“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Friday, July 10, 2015

Vermonters Go for the White House

September 20, 1881: James Garfield's assassination makes Chester Arthur the first US President from Vermont.

August 2, 1923: Warren Harding dies suddenly, making Calvin Coolidge President.
Two Vermonters, so far, have become president of the United States – Republicans Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge. But others have made the attempt, most recently Howard Dean and now Bernie Sanders. Another Vermont Republican, George Aiken, also considered it seriously in the 1930s -- against FDR! -- and the state's first Democratic Governor, Phil Hoff, was briefly a prospect in 1968.

The earliest candidate was the Mormon leader Joseph Smith, one of those restless Vermonters who struck out for the west in revival days. He ran as a champion of homesteading rights. The next was Stephen Douglas, known as the “Little Giant” because of his short stature and huge political skills. Born in Brandon in 1813, he had made his name in Illinois as attorney general, Supreme Court judge and US Congressman.

Stephen Douglas
In 1852, and again four years later, Douglas unsuccessfully went after the Democratic Party nomination. The path was finally clear in 1860, but by then the Party was hopelessly split. He easily became the Northern Democratic candidate, but the party’s southern, pro-slavery wing didn’t trust his ambiguous position and separately nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge.

There was also a standard bearer for the Constitution Party, which hoped to avoid civil war through regional compromise. But most of all, there was Abraham Lincoln, nominated in Chicago at the Republican Convention. The two men knew each other well, especially from a famous series of debates they had waged when Lincoln challenged Douglas for his US Senate seat two years before.

Douglas finished second in the popular vote for president with 29 percent but carried only Missouri and half of New Jersey’s electors. Breckinridge swept the south but won only 18 percent nationally. Lincoln carried 18 northern states, including Vermont and Illinois, and received 39.8 percent, or 1,865,593 of the 4.6 million votes cast that year.

As soon as Lincoln was elected, southern states began to secede. When war came in April 1861 Douglas urged his followers to support the union. But he died just a few weeks later and his position on slavery has been disputed ever since.

Twenty years after Douglas tried for the White House and failed Chester Arthur succeeded -- without actually running for president himself. Arthur was the son of a Baptist minister who emigrated to North America from Ireland. His official biography says that he was from Fairfield, a town near the Canadian border, born on October 5, 1830. Yet there have been persistent rumors that he was really born in Canada, and that his official birth date may be off by a year.

After college and law school in upstate New York Arthur briefly returned to Vermont in the early 1850s, as principal of an academy in North Pownal, before joining a law firm in New York City. For a while he was a Whig, but joined the Republicans early and was appointed engineer-in- chief by New York’s governor, then acting quartermaster-general for the state during the Civil War. After the war he rose in the Republican hierarchy, becoming collector of the Port of New York in 1871 and chair of the Party’s state committee. 

Chester Arthur
In 1880 he backed former President Grant to succeed Rutherford B. Hayes, but the convention delegates went with another general, James Garfield. Arthur’s support for Grant and position in New York politics made him a practical choice to join Garfield on the ticket. The team was elected and Vice President Arthur began to preside over a US Senate so evenly divided that he frequently had to break ties.

On July 2, 1881, only four months into his term, Garfield was shot at a Washington railway station by Charles Guiteau, an unstable officer-seeker. The president lingered for two months but died from an infection on September 19 after doctors contaminated the bullet wound. The next day Arthur became the first President from Vermont.*

It was a relatively prosperous period for the country. President Arthur spent much of his time dealing with domestic issues – building projects, disputes with Native American tribes, cowboy violence in the Arizona territory, and hostility to Chinese immigrants and Mormons.

In 1884, when the Republicans met again in Chicago for their nominating convention, Arthur lost to James C. Blaine, a leading Republican moderate who had briefly been his Secretary of State. He died two years later, having served as president for three and half years without winning an election on his own.

The second Vermonter to lead the country also got the job due to death at the top. But there is no dispute about the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge. He was born in Plymouth Notch on July 4, 1872, the only president whose birthday is Independence Day.

Like his predecessors Coolidge left the state to pursue his ambitions. He moved to Massachusetts and became, first a city official, then mayor, state legislator, lieutenant governor and ultimately governor of the state in 1918. It was a steady and conventional political rise, aside from the one decision that brought him to national attention – breaking a police strike in Boston.

When the Republican convention deadlocked in 1920, party bosses gathered in what became known as their “smoke-filled room” and selected a little-known Ohio Senator, Warren G. Harding. To balance the ticket Coolidge was picked for Vice President. Disgusted with Woodrow Wilson at the close of World War I, Democrats joined the unusual Republican base to give Harding the biggest landslide victory in US history – more than 60 percent of the popular vote.

The Harding administration became infamous for corruption, but Coolidge managed to stay clean. Disillusionment set in and few expected anything to change until the next election. But on August 2, 1923, in the middle of a goodwill tour, Harding dropped dead suddenly in San Francisco.

Coolidge was a dramatic change of pace, at least in temperament and style. Harding looked and lived like a Matinee idol. “Silent Cal” was an austere and private family man, legendary for his stinginess and allegedly incurious nature. But he and his predecessor did have one thing in common – affection for business.

In 1924, he won re-election in a landslide using a slogan that revealed control and awareness of his image, “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” Technically, he could have run again, but declined with what is likely the shortest political exit speech ever made by a president: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”

A year later, Herbert Hoover was leading the country, at the brink of the Great Depression.

Calvin Coolidge and Mother Jones in 1924
* Note: It is commonly claimed that Chester Arthur became president immediately after Garfield's death on September 19, 1881. However, Arthur was in New York City at the time and took the oath of office on September 20 at his residence before Judge John R. Brady, a New York Supreme Court Justice. On September 22 the oath was administered again, formally, in the Vice-President's room in the Capitol by Chief Justice Waite.