American History & Jewish History Blog

Chester Arthur, Ole Peter Hanson, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
December 15, 2021

The Dude President: Chester Arthur, Civil Rights, and Civil Service Reform

American presidential nicknames have been a phenomenon since the beginning of the republic. Honest Abe and Old Hickory are amongst the more famous presidential monikers. “The Dude,” however, is probably the most contemporary-sounding presidential nickname, yet it belonged to one of the more obscure presidents: Chester Arthur. In 19th century parlance, a dude was essentially a dandy, which is exactly what Arthur was. His love of the finer things in life was no secret, and he made headlines when he purchased numerous fine trousers from England, as well as accumulating an extensive collection of silk top hats and shoes. Though it was the Gilded Age, where conspicuous consumption and luxury abounded in close proximity to poverty, Arthur’s detractors were most likely taking a dig at Arthur’s past, in which he was seen as a champion of the spoils system. But Arthur’s story is one of redemption, both in the sense that he righted wrongs in which he had been complicit, and in the sense that he rose to the occasion when President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. And yet, if Chester Arthur is remembered at all today (and that is a big “if”), it’s more for his outlandish facial hair than his achievements as a president and as a person. In examining Arthur’s path to the presidency, it will become apparent that Arthur’s legacy deserves another look.

Chester Arthur was born in Vermont in 1829 to an American-born mother and a father who had immigrated from Ireland. His father, a fiery abolitionist preacher, was not very popular, and the Arthurs moved often, crossing back and forth from Canada to the United States so frequently, in fact, that Arthur’s presidency was beset upon by detractors insisting that Arthur was born in Canada, and as a result, ineligible for the presidency. Chester Arthur spent most of his youth impoverished in New York, and very quickly decided that he would be a Manhattan lawyer, and enjoy the finer things in life.

Arthur was admitted to the bar in 1854. A year later, he won a landmark case: a century before Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat to a white passenger and to go to the section of the bus designated for blacks in Alabama, Elizabeth Jennings Graham took a stand against racist policies in New York City. Unlike Parks, who was an activist who wished to be arrested to further Civil Rights, Jennings-Graham was merely late for church. She hopped onto a street car, and the conductor ordered her off. She refused to budge, and was eventually forcibly removed from the streetcar by a police officer. Arthur, a junior partner and all of 24, won the case for Jennings-Graham, which led to the eventual desegregation of public transportation in New York City. Arthur continued practicing law in New York. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he became a Quartermaster, where his abilities in administration and logistics became obvious. By 1863, Arthur finished his military service, and that is where his stellar record becomes a bit murky, as it was the year he became friendly with Roscoe Conkling, the notorious big boss of the Republican New York political machine.

Conkling’s name has gone down in history as a byword for corruption, and in his day, it wasn’t much different. As state senator for New York, the New York Customs House fell under Conkling’s jurisdiction. One of the most important political and financial institutions in the United States, the New York Customs House accounted for one third of the country’s revenue. Conkling, who also led the Stalwart faction of the Republican party, filled the Customs House with his underlings, and the profits made by working there compounded his power. [1] In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Arthur the Customs Collector of the Port of New York. Though Arthur as far as we know never took kickbacks, he was complicit in the patronage system, retaining party members in unnecessary jobs at the taxpayer’s expense. 

In 1877, Rutherfod B. Hayes ascended to the presidency and was determined to clean up the Civil Service. One of his first moves was to eject Rosco Conklin’s man from the position of Customs Collector of the Port of New York. By 1878, Hayes had succeeded in ousting Arthur. In 1880, the Republican Party found itself fractured. In order to maintain party unity, Arthur, a Stalwart, was proposed for the position of Vice President, to run with James Garfield, himself a surprise candidate at the 1880 convention. Following their victory, Arthur openly broke with Garfield on several key issues.

When Garfield was assassinated in  September 1881, four months after taking office, Arthur and Garfield had  all but been estranged. In fact, at the time of the assasination, Arthur had been in Albany with Conkling, who was seeking reelection. To make matters worse, when Charles Guiteau shot Garfield, he announced “I am a Stalwart! Now Arthur will be President!” Guiteau, who was a delusional and disillusioned office seeker brought more attention to the burning issue in American politics – the patronage system. His insane but accurate declaration did not reflect well on Arthur, who inherited the majority of Garfield’s term, to the general horror of the American people.

Arthur surprised everyone. In an America torn by Garfield’s assassination and party politics, he immediately set to work proving he was above partisan squabbles. He signed the Pendleton Act of 1883 – this put into motion the Civil Service Reform for which Hayes had tried to press, and ended the patronage system which had essentially built Arthur’s own career. The year before, Arthur had vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would have denied American citizenship to Chinese residents of the United States, in addition to banning immigrants from China for twenty years. This was a particularly sordid bill, as the Chinese immigrants had been crucial to building the Transcontinental Railroad. In trying to stand with what was morally right both in regards to political corruption and to the rights of the Chinese, one catches a glimpse of the young lawyer Chester Arthur, who took on segregation.

Mark Twain, who never seemed to hesitate to throw shade at politicians and presidents commended Arthur’s presidency. “I am but one in 55,000,000; still, in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s Administration.” [2] Indeed, Alexander McClure, a writer, politician, and biographer of Lincoln said of Arthur “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired […] more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.” [3] Chester Arthur’s presidency, though not remarkable in its own sense, is one of history’s great examples of a person rising to the occasion when he was needed the most by his country.



  1. The Stalwarts were a faction of the Republican party who were most associated with the patronage system and their bid to have Grant re-elected for a third time. They existed from the 1870s until Arthur became president in 1881, at which point Conkling was no longer a force, and Arthur had reformed the Civil Service.
  2.  Critics have long contended that Twain’s Puddin’ Head Wilson is based on Arthur’s reforming of the Civil Service. Kaschig, Merit. “‘Vice Breeds Crime’ The ‘Germs’ of Mark Twain’s Puddn’ Head Wilson.” American Periodicals, vol. 12, Ohio State University Press, 2002, pp. 49–74,
  3. McClure, Alexander 1828–1909. Colonel Alexander K. McClure’s Recollections of Half a Century, Ulan Press, 2012. P. 115



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William Howard Taft as Chief Justice, 1921, Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress
August 30, 2021

Chief Justice William Howard Taft: A Dream Deferred

“I was engaged in the respectable business of trying to administer justice [but] I have fallen from that state now and am engaged in running for the presidency.” [1]

-William Howard Taft

There are six American presidents who failed to win reelection. Most recently, Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection in 2020. Before him, George Bush, Sr., Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover, and William Howard Taft all failed to win a second term. William Howard Taft is the only former president who made a public career comeback to serve on the Supreme Court. He remains today the only person who has served as both the President of the United States and Chief Justice. When Taft was appointed Chief Justice in 1921, he succeeded Edward Douglass White, whom Taft himself had elevated to Chief Justice when he was President in 1910. [2] Not many people can say they settled on the presidency after their first choice career didn’t pan out, but that is essentially what happened in Taft’s case. When he promoted White, Taft confided in George W. Wickersham, his Attorney General, that “There is nothing I would have loved more than to be Chief Justice of the United States. I cannot help seeing the irony in the fact that I, who desired that office so much, should now be  signing the commission  of another man.” [3]   Let’s step back for a moment and trace Taft’s trajectory to where he happily ended his career as a public servant: that of Chief Justice of the United States of America.

William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati in 1857, the scion of the Taft family, who traced their origins to Ireland, but more recently, to Uxbridge, Massachusetts. Taft’s great grandfather, Samuel Taft, served in the Revolutionary War under George Washington and stayed at Samuel’s tavern at Uxbridge. A letter from the newly-elected Washington thanking Taft for his hospitality survives. When Taft was born, his father, Alphonso, started a law firm with William M. Dickson, who was one of the founders of the Republican party. Alphonso himself had written the platform of the Republican party the year before William’s birth, emphasizing, amongst other things, its commitment to the Constitution. William H. Taft studied at Yale from 1874-1878, where he was a member of the elite Skull and Bones society, which his father had co-founded. During the younger Taft’s time at Yale, his father served as a judge on the Superior Court of Cincinnati, lost a bid for the Ohio governorship to Rutherford B. Hayes, and was appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant as Secretary of War. Shortly thereafter, Alphonso became Attorney General. The confluence of law and politics ran deeply in the Taft family, to put it mildly, and both his father’s example and his counsel that it was greater to be Chief Justice than President were to impact William’s career path. 

In 1878, Taft finished Yale and moved back to Ohio to study law in Cincinnati, passing the bar in 1880, and entering his father’s firm. The following year, Taft was appointed Hamilton County’s Assistant Prosecuting Attorney [4] which he resigned the following year, in 1882, when he was appointed by President Arthur as Collector of Internal Revenue. All of these achievements and opportunities were attained by the time Taft was twenty-five.  [5] 

In 1886, Taft married fellow Cincinnatian Helen Herron, with whom they would eventually have four children. Helen’s father had also been active in the Republican party and had been legal partners with Rutherford B. Hayes. Helen’s political pedigree further fueled her aspirations for her husband to seek public office, ultimately becoming the driving force behind Taft’s political career. In the meantime, Taft continued working up the ranks of the legal profession, and in 1887, at age 29, he followed in his father’s footsteps and was appointed Judge of the Superior Court of Cincinnati. Two years later, Taft was tapped to join the Supreme Court, but was instead appointed by President Benjamin Harrison the following year as Solicitor General, and in short succession, Taft found himself a circuit judge, and dean of his alma mater, the Cincinnati School of Law. In 1900, President William McKinley appointed Taft the first head of the  civilian governor of the Philippines. Though this delighted his wife, who made no secret of her White House ambitions for him, Taft would have preferred to devote himself to the law. [6]

In 1902, Taft was informed by President Theodore Roosevelt that he wished to put Taft on the Supreme Court bench. He confided in then-Secretary of War Elihu Root “I long for a judicial career, but if it must turn on my present decision then I am willing to lose it.” [7] Taft was essentially bowing to his wife’s political aspirations for him.  Roosevelt didn’t give up, but Taft’s sense of duty to finish his work in the Philippines, combined with Helen’s urging that Taft’s career not be shelved on the Supreme Court bench, ultimately won out.

In 1904, Taft followed in his father’s footsteps yet again when President Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War, bringing the Tafts to Washington. While there, Roosevelt tried his luck again to convince his old friend to join the Supreme Court. By now, though, there was a growing consensus that Taft would make an excellent president. Taft confided in his diary that Helen was “Bitterly opposed to my accepting the [court] position and that she telephoned me this morning to tell me that if I did, I would make the biggest mistake of my life.” [8] After a private half-hour meeting with Helen Taft, President Roosevelt became the most vocal proponent of Taft’s bid for the presidency.

In 1908, with Roosevelt’s help, Taft won the election. Though viewed as Roosevelt’s successor, Taft was different in temperament nearly across the board. Whereas Roosevelt stretched the limits of the constitution, Taft felt duty-bound to be constrained by them. In other words, his judicial temperament made him less suited for the expectations of a president. Taft was relieved to lose his bid for re-election in 1912 to Woodrow Wilson, ending a somewhat unpopular term in office. 

The former president still needed a source of income, and was delighted to begin teaching law at Yale. Finally, in 1921, Taft’s dream became a reality when President Harding appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Taft served in his position until 1930, retiring shortly before his death. In the words of Jeffrey Rosen, Taft’s most recent biographer, “Taft’s constitutional restraint helped solidify his legacy as our most judicial president and most presidential chief justice.” [9]

  1. Caroli, Betty Boyd. The First Ladies “From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama” Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 131
  2. Grover Cleveland had appointed White as Associate Justice in 1894, and Taft’s elevation of White to Chief Justice was surprising, given that Taft was a Republican.
  3. Rehnquist, William H. “Remarks of the Chief Justice: My Life in the Law Series.” Duke Law Journal, vol. 52, no. 4, 2003, pp. 787–805. JSTOR,, p. 797. Accessed 19 Aug. 2021. 
  4.  The county seat of Hamilton is Cincinnati 
  5. Warren, Earl. “Chief Justice William Howard Taft.” The Yale Law Journal, vol. 67, no. 3, 1958, pp. 353–362, p. 355. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Aug. 2021.
  6. Ever since Helen Herron Taft visited the Hayes’s White House as a small girl, she was determined to return as First Lady, and passionately pursued her ambitions vicariously through her husband
  7. Warren, p. 356
  8. Caroli, p. 130
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Though finally taking place in Summer 2021, the Tokyo Summer Olympics were scheduled for 2020 and were postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
July 25, 2021

The Most Athletic Presidents & The Olympics

The arrival of the belated Summer Olympic Games offers an opportunity to reflect upon the sportier U.S. presidents who, like the Olympics, abide by a four-year schedule. Presidents are no strangers to the Olympics, and more generally, have had an affinity for sports. Here are the stories behind some of the most athletic presidents in US history.

One of the most avid sportsmen of all the presidents was probably Teddy Roosevelt. Roosevelt secured the first Olympic Games to be held in the United States, which took place in St. Louis in 1904. But the Games were a flop – Roosevelt never attended and only 12 foreign athletes participated.[1] 

Not surprisingly, golf is perenially popular among presidents. William Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren Harding (-no relation to Tonya Harding-) all enjoyed a good game of golf. Taft was a terrible golfer, but he hit the links almost every day. He even had a so-called “Golf Cabinet” that included his Vice President James Sherman.[3] Wilson played more golf than any other president – more than 1200 rounds during his presidency! Harding played golf after he voted on election day in 1920.[5]

Herbert Hoover loved baseball, and even played shortstop at Stanford until he dislocated his finger. While the Great Depression torpedoed Hoover’s presidency, In 1930, Babe Ruth defended his own unprecedented $80,000 yearly salary – higher than Hoover’s – by saying, “Why not? I had a better year than he did.”[8] The 1932 Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles, but Hoover declined to attend, choosing instead to focus on his reelection. It didn’t help – Hoover lost in a landslide to Franklin Roosevelt and did not even carry California. [9]

FDR played football in his younger years, participated in crew during his time at Harvard, and enjoyed a variety of outdoor activities.[10] But regarding the Olympics, he is probably best remembered for his snub of Jesse Owens. Owens once said, “I wasn’t invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn’t invited to the White House to shake hands with the President, either.[11] 

Dwight D. Eisenhower had a fascinating history with sports and one well-known Olympian. In 1912, Ike’s military career was nearly cut short after he injured his knee in a West Point football game. The injury occurred when he tried to tackle Jim Thorpe, arguably the greatest Olympian of all time.[12] He also loved baseball, and according to the NY Times, Eisenhower claimed to have played minor league baseball under the assumed name of “Wilson.”[13]

John F. Kennedy shared Eisenhower’s love for golf, if not much else. (The two had a cool relationship.) But when it came to the Olympics, JFK was outshined by his sister, Eunice, who organized the Special Olympics in 1968.

Tokyo last hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, and Lyndon Johnson made sure Americans could watch their athletes get the better of Soviet athletes. He ordered the use of NASA’s Syncom II satellite to allow for coverage of the Games, the first time they were broadcast internationally.[15]

Jimmy Carter competed in high school tennis and track and field.[16] He wasn’t much of a fan of baseball, but he loved to play softball.[17] And he was no stranger to Olympic controversy. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter organized an international boycott of Moscow’s 1980 Summer Games.

Ronald Reagan was never much of an athlete; he was a high school swimmer. But prior to his acting career, he earned his stripes as a radio sportscaster. He recreated Chicago Cubs games and called Big Ten football games.[18] Reagan also became the first president to attend the opening of the Summer Games, which he did in L.A. in 1984. 

As we all enjoy the camaraderie of this year’s postponed summer Olympic Games, let us all hope that the next time we watch them it will be an even-numbered year.

Enjoyed Learning About The Most Athletic Presidents?

Enjoyed learning about the most athletic presidents? Then discover other great blogs from Shapell, including The Longest Serving Prime Minister of Israel, David Rice Atchison President For A Day, Harry Truman Post Presidency, and more!


[1] Olivia B. Waxman, “A Brief History of U.S. Presidents and the Olympics,” Time, July 24, 2012,

[2] “Rare William Howard Taft Autograph Letter as President: He’s Happy to Meet After His Daily (Golf) Game,” December 3, 1911, Item #262, and “‘Big Bill’ Taft, Happily Golfing, Relates His Post-Presidential Loss of Eighty Pounds,” April 10, 1914, Item #1286,

[3] John Fischer, “In Golf, President Taft Finds a National Treasure,” Morning Read, December 9, 2019,

[4] “President Woodrow Wilson: Lonely in the White House,” August 13, 1915, Item #128, and Ronald G. Shafer, “This president played more golf than any other. And it’s not Trump.” Washington Post, April 6, 2019,

[5] Dave Shedlosky, “Did you know: This U.S. president played golf after voting on Election Day,” Golf Digest, November 2, 2020,

[8] Joel Treese, “President Herbert Hoover and Baseball,” The White House Historical Association,

[9] Waxman.

[10] “Facts & Figures: FDR,” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum,

[11] Larry Schwartz, “Owens Pierced a Myth,” ESPN,

[12] Greg Botelho, “Roller-coaster life of Indian icon, sports’ first star,” CNN, July 14, 2004,

[13] Michael Beschloss, “Eisenhower’s Baseball Secret,” New York Times, July 18, 2014,

[14] “Eisenhower & Kennedy: Eisenhower Writes JFK a Chilly Letter After Losing the 1960 Election,” December 16, 1960, Item #703,

[15] Waxman.

[16] Patrick J. Kiger, “Oval Office Athletes: Presidents and the Sports They Played,” January 29, 2019,

[17] President Jimmy Carter Baseball Game Attendance Log,

[18] Lou Cannon, “Ronald Reagan: Life Before the Presidency,”

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June 28, 2021

Paul Bunyan Day: The American West and Theodore Roosevelt

Paul Bunyan lives on in the American and Canadian consciousness as a strapping lumberjack giant who embodies the spirit of the rugged North-American West. Many Americans commemorate Paul Bunyan day by telling tales of the fictional Paul Bunyan and his giant blue ox named Babe and celebrating other heroes of western folklore. What better way for us at the Shapell Manuscript Foundation to mark the day than by sharing a letter from Theodore Roosevelt, our 26th President (who himself often seemed larger than life) in which he declares his affinity for the West? Roosevelt describes himself as “nearly as much of a Dakota man as a New Yorker. I like pioneer life; and the part of our history for which I most care is that dealing with the extension of our frontier and the building up of the nation.” Happy Paul Bunyan Day!

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Theodore Roosevelt with his wife and children, taken by the Pach Brothers, July 13, 1903, Library of Congress
June 20, 2021

Theodore Roosevelt Family Life

Despite his stature as American royalty of the Oyster Bay Roosevelt clan, the famed commander of the Rough Riders, an avid conservationist and outdoorsman, and, of course, President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt cherished one aspect of his life above all others: fatherhood. Whether it was getting on the floor and playing with his children, indulging their antics and pets in the White House, or mourning his youngest son, Quentin, Theodore Roosevelt’s characteristic boundless energy was especially reserved for his children. In fact, in 1919, the year he died, a collection of Roosevelt’s letters to his children was published in one volume, tracing the letters he wrote to them when they were small children through their lives into adulthood, revealing a devoted father whose mind and heart was always focused on his children. Happy Father’s Day. 

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great posts from Shapell, including George Washington: Farming & Agriculture, Charles Warren, Napoleon in Jaffa, and more!

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Posthumous official presidential portrait of John F. Kennedy by Aaron Shikler, 1970, Wikimedia Commons
May 30, 2021

Newly Digitized Kennedy Manuscript

After over a year of the arts shuttering as a result of the pandemic, museums, galleries, cinemas, and music venues are starting to reopen. This newly digitized manuscript underscores President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to the arts. Those of us who have awaited the announcements of reopenings can relate to Kennedy’s genuine joy and excitement in his eagerness to see “…two albums filled with letters from the artists and writers who were invited to the Inauguration ceremonies.  Mrs. Kennedy and I have had extraordinary pleasure in going through these volumes.  We are grateful for the letters, and we shall treasure them for the rest of our lives.”

View the manuscript here.


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George Washington Farmer at Mount Vernon, Junius Brutus Stearns, 1853. Picryl.
May 13, 2021

George Washington: Farming & Agriculture

George Washington Agriculture Quote

“It will not be doubted that with reference either to individual or national welfare, agriculture is of primary importance. In proportion as nations advance in population and other circumstances of maturity this truth becomes more apparent, and renders the cultivation of the soil more and more an object of public patronage.” –President George Washington, Eighth Annual Address to Congress, December 7th, 1796 [1]

THe History of George Washington & Farming

Composting, food security, farming, agrarian experimentation, and barn innovation are not the first concepts that are associated with George Washington. And yet, the man who had commanded the Continental Army, who crossed the Delaware to defeat the British, and who went on to serve as America’s first president, was consumed by these ideas later in life. His agrarian pursuits were actually the achievements of which he was most proud.  Lord Byron (and many others) eulogized George Washington as “the Cincinnatus of the West.” Like the Roman statesman, Washington had the opportunity to seize complete power, and yet relinquished his command of the Continental Army, insisted on a presidency instead of a monarchy, voluntarily retiring after two terms, and, like Cincinnatus, returned to his farm after serving his country.

Washington’s agricultural pursuits reflect the shift in revolutionary America. Like many Virginians, tobacco was his cash crop (it even functioned as currency in colonial Virginia – taxes were paid in pounds of tobacco), as it was in high demand in Europe. The colonists would ship the tobacco to England, where it would be sold by merchants in London. Most arrangements meant that the tobacco could be bartered by the colonialists for fine items from Europe and England. But by 1766, Washington understood that tobacco was an unsustainable crop. In addition to being incredibly labor-intensive, tobacco left farmers with very poor soil, as a result of erosion caused by the tobacco plants. Washington himself was in personal debt because of his love of fine imports from Europe and not getting a fair market price for his tobacco. [2] Around then, Washington transitioned from tobacco to grains. 

In addition to the value of grains for sustenance, Washington established a distillery at Mt. Vernon shortly after his second presidential term ended in 1797. Whiskey-making was far and away his most profitable business, and by 1799, it was one of the largest distilleries in America. Washington’s pivot from tobacco to grain was emblematic of America’s pivot away from an eroding relationship with both England and America’s natural resources (soil, particularly) and towards self-sufficiency and stewardship of American farmland.

The same quality that existed in Washington that led him to serve his country commanding the Continental Army and as the nation’s first president, led him to experiment with new farming techniques: duty. Washington felt that the responsibility to experiment with new farming techniques rested on the shoulders of the wealthier farmers, who could easily recover from losses. As president, Washington’s longest and most frequent letters were about agricultural reform. [3]

Washington’s main obsession was with soil regeneration, and therefore with manure. In 1785, after retiring to Mount Vernon for the first time following the resigning of his military commission, he sought a farm manager who was “Midas-like” in his ability to “convert every thing he touches into manure, as the first transmutation toward Gold.” [4] Washington, often called America’s “first farmer” left his most prominent mark on what today we would call composting. It’s very possible that Washington built the very first structure in America that was dedicated to compost, what he called the “stercorary.” Archaeologists at Mt. Vernon date the structure to approximately 1787. [5] Though composting is common practice in our era, in Washington’s, it was a novel idea in the West,  just beginning to be written about by English agronomists, and he was a pioneer in championing it and experimenting with its benefits.

Many of the concerns that occupy environmentalists and agronomists that have crossed into public consciousness such as soil health and sustainability are those that were raised by Washington at Mt Vernon two hundred years ago. To Washington, the success of America relied on the scientific study and sustainable harvest of its natural resources.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Charles Warren, Theodore Roosevelt’s Family Life, President Jefferson & The First Vaccine, and more!

  1. The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, to Congress: Comprising All the Inaugural, Annual, Special, and Farewell Addresses and Messages of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, John Q. Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren. Charles Lohman, 1837.
  2.  Sturges, Mark. “Founding Farmers: Jefferson, Washington, and the Rhetoric of Agricultural Reform.” Early American Literature, vol. 50, no. 3, 2015, pp. 681–709. JSTOR, Accessed 26 Apr. 2021, p. 692
  3.  Sturges, p. 693
  4.  Library of Congress introduction to Washington’s papers,
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Vaccination from the Calf, Charles Joseph Staniland. London, 1883, courtesy of Picryl
April 18, 2021

President Jefferson and the First Vaccine

Thomas Jefferson & The Smallpox Vaccine

Of Thomas Jefferson’s numerous achievements as a statesman, a Founding Father, and a progenitor of many Americans, his early experiences with anti-vaxxers probably doesn’t come to mind for most people. As the nation watches another administration deal with the Coronavirus outbreak, we explore how Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, dealt with the plague of his time: smallpox. In order to better understand President Jefferson’s response to the smallpox epidemic, let’s have a brief introduction to the smallpox vaccine and its evolution.

How Does The Smallpox Vaccine Work

Inoculation is a procedure in which a small amount of the infection is placed in a person’s bloodstream in order to trigger a mild case, from which the patient recovers and has antibodies. According to Voltaire, inoculation against smallpox originated with the Circassians and came to the West via the Turks. Voltaire, who was writing about his time in England between 1726 and 1729, not only provides his reader with a brief historical observation about  smallpox inoculation, but he also gives some context to the inoculation debates raging in his own lifetime, when he wrote that  “It is whispered in Christian Europe that the English are mad and maniacs: mad because they give their children smallpox to prevent their getting it, and maniacs because they cheerfully communicate to their children a certain and terrible illness with the object of preventing an uncertain one.” [1] Here, the fault lines between inoculation and anti-inoculation are geographical. 

How Did The Antivax Movement Start?

Jefferson, an admirer of Voltaire, and a man of science himself, had opted for inoculation against smallpox in 1766, when he was in his twenties. [2] Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1768 and again in 1769, in Norfolk, Virginia, anti-inoculation riots erupted. After inoculation, people had to be quarantined, and the people who lived near the physician’s house were uncomfortable with the procedure being performed so close to them. A small outbreak of smallpox had been attributed to a physician releasing patients from quarantine too early, which fueled anti-inoculation sentiments. These riots culminated in the burning down of one of the physician’s houses. None other than Thomas Jefferson was retained to bring suit on behalf of Archibald Campbell, the physician whose house was burnt down. Unfortunately for Campbell, the judge was anti-inoculation, and the physician was eventually indicted for nuisance. But by 1777, a bill was passed by a committee of which Jefferson was a member, which allowed for inoculation to happen anywhere in the Colony of Virginia, provided it was approved by the majority of the neighbors. Five years later, under the protection of that law, Jefferson inoculated his children. 

The Vaccine For Smallpox Was Discovered

Approximately twenty years after the anti-inoculation riots had broken out in Virginia, an English physician named Edward Jenner demonstrated that contracting cowpox (a far less serious disease than smallpox) made people immune to smallpox, and inoculated patients with cowpox in 1789. In doing so, Jenner created the first vaccine: the word ‘vacca’ is Latin for cow. Jenner’s findings were published in 1796. Jefferson naturally kept abreast of Jenner’s progress, and even corresponded with him later. [3] 

When Did The Smallpox Vaccine Come Out?

In 1800, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse began the first vaccinations in America. Waterhouse, a cofounder of Harvard medical school, had studied medicine in Scotland and later in the Netherlands, where he had shared a room with John Adams. After conducting successful vaccinations on his children and 19 boys in a controlled experiment in Boston, Waterhouse reached out to his former roommate, then President, to expand the vaccination program. Adams was unresponsive, but his Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, was electrified by the idea. [4] 

The following year, in 1801, Jefferson ascended the presidency, and Waterhouse found in Jefferson a much more cooperative president, who was willing to endorse Waterhouse’s efforts. Jefferson also assisted Waterhouse by providing numerous physicians with the new vaccination from England. [5] Jefferson’s contributions went beyond any executive administrative undertaking. He helped troubleshoot the efficacy of the vaccination by suggesting keeping it cool during transport, thus helping to expand the reach of the vaccination. [6] Moreover, Jefferson personally directed the vaccination of over 200 people at Monticello and surrounding environs, and then began collecting his own vaccine from those who had been inoculated. Rather than awaiting more shipments of the vaccine from England, Jefferson was able to send vaccine to other areas of Virginia, as well as Washington, D.C. [7]

Jefferson’s vaccination notes were published, and he received recognition from the Royal  Jennerian Society (eponymously named for Edward Jenner) for his efforts to promote vaccination in America. It would be hard to find a world leader who was more committed to public health as both an administrator and a clinician than Thomas Jefferson.

 1. Voltaire’s Letters on the English, Letter XI

2. Dewey, Frank L. “Thomas Jefferson’s Law Practice: The Norfolk Anti-Inoculation Riots.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 91, no. 1, 1983, pp. 39–53. JSTOR, Accessed 11 Apr. 2021. Page 39



5. Blake, John B. “Benjamin Waterhouse and the Introduction of Vaccination.” Reviews of Infectious Diseases, vol. 9, no. 5, 1987, pp. 1044–1052. JSTOR, Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.

6. Hitchens, Christopher. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives). Illustrated, Harper Perennial, 2009. P. 44


Discover other great blogs from Shapell, including .Napoleon in Jaffa, Harry & Bess Truman, George Cortelyou and more!










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James A. Garfield, Wikimedia Commons
April 5, 2021

Rags to Riches Presidents & The Poorest Presidents In US History

America is known as the land of opportunity. The rags-to-riches narrative is best exemplified in America’s very top position, the presidency. Anyone born in the U.S., no matter his or her station in life, can be selected by the people to sit at the apex of power not only of the country, but essentially, of the world. The most famous example of the so-called “log-cabin” presidents is Abraham Lincoln, who grew up, in the face of poverty and with a lack of education, to become one of the most beloved presidents in American history. Two additional figures, whose combination of resilience and relatable occupations prior to becoming president, deserve mention: James Garfield and Harry Truman.

“To some men, the fact they came up from poverty is a matter of pride. I lament it sorely.” -James Garfield

The Last President Born In A Log Cabin & The Poorest President In US History

James Garfield was the last of the log cabin presidents, and he was actually the poorest man to ever become president. Born in 1831 on a Northeast Ohio farm, Garfield lost his father when he was eighteen months old. He tried his hand at all sorts of jobs in order to support his family. He worked on a canal boat, as a janitor, a carpenter, a professor, and even as the president of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute Hiram College (now known as Hiram College). His dislike of faculty politics drove Garfield to pursue a career in law and he passed the bar in 1861, two years after becoming the youngest member of the Ohio State Senate at 28. In August of that year, Garfield entered the Union army as a colonel of the 42nd Ohio Infantry, where he was tasked with filling its ranks. He did so successfully, finding many men from Hiram College who were willing to follow their former teacher into battle. Garfield earned distinction on the battlefield and ended the war as a Major-General. In 1863, Garfield resigned his army commission to take his place as a congressman in the House of Representatives. It was a position he never campaigned for, but that his constituents felt he deserved based on his record as a radical abolitionist and a war hero. In Congress, his drive, affability, and gift for orating meant that his popularity amongst Republicans skyrocketed, and he was eventually appointed the minority leader. 

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Garfield addresses the convention members twice, the second time to promote his friend John Sherman for the presidential nomination. Garfield had just been elected to the U.S. Senate by the Ohio Legislature with Sherman’s support, so what happened next was truly shocking to Garfield. The delegates were so taken by Garfield’s earlier speech at the Convention, that they determined he was the only candidate who could garner enough votes across the party. Much to his own astonishment, Garfield found himself on the Republican ticket, and shortly thereafter, the nation’s twentieth president. Sadly, Garfield was shot only four months into his presidency, and died two months later. 

The Last President To Not Attend College & Truman’s Childhood Home

Another farmer who became president of the United States was Harry Truman. Truman is the only 20th-century president who never earned a college degree. Born in 1884 on a Missouri farm, Truman never knew a life of opulence. Even as president, Truman spent the vast majority of his term at Blair House, as the dilapidated White House was being restored. 

Just as the Truman family farm had its ups and downs, Harry’s businesses and investments all floundered, yet he was diligent and didn’t give up. Like Garfield, Truman worked all kinds of jobs to make ends meet: he was a drugstore clerk, a railway timekeeper, and a bank clerk, before becoming a county judge and entering politics. And just like Garfield, Truman’s political career took a dramatic turn at a national convention. The 1944 Democratic National Convention began without President Roosevelt having chosen his running mate. Henry A. Wallace, the incumbent vice president, seemed like the logical choice, and most journalists reported that most of the delegates supported  Wallace. Truman did not seek the nomination and was a fairly obscure Missouri senator who could not have predicted his selection as running mate for Roosevelt’s fourth term. And yet, after much backroom wrangling, Roosevelt selected Truman to be his running mate. To be fair, it was more that Roosevelt chose to not have Wallace or the other men put forth as options. Two months later, Roosevelt was dead, and Truman found himself president during the largest war in human history, World War II.

After his presidency, Truman returned to Missouri and was scraping by on his veteran’s pension  (he had served in World War I). Largely because of his financial straits, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958, which awarded lifetime pensions to former presidents. Neither Garfield nor Truman sought the presidency outright, and yet they were both catapulted to it from their modest origins. Both men were also prodigious readers who saw books as a diversion from their current station, and as a means to educate and elevate themselves. In Truman’s case, he also felt it enabled him to rise to the challenges he faced when becoming president.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Has The US Ever Had A Woman President, Jerry Parr, The First Vaccine, and more!

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President Harry S. Truman Gets Ready to Throw the First Pitch at Opening Day, 1951: Rowe, Abbie, 1905-1967 National Park Service, Harry S. Truman Library & Museum.
April 1, 2021

Harry S. Truman & Baseball: Presidential First Pitches

On April 12, 1945, Vice President Harry Truman was looking forward to attending Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season, and hoped the weather would make for a great experience. He wrote this letter thanking Clark Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators baseball club for the tickets. Before he could send it, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died of a massive stroke, and by that evening, Truman himself was President. Handwritten at the bottom of the letter, Truman explains that he will have to delay his attendance at the ballgame, owing to the “terrible responsibilities” he now faced. Five years later, Truman would make history by throwing out the first pitch of Opening Day ambidextrously, a tradition, incidentally, started by his friend, Clark Griffith.

Enjoyed Learning About Presidential First Pitches?

Enjoyed learning about Harry S Truman and his first pitch? Discover other great blogs from Shapell, including US Presidents Unmarried, Divorced & Married In The White House, Albert Einstein & Hebrew University, The First Vaccine, and more!

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General Order No. 11 Historic Marker, Mississippi.
March 31, 2021

Ulysses Grant’s General Order No. 11 Historic Marker In Mississippi

On March 18th, 2021, a new historical marker was installed by the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, with support from the City and the Marshall County Historical Society Museum.

The marker commemorates General Ulysses S. Grant’s infamous General Orders No. 11, often considered the worst anti-Semitic Government act in American history. The order – -issued on December 17th, 1862, from Holly Springs — expelled all Jews from Grant’s military district, which comprised areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. 

President Abraham Lincoln countermanded the General Order on January 4, 1863.

Learn more here of how Grant later tried to lose the anti-Semite label engendered to him by the order.

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President Grover Cleveland, First Lady Frances Cleveland, and Ruth Cleveland. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C
March 4, 2021

It’s Not The First Time The White House Experienced A Quarantine

Throughout its history, the Executive Mansion – The White House – has seen illness, deaths, destruction. As we’re now into the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re taking a look at how the White House has previously handled deadly outbreaks. In this letter from then President-Elect Grover Cleveland and father of then-infant Ruth, he writes to his doctor concerning the recent outbreak of scarlet fever which preceded the quarantine of the White House. The Clevelands had been advised against entering the White House with their child. The letter is in hope of receiving reassurances that the White House premises may be safe to enter with the baby in tow after the March 4th presidential inauguration. Read more and view original letter here.

Grover Cleveland Faces A Quarantined White House


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The Mortal Presidency: The President of the United States has arguably the toughest job in America, and it turns out, the most deadly.


He is Head of State, Commander in Chief, and the country’s top legislator. The President of the United States has arguably the toughest job in America, and it turns out the most deadly. Statistically, the US presidency is more dangerous than law enforcement, construction, space exploration, and mining. 20% of presidents have died in office, 20% were targets of assassination attempts, and 10% were assassinated.

Two thirds of us presidents have died before reaching their life expectancies. The job has been described as a killer. The question is, what makes the U S presidency so dangerous and so deadly? Perhaps it is best to start with the job’s home base, the White House. Considered one of the most elegant homes in the world today, in the early 19th century, the White House was one of the unhealthiest places in America.

Built on muggy marshland, the house was damned and vermin infested. Raw sewage flowed freely in nearby streams, turning the South lawn into an open sewer. Many presidents and their families suffered with gastrointestinal disease. Two of Abraham Lincoln’s sons caught typhoid fever there. 11-year-old Willy would die from it. Not until the introduction of modern sanitation and other improvements did presidents and their families live comfortably in the presidential residence.

And then there is the job itself. Most of us can appreciate how difficult the job of president must be, but only those who occupy the office understand the toll exacted by its burdens. Consider this. For most of the 19th century, appointment to any federal job, even running the corner post office, was at the discretion of the White House. The result? Presidents were besieged by job seekers.

William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office, complained of being harassed by the multitude. James Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled and mentally disturbed job seeker. Add to this the inherently disputatious nature of the democratic process. Sectional struggles over slavery and civil rights split the country and weighed heavily on presidents for two centuries. Today, increasingly complex domestic and global politics, an unwieldy bureaucracy, and around the clock media scrutiny add to the strain of presidential responsibilities.

At least 7 presidents struggled with serious medical conditions while in office. Amazingly, they were able to cover them up. No one knew Grover Cleveland had two secret cancer surgeries. Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed and couldn’t walk, and Woodrow Wilson didn’t get out of bed for seven months following a devastating stroke. Presidents promoted images of strength and vitality, even as they suffered with illness and incapacity. New details of presidential illness and denial are being discovered to this day.

Adding to the mortality mystique of the presidency is the zero factor. Legend has it that William Henry Harrison brought a curse down upon the presidency when he killed the great Indian leader Tecumseh during the war of 1812. Beginning in 1840, when Harrison died just 40 days after his inauguration, every president who was elected in a year ending in zero died in office until Ronald Reagan. Reagan narrowly survived an assassination attempt just 69 days into his first term. George W. Bush was spared when a grenade thrown towards him failed to detonate. The curse, it appears, is broken.

Take an extraordinary journey into the mortal presidency. Read original letters from presidents, their doctors, and presidential assassins, as they provide an intimate look inside the most deadly job in America, the presidents of the United States.

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Rutherford B. Hayes as a major during the Civil War, 1861, Rutherford Hayes Presidential Center
February 16, 2021

Presidential Brothers in Arms: Rutherford B. Hayes and William McKinley

The 23rd Ohio Infantry Regiment was raised outside of Columbus in June 1861 as a three-year regiment. Its colonel, William Rosecrans, would go on to have a controversial military career and later, served as the American representative to Mexico to be followed by consolidating the Southern Pacific railroad. Rosecrans wasn’t the only person of distinction from the 23rd OH. Several members went on to have careers in public service – notably the 19th and 25th presidents of the United States, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley, respectively. 

Rutherford Hayes was a 38-year-old attorney practicing law in Cincinnati when he volunteered to fight in the Civil War. He joined the 23rd OH as a major, and as one of Rosecrans’s staff officers. William McKinley, by contrast, was an 18-year-old teacher living in Poland, Ohio. McKinley had volunteered for the Poland Guards, which soon after was consolidated into the 23rd OH.

Hayes’s non-military professional experience served him well as a leader in the unit.  As a lawyer, he knew how to speak and rally his soldiers. Hayes’s devotion to his men was both legendary and mutual. He took care of them, and they, in turn, revered him. Moreover, Hayes was quite the war hero. In his four years in uniform, he had four horses shot out from under him, and was wounded five times — once severely. Though he was one of five presidents to serve in the Civil War, he was the only one who sustained wounds in battle. Hayes was recognized for his bravery and competence and rose through the ranks steadily. By the end of the war, he was a Major-General.

“On more than one occasion during these engagements, General Hayes bore an honorable part. His conduct on the field was marked by conspicuous gallantry as well as the display of qualities of a higher order than that of mere personal daring. Having entered the army as a major of volunteers at the beginning of the war, General Hayes attained by meritorious service the rank of brevet major general before its close.” 

– Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs

While Hayes was a leader amongst the 341 men in the 23rd OH, and William McKinley was but a private, the two men more than connected. McKinley proved himself time and again on the battlefield, especially at the Battle of Antietam. When news of McKinley’s bravery reached Hayes, Hayes suggested McKinley be promoted. With his promotion to Second Lieutenant, McKinley then served on Hayes’s staff when the latter was a colonel. At the war’s conclusion, McKinley was a Brevet Major. 

The relationship between the two men most likely began when McKinley served on Hayes’s staff, and grew into a long-lasting bond. In an 1862 letter to his wife, Lucy, Hayes described McKinley as a “handsome, bright, gallant boy,” in addition to being “one of the finest officers in the Army.”[1] For his part, McKinley considered Hayes a lifelong mentor whose input was not limited to the sphere of war. In 1867, McKinley’s first foray into politics was to stump for Hayes, who was running for governor of Ohio. As McKinley’s profile in law and politics grew, his path would cross with Hayes even more. In 1875, he attended the Republican state convention at which Hayes was nominated governor for the third time.  The following year,  McKinley, in the midst of his own congressional campaign, found the time to campaign for his old army comrade, Rutherford B. Hayes, who was then making a bid for the presidency. 

During Hayes’s tenure in the White House (1877-1881), the McKinleys were frequent guests, considered an honorary son and daughter-in-law to the Hayeses. Rutherford Hayes made sure to introduce his protege to key political contacts who would later help McKinley on his journey to the White House in 1897.  When Rutherford Hayes died in January of 1893, his funeral procession was led by William McKinley, then himself the governor of Ohio, along with President-Elect Grover Cleveland, also a veteran of the Civil War.[2]

The role of the military in shaping the characters and careers of various presidents is fertile territory, and as seen here, the Civil War unquestionably helped put both presidents on the path to political careers.

  1. Major McKinley: William McKinley and the Civil War, (Kent: State university Press, 2000) by William H. Armstrong, p. 46
  2.  James Garfield actually served as the chief of staff to Rosecrans, who had been the first colonel of the 23rd OH before being promoted to Brigadier General in the Regular Army.
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Nancy and Ronald Reagan at his Inaugural Ball, 1985: National Archives
February 7, 2021

Love in the White House

As Valentine’s Day approaches, we thought it would be fitting to explore how the White House has been the backdrop to various stages of love.

How Many Unmarried US Presidents Have There Been?

The only president who assumed office as a bachelor, and remained so, was James Buchanan. Buchanan served as the 15th President of the United States from 1857-1861. Having presided over the nation leading up to the Civil War, and failing to grasp the gravity and extent of the division facing the country, his political legacy and reputation are about as brutally depicted as his love life. For his own part, Buchanan bore his lot with good humor, lamenting on occasion his “hard fate with the ladies.” 

Which President Got Married In The White House?

Like Buchanan, Grover Cleveland entered the White House a bachelor in 1885, but he would not remain so for long. The following year, 49-year-old Cleveland married 21-year-old Frances Folsom in the White House. Though Cleveland was the second president to marry in office, Grover and Frances were the first – and to date, only – couple to marry in the White House. Francis became the 22nd First Lady, and the youngest in history. Cleveland had been law partners and very close friends with Francis’s father. In fact, Cleveland had bought the Folsoms a pram on the occasion of Frances’s birth. When Oscar Folsom died, Cleveland became the executor of his estate, and Francis, then 11, became Cleveland’s ward. Despite the age gap and nearly familial bonds between the two, the American public embraced the union, and the young and charming First Lady, in particular. 

Who Was The First President To Have Been Divorced?

When Ronald Reagan was elected the 40th President in 1984, he made history in two ways: at 69, he was the oldest president elected (Joe Biden most recently took the title, having just assumed the presidency at age 78), and he was the first divorced US president person to assume the office. Reagan did not enter the White House alone, though – far from it. Nancy Reagan, the First Lady, had been his wife for over 30 years. Nancy and Ronald were famously and enduringly in love. Despite the pressures of always being in the limelight (they were a Hollywood couple before), their love never wavered, and it’s been commonly said that they never stopped courting. Indeed, their marriage has been described as “the greatest love affair in the history of the American Presidency.”


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The Trumans on the Porch of Their Independence, Missouri Home. National Archives.
February 2, 2021

Harry and Bess Truman

Harry Truman fell in love with Bess Wallace when he was six years old and she was five. In high school, he excitedly recalled in his journal that he was “lucky enough to carry her books home.” Harry never loved another girl or woman, and didn’t even date anyone but Bess. Bess was more reserved about her feelings for Harry – initially, she didn’t appear to have any. Finally, in 1910, nine years after Harry and Bess graduated high school, Harry and Bess’s eight-year courtship began. Harry was at his cousins’ house across the road from where Bess lived. Bess’s mother, Madge, had given the Nolands a cake, and the plate needed to be returned. Harry’s grandmother slyly suggested that Harry be the one to return it. The rest, as they say, is history, with Bess finally agreeing to marry Harry (he had to ask twice) in 1918 just before he shipped off to France to fight in World War I. 

Although chocolates are customary for Valentine’s day, we decided to do some hands-on research and bake Bess’s famous brownies from a manuscript of her recipe which has been digitized for the public. Bess Truman, the 33rd First Lady of the United States, was known to be a woman of few words.  It’s no surprise, then, that her brownie recipe can be described as having a striking economy of words. Bess Truman shared many of her recipes for charity cookbooks or for interest pieces in newspapers. 

For our international readers, most American baking chocolate used to be packaged in one-ounce squares (some brands still maintain this practice). So four squares would be four ounces, or 113.5 grams, roughly. Nuts? Whatever you have on hand, and as for in or on, Bess does not specify, so you are left to do as you please. 

Bess Truman’s Brownie Recipe


2 cups sugar

1 cup butter

1 ½ cup flour

½ teaspoon salt

4 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

4 squares chocolate (melted)

1 cup chopped nuts


Cook at 350° for about forty minutes.

Read more about Truman and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including How Did Vaccines First Start, Napoleon in Jaffa, Archibald Butt and more!

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August 27, 2020

Harry Truman Post Presidency: Presidential Recollections

Harry Truman was “one tough son-of-a-bitch of a man,” according to General Harry Vaughan. Vaughan would know. He served alongside Truman in France during WWI and also in the White House. But Truman had a vulnerable side, too. These seven letters, which span the period between Truman’s final days as president in January 1953 and the domestic and international turmoil of the early 1960s, reveal an unknown personal side to Truman. The letters were all written to Dean Acheson, Truman’s trusted Secretary of State. The two developed a close friendship during their White House years, and maintained a regular correspondence during Truman’s post-presidential years. In May 1971, more than eighteen years and scores of letters later, Acheson wrote his final letter to Truman, wishing his friend a happy eighty-seventh birthday. Truman would pass away the following year.

The modest, straight-talking Harry Truman took on the “terrible responsibilities” of the presidency after Franklin Roosevelt’s death in April 1945. It was baptism by fire for Truman. He had to navigate the final months of WWII and make the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. After narrowly defeating Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election, Truman chose not to run for reelection in 1952. His approval rating was low and he withdrew his candidacy after losing the New Hampshire primary. Truman’s post-presidential years were marked by financial hardship, which inspired Congress to finally pass legislation to provide a pension for past presidents. Truman also faithfully campaigned for Democratic candidates.

These letters clearly communicate one element of Truman’s personal life – his love for history. He found great value in applying the lessons of the past to the problems of the present. He was an expert in presidential history, and referred to past presidents often in these letters. The writer and humorist Mark Twain is usually credited with the clever observation that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” These Truman letters illustrate the rhyming nature of history. They touch on topics – such as racial tension, conflict on the Korean Peninsula, sour relations with Russia, biased newspaper coverage, and partisan politics – that are still relevant today, though in different contexts.

Truman continually feuded with the Kansas City Star for its pro-Republican coverage and often derided columnists who wrote unflattering accounts of his presidency. He almost certainly would have used the phrase “fake news” if it was popular at the time. Instead, he went as far as to call many in the media “prostitutes of the mind,” in a famous letter from December 1955.

While bemoaning negative newspaper coverage, Truman, less than a year after leaving office in 1953, wrote of recent editorials that “if it weren’t tragic it would be the best comedy in history… I’ve read the press on Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Teddy R., Wilson and F.D.R. and there seems to me to be no parallel” In another letter, Truman reviews his presidency and compares himself to Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Grover Cleveland – presidents who took decisive action and employed the full power of the Executive to handle domestic and international crises. He also compliments his good friend Acheson for being an extraordinary secretary of state, and compares Acheson to Thomas Jefferson and William Seward, who served George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, respectively.

Harry Truman Memoirs

Truman wrote in his memoirs, “My debt to history is one which cannot be calculated. I know of no other motivation which so accounts for my awakening interest as a young lad in the principles of leadership and government.” With little formal education, Truman was self-taught from voracious reading: in 1962 he wrote to Acheson about his childhood experiences reading books from the library: “Our public library in Independence had about three or four thousand volumes, including the ten encyclopedias! Believe it or not I read ‘em all… Maybe I was a damphool [damn fool],” Truman noted, “but it served me well when my terrible trial came.”

Learn More About Harry Truman After His Presidency

Read more in this selection of post-presidential correspondence between Truman and Acheson, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Titanic Victims – Archibald Willingham Butt, Anne Frank Family Album at the Anne Frank Fonds, and George Cortelyou.

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Detail: President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1961. AP.
April 17, 2020

“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Most Americans know three of them by heart; short phrases that have come to define an age and a speaker. “Nothing to fear but fear itself” spoke Franklin D. Roosevelt, and “with malice toward none,” Lincoln said in his second inaugural address. John F. Kennedy, born just one year before the Great Influenza plague of 1918, uttered the third such phrase at his only inauguration, and it is, in popular memory: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

Today, Americans are hearing an echo of Kennedy’s words. They are being asked, once again, to do something for their country. Facing a deadly infectious disease sweeping the globe – one without, yet, a cure – medical personnel are being asked to leave their homes and travel to hotspots to help. Everyone else is being asked to not travel, and to help by simply staying put. It hardly sounds like a clarion cry, but edicts not to leave home, or engage with others – except masked, and at a distance – are in fact calls for patriotic sacrifice, poignant for a culture that so prizes personal freedom. If one does not live a normal life today, then others may live a normal life later. Mundanity and tedium are now the difference between life and death, for oneself and others; for a neighbor, and fellow citizens across the entire country. This terrible moment is felt by many, to be just a little akin to the days when JFK announced those most famous words. Read more here.

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Details, from left: Willie Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge Jr., Benny Pierce.
February 24, 2020

Tragedy in the White House: U.S. Presidents Who Lost Children

On February 24th, President Abraham Lincoln sent word to his wife Mary’s friend, Senator Charles Sumner, requesting his presence. Mary was inconsolable; only four days earlier, on February 20th, 1862, the Lincolns’ son, Willie Lincoln, age 11, passed away in the White House. The 24th was the day of Willie’s funeral.

While a surprising number of presidential families have suffered the loss of a child, those who went through this tragedy while serving in office is much smaller. This collection explores how presidents and their families endured this pain while serving the country, and after.

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Image: Zvi Hirsh Heller (aged 15) of Petach Tikva studied at the Hebron Yeshiva. He was a victim of the 1929 Hebron Massacre and died of his wounds in hospital in Jerusalem. Rechavam Zeevy, Wikimedia.
August 29, 2019

A Presidential Response to the 1929 Hebron Massacres

In August 1929, following inflammatory sermons and inciting rumors, pogroms were instigated in which Arabs slaughtered Jews in British Mandate Palestine. The Hebron Riots of 1929 – part of the Palestine Riots of 1929 – sent shock-waves around the world, and ended centuries of continued Jewish presence in Hebron. Americans were particularly aghast as newspapers reported that a number of those massacred were students from New York and Chicago. Americans campaigned for the government to intervene on behalf of the Jewish Americans and their property in Palestine.

This letter from President Herbert Hoover is in answer to one such missive, where he manages to respond, yet says very little.


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Council of Four at the WWI Paris peace conference, May 27, 1919. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Image: U.S. Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons.
June 28, 2019

Treaty of Versailles Centennial: June 28, 2019

Exactly 100 years ago today, on June 28, 1919, the Treaty of Versailles, the primary treaty which officially ended World War I, was signed by Germany and the Allies. President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in negotiating the treaty, as well as in conceiving of the League of Nations, the intergovernmental organization meant to maintain world peace. The United States Congress, which was growing increasingly isolationist, had no interest in ceding power to join the League of Nations, and ultimately refused to ratify the treaty. 

These two letters by Wilson, just a few years apart, are strikingly different in tone. In the first, Wilson is desperately mounting the campaign to garner Republican votes in favor of the treaty. In the second, an ailing former President Wilson, explains that he cannot read or speak too much of the war because he is “too much affected and upset by it.”

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December 31, 2018

The President’s Bodyguard: Mick McElkenny

Mick McElkenny was a bodyguard to JFK during the president’s visit to Ireland in 1963, just months before his assassination in Dallas, Texas. Mr. McElkenny is the subject of the documentary, “The President’s Bodyguard.”

“Mr McElkenny recalled a story JFK told about how life could have taken a very different path if his Irish ancestors had not set sail for America. ‘He told one about if his grandfather hadn’t left New Ross in Co Wexford that he would have been working over in the factory in New Ross,’ he laughed.” – Read more:

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Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.
September 2, 2018

The 2018 Mid-Term Elections: Where the Debates all Started

It is to be supposed that the 2018 mid-term elections will be fraught with controversy, and
some anguish. The recent past will be raked over; accusations lobbed; the word
“unprecedented” exhaled as commonly as breath. None of this, however, is new to American
elections. In 2016, so much candidate verbiage was expelled and expounded
in so many primary and general election debates, that any reasonable person might well have
assumed “Debate” was a weekly television series. Now, with the advent of the Labor Day
holiday, traditionally marking the “official” start of the campaign season, that live program,
after a two year hiatus, is back. But how it came to be made, and become as much a part of
the American election cycle as ballots themselves, is the story told here. It began, humbly, with
Abraham Lincoln.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates – In a Prelude, Lincoln Shadows Douglas Around Illinois

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U.S. President Ronald Reagan waves just before the attempted assassination on Monday, March 30, 1981. In raincoat is secret service agent Jerry Parr, who pushed Reagan into the limousine. Wikimedia Commons.
August 22, 2018

Jerry Parr: The Secret Service, Ronald Reagan, & More

At 2:35 pm on March 30, 1981, seventy days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan exited the presidential limousine, buttoned his suit jacket, walked 45 feet towards the George Washington Hospital Emergency Room, and promptly collapsed. Five minutes earlier, six shots had rung out, and unbeknownst to himself nor his security detail, one bullet had ricocheted off the limousine, flattening into a disc, and then entered Reagan’s chest as he had lifted his arms instinctively upon hearing the shots. The bullet had lodged itself in Reagan’s lung, less than an inch away from his heart, in the moment that the Special Agent in Charge threw him into the limousine. In the tumult after the shooting outside the Washington Hilton Hotel, the seemingly unscathed Reagan was set to head back to the White House. Yet within 80 seconds of the shooting, one man overrode that decision; making Reagan the fifth president to be shot and the only to survive it. That man’s name was Jerry Parr, and the story of his journey to becoming the head of the Secret Service and saving Ronald Reagan’s life is as cinematic as it was serendipitous.

Jerry Parr & The Secret Service

Jerry Parr’s interest in a career in the secret service was ignited, when, as a boy, he saw the 1939 film Code of the Secret Service several times. The nine-year-old Parr knew he wanted to be just like agent “Brass” Bancroft, played in the film by Ronald Reagan. Reagan called the film the “worst picture I ever made,” even remarking that “never had an egg of such dimensions been laid.”  Amazingly, forty-two years later, Parr, now Special Agent in Charge, would find himself saving the life of the man who had inspired that dream: the President of the United States.

Parr was born in 1930, and grew up during the Depression with an unemployed alcoholic father (who took him to the movies), and a life further interrupted by his mother’s subsequent two marriages to abusive men. Though born in Alabama, he spent most of his turbulent childhood in Florida, and after struggling through high school, Parr took a job with Florida Power and Light, becoming a lineman. This job was highly dangerous and required quick-thinking; Parr, who survived several near-death incidents on the job, served as pallbearer for eight of his colleagues.

Parr became the first member of his family to attend university when he moved to Nashville in 1959 and enrolled at Vanderbilt. It was the same year he married Carolyn Miller, who would later become a judge. By the time Parr graduated in 1962 with a degree in philosophy, he was a father. Later that year, a recruiter for the Secret Service came to town, and Parr, having experienced serious occupational hazards as a lineman, was undeterred by the risk involved in becoming an agent; at 32, he was the oldest rookie in his class.

Parr served in the Secret Service for twenty-three years, protecting presidents, vice presidents, and over fifty foreign heads of state. At the time of John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, Parr, fifty at the time, was Special Agent in Charge and Head of the White House Detail, and supervised over 100 agents a day. For some inexplicable reason, on March 30, 1981, Parr decided to ride with the president.

Jerry Parr Cause Of Death

During his tenure as Assistant Director of the Secret Service, Parr began a Master’s program in Pastoral Counseling, and eventually founded the Festival Church after his ordination in 1989. In his written statement of the assassination attack, Parr wrote “while I went in with a Democrat and out with a Republican, it didn’t make much difference to me—they were both Presidents of the United States.” In a twist of Reagan being Parr’s boyhood hero, written at the top of  Parr’s accounting of the Reagan assassination attempt, Reagan inscribed “Jerry Parr is my hero!” Parr died in October of 2015 of heart congestion in a hospice near his home.

Read more about presidents and other political figures, plus discover other great blogs from Shapell, including Rags To Riches Presidents, Has The US Ever Had A Woman President, Napoleon in Jaffa, and more!

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President Ulysses S. Grant. U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Wikimedia Commons.
August 14, 2018

The 150th Anniversary of Ulysses Grant’s 1868 Election Year

It’s hard to keep up these days with who is shouting what. Not gone entirely unnoticed, however, is the disquieting rise of an old contagion thought, in the United States at least, long extinct. Whether chanted in torch-lit marches, argued on college campuses, or broadcast by fringe candidates in local political races, antisemitism is back in the news.  That “It Could Happen Here”, and did, is the subject of this letter about the worst blemish in the life of the Union’s greatest commander. When, in an 1862 order, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered that all Jews living in Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi ,and parts of Southern Illinois, vacate, within 24-hours, their homes and businesses and leave, forever,  the area of his command, he promulgated the most sweeping, and shocking, anti-Jewish regulation in American history. Here, writing six years later – and eagerly pursuing the presidency – Grant sought to explain his notorious “Jew Order” to the man, in fact, who inspired it: his father.

Running for President, Ulysses S. Grant Tries to Lose the Antisemite Label Engendered to Him During the Civil War By His Infamous “Jew Order”

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January 16, 2017

Lincoln and the Jews – Book and Exhibition Reviews

Lincoln and the Jews: A History illustrates how President Abraham Lincoln – perhaps best known for his efforts in abolishing slavery – intended to secure equality and freedom for all Americans, including another growing minority group in Civil War-era America: the Jews. Read the reviews and discover the story at our online exhibition or purchase a copy of the book.


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May 29, 2013

JFK’s 1944 Flight Logbook

The man who, for an entire generation, embodied youth and vigor, would have been 96 this year. At 43, he had been the youngest man elected President; at 46, the youngest to die in office, assassinated. But Jack Kennedy never expected, one way or the other, to live long. In chronic pain, suffering a myriad of illnesses, he had received the last rites of his Church three times before he was 40 – and that wasn’t counting the near-fatal sinking of the legendary PT-109 in World War II. Perhaps that was why he lived so fearlessly, intensely, joyously – and fast. He wanted to do everything, and he did – all of it, well. He could even fly. This war-time flight logbook, virtually unseen, is thought to be the only proof of this hitherto-unknown fact. Lieutenant Kennedy, USNR, it is noted, soloed once – on his 27th birthday. He is not known to having piloted an aircraft ever again.

John F. Kennedy’s 1944 Flight Logbook

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