Author Archives: Joel

Truman’s View of Politicians

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 49-50:

For years, John Anderson Truman had taken his family to Jackson County town picnics to hear local politicians speak. “Politics is all he ever advises me to neglect the farm for,” Harry wrote Bess. Harry had studied the lives of all the American presidents. His hero was Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States (1829–1837) and the founder of the Democratic Party, for whom Jackson County, Missouri, was named. Jackson’s adventures in war and politics made his life story read like an adventure novel. “I have been tossed upon the waves of fortune,” Jackson famously said. He was the first American president to come from the common people—people like the Trumans. “If Andrew Jackson can be President, anybody can!” was a common quip of Jackson’s day.

In the fall of 1912 the presidential election was the talk of the Truman dinner table for weeks. Not in Truman’s lifetime had an election been so bitterly fought. A schism tore apart the Republican Party. The incumbent president, William Howard Taft, had won the nomination, leading a humiliated Republican opponent, Theodore Roosevelt, to strike out independently. With his newly created Bull Moose Party, his magnanimity, and his wild oratory style, Theodore Roosevelt riveted Americans. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson had only two years of political experience, and none in national politics. Less than a month before the election, a would-be assassin fired a gunshot into Theodore Roosevelt’s chest, the bullet passing through the pages of a speech he was about to give. With the bullet lodged less than an inch from his heart, he delivered the speech, then went to the hospital and survived. Two weeks later Vice President James Sherman died, leaving the Republican Taft with no running mate.

“Nobody talks anything but election,” Harry wrote Bess on November 6, the day after the contest, which Wilson won, becoming the twenty-eighth president of the United States. The brutality of this election made Truman philosophical about his future and politics itself, especially when his father threw his hat in the ring, running and winning the local office of road overseer.

“Politics sure is the ruination of many a good man,” Harry wrote Bess. “Between hot air and graft he usually loses not only his head but his money and friends as well. Still, if I were rich I’d just as soon spend my money buying votes and offices as yachts and autos. Success seems to me to be merely a point of view anyway . . .

“To succeed financially,” Harry concluded, “a man can’t have any heart. To succeed politically he must be an egotist or a fool or a ward boss tool.”

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Truman Learns He’s President

From The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World, by A. J. Baime (HMH Books, 2017), Kindle pp. 25-26:

In the Capitol, Truman headed through the long hallways, past the eight-foot statue of Benjamin Franklin, and down a marble staircase to Rayburn’s office, which was affectionately nicknamed “the Board of Education.” Truman arrived at about 5:05 p.m. There the Speaker of the House, “Mr. Sam,” was chatting with a couple of other guests. Here in this office, congressmen gathered to “strike a blow for liberty”—to drink whiskey. When asked why the room was called the Board of Education, Rayburn liked to say: “I guess some fellahs have been educated down there.”

Rayburn handed Truman his drink of choice—bourbon and water—then told him that a call had just come in for him, from Steve Early in the White House. Truman picked up the phone and dialed.

“This is the VP,” he said.

In a strained voice, Early ordered Truman to come to the White House “as quickly and quietly” as possible, and to use the main Pennsylvania Avenue entrance. Rayburn was watching Truman at this moment. “He is kind of a pale fellow . . . and he got a little paler,” Rayburn recalled.

Truman hung up. “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” he said. He turned to Sam Rayburn. “Steve Early wants me at the White House immediately,” he said. He made for the door, and with his hand on the knob, he turned and said, “Boys, this is in this room. Something must have happened.”

The vice president walked out the door, then broke into a run. The Capitol hallways were nearly empty by this time, and Truman’s footsteps on the marble floor echoed through the corridors. He made it to his office in the Senate building quickly and out of breath. He grabbed his hat. “[I] told my office force that I’d been summoned to the White House and to say nothing about it,” he later wrote.

Outside it had begun to rain again. Truman found his chauffeur, Tom Harty, and off they went in the Mercury state car with no secret service detail. They arrived at the White House “in almost nothing flat,” Truman recalled, motoring through the Northwest Gate. Ushers greeted the vice president at the door, bowing and taking his hat. They led him upstairs via an elevator to the First Lady’s private study, where Truman found Mrs. Roosevelt, her daughter and son-in-law Anna and John Boettiger, and Stephen Early, sitting quietly. The First Lady approached Truman and put her arm around his shoulder.

“Harry,” she said, “the president is dead.”

Four words raced through Truman’s mind: The lightning has struck! “I was fighting off tears,” he later recalled. “It was the only time in my life I think that I ever felt like I’d had a real shock. I had hurried to the White House to see the president and when I arrived I found I was the president. No one in the history of our country ever had it happen to him just that way.”

He gathered himself. “Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked the First Lady.

“Is there anything we can do for you,” Eleanor Roosevelt answered. “For you are the one in trouble now.”

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First Barbary Ambassador to U.S.

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. c. 8150ff:

When the American fleet was released from the patrol off Tripoli by Lear’s peace treaty, [Commodore] Rodgers showed his power to Bey Hamouda Pacha at Tunis.

He dispatched the Congress and the Vixen and followed with the Constitution, Constellation, Essex, John Adams, Siren, Nautilus, Franklin, Enterprise, Hornet, and part of the flotilla of gunboats which were now arriving from the United States; sixteen sail in all….

They made an imposing sight when they rounded Cape Bon and stood into Tunis Bay on August 1, 1805.

Then Rodgers wrote a letter asking the Bey if he wanted peace or war and giving him the generous time of thirty-six hours in which to reply….

The Bey now refused to receive Decatur, whom Rodgers sent ashore, and the Captain started back to the ship. The Bey told Davis that Rodgers’ letter amounted to a declaration of war. But Bey Hamouda Pacha had no appetite for the big guns of the frigates anchored off his city, and on quick reflection he sent a messenger to Rodgers in such hot haste that he reached the waterfront ahead of Decatur and got a conciliatory reply to the Commodore before Decatur could report how he had been snubbed.

Lear eventually went ashore to assist Davis in the negotiations, but he could not have put any indemnities or weasel clauses into this arrangement even had he desired because Rodgers was watching. To the Bey’s complaint that the entire American fleet had descended on him, Rodgers gave assurance it was not so, because a frigate, a brig, eight gunboats, and two mortar boats had not yet arrived.

Davis wrote to Rodgers suggesting a suspension of any hostilities until a communication could be had with the President of the United States.

That was not Rodgers’ way of doing business. He replied that unless Bey Hamouda gave a guarantee of the maintenance of peace and signed it in the presence of the British and French consuls, he would seal the port so tight that nothing could get in or out. Then Rodgers sent a copy of the wording he wanted in the guarantee. Lear and the Bey went into a round of letter-writing during which Rodgers’ patience was wearing thin. In a letter of August 15 he declared that the Bey must give a guarantee of peace and then he could send an ambassador to Washington to treat if he desired.

Then Rodgers let loose to Lear an opinion about this petty tyrant: “His prevaricating with you in particular, induces me to believe, that he is now more than ever the Scoundrel, I had thought him before, and I have only to repeat, that if he does not do all that is necessary, & proper, that even at the risk of my Conducts being disapproved by my Country, he shall feel the Vengeance of the Squadron now in his Bay.”

In the face of such force and persistency Bey Hamouda capitulated. He gave notice that the United States would be placed on a most-favored-nation basis and that he would send an ambassador to the United States to deal with any complaints. Rodgers answered cordially, said he had a frigate returning, and asked to have the ambassador make ready at once.

The ambassador was Sidi Suliman Mellimelli, who sailed with Decatur on the Congress, and was to become a startling figure, during the winter of 1805-1806, in the American capital where he lived luxuriously at the expense of the American government and pressed a claim for tribute and indemnity.

Decatur carried a letter from Rodgers to Secretary Smith, saying of the Bey of Tunis that if his late hostility should be overlooked, “I can with almost certainty say that he will never again attempt to behave in a similar manner.”

Mellimelli took four beautiful Arabian stud horses with him as a gift to President Jefferson, one having been a gift to the Bey from the Dey of Algiers. The scrupulous Jefferson would not accept them for himself but the Treasury sold them as part payment of Mellimelli’s expenses. But first they were kept in the President’s stables and the stud fees went to the collector of revenues.

The ambassador was accompanied by a suite of eleven, including an Italian band. He was short on women, for whom he had a ravenous appetite. The prim little Secretary of State Madison had to have concubines supplied at public expense, and wrote about it later, saying: “Appropriations to foreign intercourse are terms of great latitude and may be drawn on by very urgent and unforeseen occurrences.”

Madison never lacked the ability of choice expression. Mellimelli did not know the tightness of the American farmer-congressman. He was unable to exact a single coin from Congress or Secretary Gallatin, but the more freehanded Lear did make an adjustment with the Bey two years later by paying $10,000.

After much difficulty and some revolts among his followers, Mellimelli, whose main argument for tribute appeared to be that he would likely be killed if he returned without it, was packed off home in a ship from Boston. The United States continued its payments of tribute to Algiers through the years, but learned what other powers had long known, that it was best to be in arrears.

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Dolley and Decatur, Idols of Their Day

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 5043ff:

YEARS AFTER THE TRIPOLITAN War, Stephen Decatur, commander of the United States, would send the flag of the British frigate Macedonian to Dolley Madison by a young lieutenant, the son of Paul Anderson, Secretary of the Navy at the beginning of the War of 1812. When the lieutenant, arriving during the Naval Ball of the Christmas festivities of 1812, laid the trophy at her feet, the usually self-controlled Dolley, the center of warmth and witticisms, conceded that she blushed like a schoolgirl. The reason has never been well explained.

But one is privileged to believe it was because the enemy standard had been sent to her by one of the most intrepid and certainly the most handsome officer of the U.S. Navy, whose physical strength and virility were in such contrast, as the bewitchingly feminine Dolley must have observed, to the frail delicacy of her beloved but diminutive Jimmy Madison, the President. If Dolley was not stirred by Decatur’s magnetism she was different from virtually all other women who met him, and most men also, because few could be indifferent to this graceful, athletic officer whose broad shoulders, slim waist, curly brown hair and warm, dancing brown eyes, usually tender in conversation but alert and piercing under the excitement of action, made him distinguished physically in nearly any gathering.

His biographers—and quite a number have written of him in sympathetic and none in disparaging vein—seem to agree that he drew the notice of ladies wherever he appeared, and the allurement went much beyond the appeal of the resplendent naval uniform of the day; while the seamen and others who kept journals dealt with him in terms ranging from admiration to reverence.

Said Marine Private Ray: “The intrepid Decatur is as proverbial among sailors, for the good treatment of his men, as he is for his valour. Not a tar, who ever sailed with Decatur, but would almost sacrifice his life for him.”

There was something more mystical about Decatur than his vivid personality and the stimulating glow of his presence, for when he married Susan Wheeler, daughter of Luke Wheeler, wealthy merchant and Mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, his union was with a young lady who had fallen in love with him desperately before she had ever seen him, merely from looking at an Italian miniature of him.

And it was characteristic of his devotion to the United States and to its naval service that he told the beautiful girl, when he proposed, that he had already made vows to his flag which had precedence, because if not steadfast to it, he would not then be worthy of her. Somewhere along the line he had read Richard Lovelace.

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Impressions of Tripoli, 1804

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. 4200ff:

Wild beasts roamed the Barbary shore during the era of the American war. The most common was the hyena, called the dubbah. There were panthers, wild boar, ostriches, and antelopes, while snakes and scorpions abounded.

Though the harbor was commodious, it was shallow and could not grant ingress to vessels drawing more than five or six fathoms, or from thirty to thirty-six feet.

The dominating structure of the harbor was the gray old Castle (now neatly restored) which, partly in ruins, loomed above the shore. It was a formidable stronghold in appearance, while inside it was composed of a series of splendid chambers, arched colonnades, and circling courts, brilliant with mosaics.

Beneath was a labyrinth of subterranean passages where captives were imprisoned and the condemned were executed.

In those days a wide, circular beach stretched in front of the town and toward the east, and much of the city was built in a crescent extending eastward from the tip of the peninsula, and westward for a distance facing the Mediterranean beyond the reef which formed the harbor.

In this city of flat-topped houses, sometimes built from and on heaps of ancient rubble; of mosques, narrow streets, of baths with their clustered cupolas; of fruit trees and date palms giving their scant shade, but with the soft afternoon breeze often coming pleasantly from the Mediterranean, lived a population of extremes in poverty and opulence. For the more consequential men the coffee bazaar was the place of assembly and, in the absence of newspapers, the forum where information was exchanged.

These bazaars were strictly for coffee and no other refreshments were served. Inside they were smoky kitchens, and Arabs of distinction never entered them, but sent their slaves, who brought the coffee in vessels to the arbor-covered marble benches outside.

These were in effect couches, richly draped with carpets and mats, on which the chief men would sit cross-legged—“bear-like,” as Eaton described the posture in Tunis—and sip their beverage leisurely. Sometimes the females of the castle might prefer their coffee flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, or cloves, but the men at the bazaar drank theirs black, thick, and straight.

As these patriarchs of wealth sipped, behind them stood their slaves, often three to one master. One held his pipe, a second his kerchief, and the third his coffee cup, thus releasing his hands while he conversed. Any distinguished Tripolitan Arab required both hands to emphasize and illustrate his words.

Often he would do this by jabbing or drawing designs with the finger of one hand on the palm of the other. On state occasions the chief officials and wealthy men appeared in flowing, gold-embroidered robes of satin and velvet, and, when seasonal, in rich furs.

They wore shawls of the finest texture, jewels, and long silver pendants that served as charms. At noon, which British Consul Richard Tulley’s sister observed to be “an hour when no Moor of distinction leaves his house,” the city napped. Beggars were common on the winding streets.

In sharp contrast with the ornate garb of the wealthy was the wretchedness of the poor and of even the ordinary-run citizen, who was covered with a piece of dark brown homespun cotton, no more than an age-ripened blanket. Blindness was common among the beggars.

The glaring sun of the summer months, taken with the sand particles which filled the air when the ghibli blew from the desert, induced an eye-soreness or ophthalmia, which became aggravated by the presence of numerous busy insects. Dr. Leyden, who studied social and moral conditions of North Africa, and noticed that games of chance were prohibited as strictly as was alcohol, found the time of the average man occupied with “eating, drinking, sleeping, women, horses and prayers.”

Apparently cock-fighting, which thrived, was not regarded a game of chance, or else no wagers were laid. Ostrich-racing was another sport. He reported too that the saints were venerated, but, “any extraordinary qualification—a remarkable crime, sometimes pure idiotism raised them to the rank of saint.”

The women of the harem, usually Georgian or Circassian slaves who had been brought to Tripoli when young and trained for court or harem life, went out but rarely, and only to the mosques to fulfill a vow or make an offering; and then the journey was made from eleven to twelve at night in a palanquin enclosed with linen.

They were accompanied by a large train of guards who showed lights and shouted their approach. This crying was a signal for all common people to clear the streets, for none could look on the females from the seraglio without grave risk to his neck. Such was the city and society the United States was fighting, by no choice of the Jefferson administration, in its first formal war under the Constitution.

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Navy Gunners vs. Tripoli Pirates, 1801

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~2750:

Captain Sterrett bore a British flag as he approached the Tripolitan ship, an expedient frequently practiced in the naval warfare of the day. He inquired of the Tripolitan the object of her cruise. The commander replied that he had come out to look for Americans but lamented that he had not yet found a single one. Sterrett promptly lowered the British and hoisted the U.S. colors and ordered a volley of musketry discharged across the Tripolitan’s decks.

The Tripoli replied with a partial broadside. It was 9:00 a.m. For three hours the ships lay alongside at pistol range and blazed away at each other with broadsides and small arms. Three times they came together and the Muslims tried to board. Each time they were beaten back with severe loss.

Fortunately the Enterprise had a small Marine Corps detachment, commanded by Lieutenant Enoch S. Lane, whose fire was particularly effective during the boarding efforts. An equal number of times the Tripolitans seemed to give up the contest and surrender. They struck their colors, but each time as the wary Lieutenant Sterrett drew close for boarding and as the American gun crews relaxed their efforts, came to the spardeck and cheered for their victory, the enemy ship hoisted her flag again, let loose a blast and renewed the battle. After the last deception Sterrett ordered the gunners to sink the craft, whose fire had grown steadily weaker under the unmerciful bombardment from the American guns. The seamen took up the cry of “Sink the villains.”

Finally the unhappy and treacherous Admiral Rais Mahomet Rous, who like his second in command was wounded, called out for mercy. He bent over the vessel’s waist in a supplicating position which appeared to be a genuine surrender.

Sterrett, not to be duped by further trickery, held his fire but told the commander to come aboard the Enterprise or send some of his officers. The Admiral replied that the Tripoli’s boat was so shattered it was unfit for use.

Sterrett then inquired what assurance he would have that his men would not be murdered if he sent a detail aboard the Tripoli. The Admiral threw his colors into the sea. After that and other supplications and assurances, the American commander decided to take the risk. When the boarding party headed by Lieutenant Porter reached the enemy deck it found a scene of death and desolation almost unparalleled in such small ship actions.

The ship was shot to pieces. Of her eighty men thirty were dead and thirty wounded, leaving but twenty to man the ship. The deck was covered with bodies, splinters, blood, and wreckage. The ship’s surgeon had been killed and there was no one on board to care for the wounded. With the two top officers wounded and the third officer dead, the distressed vessel was virtually out of control.

But the strange feature of this battle fought for three hours at close pistol range, with the two ships often lying alongside, was that when Captain Sterrett checked the American gunners, marines, and seamen, not an American had received a single scratch.

The reason can only be guessed at; partly chance, but mainly because the Barbary powers who were accustomed to boarding defenseless merchant vessels were not fitted by training or temperament for the fierce, desperate, pent-up fury of sea actions in the era of “iron men and wooden ships,” in which, for some reason, the Americans of that day seemed to excel.

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Cost of Barbary Tribute, 1786

From Dawn Like Thunder (Annotated): The Barbary Wars and the Birth of the U.S. Navy, by Glenn Tucker (Corsair Books, 2019), Kindle Loc. ~1150ff:

When Jefferson went to London in company with John Adams to meet the ambassador of Tripoli, Abdurrahman, he found that this least powerful of the Barbary regencies wanted an aggregate of $160,000 from the United States.

The Ambassador thought Tunis would settle for the same tribute.

The cost for all four of the Barbary States probably would be a million dollars, a figure later considerably increased. The ineffectual Congress which operated under the Articles of Confederation had difficulty in raising any kind of money from the states and had no powers of direct taxation.

The request for a million dollars was fantastic. Jefferson was in no temper to pay it even if the money came easily. He rejected it forthwith. What the expected tribute amounted to may be understood better by a comparison with present-day expenditures.

The cost of the federal government for the first ten years under the Constitution, from 1789 to 1800, was roughly $5,775,000 a year. That was the average. The proposed tribute of one million dollars would have aggregated more than one-sixth of the entire federal expenditure.

It would have been tantamount proportionally to fifteen billion dollars of federal expenditures in 1963, at a time when money is much easier to procure by taxation than it was in 1786.

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