Let’s just say Julia Grant truly enjoyed her days in the White House

This cabinet card, signed by First Lady Julia D. Grant, went to auction in November 2015.

By Jim O’Neal

In May 1876, President Ulysses S. Grant and his wife Julia traveled to Philadelphia from Washington to open the Centennial Exposition in Fairmount Park. The United States was celebrating its 100th birthday and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was also a great opportunity to display the remarkable industrial progress that had occurred during the intervening years, especially in the 19th century. The exhibition was the result of three years of extensive planning and it was an impressive accumulation of American ingenuity.

On May 10, before an excited crowd of 186,672, Grant officially opened the fair following Wagner’s Centennial March. It was difficult to hear his speech due to crowd noise, but a flag raising and cannon volley was followed by a loud chorus of “hallelujah!” This was followed by a march to Machinery Hall, where a switch was thrown to spark the enormous Corliss electrical engine to power up all the machinery. At 50 feet tall, it was the largest in the world and powered more than 100 machines on display.

The First Lady was miffed that she wasn’t chosen to start the festivities and her pique exposed how accustomed she had grown to deference in the White House after eight years of pampering. But that honor went to Empress Teresa Cristina, wife of Emperor Dom Pedro II, the last emperor of the Brazilian empire. He had become emperor at age 5 when his father died and he reigned for an astounding 58 years (1831-1889).

Dom Pedro had visited the United States earlier and had attended one of Alexander Graham Bell’s deaf-mute classes at Boston College. Inspired by Bell’s work, he founded the first deaf-mute school in Rio de Janeiro when he returned home. Coincidently, Bell had been persuaded to exhibit his latest invention at the fair: the Bell telephone. When the affable emperor learned of Bell’s exhibit, he eagerly agreed to try the device in a demonstration for a crowd.

Placing the receiver to his ear, he was treated to Bell’s personal recitation of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Delighted and astonished, Dom Pedro exclaimed, “My God, it talks!”

However, the general public proved to be less impressed and hard to sell. As one detractor complained, “It is a scientific toy … for professors of electricity and acoustics.” After convincing his father-in-law, lawyer and financier Gardiner Hubbard, Bell and his assistant Tom Watson set out on a demonstration tour. AGB would sit on a stage, connected to Watson via leased telegraph lines several miles away. After introductory remarks, Watson would sing a repertoire of tunes, including Yankee Doodle.

As an aside, AGB’s first coherent telephone message – “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” – was really a plea for help. He had spilled battery acid on his pants and, instinctively, made the first emergency call in history. We know how that story progressed since we all carry around smartphones that have more computing power (and other functionality) than Apollo 11 when it made its historic manned flight to the moon in 1969.

Although Grant was cheered at the opening of the Centennial Exposition, any thoughts he had about a third term disappeared in a toxic haze of a weak economy and widespread corruption. When the Republican Convention met in Cincinnati in June, the party platform directly criticized Grant, calling the administration “a corrupt centralism … carpetbag tyranny … honeycomb federal government … with incapacity, waste and fraud.” Out of this cesspool stepped the governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, an honest, sincere man with a commitment to limiting the presidency to a single term. Democrats picked the governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, with strong credentials having conquered Tammany Hall and the corrupt Boss Tweed ring of rogues.

Hayes won in 1876 after the most controversial presidential election in U.S. history. Grant was actually worried about a coup as Democrats, convinced the election was rigged, rallied under the cry of “Blood or Tilden.” Since March 4, 1877, was a Sunday, there was precedent to avoid having the inauguration on the Sabbath by waiting until the next day, as Presidents Monroe and Taylor had done. Grant was so paranoid about waiting an extra day that he arranged for a private ceremony on Saturday night as part of a routine dinner at the White House. Hayes was sworn in by Chief Justice Morrison Waite before the food was served.

On Monday, March 5, the ceremony was recreated (for show only) before a crowd estimated at 30,000. A teary-eyed Julia Grant was not one of them. She stayed in the White House as long as possible and I suspect she would have welcomed having another four years. She even hosted a luncheon for her successor after the inauguration. She later wrote, “How pretty the house was … in an abandon of grief, I flung myself on the lounge and wept, wept oh so bitterly.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].


Believe it or not, electing presidents has never been a pleasant affair

An 1889 letter in which Rutherford B. Hayes discusses his inauguration sold for $19,120 at an April 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

One discouraging trend in American culture is treating everything from a partisan-political standpoint. I can recall not too long ago after an election, we’d simply forget about our disagreements about candidates and resume normal civility. Now it seems that nearly everything gets politicized, dividing the nation into continually warring tribes of Red and Blue. Some political pundits see the starting point as the 2000 Gore versus Bush election, with its hanging chads and the controversial Supreme Court decision to stop the vote recount in Florida. Others believe the feud between President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich exacerbated it.

However, to accept either theory requires ignoring the 1876 presidential election between Samuel Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes.

Hayes, the Republican, was a lawyer from Ohio who distinguished himself during the Civil War as a brave soldier who was wounded five times and eventually promoted to a brevet major general. After the war, he served in Congress and was elected governor of Ohio three times.

Tilden also had a legal background and was the 25th governor of New York (1875-76). As the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1876, he is still the only individual to win an outright majority (not just a plurality) of the popular vote, but lose the election … in a rather bizarre series of events. Four other candidates have lost the presidency despite having a plurality of the popular vote (Al Gore and Hillary Clinton are the most recent to suffer this fate).

It had generally been assumed that incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant would run for a third term, despite a troubled economy and numerous scandals that had been discovered during his two terms, which started in 1869. There was also the two-term precedent established by George Washington. In spite of these formidable barriers, Grant’s inner circle of advisors were eager to maintain political power. While Grant was on the verge of announcing his candidacy, the House of Representatives preempted him by passing a resolution by an overwhelming margin, 233-18, establishing a two-term limit to prevent a dictatorship. Grant reluctantly withdrew his name from consideration.

The Democrats proceeded with their National Convention in June 1876 in St. Louis (the first time a major political convention was held west of the Mississippi). They selected Tilden on the second ballot and added Thomas Hendricks for vice president, since he was the only one nominated. The Democrats were hungry for a win since they had been out of power since James Buchanan, who was elected a full 20 years earlier in 1856.

What followed was the most contentious presidential election in American history. On the first vote in the Electoral College, Tilden had 184 votes (only one short) while Hayes was stuck at 165. However, there were 20 votes being contested in four states (Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon) and both parties were claiming victory. This impasse caused a Constitutional crisis and, finally, a beleaguered Congress passed a law on Jan. 29, 1877, to form a special 15-member Electoral Commission to settle the dispute. After a great debate, the commission awarded all 20 disputed votes to Hayes, who became president with 185 votes to Tilden’s 184.

In return, Republicans passed a resolution that required an end to Reconstruction and the removal of all federal troops from every Southern state. Over the next 20 years, the states passed all kinds of laws and regulations that effectively wiped out the provisions of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that granted numerous rights to the black population. It would take another 60 years to regain them when LBJ was president and finally crack the “Solid South” grip on national politics.

Maybe we are doomed to be a divided nation, but I suspect that strong leaders will emerge, eventually, and help us remember the advantages of a group of united states … E pluribus unum.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Tilden Won Presidential Election Before it was Legislated Away

A Samuel Tilden 1876 campaign ferrotype badge sold for $1,875 at a February 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The 1876 presidential election fiasco involving Samuel Tilden and Rutherford Hayes was a major example in American history when “majority rule” broke down … rather badly.

Tilden ended up with 250,000 more popular votes than Hayes. However, three states – Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana (a total of 19 electoral votes) – each sent two sets of electoral votes to Congress.

Eventually, a 15-member electoral commission – with eight Republicans and seven Democrats – awarded all 19 votes (plus 1 disputed vote from Oregon) to the Republican Hayes on a straight party-line vote, 8 to 7.

Hayes won the electoral vote 185 to 184 and became president. After several filibusters and threats that “the streets will run red with blood,” tensions eased and another quasi-Civil War was averted.

Tilden passed up the opportunity to run again in 1880 (due to his health) and died a semi-reclusive bachelor at his estate in New York.

He bequeathed the bulk of his estate to a trust to establish and maintain a free library in New York City. In 1895, John Bigelow, one of Tilden’s Estate Trust Executors, came up with the novel idea of consolidating with two other struggling libraries.

The result was the New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations … the forerunner of the New York Public Library, now second only in size to the Library of Congress.

Tilden died as another presidential also-ran, but with the unique distinction of actually winning the election before it was legislated away in plain sight of all. His tombstone bears the words: “I still trust the people.”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Thomas Hendricks’ Views on Race Cast a Shadow Over His Entire Career

Thomas A. Hendricks is featured on the 1886 $10 Silver Certificate. This example realized $43,125 at a January 2008 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In the annals of American vice presidents, no occupant had a more tortuous path than Democrat Thomas A. Hendricks of Indiana. In the course of that journey, he acquired a controversial reputation with views on race that cast a shadow over his entire career.

A law practice in Indiana led him to a political career in 1848 where he first revealed his anti-black bias. He helped to enact the infamous “Black Laws” – ensuring racial segregation and strict limitations on immigrations of free blacks into the entire state. In 1850, he was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he was a strong supporter of popular sovereignty and expansion of slavery to the West.

He then pushed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and led directly to the Civil War. His speeches were some of the most vitriolic on record concerning the black race. He fought against reconstruction after the war and was rejected as a VP running mate for Samuel Tilden in 1876.

This was the only election in which a candidate (Tilden) received more than 50 percent of the popular vote but was not elected by the Electoral College. (In 1824, 1888 and 2000, the candidate who received the most votes did not win, but none of them had more than 50 percent).

Then eight years later, Grover Cleveland and Hendricks became the first Democrats to win a presidential election since 1856. This was the longest losing streak for any major party in American political history … six consecutive losing presidential elections!

Hendricks’ long wait was over, but he had little time to savor victory. Eight months later, he was dead. For the fifth time, the vice presidency was vacant as the result of the death of the occupant and in 10 of the first 18 presidencies, there was no sitting VP. But by now the office was so lightly regarded, few seemed to care.

That is until someone realized that the offices of both the president pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House were also vacant. With Republicans in control of the Senate, the next successor would be of the opposing party!

So in 1886, Congress passed a law removing Congressional leaders from the line of succession and replaced them with members of the president’s Cabinet … starting with State and then Treasury, War, etc. That lasted until 1947 and then changed again in 1967 with the passage of the 25th Amendment … today’s law.

So old racist Thomas Hendricks’ service was only memorable for the actions taken by others after he died.

Not much of a legacy.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].