October 15th 1860: Bedell’s letter to Lincoln
On this day in 1860 an eleven year old girl from Westfield, New York, wrote a famous letter to Republican candidate for President, Abraham Lincoln. In the letter the young girl suggested the candidate grow a beard as "all the ladies like whiskers" and it would improve the appearance of his thin face. She also tells Lincoln that she hopes he wins the election and "if I was a man I would vote for you to but I will try to get every one to vote for you that I can". Lincoln, then an Illinois Senator, replied to Bedell on the 19th, expressing his concern that people will consider it a "piece of silly affection" if he grows a beard now. However he took Bedell’s advice to heart and in the last weeks of the campaign Lincoln grew his now iconic beard. On February 16th, when Lincoln was on his way to the White House for his inauguration after having won the election, the train stopped in Westfield. While there, Lincoln called out for Grace and he greeted her as she came forward, showing her that he had taken her advice. Lincoln’s story from that moment on is well known - he led the Union to victory over the seceded Southern states during the Civil War and pushed for the emancipation of America’s slaves, before being assassinated in 1865. Bedell wrote another letter to Lincoln when she was fifteen, after her family had fallen on hard times, asking for help in getting a job with the Treasury, but this time the President did not reply. She later married a veteran Civil War sergeant and moved to Kansas where she raised a family. Grace Bedell died in 1936 just before her 88th birthday.
“‘He climbed down and sat down with me on the edge of the station platform,’” she recalled. ‘Gracie,’ he said, ‘look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.’ Then he kissed me. I never saw him again.”
- Grace’s account of when she met Lincoln in 1861
October 2nd 1919: Wilson’s stroke
On this day in 1919 the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke at the White House. Wilson became President in 1913 and during his tenure pushed several progressive reforms through Congress, including the Federal Reserve Act, and laws curtailing child labor and pushing for female suffrage. However, despite being considered a liberal Democrat in his day, Wilson held deeply racist views and implemented segregation. Wilson also oversaw America’s role in the First World War and at the end of the war advocated for the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, which Congress later rejected. It was his frenzied effort to win public support for the Versailles Treaty that led him to travel extensively promoting the treaty, and the exhaustion of this caused the stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side and blind in his left eye. His wife and his chief of staff essentially took over the office after this, and arranged as few meetings as possible with the President and fake interviews in order to hide the severity of his condition. The Republicans won by a landslide in 1920 and Wilson left office. He died on February 3rd 1924 aged 67, and only after his death did the public learn the full extent of his incapacity.
September 8th 1974: Ford pardons Nixon
On this day in 1974, US President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor Richard Nixon for any crimes he may have committed during his presidency. This came after Nixon’s resignation over his administration’s involvement in illegal activities, including wiretapping, the cumulative revelations of which became known as the Watergate scandal. Ford, Nixon’s Vice-President, became President on August 9th upon Nixon’s resignation, which was a first of its kind for a President of the United States. Now President Ford pardoned Nixon in order to help the nation move on from the shameful events of Watergate, but the decision was controversial as many wanted Nixon to be made accountable. Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, and has the distinction of never being elected as either Vice-President or President.
40 years ago today
August 9th 1974: Nixon resigns
On this day in 1974 at noon, Richard M. Nixon became the first and only President of the United States to resign from office. He was replaced by his Vice-President Gerald Ford, who remains the only President to have never been elected Vice-President (as he was appointed in 1973 to replace Spiro Agnew), or President (as he lost his presidential re-election bid in 1976 to Jimmy Carter). Richard Nixon resigned due to the revelations of the Watergate scandal that his administration had been involved in illegal activities, which included breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, covering up said break-in, and widespread wiretapping. He long denied direct knowledge of these activities, but after the Supreme Court forced him to hand over the tapes of his conversations in the Oval Office, Nixon’s involvement was clear. What was also made evident by the tapes was Nixon’s intense paranoia, his rough demeanor and his often racist attitudes. He resigned rather than face impeachment and almost certain removal by Congress. He was later pardoned for his crimes by Ford, who hoped his decision would help America heal and move on. 40 years on, Richard Nixon is mainly remembered for the corruption and dishonesty of Watergate, which discredited the presidency for many years after. However, his numerous achievements in office must not be forgotten: he cooled down the Cold War with his policy of détente and was the first President to visit China and Moscow; withdrew American troops from Vietnam; supported affirmative action policies; established the Environmental Protection Agency; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; and oversaw major desegregation of schools. Nixon is rightfully remembered for his role in Watergate and his unprecedented resignation in disgrace but we must be wary of only seeing one side of one of the most controversial figures of American history.
40 years ago today
July 23rd 1885: Ulysses S. Grant dies
On this day in 1885, former Civil War general and 18th President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant died. He became a national icon after he led the Union to victory over Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces in the Civil War and secured Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. He became President in 1869, and enforced Reconstruction and civil rights laws. However, his presidency was marred by stories of his alcoholism and corruption in his administration. He left the office in 1877, and launched an unsuccessful bid for a third term in 1880. In 1885 he died of throat cancer at the age of 63 and his body lay in state.
"I hope that nobody will be distressed on my account."
- Grant’s last words
April 30th 1789: Washington inaugurated
On this day in 1789 the leading general of the War of Independence and one of the framers of the Constitution, George Washington, was inaugurated first President of the United States on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York City. He was unanimously chosen President by the Electoral College and the runner-up, John Adams, became Vice President. At his inauguration, Washington set the first of many precedents in making an inaugural address. In office, he created a stable and strong national government with a cabinet system and ensured neutrality in the European wars. Washington was re-elected in 1792 but stepped down after two terms, thus setting the precedent that Presidents usually served two terms (this became part of the Constitution with the 22nd Amendment in 1951). Washington is still considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, President in history for his systematic, effective and thoughtful leadership.
"Long live George Washington, President of the United States!"
- New York Chancellor Livingston upon swearing in the President
February 12th 1914: Lincoln Memorial groundbreaking
On this day in 1914 in Washington DC work officially began on the Lincoln Memorial. There had been many attempts by Congress to build a monument to the 16th President, and in 1910 a bill passed the Senate. On February 12th 1914, the 105th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the groundbreaking ceremony took place. The next year on the same day the cornerstone was laid. The memorial was completed in 1922, featuring a statue of Lincoln and inscriptions of his famous Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. The Memorial is now an iconic tribute to one of America’s greatest Presidents, and has been the site of numerous speeches, such as Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
"IN THIS TEMPLE
AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE
FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION
THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN
IS ENSHRINED FOREVER”
100 years ago today
January 6th 1853: Franklin Pierce’s train accident
On this day in 1853, the President-elect of the United States Franklin Pierce and his family were involved in a train accident in Massachusetts. Pierce and his wife saw their young son Benjamin decapitated before their eyes and both subsequently sank into deep depression. Benjamin was the couple’s last surviving child, the rest had died young. Pierce’s depression over his son’s death and the distance it had created between him and his wife severely affected his performance as President. The 14th President is commonly regarded as one of the worst in US history, especially due to his failure to deal effectively with the slavery issue which would, in a few years, divide the nation in two during the Civil War.
"How I long to see you and say something to you as if you were as you always have been (until these last three dreadful weeks) near me. Oh! How precious do those days now seem, my darling boy - and how I should have praised the days passed with you had I suspected they might be so short"
- extract from one of Jane Pierce’s letters to her late son (see picture)
October 5th 1947: First televised White House address
On this day in 1947, US President Harry S. Truman gave the first televised address from the White House. He and his cabinet used the address to ask Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry and eggs on Thursdays to stockpile food for starving people in postwar Europe. At this time there were only around 44,000 TV sets in American homes. The speech was the first of the now regular presidential addresses on television.
September 26th 1960: First televised debate
On this day in 1960 the first televised debate took place in Chicago between US presidential candidates Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. The debate drew an audience of 66 million viewers and is one of the most widely watched broadcasts in US history. The debate arguably determined the outcome of the election, and signified a shift to more image-centred politics. Radio listeners thought the Republican Nixon had won the debate on the substance of his arguments, but television viewers believed it to be the young, attractive Democrat Kennedy, rather than the sweaty and uncomfortable Nixon. Kennedy went on to win the 1960 election and televised debates are now a central part of presidential campaigns.
September 6th 1901: President McKinley shot
On this day in 1901, US President William McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The President died from gangrene which developed from the bullet wounds on September 14th and was succeeded by his Vice-President, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt was only 42 when he became President, making him the youngest man to assume the office. McKinley was reluctant to accept security protection, and after his assassination Congress officially charged the Secret Service with the duty of protecting the President.
"We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours."
- McKinley’s last words
August 2nd 1964: Gulf of Tonkin incident
On this day in 1964, North Vietnamese gunboats allegedly fired on US destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin. The incident was used by the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson to show the aggression of the North Vietnamese communists. Congress then passed the Gulf of Tonkin Joint Resolution which authorised the President to intervene in Vietnam to counter “communist aggression”. Thus, Johnson was authorised to send troops into Vietnam to fight the communist North and help the South. There was no formal declaration of war by Congress. It was later confirmed that the USS Maddox in fact fired first on the North Vietnamese.
May 26th 1868: President Johnson acquitted
On this day in 1868 President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial ended, finding him not guilty by one vote. Johnson became President in 1865 after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and was thus in power during the crucial stage of Reconstruction after the Civil War. However, Johnson did little to support the newly emancipated slaves, and opposed measures like the Fourteenth Amendment which granted them citizenship. A Tennesseean, chosen as Lincoln’s running-mate to give the impression of national unity, Johnson was more sympathetic to the former Confederate states than a Northern counterpart may have been. The unpopular President was impeached in February by the House of Representatives, with the main charge being that he violated the Tenure of Office Act by attempting to remove Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. Johnson was then put on trial in the Senate, with Chief Justice Salmon Chase presiding. He was tried by two articles of impeachment, and both fell short - by just one vote - of the required two thirds majority needed to find him guilty and remove him from office. Whilst Congress gave specific reasons for the impeachment, many still consider the affair a mostly political retaliation by Radical Republicans against the President’s Reconstruction policies. Johnson and Bill Clinton in 1998 remain the only two Presidents to have been impeached.
April 24th 1980: Operation Eagle Claw
On this day in 1980, the American military operation named Operation Eagle Claw to try to end the Iran Hostage Crisis was launched. 52 Americans had been taken hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 and the operation was intended to save the captives by sending helicopters into Iran. However many of the helicopters were damaged and some crashed, killing 8 servicemen. When the scale of the catastrophe became apparent, President Carter aborted the mission. Upon discovery of the attempt, the hostages were scattered across Iran to make a second rescue attempt impossible. The debacle was humiliating for the Carter administration and contributed to Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan. The hostages were eventually released after extensive diplomatic negotiations on January 20th 1981, Carter’s last day in office.
January 20th 1981: Reagan inaugurated and hostages freed
On this day in 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States. 20 minutes into his presidency, 52 American hostages held in Iran were freed. The Iran hostage crisis began in 1979 when 52 Americans were taken hostage by Iranian Islamists who took over the American Embassy in Tehran. Reagan’s predecessor Jimmy Carter tried to negotiate, then launched the disastrous Operation Eagle Claw to rescue them. They were finally released the day Carter left office.