Yet despite all the exciting opportunities facing the young nation, the hard fact was that slavery was a pernicious issue lurking in the shadows. It was like a cancer that seemed to grow more lethal after every “compromise” designed to resolve it.

An example was the fateful Compromise of 1850, intended to resolve the four-year controversy over the status of the new territories that accrued to the U.S. after the war with Mexico. California was admitted as a free state, and Texas had slaves, but had to surrender its claim to New Mexico. Utah and New Mexico were granted popular sovereignty (self-determination) and there was a more stringent Fugitive Slave Law (destined to be revoked by the Dred Scott reversal).

Jeff Davis felt so strongly that slavery was a 200-year tradition (to be decided by individual states) and detested the 1850 Compromise so much that he resigned his Senate seat to run for governor of Mississippi, confident this would enhance his national visibility, send a strong message to the North and bolster any wavering Southerners. The strategy failed when he lost the election, leaving him with no political office.

Davis bounced back into the Senate by one vote and new President Franklin Pierce (1852) selected him to be Secretary of War, a powerful position to resist the continuous threat from the North to impose their will on the South by any means necessary. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act just roiled the opposing forces and thoughts of secession were like dry kindling waiting for the proverbial spark. First was President James Buchanan (1856), a Democrat who seemed helpless or resigned to the inevitability of war.

As abolition forces gained momentum and the South grew even more resolute that they would not concede a principle that states’ rights trumped Federal aggression, it was only a question of how or what set of events would tip the nation into a civil war. The answer was in plain sight.

In the critical election year of 1860, though still hopeful of a peaceful settlement on slavery, Davis told an audience that if Republicans won the White House, the Union would have to be dissolved. “I love and venerate the Union of these states,” he said, “but I love liberty and Mississippi more.” When asked if Mississippi should secede if another state did, he roared, “I answer yes!” And if the U.S. Army tried to suppress it? Davis answered even more vehemently. “I will meet force with force!”

Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected president in 1860.

The slavery issue was simply not resolvable by anything but force. Few foresaw how much force would be needed and the enormous carnage and loss of life involved. War always seems to be much more than anticipated. The 20th century would really amp it up and the 21st century has gotten off to a rocky start, as well.

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].

Presidential Sons a Complex, Dark Addendum to First Family History

A pair of baseballs signed by Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, from the collection of baseball legend Stan Musial, sold for $2,629 at a November 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

After favored son John Quincy Adams became president of the United States, there was an unspoken feeling that – like the sons of kings and monarchs – he might be destined for greatness. However, it would be a surprising 176 years before another president’s son, George W. Bush, would be sworn in as president.

The stories of presidential sons between these two bookends make up a complex and slightly dark addendum to the First Families of the United States. Some historians have a theory that the closer the male child is to his father, the more likely he is to die or self-destruct. Whether it is fact or coincidence is open for debate.

  • George Washington had no biological children, but was stepfather to a notorious young man, John Parke Curtis, who ruined his estate and died prematurely at age 26.
  • Thomas Jefferson’s only son died shortly after birth (unnamed).
  • James Madison’s stepson was an alcoholic, gambler and womanizer. After Madison died, he cheated his own mother (Dolley), and Congress had to intervene to help the former First Lady.
  • James Monroe’s only son died in infancy.
  • Andrew Jackson Jr. was an adopted son who mismanaged the Hermitage. He died of tetanus after shooting himself in a hunting accident.
  • Martin Van Buren Jr. died from tuberculosis in a Parisian apartment with his father sitting helpless by his bedside.
  • James Polk’s nephew and ward – Marshall Polk – was expelled from both Georgetown and West Point, ending his life in prison.
  • Calvin Coolidge Jr. died of blood poisoning from an infected blister after playing tennis.

A number managed to live longer lives, yet seemed to be cursed with a plethora of issues:

  • John Tyler Jr. was an alcoholic.
  • Ulysses S. Grant Jr. got caught up in an investment fraud scheme.
  • Chester A. Arthur Jr. was a playboy with an unaccountably suspicious source of “easy money” and investigative reporters hounded him and only stopped when his father’s term of office ended.

Franklin Roosevelt Jr. was the first of two sons named after their father and died suddenly after birth. The second namesake, married five times, was banned from the prestigious New York Social Register. Then, the powerful Tammany Hall machine became irked and ended his political career, as well.

Remarkably, when this terrible scourge progressed, fate would sometimes (greedily) step in and run the table. This happened to Franklin Pierce, who lost all three eldest sons in a row. It also happened to Andrew Johnson when first-born Charles Johnson died in a horse accident, Richard Johnson likely committed suicide at age 35, and younger brother Andrew Johnson Jr. died at a youthful 26.

Intuition says this phenomenon is more than random chance or a curse. Perhaps it is the pressure of being the first born, or something that drives the children of powerful figures to escape through substance abuse or risky behavior. Even President George W. Bush admitted to fighting alcoholism for years.

Mine is not to psychoanalyze, but simply to point out a series of eerie similar situations for your interest and speculation.

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].

Only Four Presidents Never Appointed a Supreme Court Justice

An 1840 silk banner depicting William Henry Harrison realized $33,460 at a May 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

When Donald Trump’s appointee fills the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the chief executive will escape from a small group of presidents who did not appoint a single nominee confirmed by the Senate. Trump’s pick will join the other 117 justices, 17 chief justices and four women who have served on the court.

Presidents without a Supreme Court appointee:

  • William Henry Harrison (1841) – Died only 31 days after being inaugurated.
  • Zachary Taylor (1849-50) – Died 16 months after inauguration.
  • Andrew Johnson (1865-69) – Victim of a hostile Congress that blocked several nominees.
  • Jimmy Carter (1977-81) – The only president to serve a full term with no vacancies during his four years in office.

It seems clear that the Founding Fathers did not spend a lot of time considering the importance of the Supreme Court as an equal branch of government. That would come later during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall, who many credit with providing the balance to ensure that our fragile democracy survived.

One example is there are no legal or constitutional requirements for a federal judgeship. There does exist an unwritten prerequisite to have practiced law or to have been a member of the bar, but it is not mandatory. As a matter of historical record, no non-lawyer has ever been a member of the Supreme Court – and it is a virtual certainty that none ever will.

And, although the methodology for judicial appointments was subject to intense debate, the criteria for such appointments was apparently not a matter of significance. Those few delegates who did raise the issue of criteria did so by assuming merit over favoritism. Congress also did not foresee the role political parties would very soon come to play in the appointment and confirmation process.

Only John Adams clearly anticipated the rise of political parties but, of course, he was not a member of the Constitutional Committee. He summarized it rather well: “Partisan considerations, rather than the fitness of the nominees, will often be the controlling consideration of the Senate in passing on nominations.”

I suspect they would all be disappointed by the dramatic, partisan “gotcha” grilling that nominees face today.

Personally, I would prefer the old process the Scots used to select Supreme Court justices. The nominations came from the lawyers, who invariably selected the most successful and talented members of the legal community. This effectively eliminated their most fierce competition, which then allowed them to solicit their best customers. The court would then truly be assured of getting the best-of-the best, while the profession competed for clientele.

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].

Grant was Popular, But Unable to Deal with Political Complexities

ulysses-s-grant-magnificent-silk-1868-campaign-flag-banner
A Ulysses S. Grant 1868 silk campaign flag banner sold for $14,340 at a May 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

As the departing carriages occupied by Andrew Johnson and his party passed out of the White House gate, the roar of voices heralded the approach of the incoming president’s inaugural parade.

It traversed 15th Street and turned west on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the vanguard of soldiers came into view. Ulysses S. Grant and several others rode in the first carriage, an open barouche. At 1 p.m., the procession stopped and Grant’s carriage rolled through the gates leaving everyone else in the street.

At 46, the idol of the nation assumed the position of commander-in-chief in 1869. There are few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice, Grant observed philosophically in his memoirs. A mere 10 years earlier, he had been an obscure citizen of Galena, Ill., an Army veteran retired early and a businessman struggling to support a young family. He had been considered a failure, but the Civil War had dramatically bettered his life.

Grant had a simple and uncomplicated view of himself as the administrative officer of the nation, drawing a strong analogy between his role as president and his former one as commanding general of the U.S. Army. He believed that the people’s will was expressed through Congress and that the job of president was to manage the machinery of government and obey Congress. His acknowledgment of the superior authority of the legislative branch was appreciated by a people exhausted by the long duel between Andrew Johnson and Congress.

Grant would call the White House home for eight years, the longest time he had lived anywhere. He would be the first two-term president since Andrew Jackson (10 different men had held the job after “Old Hickory” departed). Where those before him sought to achieve their objectives through their conduct as president, Grant’s motivation was neither intellectual nor imaginative, with only a touch of originality. He simply used his prestige to bring stability to the nation by representing the popular image of the “good life” in an era that would be called the Gilded Age.

However, his military background was not enough to equip him for the complexities of governing a large and swiftly growing nation, and historians have largely judged him a failure as president. The common-sense approach that worked so well on the battlefield proved naïve in a world of shrewd politicians and intrigue that permitted shady self-dealing and the aura of corruption.

One thing is certain. He was one hell of a general and knew exactly how to win wars, irrespective of the carnage and loss of life involved. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for ensuring Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.

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

With Discovery of Gold, President Polk Opened Massive Migration West

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

By Jim O’Neal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teddy Roosevelt Brought Vim, Vigor and Vitality to the White House

theodore-roosevelt-exceptionally-rare-type-of-equality-button
Teddy Roosevelt political pins often illustrated the theme of “equality,” inspired by Booker T. Washington’s visit to the White House. This rare variant sold for nearly $9,000 at a November 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

During his first year as president, Teddy Roosevelt left the White House as he had found it. But when the Roosevelts and their six lively children moved in, it had become obvious that there was insufficient room for both governmental offices and a family home. This prompted a complete remodeling, the first in nearly 100 years. Leading architects designed a new West Wing of executive offices that was joined to the main building by a colonnade. The second floor of the main building had the offices replaced by private bedrooms, sitting rooms and playrooms for the presidential family.

Like John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson and Grover Cleveland, Roosevelt had not been sent by the voters to live in the White House, having moved in only after the death of an elected president. He knew he lacked the public and party power to support the new international presidency that President William McKinley developed, yet he was destined to dramatize it to the world.

Born in 1858, he is (surprisingly) the only president born in New York City. The first new president of the 20th century and the youngest man to ever hold the office, he brought a vim, vigor and vitality to the White House that swept away any lingering cobwebs of the 19th century. Later, elected in his own right, Roosevelt began to act with an even bolder style than before. In his annual message to Congress in December 1904, he announced an expansion of the concept of the Monroe Doctrine that became known as the Roosevelt Corollary.

The Russo-Japanese War had been going on for more than a year when TR began efforts in 1905 as a mediator. He succeeded in getting the two nations to sign a peace pact in Portsmouth, N.H. On Dec. 10, 1906, he became the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

One of the first controversial issues had occurred during his first year in office on October 16 when he held a “family supper.” Among the invited guests was the great educator Booker T. Washington, whose biography, Up From Slavery, was being widely read. The press reaction was instantaneous; this dinner guest was the hottest news since the McKinley assassination.

“Probably The First Negro Ever Entertained at the White House” screamed the headlines of the Atlanta newspaper, and many others were also harsh in their criticism. No African-American received a special invitation to the WH for many years.

It seems exquisitely delicious and ironic that a black family has had their “family meals” in the same White House over the past 2,800-plus nights and, importantly, anyone of any race is only there by their special invitation!

Things do change.

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].

President Tyler’s Extreme Use of His Veto Alienated Political Leaders

president-john-tyler
As vice president, John Tyler assumed the presidency after William Henry Harrison’s death shortly after taking office. Tyler served the remaining three years and 11 months of Harrison’s term.

By Jim O’Neal

The election year of 1844 found President John Tyler in the awkward position of having no political party willing to nominate him for re-election. Tyler’s extreme use of his veto pen had alienated the Whigs, who were exasperated with his stubbornness and unwillingness to negotiate.

Earlier in February, the president, his cabinet members and several hundred prominent individuals (including Dolley Madison) were on the new steam-powered warship the USS Princeton when a gun’s celebratory shot exploded. When the smoke cleared, eight men lay dead, including Secretary of State Abel Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer and ex-New York Senator David Gardiner.

Tyler ordered the bodies taken to the White House and laid in state in the East Room, where the funerals were held before burial in the Congressional Cemetery. Gardiner’s daughter Julia had been carried from the ship by President Tyler and chose to stay on at the White House to fully recuperate. Tyler’s first wife Letitia was the first First Lady to die in the White House and the president struck up a relationship with (the now-wealthy) Julia Gardiner. They were married four months later on June 16, 1844, causing quite a stir in the social circles of Washington. Tyler was 54 and Julia was 30 years younger. Over the years, she would bear seven children to join the eight from the earlier marriage.

Meanwhile, the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass of Michigan. Then they received word that James Knox Polk was former President Andrew Johnson’s choice and so “Young Hickory” Polk was picked unanimously on the ninth ballot. When Polk’s nomination was flashed from Baltimore to Washington by Samuel F.B. Morse’s telegraph – the first official use of this new communication tool – Washington observers were sure the instrument had failed because the news was not plausible. Henry Clay, the Whig nominee, sarcastically asked, “Who is James K. Polk?”

It was a close contest, but Polk became the first “Dark Horse” candidate to win and the only Speaker of the House (ever) to be elected president. The 49-year-old Polk was also the youngest man to ever become president – to that time – when he took the oath of office on a rainy March 4, 1845. However, three days earlier on March 1, Congress passed a joint House-Senate resolution approving the annexation of Texas and Tyler signed it. And on his last day in office, Tyler also signed legislation admitting Florida as the 27th state.

On the same day, March 3, Congress mustered enough votes (two-thirds in each house) to override one of Tyler’s vetoes … the first time in history a presidential veto had been overridden. Immediately after Polk’s inauguration, Tyler and his family left for Virginia. Two days later, the Mexican minister to Washington filed a protest, calling the annexation of Texas an “act of aggression.” Mexico broke off diplomatic relations and the Mexican War soon followed.

Welcome to Washington, Mr. President.

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].

Lincoln’s Assassination Shows How Nation Has Survived Perilous Times

john-wilkes-booth-cabinet-card
An 1863 John Wilkes Booth cabinet card sold for $1,912 at a December 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre while the Lincolns were enjoying the play “Our American Cousin.” A Confederate sympathizer, Booth was the younger brother of famed Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth and had become a popular actor himself. A meticulous planner, he had attended a rehearsal the day before and devised his escape plan.

There is a fascinating backstory to this tragedy that started on April 3 when news of the surrender of Richmond was received at the War Department. The telegraph operator had jumped to his feet, opened a window and shouted out “Richmond has fallen!” This extraordinary good news spread quickly and almost by magic the streets were filled with noisy, jubilant people. Among the talking, laughing and shouting, the local newspaper reported that “many wept like children.”

People were convinced that this long nightmare was nearly over. Generally, they were right, except for a series of dramatic events that could have altered the future in any number of possible ways.

It started the following day when Secretary of State William Henry Seward was critically injured in a carriage accident. He was with his son Fred, daughter Fanny and her friend Mary Titus. When the driver stopped to close a carriage door, the horses bolted and Seward jumped out to stop the runaway horses, caught his heel and landed violently on the pavement. After regaining consciousness, he was carried to his home severely injured.

Then on April 11, two days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, several thousand people gathered at the White House to hear Lincoln give a speech about returning the Southern states, extending suffrage to blacks and the benefits of school to all children. JWB was in the crowd and furiously declared, “Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.”

Earlier, Booth had planned to kidnap Lincoln, but now he was determined to kill him, along with Vice President Andrew Johnson and Seward in a choreographed decapitation of the Union government. The triple assassination was set for 10:15 p.m. on Good Friday. His accomplice, George Atzerodt, was assigned to kill the VP and Lewis Powell was to kill Seward in his bed while he was recovering.

Only JWB was successful. Atzerodt lost his nerve, got drunk and left the Kirkwood hotel where the VP was in suite 68. Powell went on a rampage in Seward’s house, stabbing him three times in the throat and neck. A metal brace on his neck miraculously saved his life.

The world would now know the power of a single gunshot, yet for America this was a first. Never had a president been assassinated or even died during a war. As sorrow gradually spread throughout the nation, there remained one more haunting question: Would it all come undone and devolve into an endless conflict?

We know the answer now, but it was a perilous time for our troubled nation.

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