Fillmore Often Makes the ‘Forgettable Presidents’ Club

Millard Fillmore appears on the lower right corner of this Union Bank of Missouri $100 Color Proof. It realized $61,687.50 at an October 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Millard Fillmore, the 13th president, was the last not affiliated with either the Democrat or Republican parties. Born in a log cabin, he developed slowly since he did not read well and was apprenticed when he was 14 years old. After several years, he bought out his indenture for $30, but never saw a map of the United States until he was 19.

However, he learned to love books and spent a lot of time just reading.

Later, his entry into politics was through the New York State Assembly as an anti-Mormon candidate. Eventually, he made it into the U.S. House by following Whig Party policies. He even made a run at being the Whig Party VP candidate in 1844, but finished a weak third. Then, to top it off, he was defeated for governor of New York that same year.

It looked like his career had peaked.

However, his luck changed in 1848 when the Whigs picked General Zachary Taylor to run for president. Taylor was a slaveholder from Louisiana, had never run for office, and had never even voted.

Taylor and Fillmore had also never met, but the Whigs hoped Fillmore would help balance the ticket … a strategy that worked!

Vice President Fillmore was largely ignored when the administration finally took office. That is until President Taylor died unexpectedly and Fillmore was thrust into the Oval Office.

Alas, he gradually lost support of the Whig Party and was unable to generate a lot of support for reelection. One major cause was signing and then enforcing the proslavery Fugitive Slave Law, which alienated Northern Whigs.

During the 1852 convention, Fillmore made a valiant effort, but on the 53rd ballot, Winfield Scott finally prevailed as the Whig Party candidate. He would go on to lose the general election to Democrat Franklin Pierce.

In 1856, the American Party (“Know Nothings”) convinced Fillmore to make another run for the presidency; he won a single state. Curiously, many historians argue that Fillmore was never an actual American Party member, never attended a single meeting, and was even out of the country when all this happened.

All of this is true, but they overlook the fact that he did mail a letter affirming his acceptance of the nomination. So, I say he was an official candidate despite the unusual circumstances and the rather obvious lack of any real interest.

Fillmore often makes the “Forgettable Presidents” club … but we remember him because he was the first president to turn down an Honorary Degree … a Doctor of Civil Law from Oxford. His reason was a little hokey (he could not read or understand it since it was in Latin), but that only makes him more qualified for our club.

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].

Tidbits: Bluebonnets, Sherlock Holmes, Bums and Booze

Julian Onderdonk’s Texas Landscape with Bluebonnets sold for $437,000 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The bluebonnets in Texas are beginning to fade, but two names always come to mind when talking about the flowers: Claudia Alta Taylor (better known as “Lady Bird” Johnson ) and “Cactus Jack” Garner, who lobbied to make the prickly pear cactus the state flower (and lost).

Garner became the 32nd vice president of the United States in 1932 and concurrently was elected back to the House. So for one day, on March 4, 1933, he was both Psident of the Senate and Speaker of the House.

Earlier on Feb. 15, 1933, as VP-elect, he came close to being president when FDR just missed being assassinated in Miami.

Garner served two full terms as VP and died 15 days before his 99th birthday – making him the longest-living VP.

“A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle was the first story featuring Sherlock Holmes. It was published in 1887 in the magazine Beeton’s Christmas Annual – with only 11 copies known to exist today.

Joe Louis by Irving Penn

The last heavyweight championship bout scheduled for 20 rounds was held in Detroit in 1941. Joe Louis TKO’d Abe Simon in 13 rounds. Simon was a member of Louis’ “Bum of the Month Club” – 13 opponents Louis defeated between 1939 and 1941.

After leaving boxing, Simon went to Hollywood, where he won roles in On the Waterfront, Never Love a Stranger and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Our 35th vice president, Kentucky lawyer Alben W. Barkley, was elected with Harry S. Truman in 1948 and is still the only one with the middle name of William (he was actually born Willie Alben Barkley).

One of his career highlights was his keynote address at the 1932 Democratic Convention, where he supported Franklin D. Roosevelt and denounced Prohibition (Kentucky bourbon?). It worked … FDR won and prohibition was repealed in 1933.

Although the oldest VP elected at age 71 (Joe Biden was 65 in 2008), Barkley is the only one to marry while in office … a woman half his age. Later, he denounced the 80th Congress as “Do Nothing,” but Truman often gets credit for the phrase.

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].

Ineffective Leadership is the Last Thing Needed in the White House

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

By Jim O’Neal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1850s Represented a Challenging Time for America

u-s-senator-jefferson-davis-gold-pocket-watch
U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis presented this gold pocket watch to Franklin Pierce the year Pierce was nominated for president. Pierce was Davis’ favored candidate since Pierce had not openly opposed slavery. This watch sold for $15,535 at a June 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

jefferson-davis-and-franklin-pierceIn 1819, the United States was a divided nation with 11 states that permitted slavery and an equal number that did not. When Missouri applied for admission to join the Union as a slave state, tensions escalated dramatically since this would upset the delicate balance. It would also set a precedent by establishing the principle that Congress could make laws regarding slavery, a right many believed was reserved for the states.

In an effort to preserve harmony, Congress passed a compromise that accepted Missouri as a slave state and Massachusetts would be divided (creating Maine) and admitted as a free state. The passage of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 earned U.S. Senator Henry Clay the nickname of the “Great Pacificator.”

It was the first real crisis over the slavery issue and kicked the can all the way to the 1850s, however, observers like Thomas Jefferson were profoundly upset. He said just the threat of disunion in 1820 caused him to be apprehensive about the future. He foresaw the potential for civil war, saying, “My God, this country is going to have a blow up. When it hits us, it’s going to be like a tornado.”

Those words would prove to be eerily prophetic.

By the 1850s, the disagreement had splintered into a five-way dispute. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans arguing with the Southern Democrats. The Northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, versus the Southern Democrats through Jefferson Davis. There were heated arguments between Frederick Douglass (and the political abolitionists) and William Lloyd Garrison, who favored non-violent moral suasion, and both against the non-political-process abolition that led to John Brown’s violent actions.

The War with Mexico (1846-48) had fueled these contentious debates since there was no consensus on how to treat the vast new territories of California, Utah, New Mexico or even Texas. After years of wrangling, the Compromise of 1850 put a bandage on it and several other lingering issues (e.g., the Fugitive Slave Act, the banning of slave trade in Washington, D.C.). Neither side was satisfied, but the Union remained intact.

However, the tentative peace was fleeting. When the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, with cooperation between U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, the inevitability of a civil war was finally a stark reality. The election of Lincoln in 1860 was the final straw and seven Southern states seceded, even before his inauguration, to form a new confederacy.

Formal hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on the Federal seaport of Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C., and would not end for four bloody years. Even Jefferson’s metaphor of a tornado never contemplated the death and destruction that took place.

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]

1968 Was Much Lousier Than the Queen’s Annus Horribilis

The 1968 Belmont Stakes winner’s trophy presented to jockey Heliodoro Gustines for his win on Stage Door Johnny realized $28,680 at a February 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Citing a string of unpleasant events, Queen Elizabeth II in a speech on Nov. 24, 1992, labeled the year her annus horribilis.

For many in the United States, 1968 was more of a lousy year than the events that seemed to perplex Her Royal Majesty.

In Washington, D.C., the Willard Hotel, where at least seven presidents had been guests (starting with Franklin Pierce), went bankrupt.

China exploded its seventh atomic bomb in an attempt to catch up, and France did the same with its first hydrogen bomb. A U.S. Air Force B-52 crashed in Greenland, spilling radioactive materials on an expanse of ice. It was the 13th time such an accident had occurred.

In Biafra, 3 million civilians died in a war with Nigeria, many of them of basic starvation as the world stood by and did nothing.

It was that kind of year.

On Jan. 31, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam caught everyone off guard and was followed by the My Lai Massacre. LBJ decided he’d had enough and did not stand for re-election.

At the Kentucky Derby, Dancer’s Image finished first, but was disqualified after traces on phenylbutazone were discovered in the post-race urinalysis. Then, Dancer’s Image was disqualified in the Preakness for bumping. So, Forward Pass won two of racing’s Triple Crown. Dancer’s Image did not run the Belmont – won that year by Stage Door Johnny – and remains the only winner of the Derby to be disqualified.

On April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and cities across the nation rioted. On June 5, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel as he was trying to follow his brother into the White House.

It was that kind of year.

The U.S. submarine Scorpion was lost at sea with 99 men, which would have been the biggest naval disaster of the year. However, it was overshadowed by the spectacular fate of another U.S. ship near North Korea.

The USS Pueblo was labeled an environmental research ship, but was really an electronic snoop with antennas and high-tech radar. They cruised the Sea of Japan seeking signals from North Korea. On Jan. 23, the Pueblo was attacked and captured by the North Korean navy.

The news that a U.S. naval vessel had been captured – the first since the USS Chesapeake in 1807 – stunned the entire country. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk called it an act of war and senators were howling for action! Two appeals to Russia to act as a mediator were rejected and the U.N. Security Committee refused to get involved.

Finally, U.S. and North Korean negotiators got the men and Commander Lloyd M. Bucher released. But, incredibly, the USS Pueblo is now a tourist attraction in Pyongyang at the Victorious War Museum, complete with tours and a video. The U.S. State Department is still hoping for a release … 48 years later.

Annus horribilis … American style.

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].

Cheerful ‘First Lady’ Harriet Lane Followed Gloom of Pierce Years

This rare Franklin Pierce original daguerreotype, housed in a leatherette case, realized $15,525 at a November 2003 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Jane Means Pierce was known as “the Shadow in the White House.” She had always battled mild depression and, after her marriage to Franklin Pierce in 1834, things only got worse. In 1836, their 3-day-old son died and this heightened her melancholy and outright depression.

A second son also died early – 4 years old – from a bout of typhus and she bitterly blamed a mix of politics and Franklin’s excessive use of alcohol. Politics became anathema to her, but the worst was yet to come. When the Democratic Party selected Franklin Pierce to be their presidential candidate in 1852, Jane literally fainted at the news.

Then weeks after a trying election, tragedy struck again. On Jan. 6, 1853, while on a family train trip, their 11-year-old son Benny was crushed to death when the train derailed. A grief-stricken Jane was unable to attend her husband’s inauguration on March 4, 1853. She then spent the next two years virtually cloistered in the upstairs living quarters of the White House. She never fully recovered.

Harriet Lane was among 25 “Ladies of The White House” featured in an 1889 N353 Consolidated Cigarettes trading card set.

When she died in 1863 (aged 57), novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, a close family friend, summed up her life at the funeral: “Jane Pierce was never really of this world.”

After the depressing gloom of the Pierce administration, Washington society was delighted when the bright and cheerful “Democratic Queen” Harriet Lane became “First Lady” (the only one not married to a president). She was the favorite niece of bachelor President James Buchanan.

Lane had accompanied Buchanan to London when Pierce had appointed him Ambassador to the United Kingdom, where she partied with royalty at the Court of Saint James. Earlier, Buchanan had served as Secretary of State for James Polk and remains the last one to later be elected president.

Harriet Lane was perfect for the White House and later established her own reputation for philanthropy after donating her art collection to the Smithsonian and a “generous sum” to Johns Hopkins to establish a home for invalid children. This was the first children’s clinic in the United States associated with a medical-school hospital.

Ironically, her uncle is primarily remembered for his inability to prevent this nation’s bloody Civil War, and perennially shows up on lists of the worst presidents, an honor that is well deserved.

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].