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June 24th, 2023       Len’s Letter #63  Three American Icons and Our Current President

Samuel Adams.       Ulysses S Grant.     Harry S Truman

Joseph R Biden

 Consider three Americans – one each from the 18th century, the 19th century, and the 20th century. These three men had failure in common.

They did not have the talent required for ordinary success.  Looking back, we can imagine – erroneously – that they were simply waiting for the times that were right for their talents.  They did not wait patiently. They were ambitious. They were confounded by their ambitions and could not succeed until the times found them.

When the times found them, they took advantage and succeeded beyond what even they expected.  Each of them was an integral part of a transformation of the United States.

 Samuel Adams was a revolutionary and a propagandist.  Son of a distinguished father, older cousin of John, the second United States President.  Samuel Adams agitated for freedom and created an intercolonial network that made unity possible. Without him, there might not have been a unified American revolution.

Ulysses S Grant was the general who won the civil war, the president who consolidated the unity the Civil War was fought for.  A great American hero, his achievements have been diminished largely by those who supported Jim Crow.

Harry S Truman was the senator who exposed World War II’s corporate corruption. As President, he consolidated the international gains World War II was fought for and the domestic gains of the New Deal.

Samuel Adams (1722 – 1803)

His dad seemed to be a success.  His dad was religious, a Deacon at the Old South Congregational Church.  His dad was political, a member of the Boston Caucus that set the agenda for the town meeting, the legislative body of this town of about 18,000 people.  In that role, he was a particular opponent of encroachment of the Crown on local governance. Samuel Adams Sr. prospered until he didn’t. He was a successful merchant until he found himself and his heirs in terrible financial trouble.

To address a shortage of currency, Samuel Adams Sr. and his cohorts created a land bank by mortgaging their property to the bank and issuing paper currency.  The colonial government squelched the scheme by having parliament dissolve the bank leaving the senior Adams and other leaders liable to redeem currency that remained in circulation with silver or gold.  Samuel Adams the son never truly got out from under the land bank related obligations.

Samuel Adams had the right credentials for success in Massachusetts.  He went to Boston Latin School and Harvard College.  He even got a Master’s Degree from Harvard. His interest was politics.  His rectitude precluded him from making money from politics.  His dad lent him money to start, but Samuel Adams was an impossible custodian of that money.  After he frittered away the money he did not lend, he became a partner in the family malt business – producing and selling the malt required for brewing beer and ale.

Responsible for the family finances after his father died, Samuel Adams tried service as a tax collector.  Not eager enough to actually collect taxes, but responsible for the payment of those taxes, his payment obligations as collector may have exceeded any income he got from that position.  An active and popular political figure, friends bailed him out.  His may not have been a great way to live, but Samuel Adams accepted it with equanimity.

He did not accept the British with equanimity.  He wrote scathing commentary on the British role as masters of the colony and began sending his writing to newspapers throughout the colonies.  Samuel Adams two principal skills started to show – writing that aroused and unified the colonies and making behind the scenes political arrangements.

Samuel Adams’ opposed the imposition of taxes – whether it was on sugar or tea, whether it was through the use of stamps to demonstrate taxes had been paid or not.  He organized boycotts of British goods in response to British taxes.  He was not alone.  Other colonies joined the boycott.  Other writers, such as John Dickinson of Pennsylvania joined in the denunciation of the illegality of the British taxes.  The British sent ships to enforce their laws.  When they lost sailors to the wonders of the new world, they impressed locals to take their place.  The persistent increases in British impositions and colonial resistance culminated in what Samuel Adams shared in naming — the Boston Massacre.

Genuinely seeking less confrontation, Samuel Adams persuaded his younger cousin John Adams and Josiah Quincy to defend the soldiers who shot into the crowd.  Boston and the colonies were quieter for a time, but that quiet could not hold.  The effort to sell taxed tea led to what we know as the Boston Tea Party – Boston’s leaders dressed as Indians, watched by thousands of spectators as they disposed of the tea which the British would not take back, by throwing the tea in the bay.

A master at quietly managing political bodies, biographers now credit Samuel Adams as having an enormous influence on the Continental Congresses that led to the Declaration of Independence.  He was effective in persuading the public and the members of the Congress to both press for independence and be patient as events moved the more cautious representatives and colonies toward an independence that included all of the colonies in a single political body.

Samuel Adams was the right man for his time.  Despite electoral success in Massachusetts and financial success in consequence of his son’s holdings when his son died, the period after the Revolutionary War was not Samuel Adams time.  The colonies were already tied together through the Articles of Confederation — tied as closely as was possible while the nation was still being created.  The revolution against undemocratic British leadership was over.  The American colonies had become, as Samuel Adams and others of his time understood it, a democracy.

Stacy Schiff, Samuel Adams’ recent biographer, notes that, in the year of his election as President, Thomas Jefferson restarted a correspondence with Adams.  He commented on their fight for liberty.  She suggests that Jefferson felt greater affection for Samuel Adams than for any of the other patriots.

Schiff also notes that when George Washington visited Boston, he walked around the city with John and Samuel.  They heard someone say: “Behold three men who can make a Revolution when they please.”

Without George Washington in the battlefield, the revolutionaries would not have had a country.  Without Samuel Adams, George Washington might not have had a country to fight for.

Ulysses S. Grant  (1822 – 1885)

 His dad, Jesse Grant, was a fortunate orphan.  Orphaned at age 11, he was on his own, surviving by doing odd jobs.  Diligent and likeable, Owen Brown and his family took him in.  A large family, one more mouth to feed did not seem like much.  Jesse remembered their son John who was six years younger.  Decades later, John Brown shook the country when he led a raid on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, intending to create a slave uprising.

Jesse Grant prospered, eventually owning a tanning operation and a farm. He held fast to abolitionist convictions even when they cost him friendships.  His children worked and went to school.  Ulysses Grant preferred working on the farm to the tannery.  He had a special affinity for horses, an affinity which served him in the military.  Free public schools were not yet available in Ohio, so Jesse Grant paid fees to send his son to school.

Ulysses Grant was a good student.  When his parents sent him to a private school away from home, he had already learned the math they taught.  His father saw a way to send him to college without it costing him.  The United States Military Academy, in existence for less than 40 years, was free. Ulysses Grant could serve his four years and then turn to civilian life.  Jesse Grant humbled himself to his Congressman, one of the friends he had lost over politics, and asked him to nominate his son to the Academy. West Point proved to be agreeable enough. Ulysses Grant relied on the library from which he learned to love novels.  He was less enamored of the military instruction he received and graduated in the middle of his class.

Small and unprepossessing, Ulysses Grant managed having his named mangled into Useless.  He was teased about purchasing a horse when he gave up his maximum price before negotiating at all.  And, he managed being called Sam after the Congressman erroneously called him U S Grant in his recommendation.  Fellow cadets took that name as Uncle Sam.

The Mexican War had a powerful impact on Ulysses S. Grant.  He learned from effective generals, particularly “Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor. He saw what needed to be done and did it (in once instance, hoisting canon to a church steeple to be truly effective artillery).  Two acts of that sort led to promotions, first to Lieutenant and then to Captain.  Nevertheless, he came to understand the Mexican War was for a bad purpose – the expansion of slavery.

Paid badly, his post war military experience ranged from mediocre to terrible.  Among the worst experiences was losing money in side businesses.  He lost money buying ice; he lost more when a business colleague disappeared with his money.

Other terrible experiences included a march across the Isthmus of Panama with the sick and the lame who had been left behind by a commanding officer and a cruel commander in California who threatened court martial for a task not completed claiming Grant had been drinking.  There is no reason to believe that the commander would or even could have carried through with the threat, but Grant resigned and came home burdened for a lifetime by a false narrative about him being a problem drinker.

With no money, his dad unwilling to lend him money, he worked a section of his wife’s father’s farm that was given to her.  Without funds for planting, he never made a go of the farm. He finally returned to work for his father and was just beginning to escape the burden of failure by 1859.

When the war began, Ulysses S. Grant invited himself back into the army, patiently sorting out possibilities so that he could find a spot that allowed him to contribute to the war. U.S. Grant was suited exactly for this war and this time.

In the military, he demonstrated the ability to visualize what was needed to be done and to do it, the resilience to adapt to military setbacks, and the perseverance to press through to win.   Beginning as a Colonel, making an undisciplined volunteer regiment into a fighting unit, his men took Paducah, KY without a fight.  Replacing Fremont in command, he restored confidence in the troops, prepared to attack Fort Henry which fell to naval bombardments before he got there. They took Fort Donelson, a victory which required Grant’s resilience and persistence, and was, perhaps, the first major union victory of the war. That was the site of his famous response to Sherman’s comment about them having had a tough day.  “Lick ‘em tomorrow, though.”  After the victory, Lincoln promoted him to major general.

Hampered by cautious superiors, Grant, nevertheless, achieved a modest victory at Shiloh.  Relieved of command, then restored to command, Grant won victories at Luka and the railroad center at Corinth.  As Lincoln prepared the Emancipation Proclamation, Grant incorporated former slaves into the Union Army.  Finding a way to capture Vicksburg and break Confederate control of the Mississippi River was time consuming.  It took from the November 1862 capture of Holly Springs and Corinth to July 4, 1863 when Vicksburg was finally in Grant’s hands.  During that time the command of the Union army was changed often. When the command was finally settled, shortly before the capture of Vicksburg, Grant had sufficient authority to relieve Mclernand.  During this time period Grant made his infamous attempt to stop what he saw as Jewish speculators by expelling Jews from the Tennessee District – an attempt begun on December 17, 1862 and ended on January 17, 1863.

The victories in Vicksburg in the west and Gettysburg in the east were the beginning of the end of the war.  Sherman and Sheridan, under Grant’s direction, gained control of Tennessee and were on their way into Georgia.   With progress slower in the east, on March 2, 1984, Lincoln named Ulysses Grant Lt. General and commander of all union armies. He had a vision of what could happen  fighting against Robert E Lee, the resilience to attack a new flank when an initial attack and a second attack was turned back, and the boldness to surprise Lee with an attack up the middle and trap him and his army, forcing the surrender.

Elected President, Grant and his country experienced obstacles to reunion and reconstruction. This had been the most devastating war in western history prior to World War I.  He and the country had to grapple with

  • A defeated South whose resources had been sapped, whose embittered white population was in no mood for reconciliation and whose newly freed Black population was learning to be free.
  • Lincoln’s assassination by representatives of that embittered white population
  • A transformed North, become industrialized and wealthy far beyond past experience, its politics fueled by abolitionists insistent on achieving the ideals of equality they believed the country fought for opposed by openly racist Democrats
  • A transformed constitution by way of the 13th, 14th, and (eventually) 15th amendments which changed the authority and the expectations of the national government
  • Grant’s enormous popularity as a kind of second coming of George Washington, a man who represented the great national victory and the ideals for which the country stood.
  • On the southern border – Mexico had just executed its French supported so-called Emperor.

The history of Grant’s presidential administration is undergoing a revision.  Joan Waugh’s U.S. Grant, American Hero, American Myth recounts his presidency and the vision Americans had of him.  Desperate for peace after a bitter war; desperate for a President they could be proud of after Andrew Johnson’s southern orientation was an embarrassment, Grant ran with the slogan “Let Us Have Peace.” The subtext for that peace was a successful reunion with the South, reconstruction of the south, and prosperity for the country.  The prosperity was achieved spectacularly in the north. The corruption for which Grant has been criticized was characteristic of the period. Grant intervened in corruption when he saw it and when he could – stopping, for instance, financiers from cornering the gold market.

The reconstruction was not so much achieved.  A transformation of the status of the enslaved lasted from the mid-terms of 1866 to the completion of Grant’s 2nd term in 1876 – maybe a little less in some parts of the south, longer elsewhere.  When the reconstruction ended, the goal for a South in which freedmen and their descendants were fully a part of civil society had been articulated, begun, and wrested away.

The reunion of the nation was achieved, initially by force in a nation tired of the exercise of force.  Subsequently the reunion was achieved at the expense of the freedman as the exercise of southern violence was no longer met by the national military.  The Radical Republicans no longer controlled the process.  And Grant disappointed the Liberal Republicans, whose vision of governance through civil service was not yet a national vision. It was certainly not the vision of most Republicans or even the Democrats who sought allies in their attempt to defeat Grant.

Nevertheless, Grant ‘s goals were sufficiently achieved so that in 1888, when the great historian James Bryce completed his three volume The American Commonwealth he described four presidents who “belonged in the front rank”–  Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Grant.

Harry S. Truman   (1884 – 1972)

His dad, John Truman, had moved to and partnered with his prosperous and well-known father in law on a 600 acre family farm before John moved the family to Independence.  That farm was adjacent to a 1,000-acre farm also owned by his father in law.  John emulated his father in law  and bought and sold cattle.  Their oldest son Harry was six when they moved to the city.  Harry was 17 at the beginning of the 20th century.  He had already served as a page in the state legislature.  In 1901, Harry graduated from high school.  That same year, his dad was wiped out financially, trading in grain futures.

The family tried Kansas City.  Harry Truman worked briefly in the Kansas City Star mailroom and had a longer commitment as a timekeeper on a construction project for the Santa Fe railroad. He clerked for banks in Kansas City and joined the National Guard in 1905.  He had hoped for a West Point appointment, but was rejected because of the same vision problems that required him to have eyeglasses at a young age.

His father and the rest of the family returned to a farm at a time when farming worked financially.  In 1906, Harry Truman was called back from his modest success working in banks to help his father on the farm.  He joined them in Grandview because he was a dutiful son? Because he was not really enamored of banking?  He became a partner with his father, taking on hard work that toughened him up and his father’s debts which made him vulnerable.

Harry found something of a home with the Masons and renewed his admiration for and a friendship with Bess Wallace.  The admiration had begun when they were in fourth grade.  No matter how hard he worked on the farm and no matter how prosperous the farm got to be, especially after his father died, those debts accumulated.  Extra work such as road overseer or postmaster was brief.  Projects that promised quicker, lucrative earning – a zinc mine, selling oil leases – were chimeras.  Harry Truman lost money.

In 1917, the United States entered the Great War.  For Harry Truman, an earnest young man for whom banking had seemed a bit disreputable and farming a drudgery he took on for the sake of the family, Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war was an opportunity to give meaning to his life.   Too old to be drafted, unfit for the military because of his eyesight, Harry Truman, nevertheless, rejoined the National Guard.  Civil war style, his troops elected him captain.

By November 11, 1918 when the shooting stopped, Harry Truman had served in the regular army at Fort Sill, had become friendly with Sargent Edward Jacobson with whom he successfully ran the “canteen,” captained a field artillery regiment that included John Pendergast, the heir apparent to the Pendergast political machine, and led that regiment in the final months of combat.

In 1919, Harry Truman and Edward Jacobson opened a men’s accessory store in Kansas City.  The store last three years and closed in 1922.  Stubborn, Harry refused to declare bankruptcy.  Gradually, he paid off his debts, finishing those payments in the 1930s.

As meaningful as World War I was to Harry Truman, after the war he became another unsuccessful businessman; a man of talent who could not succeed in the ordinary business world.  As colonial unrest created the right opportunity for Samuel Adams who had prepped in Massachusetts politics.  As the Civil War created just the right opportunity for Ulysses S Grant who had prepped in the Mexican War.  Harry Truman would prep and then find political success.

Harry Truman brought his hard work to the poor farm economy in the 1920s.  He also brought the pleasure he found from being a joiner.  He continued his commitment to the Masons and other community activities including support for the past members of his artillery battery.  John Pendergast helped him get the attention of the Pendergast political machine.  Harry Truman was elected, defeated, and elected again as a county “judge,” a position resembling a county commissioner.  As he led efforts to pass bond issues and managed the county with honesty and fiscal integrity, he had found something that could either be a permanent niche or a starting point.  Having already been named a major in the national guard, he was promoted to be a colonel.  In politics, with becoming termed out as a “judge” imminent, the Pendergasts had him appointed the federal reemployment director for Missouri.

In 1934, Harry Truman filed to run for the US Senate – not on his own, of course.  Initially, Tom Pendergast was reluctant.  But four Democrats who he preferred were unwilling to run.  The Senate was a big step up for Truman, but with the support of the Pendergasts, he won the Democratic primary, defeating two Congressmen, the closest by just over 40,000 votes.  He easily defeated the Republican incumbent in the general election by more than 260,000 votes.

Election of a Democrat was not automatic in Missouri then, but it was probable.  The other US Senate seat was held by a Democrat from 1871 to 1918 and then again from 1926 to 1945.  The seat Harry Truman was elected to had been held by Democrats from 1875 to 1905 and from 1911 to 1929.  Harry Truman defeated the incumbent Republican 60-40.  Missouri’s voters, blaming the Republicans for the depression, had supported FDR in 1932 by nearly 2-1.

When Time Magazine put Harry Truman on the cover of the magazine during the week of March 8, 1943, he had been through a first term when he was, initially, ignored as if he were the Pendergast errand boy.  His diligence and decency earned the respect of other Senators as did his successful leadership of an investigation of the mismanagement of railroads.

By 1940, the Senators whose respect he had earned resented the primary challenge he faced.  Because the leader of the Pendergasts had been jailed for corruption, Harry Truman was the underdog to former governor Lloyd Stark (whose ambition to be governor Truman had supported).  Harry Truman won the primary by 8,000 votes and the general election by a much narrower margin than in 1934.

Harry Truman’s second term made him a celebrity.  In particular, his chairmanship of the Committee on Military Preparation was spectacular as they found the extent to which corporate contractors were cheating the military.  Contractors provided substandard equipment endangering the lives of servicemen who used that equipment.  He had earned being on the cover of Time Magazine on March 8, 1943.  The magazine reported that hardly less remarkable [than the success of the Truman Committee] was the transformation of Harry Truman himself, from Pendergast errand boy (which he never really was) to able, energetic committee chairman just when he was needed.

FDR authorized his political people to work on behalf of Harry Truman’s nomination.  At the convention in 1944 they planned maneuvers to ensure that in the second ballot Truman overtook Vice President Wallace.  When Harry Truman was nominated by the convention, his acceptance speech was the shortest on record:  In less than a minute he said that the nomination was an honor he accepted with humility.  “Now give me a chance.”

Reporter Alan Drury wrote:  “On the credit side, the Senator is a fine man, no one would do a better job of it in the White House if he had to.  On the other side the Pendergast background made him entirely too vulnerable to Republican attack and no one who knows him likes to see him subjected to that kind of smearing….I think Senator Truman is one of the finest men I know.”

Harry Truman was elevated to the Presidency when FDR died.  He would spend the next seven years, the rest of his life, really, and, to some extent, his after life being compared with FDR.

Biographer David McCullough wrote that Winston Churchill assessed the new president to a friend:  “He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.”  Then Churchill jumped a little off the wooden floor and brought both bare feet down with a smack.

Harry Truman had a lot in front of him to deal with:

  • The question of using the Atomic Bomb (he never doubted the wisdom of his decision, which ended WW II).
  • The railroad strike, settled while Congress considered his proposal to draft the railroad workers, essential for moving goods across the country.
  • The extension of the New Deal to Harry Truman’s Fair Deal. Neither extending civil rights nor a national health insurance program got a serious look in Congress, but Harry Truman was established as an heir to FDR. Ending segregation was something he could do without Congress and he did it.
  • Fulfillment of the plans for the United Nations – really Eleanor’s idea.
  • Beginnings of confrontations with the Soviet Union including the Berlin airlift.
  • The Marshall Plan, an enormously expensive and extraordinarily successful plan to save western Europe.
  • The Chinese Civil War for which he was eventually blamed by Republicans for losing.
  • Recognition of Israel.

Harry Truman won the 1948 election – defeating the Republicans, the Dixiecrats, and the Progressives.

  • Winning the Korean War proved to be challenging.
  • Firing insubordinate General Douglas MacArthur was almost as hard.
  • The creation of NATO provided the West with the capacity to oppose the Soviet Union
  • The beginnings of the Red Scare which would culminate in the McCarthy hearings was as challenging domestically as the actual dangers of the Soviet Union
  • Extending Civil Rights actions through executive orders – prohibiting discrimination in the civil service and in contracting suggested the possibility of a second reconstruction.

There is more, of course.  These bullet points are simply a reminder of how extraordinary a president Harry Truman was. I do not suggest comparing him to FDR; I suggest appreciating how well he dealt with his difficult times.

Joe Biden (1942 – )

I began this piece as a break from my usual writing about candidates to give money to.  I began reading Stacy Schiff’s biography of Samuel Adams after hearing her speak at the 92nd Street Y in New York.  As a result of her talk and her book, I came to a greater appreciation of Samuel Adams’ importance to the American Revolution.

As I read about his father’s financial difficulties and Samuel Adams’ own problems in business, US Grant and Harry Truman, extraordinary American leaders who had experienced business failures, came to mind.  I wrote this “Letter” conscious of a pattern for these extraordinary men – their fathers’ complicated lives, their own failures as ordinary businessmen, and their extraordinary political success as the times they lived in fit their skills and their integrity.

Only as I was writing a conclusion for my fifth draft of this piece (of which the published version is the sixth or seventh depending on what I count) did it occur to me that Joe Biden, though he does not quite fit the pattern, bears a resemblance to the three men I had been writing about.  His father’s financial troubles fit the pattern of two of the three.  Joe Biden’s experience in a private law practice was too brief to count as a success or failure unlike the business failures of the trio about whom this piece was originally about.  Joe Biden was a political success nearly from the beginning.

While he did not have financial crises, Joe Biden had a personal tragedy.  His wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident when hit by a semi-trailer truck, his two sons injured in the same accident.  The accident so affected his life that, before he actually took office,  he nearly withdrew from the US Senate seat to which he had just been elected.

As a politician, he was a practical Democrat from Delaware which, then, could still be described, like Maryland (and like Missouri for that matter), as a border state. As Delaware became more like a northern Democratic state, so did Joe Biden become more like a northern Democratic Senator.  He ran for President in 1988 and 2008, and was selected by Barack Obama in 2008 as his Vice Presidential candidate. Joe Biden declined to run for President in 2016, but ran for that office in 2020, defeating then President Trump.

We need to wait for him to complete his time as President to consider whether Joe Biden’s successes are comparable to the successes of the trio I have described above.  Defeating the plague of Covid-19, creating an economic recovery after the world economy and the US economy had been at a stand-still because of that plague, recreating the NATO alliance and leading the western world in support of Ukraine against Russia, and (mostly) making the US a leader in dealing with the climate crisis are important successes.  None are more important than simply winning the 2020 election, defeating the greatest threat to the American democracy since 1860.

Whether Joe Biden achieves iconic status or not, we need him to win again in 2024.  I will say what I say in my Political Notes.  Give Joe Biden money.  He’ll need a ton to win this election.  Join those who would keep America moving forward and donate.