Archive for the ‘presidents’ Category



Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) turns 200 years old today! (So does Darwin.) Lincoln was the 16th American president, being president during the civil war of the 1860s when free states fought against slave states. Lincoln freed the slaves and won the war but he did not live long enough to win the peace: shortly after the war he was shot dead.

He is the man you currently see on the American penny and the five dollar bill. He is half the reason Black History Month falls in February (the other half is Frederick Douglass).

When he became president he had had only two years of Washington experience – less than Obama. In the late 1840s Lincoln had been a one-term Congressman from Illinois. He failed to win the Senate seat in 1858.

During the civil war the press did not think he knew what he was doing. Many expected the war to be short, a matter of weeks or months, but instead it went on for four terrible years, brother fighting brother, more Americans dying than in any other war. Much of it was fought not far from the city of Washington itself.

And even when Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, his most famous speech, no one thought much of it at the time.

The Lincoln we know was not alive in Lincoln’s day. It grew up in the years that followed his death. It is only in looking back that he seems so great.

His great strength was the courage to do what was right for the country no matter what the cost in blood or war or a bad name for himself: Keeping men as slaves was wrong, so he must free them. The country must not be divided or it will fall, so he must fight to make it whole.

That made him hated by many in his own time, but it made him a hero to future days.

He was tall and ugly and often sad but he was a good speaker whose wit could make people laugh.

He had less than a year of schooling but growing up he loved to read: the Bible, Aesop, “Robinson Crusoe”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”, Weems’s “Life of Washington”, Shakespeare and Robert Burns.

Lincoln freed the slaves but he was still more racist than most Americans are today. Here is what he said at the beginning of the Fourth Lincoln-Douglas Debate in 1858:

I will say then that I am not, nor even have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause] – that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.

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The American president, William McKinley, was shot on September 6th 1901 and died a week later. At the time of the shooting the president was being guarded by the Secret Service, 11 soldiers and some policemen.

What went wrong? As the Secret Service later admitted, they were too busy looking at an unarmed black man to notice the white man right in front of him who was hiding a gun in a handkerchief.

The killer, Leon Czolgosz (sounds like Cholgosh), a white man from Detroit, had got in line to shake the president’s hand at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Schumann’s “Traumerei” was playing. Behind him in line was a “dark complexioned man”, who turned out to be James “Big Ben” Parker, a waiter and former constable from Savannah, Georgia.

Czolgosz had bandaged his hand in a handkerchief to hide his gun. When McKinley went to shake his hand, Czolgosz shot him twice. Before he could get off a third shot, Parker hit him and knocked him down and knocked the gun out of his hands, saving the president from certain death.

They took McKinley to the exposition hospital for an operation. The second bullet had gone in, through his stomach and his kidney. The doctors could not find the bullet. Two of the new inventions shown off at the exposition – electric lighting and the X-ray machine – could have helped them find the bullet, but neither was used. No one thought to put electric lights inside the hospital and the doctors thought the X-ray machine was too dangerous.

When word first got out about the shooting, it was said that a black man did it.

In the days that followed McKinley seemed to be getting better, but then on the 12th, almost a week after the shooting, he took a turn for the worse. On Friday the 13th it got so bad there was nothing more the doctors could do. In the early hours of the 14th McKinley died.

Czolgosz was an out-of-work factory worker. His parents had come to America from Poland. When he heard anarchist Emma Goldman speak in Cleveland, he tried to become friends with her, but she thought he was with the police. Her words burned inside him. When he heard that the president was going to be at the Pan-American Exposition he went to Buffalo to kill him.

Czolgosz saw McKinley as the enemy of the good working people: his power only helped the rich against the poor, so Czolgosz was not sorry about killing him. This was a new position for him: he used to vote Republican.

His trial lasted less than nine hours. He was put to death by a new invention of the age: the electric chair.

What changed because of the shooting:

  • Theodore Roosevelt became president.
  • The anarchist movement got a bad name in America and lost ground to socialism.
  • The Secret Service was required by law to protect the president.

What did not change:

  • Racial profiling.

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George W. Bush (1946- ) has been president of the United States of America since 2001. He is due to leave office in 2009. The Bush who was president from 1989 to 1993 was his father.

Bush was president not even a full year when 9/11 killed nearly 3000 Americans in 2001. To defend America against this new and strange war, he increased the power of the American government to watch its citizens. He also attacked Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

He overthrew the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq easily but has not been able to bring real peace to either country. There he finds himself fighting some of the very same forces that attacked America on 9/11. Better there than here, he says.

Bush says he wants to make the world safe for America through planting true democracies. A tall order. It looks next to impossible any time soon in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.

His father had destroyed the Iraqi army in 1991. Nothing stood between the American army and Baghdad. Nothing. But his father chose not take the road to Baghdad: he did not want to get stuck fighting there street to street for years.

But in 2003 Bush did take that road. Years later he is still there fighting. Street to street. James Baker, his father’s Secretary of State, has told him how to get out in the least bad way possible in the ISG Report.

At home Bush cuts taxes on the rich while keeping minimum wage low, like Ronald Reagan, making the rich richer and the poor poorer.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, killing half as many people as 9/11. When he was slow in helping the city, like it was in some part of Africa, Kanye West famously said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Bush and God: Bush believes in God and in divine providence, that God is guiding history. And not just history, but Bush himself. This makes Bush certain and unwavering in his decisions, even when they seem to bring disaster.

God or not, Bush also has Karl Rove, the “Boy Genius” as Bush calls him. Rove is currently the best political mind in either party.

Bush is a Republican who was governor of Texas in the 1990s. In his person he represents the two wings of the Republican party: business and the religious right. He is both a businessman and a serious Christian.

Bush comes from a rich and powerful family. His grandfather was a senator, his brother is governor of Florida, his father was not just president, but was also a rich oil man from Houston and once the head of the CIA.

In public Bush seems a bit dim, like he can barely speak English or hold a thought in his head for more than two minutes. It is an act so people forget that he is a rich man’s son with a Yale education. Listen to him in the 1994 debates when he ran for governor of Texas and lost.

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Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the third American president, being in office during the time of Napoleon. He also wrote the Declaration of Independence. It declared America to be independent of Britain. Among other things it says:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Jefferson goes on to say that governments rule only by consent of the governed. That gives the governed the right to overthrow the government in serious cases. Which is just what Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers did when they overthrew British rule in America.

Jefferson was an intellectual, a child of the Enlightenment who was up on all the latest ideas. Most of his political ideas came from John Locke. He called Locke, Bacon and Newton the three greatest men who ever lived. He had a picture of each one on his wall.

When Jefferson wrote that all men are created equal, he owned 175 black slaves. By 1822 he had 92 more: 267. He only freed 8 of them.

But there is more: after his wife died, Jefferson seems to have had six children by one of his slave women, Sally Hemings, possibly the black half-sister of his dead white wife.

While most consider George Washington and Abraham Lincoln better presidents and better men, Jefferson would make almost anyone’s short list of American presidents. He is on the money and you can see his face on the side of Mount Rushmore along with Lincoln, Washington and Teddy Roosevelt.

When he was president he doubled the size of the country: Napoleon, needing quick money for his wars, sold Louisiana to America. Louisiana in those days was not just a little state next to Texas like it is now: it was all the land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky mountains (except for Texas).

Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on a three-year journey to find out what was out there. On the way they met Sacajawea.

Jefferson had a vast curiosity. He got every book he could find on America and wrote a book about his own state of Virginia.

He loved inventions. When he saw something new, he figured out how it worked and made one of his own. He invented a new sort of plough and was serious about making and selling nails.

Jefferson designed and built his own house, the Monticello.

Sometimes his intellectual pride got the best of him: He believed in God but not in miracles. Therefore he wrote his own gospel about Jesus without miracles.

Later in life Jefferson was deep in debt. When the British burned down the Library of Congress, Jefferson sold his books to Congress to start a new library.

Both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50th birthday of the country, July 4th 1826. They were the last two of the Founding Fathers to die. That was the summer Lincoln was 17.

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