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)
November 17th 1973: Nixon says “I am not a crook”
On this day in 1973, 40 years ago today, US President Richard M. Nixon told a group of Associated Press reporters during a televised question and answer session in Orlando, Florida that “I am not a crook”. This came in the context of the revelations about illegal activities by his administration in what came to be known as the Watergate scandal. It was named for the building complex which contained the Democratic National Committee headquarters which Nixon officials broke into to find out about their electoral strategies. By 1974, it became clear that Nixon had knowledge of the illegal activities, after the Supreme Court ordered he release tapes of his Oval Office coversations. He resigned in August in order to avoid almost certain impeachment.
"People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. I’ve earned everything I’ve got"
October 31st 1941: Mount Rushmore completed
On this day in 1941, after 14 years of construction, Mount Rushmore was completed. Mount Rushmore, which lies near Keystone in South Dakota, now bears the faces of four US Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The idea for the carving had been around for years before Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln were hired and the project received federal funding. The initial plans were for the entire torsos of the Presidents to be carved, as opposed to just their faces. Borglum even envisioned having a timeline of great events in US history running alongside the faces and a ‘Hall of Records’ in a chamber cut into the rock behind the faces. However, the project ran out of money leading to its early completion in October 1941. Mount Rushmore remains a major attraction in the United States, attracting millions of visitors every year.
October 11th 1884: Eleanor Roosevelt born
On this day in 1884 Eleanor Roosevelt was born in New York City. She married her cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1905. Eleanor was actively involved in her husband’s political career, and encouraged him to continue in politics after his partial paralysis from polio in 1921. Franklin was elected President of the United States in 1932 and served as President from 1933 until his death in 1945. Eleanor was a very active First Lady, openly campaigning for greater rights for women and African Americans. After FDR’s death, Eleanor was a US delegate to the United Nations, and chaired the UN Commission on Human Rights. In this capacity she oversaw the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 aged 78.
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.
November 18th 1886: Chester Arthur dies
On this day in 1886, the former President of the United States Chester A. Arthur died. Arthur became the 21st President in 1881 upon the assassination of President James A. Garfield. He served until 1885 and his tenure is best remembered for civil service reform tackling the corrupt ‘spoils system’ with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Arthur was suffering from declining health when he left office after the 1884 election, which he did not contest, was won by Democrat Grover Cleveland. He died the following year aged 57.
November 4th 1979: Iran hostage crisis begins
On this day in 1979, the Iran hostage crisis began when a group of Iranians invaded the US embassy in Tehran and took 90 hostages, including 53 Americans. The United States government under Democratic President Jimmy Carter attempted negotiations and when these broke down attempted a rescue in Operation Eagle Claw in 1980 which failed. The hostages were finally freed after the signing of the Algiers Accords just minutes after Republican Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in 1981.
October 14th 1912: Roosevelt shot
On this day in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was shot whilst making a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Roosevelt, who served as President from 1901 to 1909 was attempting to run for a third term for his Bull Moose Party. He lost the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson. He was shot by John Schrank, a mentally disturbed saloon keeper, who claimed he was told to kill Roosevelt by the ghost of former President William McKinley. When Schrank shot Roosevelt, the bullet lodged in his chest after hitting his eyeglass case and a copy of his speech he was carrying in his jacket. Roosevelt decided to continue the speech, as he could tell from the lack of blood when he coughed that the bullet had not pierced his lung. He spoke for ninety minutes after being shot. Doctors concluded the wound was not serious and the bullet remained in Roosevelt until his death.
"I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose."