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.
February 17th 1801: Jefferson elected President
On this day in 1801, the disputed 1800 presidential election was resolved when the House of Representatives elected Thomas Jefferson President of the United States and Aaron Burr as Vice-President. The pair had won the most votes in the Electoral College, defeating John Adams and his running mate Charles Pinckney, but as they did not have a majority the decision came to the House. After Jefferson was elected, he took the oath of office on March 4th 1801.
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.
April 4th 1841: President Harrison dies
On this day in 1841, the 9th President of the United States William Henry Harrison died in office. Harrison’s time in office was the shortest of any US President, serving only 32 days. He died of complications from pneumonia which he supposedly caught at his inauguration, held in the middle of winter, as he did not want to look old and so refused to wear a coat. Harrison was the oldest President to take office, aged 68, until Ronald Reagan in 1981. He was succeeded upon his death by his Vice-President John Tyler.