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
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 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 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 Europe’s starving. 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 14th 1901: McKinley dies
On this day in 1901, William McKinley died and Theodore Roosevelt succeeded him as President of the United States. McKinley died after being shot by Leon Czolgosz and developing gangrene from the wounds. As his family and friends gathered at his deathbed, Vice President Roosevelt was rushed to Buffalo. Upon McKinley’s death, Roosevelt took the oath of office at a friend’s house and thereby became President. He was only 42, and is still the youngest ever President. Roosevelt served two terms and remained President until 1909.
July 30th 1965: LBJ signs Social Security Act
On this day in 1965, US President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the 1965 Social Security Act into law, which established Medicare and Medicaid. Thus, health insurance in the US was extended to the elderly and the poor. The legislation was a key part of Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programme, which also included ground-breaking civil rights legislation. The signing ceremony took place in Independence, Missouri, and was attended by Harry S. Truman, who had tried to achieve a similar goal during his presidency.
June 1st 1812: Beginnings of War of 1812
On this day in 1812, the US President James Madison sent a message to Congress listing American grievances against the United Kingdom. This led to Congress issuing its first declaration of war, which began the War of 1812. The tensions between the two nations arose out of the Napoleonic Wars, with grievances including impressment of American sailors into the British Navy and the UK stopping American ships from trading. The US also feared a resurgence of British control over the fledgling nation. It was during this war that British troops set fire to many public buildings in Washington DC, including the White House and Capitol building. America’s victory inspired Francis Scott Key to write the national anthem ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.
April 14th 1865: Lincoln shot
On this day in 1865, the US President Abraham Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC while attending a performance of ‘Our American Cousin’. Lincoln died the next day. He was shot by Confederate sympathiser John Wilkes Booth who escaped but was later tracked down and killed. Lincoln is often considered one of the greatest American presidents for his pivotal role in leading the Union to victory during the American Civil War and ending the practice of slavery. Lincoln was the first President to be assassinated and his death was widely mourned across the nation.
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
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 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.
October 2nd 1919: Wilson’s stroke
On this day in 1919 the President of the United States Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke. Wilson became President in 1913 and during his tenure pushed several progressive reforms such as the Federal Reserve Act, 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. His stroke in October 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.
July 31st 1875: Andrew Johnson dies
On this day in 1875 Andrew Johnson died from a stroke in Tennessee. Vice-President Johnson became President on April 15th 1865 upon the death of Abraham Lincoln. Thus Johnson had to lead the country into the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Johnson is mostly remembered as the first President to be impeached, but he was acquitted by a single vote in the Senate. He left office in 1869, and has typically placed very low on historical rankings. He returned to the Senate in March 1875, and is the only President to have done so. Upon his death, he was buried with a copy of the Constitution with his body wrapped in an American flag.
July 2nd 1881: Garfield shot
On this day in 1881 the 20th President of the United States, James A. Garfield, was shot by Charles Guiteau. Garfield died from infection from the injuries he sustained on September 19th and was succeeded by his Vice-President Chester A. Arthur. Guiteau was an insane man with a grudge against the President, and shot him in Washington DC just four months into his presidency. Guiteau was hanged for the crime in June 1882. Garfield’s presidency only lasted 200 days, making his the second shortest presidency in American history after William Henry Harrison who was President for only 31 days.
May 8th 1884: Truman born
On this day in 1884, the future 33rd President of the United States Harry S. Truman was born. Truman served as Vice-President under Franklin D. Roosevelt and became President upon Roosevelt’s death in 1945. As President, Truman oversaw the end of World War Two and made the decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan. His other acts as President include passing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, issuing the Truman Doctrine to contain communism and overseeing the Korean War. Truman left the presidency in 1953 and died in 1972 aged 88.