Tag Archives: #PresidentialHistory

President Cyrus

Cyrys

In the process of choosing who should be the next president of the United States, each individual voter must decide what is most important to him or her. For some, the most important factor will be how much a candidate is committed to addressing problems in the area of civil rights, such as restrictions on voter access and the policing of African-American neighborhoods. For some, the most pressing issue of 2016 will be what should be done to address income inequality. For some, the only issue will be the legality and availability of abortions. This is especially true in light of the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia who president Barack Obama will surely replace with someone who does not wish to overturn Roe v. Wade (1973). For some, the main factor will be a candidate’s view on the role of the United States in the wider world. Are we to remain an active player on the international stage? Should we draw back and not get involved in the kinds of foreign entanglements our first president, George Washington, warned of in his farewell address in 1796? For some, the main concern will be the nation’s borders and the status of undocumented immigrants. The available options run the gamut from a path to citizenship all the way to mass deportations and building a wall on the Mexican-American border. For some, the possibility of setting a new historical precedent will be of paramount importance. In 2016, it might be possible to elect the first female president, the first Latino president, or the first Jewish president. Finally, for a sizable portion of the Republican electorate, the most important deciding factor will be the religious convictions of a candidate and his or her willingness to govern accordingly. It is the considerations of this particular group that we will examine in this edition of the History Rhyme. We will look at the arguments that are being presented for the available candidates and then turn our gaze to the past to look for any possible correlations between the piety (or lack thereof) of a president and his (so far) effectiveness in office.

In the months, weeks, and days leading up the Iowa Caucuses, the people of the Hawkeye state were barraged with a steady volley of filers, billboards, robocalls, and commercials stating that one particular Republican or another was the most “godly” choice for America. The top recipients of such lofty praise were Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Dr. Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. Although evangelical voters are not the only group in the Iowa Republican Party, they are a sizable and enthusiastic one – comprising 64% of 2016 caucus attendees. With such a crowded field of candidates seeking the conservative Christian vote, the endorsements of influential leaders such as radio talk show host Steve Deace, political activist Bob Vander Plaats (who was featured in an earlier History Rhyme – “The Will of the People”), and Representative Steve King, were highly treasured. In the end, all three men endorsed Ted Cruz and their support most likely played a role in the Texas senator’s victory on February 1, 2016.

Despite all of the weighty endorsement Ted Cruz received in Iowa, CNN’s Iowa Caucus exit polling showed that Cruz only received 34% of the evangelical vote. Gaining a plurality instead of a majority of this group’s votes should not be surprising in such a crowded field. The next highest vote total among evangelical candidate was for Ben Carson with only 12%. The striking result of this poll was that Dr. Carson received only the fourth highest percentage from conservative Christians. The second (225) and third (21%) most popular candidates with evangelicals were Donald Trump and Marco Rubio. While Senator Rubio emphasizes his religious convictions and does get some credit for that, this one-time Tea Party darling is considered more of a mainstream Republican choice now. Trump has demonstrated that he does not have a thorough knowledge of the bible but that does not seem to matter with some evangelicals. In fact, he won the evangelical vote in South Carolina. What is gong on?

If the twentieth-century American social psychologist Leon Festinger (1919-89) were still alive today, he would describe the fascinating rise in support of Donald Trump as a prime case of cognitive dissonance. This phenomenon, which Merriam-Webster defines as “psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes,” helps us to at least understand what is going on. However, it does not helps us to divine how those caught up in it are rationalizing their choices. One of the most interesting explanations this History Rhymer has encountered is that God sometimes uses ungodly men to help his people. In November 2015, Christian speaker and teacher Lance Wallnau deemed Donald Trump to be just such a man. In a video message to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, Wallnau stated that “God has given this man an anointing for the mantle of government in the United States and he will prosper.” The basis for this belief is Isaiah 45:1, which Wallnau says will predict who will be the 45th president:

“This is what the Lord says to his anointed,

to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of

to subdue nations before him and to strip kings of their armor,

to open doors before him

so that gates will not be shut.”

For those who are not familiar with this verse of prophesy or its significance in the bible, let me offer a quick summary. Isaiah’s prophecy predicted that God would bring forth a pagan ruler who would help the Jewish people in their hour of greatest need. According to biblical scholars, this occurred 150 years later when Cyrus the Great (who ruled the Achaemenid Empire but is sometimes labeled simply as a “Persian” king) defeated the Babylonian empire around 539 BC. Among those who were suddenly under Cyrus’ rule were the Jewish people, who the Babylonians sent into exile after they defeated Judea in 586 BC. In the book of Ezra, Cyrus later actively supported the efforts of Ezra and Zerubbabel to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem by using the royal treasury to pay for building expenses. The temple had been in ruins since the sacking of Jerusalem. This had caused an existential crisis for the Jewish people since they were directed by God to offer sacrifices at the temple (in the seventeenth chapter of Leviticus).

Whether or not Donald Trump is being used by God to help evangelical Americans is a topic that none will be able to answer definitively. In any case, this blog is not about predicting the future or making theological judgments. It is all about looking at the present through the lens of the past. With that in mind, this month’s History Rhyme will take a brief look at how the United States has fared at times when it had especially religious leaders and how it did when its leaders were not especially religious. According to David Masci, who is a senior writer and editor focusing on religion at the Pew Research Center, almost all presidents of the United States have been avowed Christians. The largest number of presidents (11) were self-avowed Episcopalians. Yet, four of these – George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Tyler – were most likely actually Diests who did not believe in an active God. Instead, these men saw God as a cosmic clock maker who set the universe in motion and then left it alone. This is in direct opposition to the picture of God actively hearing and responding to prayers – even prayers for a particular candidate winning an election. Another sizable group of presidents (John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Filmore, and William Howard Taft) were Unitarians who denied the existence of the Trinity. This would certainly be seen as heretical to modern conservative Christians.

What is especially interesting in Mr. Masci’s list of presidential religious affiliation is that two presidents had no Christian affiliations – Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Although Jefferson referred to a “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln made references to God on several occasions, it would be a stretch to say that either of these men’s views on religious would satisfy a modern evangelical voter’s desire for a godly leader. Yet, these two men are always listed at the pinnacle of what we consider great American presidents. Perhaps these two men would also be seen by Lance Wallnau as having had the “Cyrus anointing” and thus were great in spite of their lack of overt piety.

While all but two presidents avowed a Christian affiliation, we know that not all of these men were equally religious. Some, like Andrew Jackson, were far from the epitome of Christian kindness. However, there have been a few who have been generally regarded as particularly devoted men. For the sake of this article, I will use a short list created by J. J. Feinauer of the Deseret News of who he felt were the most religious – James Garfield, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush. Since James Garfield’s term in office was especially brief due to his assassination, we cannot say if his great piety would have helped him to be a great ruler or not. As far as the other two, their times in office were far from stellar. Carter came into office trying to demonstrate a humility and honesty that was in stark contrast to the behavior displayed by president Richard Nixon and his associates. Yet, his presidency is generally regarded as a failure (although he has been called a great ex-president by the New York Times in 2015).

Bush was another president why was not shy about how his Christian views affected his presidency and the justness of this actions but whose time in office was not one of the smoothest in the nation’s history. This is not to say that these men were the worst presidents ever. However, they certainly were not the most successful. Perhaps this was due to the times in which they ruled. Perhaps it was due to the interaction between their faith and the choices they had to make to rule. It is most likely that the intersection of many such factors played roles. I will leave the final decision on the cause of each man’s success or failure to you.

Should a person vote with their heart, or their head, or perhaps even their soul? These are questions that have to be left up to each individual voter. Should an evangelical voter choose a candidate that best matches their personal religious convictions or should they accept someone who may be more of a modern Cyrus who seems to have the best chance to defeat political enemies? Looking at the past, we can see that great Christian piety does not necessarily lead to great leadership. Then again, deficiencies in moral character (e.g. the paranoia of Richard Nixon or the extreme racism of Woodrow Wilson) can have their own drawbacks too. Which way will America go and what will be the result of that choice? Will we have a modern-day president Cyrus taking the oath of office on Friday, January 20, 2017? We shall see and let future historians decide the wisdom and repercussions of such a choice.

By All Appearances

Rubio Boots

On January 3, 2016, several candidates criss-crossed the small state of New Hampshire in an effort to gain enough supporters to win the crucial early February primary. These men and women discussed issues that were important to them, their party, and (from their perspective) the entire country. What this select group of Americans said that day may have convinced some to change their support from one candidate to another. Perhaps those new converts may then have persuaded others to vote for their new favorite. It is entirely possible that this day might have been seen by future historians as one that changed American history. After all, those standing before the various crowds that day were seeking the most powerful job in the world – the presidency of the United States. Yet, in this increasingly absurd election season, it is unlikely that anything said that Sunday will be remembered. Instead, the most important event of that day was Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida deciding to wear a pair of nice boots. In this edition of the History Rhyme, we will briefly look at the great distraction of “boot-gate” that followed and then at the evolution of what voters (especially Republican ones) see as the preferred appearance for their leader. We will then look back into twentieth century presidential history to see how our perceptions of the person holding such an important office have changed.

In a crowded presidential field (especially one that includes billionaire businessman Donald Trump), gaining the attention of the public can be difficult. This can be especially frustrating if you are someone who is struggling in the polls despite tremendous name recognition, numerous endorsements, and a huge campaign war chest. Such a man is former Florida governor Jeb Bush who, despite all his advantages, has fallen from “the clear Republican presidential frontrunner” at the end of 2014 to almost a political afterthought now. So, when Senator Rubio’s heeled boots were the object of ridicule on Twitter and by fellow Republican candidates such as Tennessee Senator Rand Paul and by former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Governor Bush’s supporters (via the Right To Rise political action committee) saw their chance to attack the man who was Bush’s main rival for the “establishment” Republican vote. What ensued was one of the more creative and biting uses of satire I have seen in a while – a karaoke-style music video titled “Boots.” In the ad, which was available mainly via YouTube, attacks inconsistencies in Senator Rubio’s positions on various issues by showing someone dancing in boots similar to those of “young Marco” as a woman sings “these boots were made for flipping.” Although such a tactic does not seem to have helped Governor Bush much in New Hampshire polls, it has forced Senator Rubio to endure ribbing about his boots when he is a guest on shows like the Tonight Show.

Even though the political ad and the jokes by people like Jimmy Fallon have been clever and entertaining, we and future historians must ask: “what does this all mean?” Should we shake our heads at the absurdity of one man’s footwear becoming ever-so-briefly the most important political story in our 24-hour news cycle? What was wrong with a man wearing a pair of black boots with a heel? In a speech only a few days after his boots become so notorious, Senator Rubio expressed a view that is likely shared by those who shake their heads at our times when he said:

“Let me get this right. ISIS is cutting people’s heads off, setting people on fire in cages, Saudi Arabia and Iran of the verge of a war, the Chinese are landing airplanes on islands that they built and say belong to them in what are international waters and in some ways territorial waters, our economy is flat-lined, the stock market is falling apart, but boy are we getting a log of coverage about a pair of boots. This is craziness. People, have they lost their minds?”

Have we lost our minds? Is such interest in a candidates footwear something peculiarly odd to our modern world? For anyone who has followed this blog, this should seem like a great time to look back and see what a little perspective tells us about our interest in Rubio’s shoes.

Why did the image of a well-dressed, attractive man running for president cause such rancor in the conservative world? Is it that he is wearing boots? Is it that the boots have a heel? Is it because he was dressed nicely? That all depends on the eye of the beholder. As David Levy notes in his article “Dress Code for Men In Politics,” there are several potential audiences for a candidate who needs to be wearing the correct attire for that situation. However, when a candidate’s appearance is taken out of context (as in the case we are discussing), the specter of a well-known American actor from the twentieth century molds the conservative view of how a man running for president should look. No, that person is not Ronald Reagan. He was merely a reflection of the image of rugged American masculinity that was the famous American actor John Wayne. If you are old enough to remember the “Duke,” you probably have an image of him wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat. As Adam Howard noted in a January 20, 2016 story “Why John Wayne Remains An Icon of the Right,” the persona of this famous actor:

“… has come to represent so many facets of the American aesthetic that conservative voters find appealing. He is fondly remembered by fans as a “man’s man,” a hyper-masculine figure whose characters often had a contempt for due process, a kind of grim embrace of isolationism, a staunch preference for established gender roles, and some profound cultural insensitivity (to put it kindly) when it came to issues of race.”

The short answer to why Marco Rubio faced such ribbing for his boots is that he did not pass the “Duke” test. He did not fit the popular image of John Wayne and thus (by extension) did not meet the image of the politician who best co-opted the John Wayne look – Ronald Reagan.

My grandfather John was an age-mate to both John Wayne and Ronald Reagan. His appearance and theirs are linked in my memory. My grandfather was an intelligent yet uneducated working man (entered the coal mines at age 12) who loved reading Louis L’Amour novels, wearing cowboy boots, fishing, and smoking Marlboros. So, regardless of my political leanings, I can relate to why such an image would appeal to voters who are looking for traditional values in a complicated world. It also helps me to understand why Republican candidates are often seen across Iowa these days with rolled up sleeves, flannel shirts, and occasionally sporting orange hunting gear. Sometimes these efforts help a candidate connect with the people. Sometimes it makes the candidate a target for derision. Yet, this attempt to dress down to the common denominator was not always required for political success. Richard Nixon was more popular than our post-Watergate brains can appreciate and he was anything but casual. Prior to then, being well-dressed and having good shoes was not a hindrance for any aspiring candidate. Harry Truman may have been erasable and perhaps not always the best judge of when to keep his opinions to himself, but he was an impeccably well-dressed and had an amazing shoe collection. Yet, despite his stylish wardrobe, President Truman was not perceived as an elitist.

We are in a world where candidates for president are judged on many aspects – personality, policy, personal history, their voice, and their appearance. While some of these qualities are timeless (e.g. controversy is bad and likability is good), others can vary over time. In this current political season, there are so many candidates with very similar positions and thus any minor distinctions can make a huge difference. So, it is not surprising that Marco Rubio’s opponents jumped at the chance to mock him for wearing a pair of boots that were not within the current standard for Republican masculinity. He was no John Wayne. However, as we know from our past, such an image has not always been so powerful. Perhaps, as those who remember the Duke and Ronald Reagan are replaced by a new generation of Americans who like Senator Rubio’s choice of footwear, the definition of acceptable attire will change. Only time will tell.

From Chuck To Gil

In the world of psychology and literature, stream of consciousness is a technique used to convey the flowing and perhaps even rambling way that our minds connect thoughts and past experiences. The same technique can be applied to the world of history. As this blogger has expressed on numerous occasions, the events of today can be seen as reflections of past events. In effect, it is a stream of history. For those who are unaware of past events, the echoes or rhymes are not discernible – leaving such people bereft of the instructive possibilities of the past. For those who are aware of past events, the possible connections between events can be diffuse and sometimes surprising. This month’s History Rhyme will attempt to take you into this blogger’s mind the see how the current change of power in the United States Senate can be tied to the songs of an (unfortunately) obscure poet/singer from the 1970s, whose topics and observations are still very relevant to today.

We begin our journey with a February 2, 2015 article by Lauren Fox in the National Journal entitled “This Is How Justice Reform Can Actually Happen This Year.” A regular reader of this blog may have noticed that I live in the state of Iowa and have commented about Iowa political figures from time-to-time (e.g. “The First of Many,” “The Right Thing To Do” & “The Will of the People”). So, the fact that my senior senator is now the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee naturally caught my attention. Despite the optimistic title, the article notes that Senator Charles “Chuck” Grassley is not in line with the current ideas of his party in regards to criminal sentencing laws. The Republican Party is moving away from its stronger “tough on crime” views. Despite the fact that American prisons are bursting with people serving long sentences for minor drug crimes (up to 42% of the federal prison population) and who are disproportionately black males, Grassley still is a strong adherent to the traditional Republican view that a touch stance on crime is needed and stated in May 2014 that “current mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role in reducing crime.”

The story of my senator opposing reduction on mandatory sentences started the river of thoughts flowing in my mind which led me to remember how in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy were strongly advocating a “war on drugs” from which many of the sentencing guidelines mentioned above spawned. As I do often when a topic makes a link to a memory, I went online to see if my mind remembered things correctly or whether I might have (to quote Roger Clemens) “mis-remembered” what happened. My search led me to an earlier “war” by an American president about which I had previously known very little – Richard Nixon’s “war on crime.” Considering what we now know of Nixon and his tendency to skirt the rules (to put it mildly), this interest in crime seems ironic since he was later pardoned for all crimes by President Gerald Ford on September 8, 1974. However, in the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s, crime was a very important issue that helped him become president and for the Republican party to emerge triumphant in that multitudinous era.

Examining the policies and speeches of President Nixon on the issues of crime and his later pardon, drew my mind to a spoken introduction to a 1975 song entitled “We Beg Your Pardon (Pardon Our Analysis)” by the poet/singer Gil Scott-Heron.i In this song, Scott-Heron expresses his disgust for the way that Nixon was pardoned while many poor, black men were going to prison for minor offenses with no hope of pardon when he says: “We beg your pardon America. Somebody said ‘brother-man gonna break a window, gonna steal a hubcap, gonna smoke a joint, brother man gonna go to jail.’ The man who tried to steal America is not in jail. Get caught with a nickel bag brother-man, get caught with a nickel bag, sister-lady on your way to get your hair fixed. You’ll do Big Ben, and Big Ben is time. But the man who tried to fix America will not do time.”

The connection of the pardon of Nixon and the song by Gil Scott-Heron leads us to the final stop on the journey through my thoughts. It is with an effort to help more people to become familiar with more of Scott-Heron’s songs (most in collaboration with flutist Brian Jackson). He has been somewhat forgotten as time as passed and I think that is a loss for those who want their music to have some social relevance. His songs covered a wide variety of topics that are remarkably relevant to today. Besides “We Beg Your Pardon,” songs like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Winter In America,” and “Home Is Where The Hatred Is” deal with racial problems. Topics like materialism, illegal immigration, and substance abuse are covered in the songs “Madison Avenue,” “Alien (Hold On To Your Dream), ” and “The Bottle.” The only major way his songs diverge from the activist perspective of today (which I confess still has me puzzled) is that he was strongly opposed to nuclear power while more and more in the modern environmental movement seem to have come to terms with the problems of nuclear power. Examples of songs expressing his views on the topic are “Shut ‘Um Down” and his excellent telling of the time in 1966 when “We Almost Lost Detroit.” Unfortunately, Scott-Heron was eventually a victim of substance abuse too and it shortened his career and, in 2011, his life. Hopefully after reading this month’s blog, you too might help him to be remembered and appreciated by future Americans who are looking for music with a meaning.

———————

i The topic of presidential pardons (other than the Nixon’s) was discussed in a previous History Rhyme (“A Christmas Gift”).

Eternal Vigilance

jefferson_portrait-P

In 1809, Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” This sentiment – expressed by a man who understood first-hand the highs and lows of the struggles for liberty – is one that would ring familiar in the ears of those living in the country he helped to establish. The world is certainly not a peaceful place and many across the globe view the United States as a symbol of the evils of that world (in a variety of guises – material, cultural, environmental, military…). In the years since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a marked and growing distrust by the American government and some of its citizens for those around the world who do not appear to share the “American” world view (even though that is a very fluid term even in the best of times). An important aspect of the fear is a belief that the United States is not as secure as it should and that some of this may be due to the presence of agents and traitors. A recent example is the assertion by a former CIA operative that President Obama’s loyalties are not where they should. Of course, a charge that important or influential people in the American government are working against their nation is not new. In this edition of The History Rhyme, we will present the current assertions about President Obama and his supporters and then will look back into America’s past – even before the time of Jefferson’s quote – to see what the rhyming events for our current situation tell us about our current predicament.

In the August 28, 2014 edition of WND.com – a conservative online news website that was founded in 1997 – a story by Garth Kant appeared with the provocative title – “Ex-CIA expert: Obama switched sides in war on terror.” On the same day, a summary of the article by Vicky Nissen with the more-provocative title “Ex-CIA employee admits President Obama is a radical Islamic enemy of America” appeared in another online news source called Examiner.com. These articles detail the opinions of a former CIA operative named Clare Lopez – assertions that the author of the WND articles states “a few members of Congress have confided to WND in private, but declined to say on-the-record. Lopez declares that the president and other officials like CIA Director John Brennan (who she calls a secret convert to Islam) have had essentially the same goals in the Middle East as Osama bin Laden, namely “to remove American power and influence, including military forces, from Islamic lands.” As an aside, she “mused” (the term used in the WND story) that the only reason who Obama finally had din Laden killed was that he “couldn’t delay any longer” and that he “thought it might look good” to let the special forces kill him. Another accusation in the story is that the Obama administration helped during the “Arab Spring” of 2010 to “bring down the secular Muslim rulers who did not enforce Islamic law.” To show that the actions of the Obama administration were not a whimsical change of view – but rather a deeper plot by America’s enemies – Lopez contends that the American government was being infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood as early as the Clinton administration and that the presence of these agents confused President Bush into believing that Islam was a “religion of peace” after the 9/11 attacks. Lopez’s final conclusion is that “for whatever motivations, there is no doubt this administration switched sides in what used to be called the Global War on Terror.”

What should we make of these charges? Are they true or just the partisan rantings of someone whose distrust of those unlike her has affected her judgment. In our increasingly partisan and media driven world, it has become harder and harder to find a view that is as free of partisan biases. In a world that often lacks a historical perspective, it is also easy to think that we have reached new depths of distrust of those living among us. In this same world, it is also tempting to assume there has never been a time that a president or his associates were accused of involvement in the kinds of activities that require Jefferson’s prescribed level of vigilance. Of course, this is not the case.

Since the creation of the United States in the late 18th century, there have been prominent examples where fear of those among us drove those in power to feel compelled to take actions in times of crisis that would have been unthinkable in times of calm. Some of the prominent examples of this include: the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which were signed into law by President John Adams as a reaction to rising tensions between the United States and revolutionary France. It resulted in the arrest of some opponents of the Adams administration – most notably the vehemently critical publisher of the Philadelphia Aurora, Benjamin Franklin Bache. The opinions on these acts were very partisan with Federalists initially being supportive while their Democratic-Republican opponents were bitterly opposed. However, the acts soon proved so unpopular that it helped Thomas Jefferson defeat Adams in the extremely bitter presidential election of 1800 and to serve as a prominent chapter in the fall of the Federalists from national prominence.

A more recent example is the investigation of the former State Department official Alger Hiss in 1948 by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Mainly due to the testimony of a former Communist spy named Whittaker Chambers, Hiss was accused of being a spy for the Soviet Union which Hiss denied. Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury but proclaimed his innocence for the rest of his life. It the heated atmosphere of the Cold War, the Hiss case and his innocence or guilt was a point of contention between Republicans and Democrats. For the most anti-Communist elements of the Republican Party, there was no question of Hiss’ guilt. For the more liberal elements of the Democratic Party, the actions of HUAC were a shameful example of the witch-hunting that occurred during the Red Scare era of the Cold War and that Chambers was an untrustworthy liar. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of KGB documents in the 1990s that historians were able to determine that Hiss had actually been a Soviet agent.

Although the fear and distrust expressed in the comments of former CIA agent Clair Lopez can be found in the aforementioned events of the late 18th century and the middle 20th century, the accusations of treason against the president and his closest advisers are not (or at least not so overtly) found. However, that is not to say that those closest to a president have always escaped such charges. To conclude our look at how fear of a hidden enemy has shaped American politics in the past, we will consider the topic of a previous History Rhyme – Mary Todd Lincoln. As noted in the February 2014 edition of this blog (Ladies First), Abraham Lincoln’s wife has been much maligned by the general public and historians in the years since she became first lady. This negative appraisal is not too dissimilar to the one held about her during the time of her husband’s administration. During her time in Washington, Mary had prominent critics in the Washington press corps and among elected officials. During the early years of the war, she was investigated by Congress in connection to a White House gardener gaining access to a presidential speech before it was delivered. She was also generally condemned for her excessive spending on White House redecorating. Yet, it was not her questionable choices of confidants or draperies that are of interest to us in this History Rhyme.

Mrs. Lincoln is under our historical microscope this month because of the questionable loyalties of her half-siblings during the Civil War. Her father, Robert Smith Todd, was married twice in his life. The children of his first marriage, which included Mary, mostly remained loyal to the United States, while the children of his second marriage did not – including three of her brothers who fought in the Confederate army. Still, it was not just the actions of her relations that caused suspicion. Questions of the First Lady’s loyalties grew in December 1863 when Mary allowed her half-sister, Emily Todd Helm, whose husband had been a Confederate general until his death at the Battle of Chattanooga, to stay at the White House. There were also criticisms of a Mrs. Lincoln’s efforts for another of her half-sisters, Martha Todd White, to receive a pass through Union lines. According to several historians, most notably Carl Sandburg in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Year and the War Years (published in 1954), concerns that there was possibly a Confederate spy in the White House were significant enough that the Senate’s Committee on the Conduct of the War met in secret to determine if there were validity to these claims. According to Sandburg, the president felt it necessary to appear before the committee with a sorrowful expression and with hat in hand to assure the senators that “I, of my own knowledge, know that it is untrue that any of my family hold treasonable communication with the enemy.” According to this account, the committee dropped their investigation in response. Although there are some who contend that this story is completely apocryphal, it is consistent enough with descriptions of Lincoln’s generally mournful countenance and the distrust of his wife that was felt by some in the Senate to at least seem plausible.

After looking at the various examples from the past on the need for Jefferson’s eternal vigilance, what can we say about the newest outbreak of the fever that seems to grip some in this country in times of trouble? First, we can certainly say that it is nothing new to believe that there are those around us with nefarious aims. The world is a dangerous place at times and there have been many who have viewed the United States as either an enemy or fertile ground for new supporters. Second, we can see that allegations of disloyalty against those in the highest levels of power are also certainly not new. Sometimes the allegations are backed by laws such as the Alien and Section Acts, by a congressional committee, such as the HUAC hearings, or just by the spreading of opinions in the guise of journalism as in our current case. Third, we can see that although it often appears from a short-term perspective that the level of animosity among our political factions is at an all-time high, this is a rather myopic assessment. Even though so-called journalists are accusing the president and his camp of essentially treasonous acts, there has been nothing to compare against the extravaganza of fear and accusations that was the HUAC hearings or the allegedly demeaning instance of a president having to beg a congressional committee to leave his wife alone. Furthermore, there is no effort underway by the defenders of the president to pass laws that would make their accusations punishable by time in jail. In the opinion of this History Rhymer, the relative sedateness of the animosity we see today is something for which we should be thankful.