United States Presidents of the Twentieth Century
the First Decades, 1900 to 1945 (Part One)
Thirty years or so ago, my grandfather passed away. Before he did, he sat down to write about the American experience (his experience) through the presidents of his lifetime. He is the only person I can remember speaking with who was born in the 19th century.
I was recently inspired to reproduce his memoirs when I unearthed this:
I have tried my best to keep the text as authentic as possible correcting typos or formatting changes when necessary. I have added tidbits at the end of each presidential timeline for fun.
Some of the information may be out of date or incorrect but I believe he did the best he could with the materials available to him at the time. My memories of him are faint but rediscovering his writing has opened a window into his thinking. I hope these “thumbnail sketches” as he called them, offer a glimpse into the past for you too.
The idea that began this exercise came to me one recent day, when I was trying to remember the names of all the presidents who had served our country during my lifetime. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to write a short resume — a sort of “thumbnail sketch” — of each of these men.
Most of the facts and many of the opinions expressed in these pages have been cribbed from two books obtained from the public library of Naples, Florida: “Presidential Saints and Sinners”, by Thomas A. Bailey, and “The Look-it-up Book of Presidents” by Wyatt Blasingame.
In putting this thing together I have tried to be objective, but you know how it is. If my prejudices and biases are too painfully evident, I sincerely hope that nothing in these pages may offend anyone.
I hope that reading these pages may be an interesting diversion for you, as writing them has been for me.
Alfred W. Faulkner
William McKinley, 25th President, 1897–1901.
Born January 29, 1843, in Niles, Ohio, he attended local schools in Niles and Poland, Ohio. When the Civil war broke out, he enlisted as a private. Before the end of the war, he was promoted to major.
After the war, McKinley practiced law in Canton, Ohio. He married Ida Saxton, the daughter of a local banker.
From the beginning of his career, it was McKinley’s lifelong ambition to become President of the United States. He served in Congress for fourteen years, and in 1391 he was elected Governor of Ohio. In 1898 he was nominated for President. His wife by this time was an invalid, subject to epileptic seizures. McKinley won the election, defeating William Jennings Bryan.
Some of my reference books credit (if that’s the proper word) the “yellow” newspapers of the day for influencing McKinley to declare war on Spain. It is hard for us now to understand how newspapers could have so much influence in moulding public opinion. But in those days, without radio or television, newspapers were the only source of information as to what was going on in the world. And some unscrupulous or over-ambitious publishers took advantage of this situation..
Some of the newspapers printed stories - — whether true or false I cannot say — about how the Spanish authorities were abusing the Cubans. At that time Cuba belonged to Spain.
I had always believed that the sinking of the battleship Maine, which was blown up in the harbor of Havana, precipitated the war. Many years later it was proven that an internal explosion, and not a mine or torpedo, destroyed the ship. But public opinion was so inflamed at the time that McKinley was impelled to declare war on Spain.
Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt took it upon himself to dispatch the American fleet, under Commodore (later Admiral) Dewey, to attack the Spanish fleet in Manila harbor. The Spanish fleet, no match for the Americans, was totally destroyed, with much loss of life.
As a result of the Spanish-American war, Spain was stripped of its overseas possessions. Cuba was given its freedom — the freedom to choose its own form of tyranny, first under Batista, and later under Fidel Castro. The United States took control of the Philippines, as well as the islands of Guam and Puerto Rico. Then on July 7, 1898, Hawaii became an American territory.
The peace protocol covering Manila was signed in Washington on Aug. 7, 1898. Unaware of the signing, the next day the American troops attacked and captured Manila from the Spanish troops. To compensate for this, in the peace treaty signed in Paris four months later, the United States “agreed to pay impoverished Spain the sum of $20 million. This generous settlement bespoke a certain sense of honor in the McKinley administration.
McKinley was elected for a second term in 1900. On Sept. 6, 1901, he was visiting the Pan-American in Buffalo, N.Y., when he was shot by an anarchist named Leon Czolseosz. Eight days later he died.
McKinley was a kindly and compassionate man, faithful in the practice of his religion and deeply devoted to his invalid wife. In all of his dealings, public and private, he strove to follow the dictates of his conscience.
Did you know? McKinley was adept at shaking hands at the rate of 2,500 per hour, making him the fastest-ever handshaking president. He was also the first president to travel by automobile when he boarded the Stanley Steamer in 1899.
Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President, 1901–1908.
Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York City, Oct. 27, 1858.
As a child, he was of such delicate health that most of his early schooling was by tutors, but he developed his strength by vigorous exercise. His knowledge of other lands and peoples was broadened by several visits to Europe.
He graduated from Harvard in 1880, Magna Cum Laude, and was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa. The same year he married Alice Hathaway Lee of Boston. He served three terms as State Senator in Albany, N.Y. And there he made his presence felt in fighting political corruption. In 1886, his first wife having died two years earlier, he married Edith Kermit Carow.
They made their home at Sagamore Hill, Long Island.
In 1898 he was elected Governor of New York. When McKinley began his second term as President, Roosevelt was named Vice President.
On September 14, 1901, after the death of McKinley, Roosevelt became President of the United States.
Roosevelt was a “trust — Buster”, fighting monopolies and injustices to workings — class people. He was also an early environmentalist, protecting the forests and natural resources of the United states exploitation and destruction. Under his leadership, the Pure Food Laws were passed, protecting the health of the nation from the adulteration of foods and medicines.
Roosevelt’s motto in international affairs was, “Walk softly a big stick”. He made the United States a nation of the first rank admired and feared, its citizenship respected throughout the world.
During the interval between Roosevelt’s second term of office and the end of Taft’s administration, Roosevelt embarked on an African safari, from which he brought back trophies of his prowess as a big game hunter.
After his return from Africa, Roosevelt’s overweening desire for the presidency overcame his better judgment. He formed a new political party, which he called the Progressive Party, with himself, of course, as its presidential candidate.
In the election of 1912, he managed to split the Republican vote between himself and Taft, resulting in the election of Woodrow Wilson.
After a lifetime of extraordinary activity, spurred by insatiable ambition and many accomplishments, Theodore Roosevelt died in his sleep on Jan.6, 1929, in his home at Sagamore Hill, Long Island.
Did you know? One of the endearing mementos of Roosevelt’s long enjoyment of public esteem is the Teddy bear, that soft, cuddly companion of our childhood, that was named for Roosevelt. He could also read a single page as quickly as someone else could read a sentence with his photographic memory. Also, in 1904 ice cream cones were introduced at the World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
William Howard Taft, 27th President, 1909–1913.
From his boyhood, he was known as “Big Bill”. He was six feet tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. He liked to ride horseback if he could find a horse able to bear his weight.
Taft’s father was a successful lawyer, active in Republican politics.
Taft was more interested in law than in politics. In 1887 he was elected to the Ohio supreme court.
In 1901 Taft was appointed civil governor of the Philippines when they belonged to the United States. Then in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Taft Secretary of War. Roosevelt was impressed with Taft’s performance in these offices, and largely as a result of Roosevelt’s support, the Republican party nominated Taft for president in 1908. With Roosevelt’s backing, he was elected.
Taft tried to continue to carry out the policies that Roosevelt had begun, but he simply did not have the personal appeal of his predecessor.
Roosevelt and his followers felt that Taft was not doing enough. Personally, Taft felt that Congress had powers that should be respected by the president, a sensitivity that did not trouble the flamboyant Roosevelt.
At length, it came to a parting of the ways between the even-tempered Taft and Rough-Rider Roosevelt. Then the Republican party nominated Taft for a second term in 1912, Roosevelt bolted the party and formed his own Progressive, or “Bull Moose” party, of which he, of course, was Presidential nominee.
The result might well have been predicted. The Republican party was split between Roosevelt and Taft, resulting in the election of Woodrow Wilson.
Taft went back to the practice of law, and to teaching law at Yale. Then in 1921, he was appointed Chief Justice of the United States. This was the work he loved, and for which he, by training and predilection, was most suited. He retained this post until he retired in 1930.
When Taft was informed of his defeat for a second term as President in 1912, he replied, “I should worry”. Immediately it became a catch-phrase, even being translated into various languages, including Yiddish and Pig-Latin.
In Yiddish, it came out “Ish ka bibble”.
The following touching little verse was one of the spinoffs:
I should worry, I should care,
I should marry a millionaire,
He should die, I should cry,
I should marry another guy.
Little things that contribute to immortal literature.
Did you know? Taft started the custom of American Presidents throwing the first pitch of the season. Also, in 1909 Robert E. Peary planted the US flag on the icy ground at the North Pole.
Woodrow Wilson, 28th President, 1912–1920.
He was born December 29, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia.
He graduated from Princeton in 1879 and received a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1881. He taught in various universities for several years, and in 1902 he became President of Princeton University. Elected Governor of New Jersey in 191l, he attracted the attention of the Democratic party, and in 1912 he was nominated for President of the United States. Due largely to the split between Roosevelt and Taft, he was elected President in 1912.
Wilson was foremost in fighting for legislation favorable to working-class people, including the right of workers to go on strike against their employers.
World War I had broken out in 1914, and it was Wilson’s earnest endeavor to keep the United States out of the conflict, and at the same time, to get the warring nations to agree to peace.
In 1916 Wilson was elected for a second term, largely on the premise that “he kept us out of war”. But soon the deadly submarine warfare in the Atlantic became so intense that war seemed inevitable. When the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk, with the loss of hundreds of lives, Wilson was forced to ask Congress to declare war on Germany.
The bloodshed in Europe continued, until in 1918, Germany at last surrendered.
Then the bitter struggle began among the victorious powers. Wilson traveled to Europe, to campaign for his policy of “14 points”, which would have brought peace to all the nations without injustice to any. But England and France wanted to wreak vengeance on a defeated Germany, and they ignored the arguments of Wilson. Severe terms were imposed on Germany, which left the smoldering embers of bitterness that led to the second World War.
The treaty of peace, signed by Germany and by the other Allied powers in Versailles, was never ratified by the United States. It provided for a League of Nations that was intended to prevent the outbreak of future wars. The Republican Party, led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, would have ratified the treaty, with an added 14 reservations, designed to safeguard the full rights of the United States. Wilson refused to agree to this compromise.
At that time the President’s health had broken down. He suffered a stroke, and after a prolonged illness, he died on February 3, 1924.
Did you know? Wilson enjoyed golf so much that he would play in the snow using black golf balls. Also, 1n 1913 Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line to hasten the production of the Model T.
Warren G. Harding, 25th President, 1921–1923.
Born Nov. 2, 1865, his schooling ended at age 17, when he got a job at a weekly newspaper in Marion, Ohio. A few years later, he and two of his friends bought a bankrupt weekly paper called the Star.
The town of Marion was growing, and the paper grew with it. Harding married the daughter of a local banker, and his fortunes prospered. He once ran unsuccessfully for Governor of Ohio, but in 1914 he was elected to the United States Senate.
In the Senate, Harding wasted little time worrying about affairs of state. A Republican wheelhorse (sic), he voted the way he was told to vote. He spent most of his time trying to get jobs for his friends from Ohio and thus missed more than half of the roll calls in the Senate.
Harding became friendly with a politician named Harry S. Daugherty. Daugherty set out to get Harding elected President.
At the Republican convention in 1920, the votes were split among three important candidates. By wheeling and dealing with other unsavory politicians, in the famous “smoke-filled room” of a local hotel, Daugherty, by two o’clock in the morning got his fellow-conspirators to agree to the nomination of Warren G. Harding on the Republican ticket.
World War I had ended just two years earlier. The nation was weary of wartime problems and shortages. Harding promised a “return to normalcy”, which proved irresistible to the voters. He was elected President by a landslide over James M. Cox, the Democratic candidate.
At least three members of Harding’s cabinet met with instant approval: Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State, Herbert C. Hoover, Commerce, and Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury. Other members of the Cabinet were less praiseworthy.
As a reward for his “good offices” in getting Harding elected President, Harry Daugherty was named Attorney General.
Albert B. Fall was named Secretary of the Interior. These two “public servants” conspired to sell oil reserves of the national government that were of vital importance to the U.S.Navy, to private oil companies, for their personal profit. This became the infamous “Teapot Dome” scandal. The bribes involved amounted to $3 million.
Then Col. Charles R. Forbes, Director of the Veteran’s Bureau, was revealed as having embezzled $250 million. My sources do not reveal the method he used. Forbes joined Fall and several others in prison, and some other miscreants committed suicide.
To top all this, it became known after Harding’s death that he had conducted an extramarital liaison with a woman in Marion, Ohio, and had fathered her child.
Harding died in San Francisco on August 2, 1923, of a heart attack.
Did you know? Harding was a president of firsts. He was the first businessman, the first to ride in an automobile to his inauguration, and the first to own a radio. Also, in 1922 The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated to honoring the 16th president.
Calvin Coolidge, 30th President, 1923–1928.
He was born July 4, 1872, in Plymouth, Vermont. He grew up on his father’s farm, attended local schools, and entered Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in 1895. He then studied law, and in 1097 he was admitted to the bar. In 1905 he married Grace A. Goodhue, and she became one of the most popular and well-liked hostesses of the White House, offsetting the clam-like chill of her stone-faced husband.
In 1919 Coolidge became Governor of Massachusetts. He put down the strike of the Boston Police by calling out the National Guard. “There is no right to strike against the public safety, by anybody, anywhere, at any time,” he said. In breaking this strike, he did not take back any of the striking policemen. This caper brought him national attention, and he was elected Vice President with Harding in 1920.
At Harding’s death in 1923, Coolidge became President, taking the oath from his father in his old home in Plymouth, Mass.
Coolidge ignored the scandals of the Harding administration because he was not involved in them. Business was booming — prices and wages were coiling up. Leaders of industry were happy, as they always were with a Republican president who could be relied on to protect their interests.
Coolidge was elected to a second term as President in 1924. Perhaps the most noteworthy happening of his second term was the solo flight of Charles Lindberg from New York City to Paris, in 33 hours, 9 minutes and 30 seconds.
Calvin Coolidge was a typical Vermont Yankee, who, had he been born without a tongue, would not have missed it greatly. On one occasion, he was traveling with his gracious wife on a railroad train. They were seated in the dining car. The steward leaned over their table, desperately hoping for some word of praise from his illustrious passenger. Mrs. Coolidge, taking pity on him, said to her husband, “Good coffee, isn’t it, Calvin?”
And the Chief Executive snapped, “Why shouldn’t it be?”
Did you know? Coolidge would sleep more than eight hours a night and take long naps most afternoons. Also, Macy’s held its first Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924.
Herbert Clark Hoover, 31st President, 1928–1932.
He was born August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa.
After his graduation from Leland Stanford University, he worked as a mining engineer in various parts of the globe, including California and Australia. Later he went to China as Chief Engineer of the Chinese Bureau of Mines.
He married a girl named Lou Henry, a graduate student in geology.
After the start of World war I, he began his labors for the destitute people of Belgium. Under his direction, 18 million tons of food were distributed to the famine-stricken areas of Europe.
President Harding appointed him Secretary of Commerce.
When Calvin Coolidge did not “choose to run” for re-election in 1928, the Republican party turned to Hoover. But the Democrats had a candidate who had new and better ideas than the stony-faced Coolidge.
That candidate was Alfred Emanuel Smith.
Al Smith conducted a vigorous campaign on the “raddio”, as he called it, and made many telling points. In his raspy voice, he called attention to many weaknesses in the Republican program. If Hoover made any campaign speeches (he must have made some) I cannot remember a single one. The country was, or seemed to be, fed up with Coolidge’s hard-nosed policies and obvious favoritism of Big Business. I am convinced that Al Smith would have been elected, were it not for one fatal flaw.
Al Smith was a Catholic.
Never before, in the century and a half of U.S. history, had a Catholic ever dared to aspire to the office of President. People who were otherwise sane, responsible citizens, recoiled with a shudder at the very thought of a Catholic President. Even the less-fanatical non-Catholics just didn’t like the idea of a Catholic in the White House. It scared them to think what might happen — a treaty with the Pope, Italian clergymen invading the halls of Congress — much of the nation’s wealth used for missionary efforts to convert the nation to Catholicism. No way!
So Herbert Hoover became the 3lst President of the United States.
The nation paid dearly for its bigotry.
In late 1929 the Great Depression settled on the country. First: the stock market crashed, wiping out billions of dollars of paper profits.
Scores of banks closed their doors, tying up the assets of their depositors. Then business came to almost a total halt. Companies that had prospered now went into bankruptcy, and millions of workers lost their jobs. Former millionaires were now jumping out of windows, so that walking on Wall Street became a hazardous occupation, due to “falling objects”.
For all his successful experience up to this time, Hoover seemed to be powerless to reverse the downward trend. The bottom fell out of every market. The corn the farmers raised sold for 6 cents a bushel. None of the nation’s crops could sell for enough to pay for their cultivation.
In 1932 a bonus army of approximately 20,000 men, mostly veterans, descended upon Washington to persuade Congress to pay them prematurely the bonus that was to become due in 1945. Congress refused to comply. Some of the “army” left, while a large number remained, living in unsanitary conditions until, as a last resort, General Douglas MacArthur was authorized by Hoover to disperse the men and clean up the mess in which they were living.
In the election of 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt received 472 electoral votes to 59 for Hoover. The election took place on Nov. 8, 1932, but Roosevelt could not take office until March 4, 1933. The people could hardly wait these four months to get rid of their “lame duck” president.
I can well imagine that Hoover felt an intense relief as he left the cares and responsibilities of the presidency behind, and fled to the peace and quiet of West Branch, Iowa.
Did you know? During the first three years of his presidency, Hoover and his wife dined alone only thrice, on their wedding anniversary. Also, in 1930 astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at an observatory in Arizona.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President, 1932–1945
Franklin D. Roosevelt, a fifth cousin of Theodore Roosevelt, was born at Hyde Park, New fork. Privately tutored until fourteen, he prepared for college at Groton Academy. In 1904 he graduated from Harvard and then attended Columbia Law School. During this period of his life he married Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, a distant cousin.
He became interested in politics at an early age, and in 1910 he was elected to the state Senate on the Democratic ticket.
President Wilson appointed Roosevelt Assistant Secretary of the Navy, in 1913, but when World War I broke out he wanted to quit his job and enlist in the armed forces. Wilson prevailed on him to keep his job as assistant secretary of the Navy, telling him that he was of greater value to his country where he was than as a member of the armed forces.
In 1920 he ran for Vice President on the Democratic ticket, with James M. Cox of Ohio as the presidential candidate. They were defeated by the Republicans Harding and Coolidge.
In 1921 Roosevelt was stricken with Polio. By strenuous exercises and sheer willpower he regained the use of his arms and hands, but he was never able to walk again without the use of leg braces and crutches.
In spite of his handicaps, Roosevelt continued to maintain his avid interest in politics. In 1924, walking on crutches, he nominated for President Alfred E. Smith, whom he named “the Happy Warrior”.
In 1928 Roosevelt ran for Governor of New York and was elected.
By this time the nation was sunk in the depths of the worst depression in history. Over 5,000 banks had failed. Countless business firms had gone broke, and millions of able-bodied men were out of work.
Roosevelt ran for President in l932 and was elected by an overwhelming margin. Then came the “lame duck” period. The election was held in November, but the new President could not take office until March 4th of the following year (The law has since been changed).
Once the new President had the reins in his hands, things began to happen. He first declared a bank holiday, closing all the banks so no more of them could fail. Then the banks were reopened a few at a time, with Government help. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was created, to give immediate employment to millions of men, regardless of their lack of skills. Anyone can handle a shovel!
Then the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was set to work in the forests and rural areas, cleaning out wastelands, planting trees, and restoring order to the neglected countryside.
Roads were built, graded, and paved, new public buildings were erected, and men who had been idle for months were able to buy food for their families, pay their rent, and still have change in their pockets.
All the laws that were needed to activate these agencies were quickly passed by Congress. And to his everlasting credit, Roosevelt created the Social Security System, whereby working people could receive benefits long after their working years had ended.
On September 1, 1939, Hitler’s army invaded Poland, setting off World War II. Twenty days later, Roosevelt went before Congress to urge the repeal of the arms embargo, which prohibited us from sending arms to the countries threatened by Hitler’s forces.
The British were in desperate need of destroyers, to fight off an expected invasion, and to hunt down the German submarines that were wreaking havoc with the ships bringing supplies and implements of war to the British. Roosevelt arranged to transfer to Great Britain Fifty “over-age” destroyers from the U.S. Navy. In return, the British agreed to grant to the United States for 99 years, base sites on six islands stretching from the Bahamas to British Guiana.
The“ Lend-Lease” program came next. The cost of the war had reduced Great Britain to a state bordering on bankruptcy. Recognizing that it was in our interest to sustain the British, great quantities of war materiel were furnished to Britain as a loan. The parallel was used of lending your garden hose to a neighbor whose house is on fire. When the fire is put out the hose is returned.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended the period of “Pussy-Footing”.
Japan, Germany, and Italy were now our enemies, and England, Russia, and France (the Free-French under deGaulle) were our friends and allies.
In 1944 Roosevelt agreed to accept an unprecedented fourth term as president. In February 1945 he met with Churchill and Stalin at Yalta. Roosevelt exacted a promise of “free elections” from Stalin for the satellite countries of Eastern Europe. As might be expected these promises were never kept.
In his “Shangri-La” at Warm Springs, Georgia, Roosevelt suffered a stroke and died on April 12, 1945.
Did you know? Roosevelt was the first president to appear live on television. Also, in 1942 the US government begins rationing gasoline and sugar during wartime.
This concludes part one of this series. Look out for part two covering 1945–1988 and part three 1988–2020 where I will cover the presidents approximating my grandpa’s temperament, voice, and style of writing as closely as possible. As always, thanks for reading.