Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Election 2012

Source: US News & World Report
Next week, most American voters will make a choice between the incumbent president, Barack Obama, and the challenger, former Governor Mitt Romney. This election season has been as intense as any and offers Americans a distinct choice between two very different economic ideologies and two very different visions for the United States in the world.

This may indeed be one of the more consequential elections in history, especially if the results of November 6th are as close as the polls today suggest. If that happens, the country may need to be re-educated on the Electoral College as occurred in the contentious Election of 2000.  In fact, given the number of "states in play" this election, there is a very small possibility of a tie in the Electoral College.  Should that rare event happen, the House of Representatives would choose the President and the Senate would choose the Vice President (Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution).  That would certainly be an interesting event.  Another possibility given recent polling is that one candidate could win the popular vote, while another wins the presidency through the Electoral College.  We will have to wait and see what happens next week.

For more information on how the two candidates are polling compared to the Electoral College, see the Real Clear Politics Electoral Map.

For this post, I thought I would take a look back at some of the most significant elections in U.S. History:

Election of 1796 - This election marked the beginning of the two-party political system that we are accustomed to today.  However, because of how the original Electoral College system worked, the election resulted in a president of one party and a vice president of another party.  Federalist President John Adams and Democratic-Republican Vice President Thomas Jefferson hoped that their personal friendship could allow for a functioning government.  That did not happen and led to the first real contentious election fight in American History, the Election of 1800.

The Original Electoral College Vote of 1800 (National Archives)
Election of 1800 - This election season was as long as any and saw for the first time, a coordinated state-by-state effort by both parties to line up electoral votes. In the end, the "Jeffersonian Republicans" were the most effective. They were so effective at lining up disciplined electoral votes that the intended presidential candidate, Thomas Jefferson, received the same number of electoral votes as the intended vice presidential candidate Aaron Burr. With a tie in the Electoral College, the election went to the Federalist-controlled House which, after many threats and heated debates, selected Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice President. What made this election more significant than the electoral battle itself is that it marked the first transition of political power in American History. One ruling party stepped down peacefully while another gained power without making any drastic changes or witnessing any violence. This was remarkable for the time period, especially given recent European history.

Election of 1824 - After an eight year period of a one-party system, four candidates vied for the presidency in an election where some states were beginning to count the popular vote in elections. Furthermore, states were eliminating property requirements for voting ushering in the start of universal white male suffrage, known as an "era of the common man." In the final tally, Andrew Jackson emerged with more popular and electoral votes than any other candidate. However, he did not have a majority of all possible votes. By the Constitution, the election went to the House of Representatives. Under the leadership of Speaker Henry Clay who viewed Jackson as dangerous, the House chose John Quincy Adams instead. Jackson's supporters claimed a stolen election and the result was four years of misery for Adams.

Election of 1828 - Four years later, there was no electoral controversy in selecting Andrew Jackson as president. Two major developments came out of this election: (1) more "common men" now had the right to vote in an election where personal character attacks hit an all-time high and (2) the solidification of a distinct two-party political system.

Election of 1860 - Despite close electoral contests, partisanship or campaign controversies, every change in leadership has witnessed a peaceful transition of power - except this one.  Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 without any southern electoral votes gave states like South Carolina an excuse to secede from the union.  That crisis led to four years of a bloody Civil War.  For more, see my related posts on the Civil War at 150. 

Election of 1876 - After bitter years of Civil War and Reconstruction, this election pitted Republican James Garfield against Democrat Samuel Tilden.  With a close campaign and a divided nation, the results were unclear.  Several states fielded disputed returns and without a clear winner in the Electoral College, the Congress convened a special electoral commission and by one vote, chose James Garfield.  It is reported that a deal was struck that in return for Garfield's election, he would remove the last remaining troops from the South officially ending Reconstruction.  With this "Compromise of 1877," Reconstruction faded away beginning an era of the "New South" and "Jim Crow." 

Election of 1896 - As the nineteenth century came to a close, Republican William McKinley defeated William Jennings Bryan who ran as both a Democrat and Populist.  This is one of the more fascinating races of the nineteenth century which served as a precursor to the types of campaigning that would take place in the twentieth century.  This was also the last election where the agrarian vote played a major role as the United States evolved into a mostly industrial economy. 

Source: RetroCampaigns.com
Election of 1912 - Similar to the current election battle, this election gave voters a distinct choice of differing economic visions for the future of the nation, albeit three choices.  Incumbent President William Howard Taft was challenged within the Republican Party by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt.  When Republicans nominated Taft for a second term over "TR," Roosevelt joined the Progressive Party and ran as a third-party candidate.  This party was nicknamed the "Bull Moose Party" after a famous TR speech.  With the split among normal Republican voters, Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election with only 41% of the popular vote.  The major issue in this election, similar to today, involved the proper role of the federal government in the economy.  Wilson's election illustrates a general rule in the game of politics: when a traditional voting group is split in two, the other side usually wins (example: Bill Clinton's election in 1992 over George Bush and Ross Perot; exception to the rule: Truman's election in 1948).  Another notable fact, maybe an alarming one, is the 6% of the popular vote gained by Socialist candidate Eugene Debs. 

Election of 1932 - This election serves as the most famous example of the economy playing the deciding role in selecting a president.  In the depths of the Great Depression, voters overwhelming turned out Republican Herbert Hoover in favor of the eloquent Democrat from New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his "New Deal."  The New Deal initiated a dramatic change in the role of the federal government and led to the creation of dozens of government programs and regulatory agencies.  These initiatives relied on planned deficit spending, an idea still debated today and resulted in the doubling of the national debt.  Though many New Deal programs were temporary, some major reforms remain in place today - most famously, Social Security.  Unfortunately, the New Deal did not resolve the Great Depression and in fact, the economy got worse by the mid-1930s.  It would take the mobilization for World War II to finally lift the economy back to pre-1929 levels. 

Election of 1940 - Though Roosevelt's popularity declined in his second term, the overwhelming issue in this campaign was the outbreak of World War II in Europe.  As a result, voters chose to retain FDR for an unprecedented third term instead of selecting businessman Wendell Wilkie for the Oval Office. The possibility of a third term would be removed later by the Twenty-Second Amendment.

Election of 1948 - In another three-candidate race, President Harry Truman unexpectedly defeated Republican Thomas Dewey.  In this race, Truman was challenged from within his own party by Strom Thurmond who gained the nomination of the southern States Rights, or Dixiecrat, Party.  This election proved that the party split rule does not always apply.  Journalists had expected that the split in the Democrat vote would easily hand the election to Dewey.  Some newspapers ran the headline "Dewey defeats Truman" ahead of receiving the final results, now made famous by the image to the left. 

Election of 1952 - In this election, television played a major role for the first time as voters selected General Dwight Eisenhower over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.  For the influence of television in presidential campaigns, see the Museum of the Moving Image's site, The Living Room Candidate (www.livingroomcandidate.org).  This site archives hundreds of campaign commercials from every election, 1952 to 2008 (and soon, 2012).

Election of 1960 - Television continued to play an influential role in politics as this election witnessed the first televised debate between Democrat Senator John F. Kennedy and Republican Vice President Richard Nixon.  Kennedy's appeal on television boosted his image and aided in his eventual electoral victory, though the election was very close and is somewhat clouded with later reports of voter fraud. Kennedy is the first Catholic to be elected to the presidency.

Election of 1968 - This election served as one of the most divisive in history.  With the height of the controversial war in Vietnam, the stunning announcement that incumbent President Lyndon Johnson would not seek a second term and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, this election produced another three-way split.  In a contentious nominating convention in Chicago with violent protests outside the convention hall, Democrats nominated Vice President Hubert Humphrey.  Republicans selected former Vice President Richard Nixon and southern Democrats formed the American Independent Party nominating former Alabama governor George Wallace for president.  Nixon easily won the election promising "peace with honor" in Vietnam. 

Election of 1980 - Ronald Reagan's election over Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 marked a change in the political landscape of the United States.  While the nation experienced what historians have labeled a "conservative revolution," the South began the transition from a Democrat stronghold to a mostly Republican region, at least in national elections.  Also, the politics of this era helped define the terms "conservative" and "liberal" used today. 

Source: CBSNews.com
Election of 1992 - As referenced earlier, this election helps support the party-split rule where Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency with a minority of the popular vote over Republican George H.W. Bush and Independent Ross Perot. 

Source: USA Today
Election of 2000 - In one of the closest races in history, the results of this election between Republican Governor George W. Bush and Democrat Vice President Al Gore were unknown after election night.  As the results came in state-by-state, the race was "too close to call" in the Electoral College.  The final tally came down to the state of Florida where the race was also too close to call.  The first results indicated that George W. Bush had won Florida, but only by a small number of votes.  By state law, this close of an election result mandated a recount by hand.  This launched a media and legal circus in Florida lasting weeks as the physical recount took place.  In the end, the recount determined that Bush won Florida by 537 votes and thus, won all of Florida's 25 electoral votes placing him above the required 270 to win.  This result was later upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore (2000).  George W. Bush won the presidency because he won in the Electoral College, even though Al Gore had won the popular vote.  The controversy did, however, serve to educate the public on the constitutional process of selecting a president. On a personal note, this was my first presidential election as a voter.

To understand the Electoral College system, see my handout linked here. 

Election of 2008 - Barack Obama is the first African-American elected to the presidency, certainly a historic moment.  Whether or not he has achieved his campaign promises will be decided by voters in this election.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Last week, I finished Michael Beschloss' Presidential Courage. One recurring theme I found among the leaders he chose was that these men often defied the recommendations of their advisors, sometimes defied their political parties and at times even went against public sentiment to make bold decisions that they thought best for the nation in both the short-term and in the long-term success and/or security of the republic. This is truly the mark of a good leader and exactly what the founders intended when they made the courageous decision to invest strong executive powers into one elected official.  This decision was in deed courageous and remarkable given the past experience the founders had with executive authority.  That topic is the subject of my next book, Ray Raphael's Mr. President: How and Why the Founders Created a Chief Executive.

As for Presidential Courage, here is a brief synopsis of the courageous presidential acts performed by the leaders that Beschloss featured:

George Washington - Washington signed Jay's Treaty with Britain to avoid a future and un-winnable war. Washington stood his ground despite a groundswell of vicious public opposition and even threats of assassination. Despite the outcry, this action preserved the young republic and helped open the west to settlement.

John Adams - Defying his own Federalist supporters who wished for war with France, Adams pursued peace. Though this decision and the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts certainly contributed to his defeat in 1800, seeking peace prevented the young republic from a costly conflict that could easily have divided the nation.

Andrew Jackson - Jackson is probably the most decisive and at times, the most stubborn president in history.  Jackson personified his distrust of the Bank of the United States and despite warnings of political and economic consequences, he vetoed the re-charter bill, withdrew federal deposits and effectively destroyed the national bank.  Though a financial panic did ensue, Jackson held firm that a national bank controlled by private interests was dangerous to the long term economic security of the nation.  Jackson also strengthened presidential power and was the first to effectively use the power of veto.  In his view, the role of the President was to represent the interests of all Americans as opposed to members of Congress who represented only a district or a state.

Abraham Lincoln - Lincoln is an easy pick for "presidential courage."  Clearly, Lincoln faced the most daunting challenge of any president - holding the nation together despite a bitter and costly civil war.  As the Election of 1864 approached, it seemed to many - including Lincoln himself - that he would lose to his former general, George McClellan.  Despite the political wisdom of the time which suggested that Lincoln find some compromise with the South, Lincoln held firm to his position that peace could only be achieved when the South renounced secession and accepted the emancipation of slaves.  Fortunately, victories in the South helped end a potential third party threat by Radical Republicans and secured Lincoln's re-election.

Theodore Roosevelt - After decades of "forgettable" presidents, Theodore Roosevelt charged on to the national stage after the assassination of William McKinley.  Unlike his recent predecessors, Roosevelt saw the presidency as a vehicle for needed reform.  Despite being labeled as "mad" and despite the political backlash, Roosevelt successfully mediated the Anthracite Coal Mine Strike of 1902 and used his Justice Department to enforce the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890.

Franklin D. Roosevelt - Though FDR gained the presidency by promising to end the depression with his New Deal, the depression did not end and by 1938, Roosevelt lost a considerable amount of popularity and support in Congress.  However, by the time he ran for an unprecedented third term in 1940, Americans were concerned about another world war raging across the Atlantic.  Though public sentiment supported neutrality, Roosevelt pushed the nation towards support of Britain, the "defenders of democracy."  The climax of this support was the Lend Lease Act of 1941 which pledged the United States as the "arsenal of democracy" while the people of Great Britain persevered the aerial blitz of Nazi Germany.  FDR was a masterful politician and at times, vicious and deceiving, yet he was able to lead the nation towards "all aid short of war" recognizing the very real threat that Hitler posed to security and freedom.

Harry S. Truman - Truman never expected that he would gain the presidency, nor did many in Washington.  However, with Roosevelt's death, Truman gained the presidency at a pivotal moment in American History - the closing months of World War II.  While Truman is famous for his actions in the early years of the Cold War and his "buck stops here" attitude, Beschloss chronicles Truman's support for the creation of Israel as a nation-state.  Despite opposition in his own cabinet and the risks of a geopolitical backfire, Truman eventually came to support the creation of a homeland in Palestine for eastern European Jews.

John F. Kennedy - Though JFK had supported civil rights earlier in his political career, as a candidate and early president, Kennedy chose to be very cautious in his actions.  As a Democrat, he needed support from southern white Democrats to gain national office and achieve some of his other domestic goals.  Kennedy expected that he could deal more effectively with civil rights after re-election in 1964.  However, events like James Meredith's enrollment at Ole Miss and the violence in Birmingham, Alabama pushed Kennedy to more boldly support civil rights.  In a televised speech in 1963, Kennedy declared the struggle for civil rights a "moral issue" which helped strengthen the movement.  After Martin Luther King's march on Washington, which Kennedy asked King to postpone, Kennedy began work on major civil rights legislation.  Even though he was unable to push this bill through Congress before his assassination in November 1963, Lyndon Johnson did sign the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964.

Ronald Reagan - The last president featured by Beschloss is Ronald Reagan.  When Reagan entered office, the official Cold War stance had been a policy of detente.  However, Reagan took the bold stance that detente would never end the Cold War, only prolong the conflict between freedom and tyranny.  Despite political advice, Reagan held firm in his negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - even walking out of a meeting at Reykjavik, Iceland.  With Reagan's strong stance, his support of a missile shield in Europe and his famous "tear down this wall" speech in Berlin, Reagan helped bring about the end of the Cold War.

Photos Credit:http://www.biography.com/people/groups/political-leaders/us-presidents/photos

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Presidential Politics

This summer, I decided to shape my reading list around presidential politics (of course, after I finished the War of 1812 book).  This is an area of history that has always fascinated me, ever since I took a political science course on the modern presidency in college.  I also figured that this would be a timely move given the dramatic election season that is well underway.

The Official Presidential Seal
I just completed two books related to the presidency.  First was The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  This book gave a detailed look inside the most exclusive fraternity in the world, the privileged club of presidents.  Gibbs and Duffy chronicled the relationships of sitting presidents and ex-presidents, from the time Harry Truman reached out to Herbert Hoover to today, the relationship of Barack Obama and his predecessors.  Throughout these stories, the authors point out the basic rules - whether spoken or not - that presidents obey in "the club."  While most of these relationships have been cordial, not all presidents (and ex-presidents) have followed the rules.  Some were notoriously devious while some, despite bitter elections and rhetoric, have been amazingly gracious.  At times, this book seemed like a soap opera and fittingly, I had a hard time putting it down (just ask my wife!).

Here's a good blog post with images of the presidential fraternity:

The second book and my third of the summer was George W. Bush's Decision Points.  Presidential memoirs have become an expectation for ex-presidents and they do serve an important historical purpose - shedding light into the complicated decision making process of a president.  Once a president leaves office, he faces the judgment of history.  Naturally, presidents hope to influence their legacy in the prism of history.  This was certainly the case when Ulysses S. Grant published his famous Memoirs in the remaining months of his life.  President Bush's memoir is focused on the most consequential decisions of his presidency, including very important events in recent history - 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, just to name a few.  It may be too soon for historians to assess the Bush presidency; however, this book is an insightful look at how President Bush shaped his decisions and why he made the decisions he did.  Bush notes his achievements, but also admits mistakes.  Where I find this book most helpful is how President Bush lays out the major events of his term in a topical sense, clearly illustrating each major decision as part of a larger chain of events.  It is easy for pundits and even us Americans to judge a president in the moment, when the decisions are made.  However, reading this president's rationale and in the context of events and facts, including those not known to the public at the time, lends to a much better understanding of the decisions and the man.  Regardless of one's politics and regardless of whether readers agree or disagree with Mr. Bush, this book does help shed light into one of the more momentous presidencies in recent history.

The next item on my summer reading list is Michael Beschloss' Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989.  Beschloss is a renowned presidential historian, appearing in many documentaries on the modern presidency and author of several works.  I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the Florida Forum in October 2008, just prior to the election of Barack Obama.

I close with a image collection of ex-presidents and related images for this post.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Union 1812

Today, on the 200th anniversary of the official declaration of war against Britain, I finished my first book of the summer - A.J. Langguth's Union 1812.  This is one of many books I have read on this topic - especially as James Madison and the founding period was my focus in college.

In many respects, the War of 1812 was a disaster.  Once again, Americans were mismatched against the world's leading military power and the nation suffered many losses culminating in the burning of Washington in 1814.  Yet, this war marks an important turning point in the nation's early history.

Langguth makes the analogy that starting this war was the new republic's way of challenging Britain to a duel in order to preserve her sacred honor.  In the decades since the Revolution, Britain and France often trampled on America's neutrality and sovereignty.  Indian alliances, often encouraged by the British in Canada, represented a dangerous threat to frontier-seeking Americans.  To a younger generation of founders, those who did not fight in the first war for independence, the only solution was to stand up for the rights of the nation even though many of the older founders, men like Jefferson and Madison, were reluctant to support such a gamble.

Despite the limited successes and tremendous blunders of the war, the republic survived and as a result, gained more respect abroad.  With the defeat of the formidable Indian confederacies and a new sense of national pride at the end of the war, Americans vigorously moved west and laid the foundations for a market revolution.  An industrial boom in the North resulted from years of embargo and war and politically, the era that followed would be labeled one of "good feelings."  Sectionalism was dealt a black eye with the failure of the Hartford Convention, yet the long-term effects of this war would cause a resurgence of sectionalism as the nation pushed west and faced the inevitable question on the existence and expansion of slavery.

Related links:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Over six months have passed since my last blog post.  Why?  New baby, busy family and a busy work schedule.  These are good reasons, right?  Now that the school year is closing, I finally have a chance to write.

This year marks several significant anniversaries in U.S. and local history - and an exciting time to study history.   Here's a compilation of the milestones of 2012 (in order):

450th Anniversary of the French Arrival on the First Coast
In May of 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault entered what the French called the "River May," today the St. Johns River.  The French later founded Fort Caroline on a high river bluff which became a refuge for Huguenots escaping religious persecution.  The French did not last very long at Ft. Caroline after their slaughter in 1565 by Pedro Menendez of Spain.  Though the French did attempt to re-settle here, they were never successful at regaining a foothold in Florida.  Instead, Florida became a Spanish possession and the river was re-named for Saint John.

I took this picture on the AP U.S. History field trip to Fort Caroline on May 17th.

For further information about this milestone, explore the following:

225th Anniversary of the United States Constitution
In an election year filled with questions of constitutionality and the proper role of the federal government, it is very timely that we mark this important milestone.  The United States Constitution of 1787 is our nation's second constitution, the first being the ineffective Articles of Confederation.

To the right is a picture I took of the actual Constitution at the National Archives in 2005.

As this anniversary approaches, be sure to follow the hashtag #constitution225 on Twitter

200th Anniversary of the War of 1812
The War of 1812 is often considered America's second war for independence.  Though militarily this war was a disaster resulting in the burning of the national capitol and emerging sectionalism, the two and half years of war did result in a surge of nationalism and the drafting of the Star Spangled Banner, later to become the national anthem.  Andrew Jackson's fame was solidified as the victor of New Orleans and Americans began to move west in stronger numbers.  By standing up to the British, the United States legitimized itself as an independent nation.

I have acquired several books on the War of 1812 and I hope to have more posts later this summer.

Some additional resources:

150th Anniversary: Civil War Events of 1862, the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act
I have written several posts regarding the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  The year 1862 was certainly pivotal as by the close of the year, a long and deadly conflict was now impossible to avoid, a fact now recognized by both sides.  Bloody battles at Shiloh, Antietam and in Virginia foreshadowed the terrible years to come.  By September, Lincoln had issued his Emancipation Proclamation fundamentally changing the war from one of union to one for freedom.

With southern Democrats absent from Congress, Republicans were able to pass two significant laws, the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act.  These acts opened the west to settlement with free land, business opportunities and an emerging transcontinental railroad network.

To the right is a picture of a homestead grant, taken at the National Archives in 2005.

For further interest:

  • Twitter - #CW150 #HomesteadAct150
  • The Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska - on Twitter @HomesteadNM
  • Union Pacific's 150th Anniversary Website:  http://www.up150.com/
75th Anniversary: The Golden Gate Bridge
Last week, San Francisco celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.  A technological marvel for its day, the Golden Gate bridge rose above San Francisco Bay at a time when Americans needed a sense of hope, trying desperately to rise above the worst economic depression in history.

Here's a picture I took from the San Francisco side of the bridge in September 2006 while my wife and I were on our honeymoon.

50th Anniversary: The Cuban Missile Crisis
October marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the climax of tensions in the Cold War and the closest the United States and the Soviet Union came to the brink of thermonuclear war.  As I read oral history papers submitted by my students, I continue to learn more about the true fear experienced by Americans during those thirteen troubling days.  One colleague recently shared a story with me about how he, as a second grader here in Jacksonville, wore a dog tag and was issued ration cans in case the civil defense alarms sounded.  I doubt many students in the United States today could share such an experience.

Jacksonville certainly was on heightened alert in those days with three major naval bases all within Duval County.

In regards to the Cold War, since the release of Russian documents after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, historians are learning much more about the very real dangers of the era.


Every year brings a series of anniversaries, though this year does include some of the most significant events in U.S. history. Why do these commemorations and celebrations matter?  Will our knowledge of these events change or improve just because this is an anniversary year?  Maybe.

These anniversaries and commemorations matter because they enhance our collective "American memory."  Celebrating or remembering historical events helps us connect to our national story and build a sense of heritage.  Anniversaries also help reinvigorate discussions and debates on key historical issues - as several of this year's commemorations demonstrate.

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