Presidential Politics Always Filled with Strange Twists and Turns

This rare 1902 Oklahoma Territorial Red Seal, with a vignette of President William McKinley, sold for $16,450 at an April 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The 56th Congress (1899-1901) had assembled in a spirit of tranquility. For the first time since 1883, Republicans were in control of every branch of government and they rejoiced in an exceptional unity. It was the third and fourth years of President William McKinley’s presidency and included one African-American, George Henry White of North Carolina – the last black member of Congress until 1928 and the last one from the South until 1972.

McKinley was in the midst of a dramatically expanding era of foreign trade and the entire nation was applauding U.S. Secretary of State John Hay’s negotiations for the “Open Door Policy” into China. Republicans were also free to take action on the president’s policy to establish a temporary government in Porto Rico (the name was changed by Congress in 1931), with free trade between the islands and the United States. In addition, they needed to provide a territorial government for newly acquired Hawaii.

The minority lost no time in seeking revenge. Lacking a constructive program and impotent to prevent legislation on which the majority united, Democratic leaders resorted to opposition in its rawest form: Seek any device to divide or delay the Republican steamroller (sound familiar?). Constitutional questions were raised on a wide range of resolutions, with special attention to matters involving the Philippines, another recent addition courtesy of the Spanish-American War in 1898. They accused the administration of censorship and obscuring facts from the people on a broad set of issues. Anything to slow them down.

Despite furious, intermittent debates, the chairman of the Committee on the Philippines recommended granting the president broad legislative authority, almost carte blanche legal authority to do as he pleased. This further outraged Democrats and even seemed radical to many Republican senators. But the legislation had been carefully constructed by the superbly knowledgeable Senator John Spooner and modeled on the act by which Congress had authorized Thomas Jefferson to govern Louisiana nearly 100 years earlier.

This further emboldened the president and he adopted an even broader assumption of power and established a new commission to “build up from the bottom” and create a central government to be established in Manila, with the head likely to become a civilian governor. For this position, McKinley wanted a man of unusual qualifications, not only administrative and judicial, but moral as well. He wanted someone who possessed the extraordinary tact and patience required to bridge an interim period of joint control with a military government.

In the middle of January, the president telegraphed Judge William Howard Taft of Cincinnati politely asking him to call.

Taft was an affable man of 42; jolly but impressive with a big body, big smile and a bigger judicial brain, serving as judge of the U.S. Circuit Court at Cincinnati for eight years. Though Taft was a prominent jurist and a highly respected Republican, he did not know McKinley well during McKinley’s time as governor of Ohio. Taft had mingled in politics without becoming a typical politician. He was far too fastidious for the compromises and bargains, uneasy with the quid pro quo and backslapping of politics. Further, he did not have a high opinion of McKinley, despite a cordial dinner on the night of the Ohio elections of 1899.

Less than three months later came this unexpected call from the White House, presumably at the urging of Mark Hanna, the ultimate kingmaker.

Taft was perplexed by the call since he had a single all-consuming ambition, to become a member of the Supreme Court, and there had been no talk of a vacancy. When he arrived at the White House, McKinley came straight to the point, asking him to be a member of the Philippines commission and intimating he would head it. Years later when he was president-elect of the United States, Taft recalled the conversation in a speech: “Judge, I’d like you to go to the Philippines.” “Mr. President, I would like to help, but I am sorry we got the Philippines and I don’t want them.” “Judge, you don’t want them less than I do, but we’ve got them and I can trust a man who doesn’t want them more than a man who does!”

So Judge William Taft became governor of the Philippines (a job he didn’t want) and, ultimately, the 27th president of the United States (another job he reluctantly accepted). He finally got his dream job as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on July 11, 1921. He would serve until he retired on Feb. 3, 1930. After his death the following month, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, the first president and first Supreme Court Justice to be interred there.

Presidential politics took some strange twists and turns along the way … and some things never seem to change.

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].

Fairbanks Never Won the Presidency, But there is That City…

A rare 1904 Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Fairbanks jugate (with a cartoon image by the creator of the Teddy Bear, Clifford Berryman) sold for $8,050 at a June 2005 auction.

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.” – Prince Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet

By Jim O’Neal

Charles W. Fairbanks gave the keynote address at the June 1896 Republican Convention in St. Louis. Following the successful nomination and election of former Governor William McKinley of Ohio, Fairbanks became a U.S. Senator from Indiana.

When 1900 rolled around, Mark Hanna – one of the earliest “kingmakers” in American politics – tried to persuade Fairbanks to run as McKinley’s vice president (Vice President Garret Hobart had died in office). But, Fairbanks thought he had a better chance to become president by staying in the Senate.

Bad decision.

McKinley was assassinated in 1901 and Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became president. Fairbanks recognized his earlier lost opportunity, so in 1904, he accepted the vice presidency with TR in the hope that his shot at the presidency would come in 1908.

Wrong again.

Roosevelt threw his support to friend and colleague William Howard Taft and that squashed Fairbank’s aspirations once again.

Now flash forward eight years to 1916, and we find our old friend Fairbanks running for vice president again, this time with former Governor Charles E. Hughes of New York. Alas, Woodrow Wilson was reelected and Fairbanks finally just gave up.

However, he does have a major city named for him, albeit few people can find it on a map.

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 Taft Often Bypassed Journalists to Speak Directly to American People

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A 1910 Chicago Cubs team-signed book presented to President Taft sold for $43,020 at an August 2016 Heritage auction. Two months earlier, Taft launched the “Presidential first pitch” tradition at an opening-day game in Washington, D.C.

By Jim O’Neal

It took William Howard Taft time to actually realize he was president of the United States. He told close friends that anytime someone said “Mr. President,” he would look around expecting to see Teddy Roosevelt. Or when he read headlines that the president and a senator had a meeting, his first thought was, “I wonder what they talked about.”

Of course, anyone who succeeded TR would inevitably seem dull and uninspired, but the 6-foot-2 Taft, with his walrus moustache and 300-pound girth, was so ponderous, it exaggerated the differences. Although Roosevelt had retired, his presence hovered beyond the door of every room, and he was the unseen figure at the conference table when Taft sat in council with his political associates.

During Roosevelt’s years in the White House, the American people had come to expect the president to be in every edition of the daily newspapers. Taft made little effort to promote himself, virtually ignoring the press. When they complained, Taft dismissed it, saying he had been elected by the people, not the press. He intended to give his news in speeches directly to the people, not in releases to journalists. (He would have loved Twitter, like you know who).

That was not the only difference between the presidential styles.

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William Howard Taft oil portrait by Emily Burling Waite.

Taft was slow and soft-spoken and believed the time had come to work behind the scenes for “affirmative legislation.” Taft also held the law sacred, while Roosevelt had not hesitated to stretch it if necessary. Roosevelt used diplomacy to strengthen national power, while Taft viewed national power as an asset to be used in diplomacy. The “Big Stick” of Roosevelt yielded to Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy” to help American commerce worldwide.

Suddenly, it was no longer the Roosevelt White House.

Even Mrs. Taft made her mark in a hurry. Helen Herron Taft, born in the first year of the Civil War, was 47 at the time of the election. Quick-witted and energetic, she was less a charmer than him and more of a pusher when it came to having her way. Unlike most other first ladies, she was politically savvy and influenced her husband’s activities in all major decisions.

Mrs. Taft had spent time observing the White House during the Roosevelt years, and knew how to make needed changes. During Taft’s governorship of the Philippines, she had learned at Malacañan Palace, with its 125 servants, that a strong administrative structure would free her from daily household obligations. No previous first lady brought experience of that sort to the White House. She had unlimited personal freedom and used it liberally.

Alas, time zipped by and Taft proved ill-equipped to cope with the political patronage. Worse, he committed the error of angering Roosevelt – the man who had literally put him in the job – and TR wrecked the Republican Party to prevent “Big Bill” Taft from having a second term. Upon leaving the White House, the 55-year-old Taft accepted an appointment as a law professor at Yale and then finally was granted his lifelong dream of being on the Supreme Court (appointed by Warren G. Harding). When Chief Justice Edward White died, Taft was swiftly appointed Chief Justice.

“All’s well the ends well.”

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].

Deep Divisions Within a Political Party Nothing New

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Andy Warhol’s screenprint Teddy Roosevelt (from the Cowboys and Indians portfolio), 1986, ed. 183/250, realized $23,750 at a May 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency in September 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley. Teddy was 42 years old and remains the youngest man to hold the office (JFK was 43).

When reelected in 1904, it was the first time an incumbent president won reelection after ascending to the presidency upon the death of his predecessor. Calvin Coolidge (1924), Harry S. Truman (1948) and Lyndon B. Johnson (1964) would later match this historic first.

When 1908 rolled around, TR honored his earlier pledge “not to seek a third term” and then maneuvered his associate William Howard Taft into the White House.

At the time, it seemed like a sound strategic transition for the Republicans. But it would turn out to be a colossal mistake that would grow in importance and haunt Roosevelt for the rest of his life.

When he returned from the historic Smithsonian-Roosevelt African Expedition two years later, the group had collected 11,400 animal specimens that took Smithsonian naturalists eight years to catalog. And the political animals had also been busy during his absence.

A major rift developed between President Taft and TR over policies that had become administration priorities. This, in turn, caused a deep divide in the Republican Party that could not be reconciled. It was so serious that neither faction could generate enough support to defeat Democrat Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 election.

Later, many politicians were convinced that Roosevelt was still popular enough to seriously contend for the 1920 Republican nomination. However, this conjecture was never tested since the mighty Bull Moose’s health was broken and he died on Jan. 6, 1919.

He still regretted making “that damn pledge not to run in 1908” and took it with him to the grave.

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].

Jack Johnson at the Center of 1910 Sports Spectacle

A collection of 118 postcards from the 1910 Jack Johnson vs. Jim Jeffries match sold for $6,572.50 at an October 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On the Fourth of July in 1910, the sleepy little frontier town of Reno, Nev., became the setting for a dramatic sporting event that riveted the nation. “Reno Now Center of the Universe” read the headline in the Chicago Tribune. John Arthur “Jack” Johnson, the first black boxing heavyweight champion of the world, was going to fight James Jackson Jeffries for the title.

Jim “The Boilermaker” Jeffries had retired as undefeated champion six years earlier and he had been lured back into the ring to prove that the Johnson championship was a fluke and white boxers were still the best in the world. Emotions were running high and Jeffries was being billed as the “Great White Hope” to restore white pride.

What many didn’t know was that Jeffries was about 130 pounds overweight despite working on his alfalfa farm, and Johnson was the epitome of a world-class athlete in prime condition. There was so much hype that it was estimated over $3 million would be wagered.

James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander starred in the 1970 film The Great White Hope.

The stage for the bout had been set two years earlier when Johnson had defeated Tommy Burns in Australia, prompting calls for Jeffries to restore the indignity suffered by the white race. Since then, Johnson had further alienated whites with his flashy manner, strutting confidence, lavish spending and cavorting with women. Novelist and journalist Jack London wrote several articles trying to coach Jeffries out of retirement with a rallying cry of “Jeff, it’s up to you!”

Some 20,000 people crowded into the arena for “The Fight of the Century” and most of them were Jeffries fans. When Johnson entered the ring first (it was a superstition), he was wearing a gray business suit over his boxing trunks, with an aide shielding him from the blinding 110-degree sun with a 5-foot-round paper shade. According to The New York Times the crowd gasped when he stripped to his fighting attire.

Tex Rickard, the legendary boxing promoter, ended up being the referee after failing to recruit President William Howard Taft or writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the end, it mattered not. Johnson scored a 15-round TKO that some say was over as early as Round 4 and the balance was just showboating punishment.

Later, Johnson was sentenced to jail by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (future baseball commissioner) for violations of the Mann Act (“transporting women across state lines for immoral purposes”). He served a year or so and resumed his lifestyle as before, unrepentant or apologetic.

A fictionalized version of his life was the 1970 film The Great White Hope, with James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander, both of whom were nominated for Oscars.

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].

Trade Has Created Economic Opportunities for More than 100 Years

To celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, the U.S. Mint produced this 1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific Octagonal. This example, graded MS67 NGC, realized $282,000 at an April 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The ceremonial opening on Nov. 17, 1869, of the Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean and Red seas, was an emphatic declaration of European – specifically French – technological and financial means. It was also a significant illustration of a rapidly emerging and increasingly global economy and, simultaneously, a further boost to Europe’s imperial ambitions.

The Suez Canal reduced the sailing time between London and Bombay by 41 percent and the route to Hong Kong by 26 percent. The impact on trade was obvious, as it greatly simplified the defense of India and its critical markets, Britain’s key imperial goal. Trade in the Indian Ocean was now protected by 21 Royal Naval bases, making it a virtual monopoly.

An even more challenging project was the construction, begun in 1881, of the Panama Canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. It was a French initiative, but plagued by controversy and a consistently hostile climate that cost the lives of 22,000 laborers. The United States eventually completed the project in August 1914 after the French finally conceded defeat.

It was the largest and most expensive engineering project in the world.

It, too, dramatically reduced sailing times, shortening the Liverpool to San Francisco route by 42 percent and the San Francisco to New York time by 60 percent. The project assumption by the United States marked a crucial shift in attitudes in both trading and advancing U.S. interests in foreign affairs. This started in 1898 when the United States itself became a colonial power by taking over the Philippines from Spain.

It then accelerated under President Teddy Roosevelt (1901-09), when he actively advocated American military involvement, especially in Latin America, to ensure stability as a means of advancing American interests. A major consequence was the strengthening of the U.S. Navy and its “Great White Fleet,” which completed a circumnavigation of the globe between 1907 and 1909. This was followed by President William Howard Taft’s Dollar Diplomacy, by which American commercial interests – primarily in Latin America and East Asia – were secured by the backing of the U.S. government to encourage huge investments.

A hundred years later, we are still actively pursuing a variant of this strategy by advocating two-way investment with Brazil, China and India despite being on a short hiatus until the current political season ends. This is the only rational way to create the jobs we need and keep our trading partners’ markets open.

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].

Today’s Political Schisms Would Not Surprise George Washington

A painting by Jeremiah Paul Jr. (d. 1820) depicting George Washington taking leave of his family as he assumes command of U.S. forces during the “quasi-war” with France in 1798, realized $47,500 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

George Washington was a staunch opponent of political parties due to the corrosive effect he (strongly) believed they would have on all levels of government.

As president, Washington worked hard to maintain a non-partisan political agenda, despite significant differences that existed right in his cabinet.

His 1796 farewell address was replete with advice to the country, and by extension, to future leaders. One prominent warning was to avoid the formation of political factions that would pose a danger to the effectiveness of government (think gridlock in Washington, D.C.). A second peril was entanglements with foreign governments, since they inevitably lead to war. The examples here start with the War of 1812, two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and end with the Russian threats to NATO, the China Sea and the remarkably complex situation in the Middle East and North Korea.

After Washington’s retirement, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton ignored his sage advice and wasted little time confronting the Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Adams became the first (and last) Federalist president. He was easily defeated in 1800, after one term, by Jefferson and Aaron Burr. Adams finished a dismal third and the Federalists gradually faded into irrelevance.

The Democratic-Republicans put together a nice run of three Virginia presidents – Jefferson, Madison and James Monroe – however, the party lacked a strong center and split four ways. Next was an alliance between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay of the National Republican Party, which only won a single election in 1824 that required the House to settle. When Andrew Jackson defeated Clay in 1832, the party was absorbed into the Whigs … a diverse group of anti-Jackson politicos.

Then the Whig Party fell apart in the 1850s over the issue of the expansion of slavery in the new territories. In fact, after the 1854 election, the largest party in the House of Representatives was the Opposition Party, with 100 members, followed by 83 Democrats and 51 American Party members (the Know Nothings).

These parties never seem to last long (thankfully).

Next it was the New Republican Party’s turn (the Party of Lincoln) until another major kerfuffle occurred in 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft managed to divide the Republican Party enough to let Democrat Woodrow Wilson win the White House … until he had a stroke and his wife took over.

A century later, we appear to be in another political schism, with a socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders, on the Democrat Party side and on the other, Donald “The Wall” Trump, who claims to have part of the Republican Party supporting him. It is not clear which part.

Only one thing seems certain. Thanks to President Washington, we were warned!

P.S. As history teaches … this too shall pass.

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].