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Being There:Encountering America's Presidents
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Being There: Encountering America’s Presidents

by Richard Norton Smith

Writing to his friend John Adams in the spring of 1816, Thomas Jefferson declared, “I prefer the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” In fact, dreams of the future and the history of the past are inseparably linked. Surely, we can all dream of a day when history lives for the average American with a force and relevance that make it an essential part of our culture – even our popular culture.

No people can remain great without extracting from the past what is timeless. Of all the challenges confronting 21st century Americans, none is more daunting than preserving our basic humanity in an increasingly virtual world. How can history help?  Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that there is no such thing as history, only biography. It’s a radical idea, easily dismissed in this age of academic specialization. And yet the Sage of Concord was on to something – something as human as the desire to find a personal connection with the past.

This is especially true of the American presidency. Beginning with Theodore Roosevelt a century ago, the modern mass media – from tabloid and radio, through television and the Internet – have brought presidents into our homes with a vividness and intimacy that make them feel like virtual family members. To see a president is not, however, the same as to know him. Over the years I have observed that most visitors to presidential libraries come seeking an encounter with someone they might otherwise know only as a face on the tube, or a sound bite on YouTube. In addition, they want to experience the presidency, to live vicariously for an hour or two in the shoes of a commander-in-chief; to attend a state dinner; spend a weekend at Camp David; address a campaign rally; or ride aboard Air Force One.

FDR delivering fireside chat
FDR delivering the First Fireside Chat
The White House, Washington DC, March 12, 1933
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library

At its best, history puts a recognizable face on events and people, who might otherwise be reduced to academic shorthand.  Sometimes it’s the personal detail, not the great deed, that makes the connection.  For example, the fact that Gerald Ford, born Leslie L. King, Junior, did not meet his birth father until he was 17 years of age, may strike a more responsive chord among his grandchildren’s generation than his role in the Helsinki Accords or SALT II treaty. Equally revealing is the stack of books, most of them histories and biographies, piled high beside Harry Truman’s easy chair in the living room of the house at 219 North Delaware Street in Independence, Missouri. The last president not to attend college, whatever Truman lacked in formal degrees he more than made up for in historical perspective.

That’s hardly the only evidence of character to be found on North Delaware Street. That his mother-in-law’s house should become his lifelong residence was due largely to Truman’s failure as a post-World War I haberdasher in nearby Kansas City. Determined to pay off every dollar of debt incurred in the collapse of his men’s clothing store, Harry continued to live with his bride under Madge Wallace’s roof. Even after returning from the White House in 1953, the former president couldn’t afford to buy his own house.  Truman refused to cash in on his presidency.  His modest, self-denying lifestyle was only slightly less pinched than the financially bleak retirements of  19th century predecessors like Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson. In any event, Truman’s home was not just his castle; more important, it was, and is, a mirror reflecting his character.

To varying degrees, this is true of every presidential residence. Visitors to James Garfield’s “Lawnfield” in suburban Cleveland may be surprised to find the first “presidential library” – a tribute built with the pennies of schoolchildren following Garfield’s 1881 assassination. Lucretia Garfield thought it a fitting memorial to her bibliophile husband, who found in books (Jane Austen being a favorite author) a refuge from the pressures of office and the incessant, ultimately fatal, demands of office seekers.

In West Branch, Iowa stands the austere Quaker Meetinghouse in which young Herbert Hoover waited for the Inner Light to illuminate his soul. As an old man, Hoover remembered long Sabbaths in an unheated sanctuary, his childish feet not even touching the floor. He also acknowledged that he was ten years old before he realized he could do something for the sheer joy of it, without offending the Almighty. Might one not trace the Depression-era president whose emotional reticence largely obscured his compassion for victims of the economic firestorm to the Quaker orphan from West Branch?

Meetinghouse at Herbert Hoover NHS
Interior of the Friends Meetinghouse at the
Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
National Park Service

Visitors to Greeneville, Tennessee can see the tiny tailor shop in which Andrew Johnson practiced his trade. However one assesses Johnson’s later success at sewing the tattered fabric of Reconstruction-era America back together, no president identified more thoroughly with his fellow laborers. At Gettysburg is the weekend White House cum retirement home of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Here Ike indulged his passion for painting on the glassed-in sun porch. At other times, he escorted world leaders like Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle through his Black Angus cattle barns or over the adjacent Civil War battlefield. No one can walk out of the white brick residence, generously embellished in Mamie Pink, without taking away a vivid sense of its former occupants, their humanity as well as their historic contributions.

All of which leads to the inescapable conclusion: there is no substitute for being there. No video or website, however interactive, can match the authenticity, or emotional engagement, of the real thing. In Kinderhook, New York, one can enter the ambitions, as well as the home of Martin Van Buren, who envisioned his Lindenwald estate as a latter day Mount Vernon or Monticello. It was a vision few others shared. Van Buren’s two failed campaigns to regain the White House only confirmed his enemies’ cynical adage, “Van is a Used Up Man.”

More evocative still is the simple house in the Texas Hill Country where Lyndon Baines Johnson passed his childhood and frequently returned to as an ex-president, anxious to learn how many postcards or copies of his memoirs had been sold that week. In Plains, Georgia, visitors to the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site are introduced, not only to a life, but to a way of life. Through a restored high school, rail depot, and rural farm, the stories of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are interwoven with the narrative of a rural South long since consigned to memory, and to books like Carter’s own classic tale, An Hour Before Sunrise.

It’s a long way from Plains to Plymouth Notch. In the autumn of 1962, all of nine years old, I badgered my parents into driving three hours north, to the aforesaid Vermont hamlet. There, beneath the looming mass of Salt Ash Mountain, we discovered a tiny village of six homes, a number unchanged since the Fourth of July, 1872, when Calvin Coolidge began life in a four-room cottage at the back of his father’s country store. Across the street stands the Coolidge homestead where, early on the morning of August 3, 1923, the most prosaic of American presidents staged the most dramatic of inaugurations. In the front parlor of a house without electricity or indoor plumbing, Vice President Coolidge’s father, a Vermont public notary, swore him into the nation’s highest office after the death of Warren G. Harding. The event captured the imagination of a people eager to be modern, yet still in thrall to the idea of country virtue.

If character is fate, then surely one’s environment is inseparable from the process of character formation. Consider Thomas Jefferson, that self-proclaimed friend to humanity, who nevertheless chose to live in splendid isolation atop a Virginia mountain. “Architecture is my delight,” said Jefferson, “and putting up, and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements.” Monticello is a monument to its builder’s patience, optimism, ingenuity – and contradictions. Today half a million visitors annually marvel at Jefferson’s cannonball clock and swivel chair.  They also contrast his Enlightenment faith in immutable progress with his reliance on slave labor to construct his home and harvest his fields.

Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Monticello

Like the nation Jefferson both defined and expanded, his Monticello was nothing if not a work in progress. No one understood this better than America’s first president. During the Revolution, George Washington undertook to double the size of the modest farmhouse he inherited from his half-brother Lawrence. The two additions he planned neatly reflected his dual nature.  To the south, a private wing, with a bedroom suite for himself and Martha, atop a study affording the most famous man in the world a rare measure of seclusion; while to the north, Washington added an elegant dining room, whose true purpose, as a public stage, found expression in its lack of a permanent table.

Washington welcomed as many as 600 visitors each year to Mount Vernon, most of them strangers whose only calling card was their desire to lay eyes on the self-denying war hero and president. A few months after leaving the presidency, the old soldier informed a friend that “unless someone pops in unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been within the last twenty years–that is, to sit down to dinner by ourselves.” Hospitality aside, Washington busied himself coaxing a living from 8,000 acres of unproductive soil. His innovations extended far beyond the plow he invented to break Mount Vernon’s red crumbly soil, or the rotation of crops fertilized by mud scooped from the Potomac River bottom.

In his politics as in his plantings, Washington didn’t hesitate to blaze trails. In the autumn of 1798, he retreated to his study and scratched out a 28 page will, containing unmistakable evidence of his personal and political evolution. Like other thoughtful men, Washington had long struggled to reconcile his ownership of human beings with his country’s professed love of liberty. He hoped that the Virginia legislature would take the decision out of his hands by providing for gradual emancipation of the slaves on which the state’s plantation economy depended. But with Richmond lawmakers openly defying Federal supremacy - which, needless to say, guaranteed that the state would never defer to northern abolitionists, Washington decided unilaterally to free his slaves on Martha’s death. The former president took an even more radical step in challenging Virginia’s legal ban on educating Negroes. “And I do hereby expressly forbid the sale or transportation out of the said Commonwealth of any slave I may die possessed of, under any pretense whatever.” As if this wasn’t explicit enough, Washington added a clause ordering his executors to carry out his wishes “religiously…without evasion, neglect or delay.”

Far to the north Washington’s successor nursed feelings of rejection, the result of losing the election of 1800 to his erstwhile friend, Thomas Jefferson. John Adams returned to Peacefield, the seaside farm transformed by his redoubtable wife, Abigail, from its original four rooms into a comfortable retirement home.  At the time, it was very much a house of sorrow. Within days of conceding defeat at the polls, Adams learned of the death of his alcoholic son, Charles. “My little bark has been overset in a squall of thunder and lightening and hail attended with the strong smell of sulphur,” wrote the grieving father.

The future appeared bleak, so Adams turned to the past. Concerned that posterity might overlook his contributions to the Revolution and the founding of the nation, the former president retreated to his second floor library and unlimbered his pen. He wrote an autobiography, and re-argued the past in a torrent of letters and historical articles. In time, he renewed his friendship with Jefferson, giving rise to the most poignant correspondence in American history.

John Adams birthplace
View of the John Adams Birthplace
from inside the John Quincy Adams Birthplace
by Betty Agati for National Park Service

At the end of June 1826, a small delegation of his neighbors called upon the ancient statesman at Peacefield. Ninety years old, frail, and toothless, Adams did not rise from his favorite armchair to greet his callers, yet he more than rose to the occasion when asked for a statement to be read at the town’s upcoming celebration of the 50th anniversary of American independence. Today’s visitor to Peacefield can gaze on the corner chair from which the old man offered his two-word valedictory: “Independence forever!”

Here, a few days later, Adams dozed away his last hours, precisely half a century after he and Jefferson had declared the self-evident truths justifying American nationhood. Out back is the Stone Library housing 14,000 volumes belonging to Adams’ son, John Quincy, an intellectual prodigy who spoke seven languages but never mastered the jargon of political maneuver. Among those present on the floor of the House of Representatives in July 1848 when John Quincy Adams, dubbed Old Man Eloquent by his admirers, was at last silenced by a stroke was a young, gawky congressman midway through a single disappointing term representing the people of central Illinois.

For Abraham Lincoln, what began in an overcrowded Kentucky cabin ended in an overcrowded Washington boarding house. The National Park Service maintains both sites today. In a larger sense, of course, Lincoln’s story has no ending. Two centuries after his birth, his greatness is universally recognized, yet the man himself is fast receding in popular memory. Even as much of our world gropes toward the “new birth of freedom” he proclaimed at Gettysburg, Lincoln is in danger of becoming an icon, revered and remote, like Washington on his marble steed, summoned out of the historical mists each February to sell us used cars and appliances.

To know Lincoln the man, even a little, one must visit the Quaker brown residence at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets in Springfield that may well be considered the original House Divided. That Abraham and Mary Lincoln truly loved one another is beyond doubt. That Mary on more than one occasion drove her husband to take refuge on an extra long sofa in the nearby law offices of Lincoln and Herndon is equally certain. This, too, had its educational uses. For if a long-suffering Lincoln refused to be rattled by conflict in the White House, perhaps it was because he had learned to accept conflict in his own house. “Quarrel not at all,” he advised others. “No man resolved to make the most of himself can spare time for personal contention.” Lincoln would take his own advice, and in doing so, forge a presidency whose civility was all the more remarkable given the hatred directed his way.

Abraham Lincoln and family
Abraham Lincoln and his family
Library of Congress

The Lincoln’s neighborhood, restored for modern visitors, had its part to play in what has been called the Great American Story. Around Springfield, it was whispered that the Lincolns spoiled their children. Certainly, their father was more playmate than disciplinarian. A neighbor looking out the window one morning glimpsed a tall, rawboned man carrying the squirming figures of Willie and Tad Lincoln. The boys were shouting at each other and punching the air.

“What’s wrong?” said the neighbor.

“Just what’s the matter with the whole world,” replied their father. “I’ve got three walnuts and each wants two.”

Such humanizing fragments of place and personality remind us why history has been likened to a conversation between the dead, the living, and the unborn. A knowledge of our past affords more than perspective; at critical moments it can supply solace grounded in the example of earlier Americans who confronted challenges barely imaginable to us. Case in point, on September 11, 2001 I was preparing to lead a tour of presidential sites throughout New York, the Hudson Valley, and New England. The trip went ahead as scheduled, an act of solidarity (or bravado) at a moment when no one really knew whether Manhattan would have the heart to welcome outside visitors.

As it turned out, there was no better time or place in which to assess the American Character. One day we visited Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, itself a house of sorrow as well as joy. For on a mind-numbing day in February 1886, TR lost his wife in childbirth and his mother to a wasting disease. Fleeing New York for a North Dakota ranch, he nursed his soul back to health, squandered a fortune in the cattle business, and discovered within himself a streak of iron, much as his distant cousin Franklin would find untapped reserves of will and perseverance after a devastating polio attack.

Before the great shingled barn of a house, I reminded my fellow travelers that precisely 100 years ago another terrorist act, the assassination of President William McKinley, catapulted TR into the White House and launched the American Century. It was from Sagamore Hill that the first President Roosevelt won the 1905 Nobel Peace Prize for midwifing an end to the Russo-Japanese War.

The next day we visited Hyde Park, made famous as the home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. One can hardly hope to understand modern America without understanding FDR, which means understanding the transformation of Sarah Delano Roosevelt’s cosseted only child on his semi-feudal Hudson Valley estate, into the Depression-era champion of America’s dispossessed, its landless and marginalized. A good place to begin is on Sarah’s front porch, from which it is possible to visualize a polio-stricken father of five measuring off his paces while slowly navigating, on crutches, the long driveway that terminates in the Albany Post Road.  Four times torchlight celebrants traversed this same route to congratulate Sarah’s boy on his election as president of the United States.

Members of our travel group old enough to have experienced the Great Depression and World War II recalled the magic of FDR’s Fireside Chats, and the transcendent unity stamped on Americans in the days following Pearl Harbor. Their memories helped somehow to salve the wounds of 9/11, and the uncertain world into which we were being ushered. They demonstrate the essential truth of historical tourism. You don’t have to live in the past to learn from it, unless you count the hours spent at these and dozens of other presidential sites where we become immersed in a country that has never become but, like Jefferson’s Monticello, is always in the act of becoming.