5 Best Ex-Presidents

Some Presidents enjoy history-changing terms of office and find themselves elevated to the Pantheon of greatness. Other Chief Executives, however, do as much (and sometimes more) once they leave office as they ever did in power. Here, then, for your Friday History List enjoyment, are the top five ex-presidents:

5. Herbert Hoover – With his presidency devastated (along with the nation) by the Great Depression, a personally repudiated Herbert Hoover was trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 election. Because his image was so tarnished, Hoover largely stayed out of the public eye in the 1930s, resurfacing in 1941 to speak out against American entry into the Second World War, and a possible alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany (he correctly foresaw that helping the Russians defeat Hitler would give them control of much of Europe). After the war, President Truman sent Hoover to Germany to assess its need for economic relief and the state of U.S. occupation; one of Hoover’s innovations was a school meals program for German children Hooverspeisung (Hoover meals). His Hoover Commissions in the years 1947-1949 and 1953-1955, promoted efficiency in the United States Government. The author of over a dozen books, he oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a public policy think-tank that had been created in 1919, and did much fund-raising for the Boys Clubs (now the Boys & Girls Clubs of America).

Herbert Hoover

4. Thomas Jefferson – After having served two terms as president, in 1809 Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello, his plantation in Virginia. Continuing in the spirit of his “Renaissance man” personality, Jefferson studied the classics, worked as an architect, and was a prolific writer of letters, most notably to his former rival John Adams. For many of these years he was occupied with the creation of the University of Virginia, doing most of the architectural design himself. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815.

Thomas Jefferson

3. John Quincy Adams – Defeated overwhelmingly by Andrew Jackson in 1828, career public servant John Quincy Adams reentered the arena almost immediately, becoming in 1830 the only U.S. president to be elected to the House of Representatives after leaving office. He would faithfully serve in Congress, first as a National Republican and later as a Whig, until his death 17 years later. In the House, he was often the lonely antislavery voice, using parliamentary devices to bring up the subject in spite of the Gag Rule. In 1841, he successfully defended the rebellious slaves of the Spanish slave ship Amistad before the Supreme Court of the United States (Amistad is a great movie, by the way, you should see it). Adams did the work pro bono.

John Quincy Adams

2. Bill Clinton – President Clinton has remained active in both party politics and world affairs since leaving office in 2001. A popular public speaker in Democratic circles, Clinton has also published two books, My Life (autobiography) and Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. His William J. Clinton Foundation promotes and provides for a number of humanitarian causes, such as HIV/AIDS programs and the Clinton Foundation Climate Change Initiative; it also funds the Clinton Global Initiative (global public health, poverty alleviation and religious and ethnic conflict). Clinton has traveled to Kazakhstan to help securing mining contracts and to North Korea to negotiate the release of American journalists.

Bill Clinton

1. Jimmy Carter – Defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 after what many have considered to be one of the worst presidencies of the 20th century, Carter immediately got to work. In 1982, he established the Carter Center in Atlanta, to advance human rights and promote democracy by mediating conflicts, and monitoring the electoral process in support of free and fair elections. It also works to improve global health through the control and eradication of diseases, to diminish the stigma against mental illnesses and to improve nutrition through increased crop production in Africa. Carter has traveled the world since his electoral defeat, meeting with world leaders and sometimes negotiating agreements in support of world peace. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The author of over two dozen books, he is also well-known for his work with Habitat for Humanity.

Jimmy Carter

Pearl Harbor: A Date That Is Being Rapidly Forgotten

Sixty-eight years ago today, your grandparents’ generation had their 9-11 moment. On that day, the Empire of Japan decided to sucker-punch the United States Pacific Fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii. The Japanese military leadership hoped that by destroying America’s naval presence in the Pacific, they could bully the United States into accepting Japanese hegemony in the Far East. This would allow their aggressive expansionism to continue unchecked.

The attack began at 11:55AM Eastern time (6:55AM local time), with the aerial bombing beginning almost an hour later. The Americans at Pearl Harbor were taken by surprise, and nearly 3,000 were killed. The destruction was nearly complete: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded.

The United States, however, was fortunate on this day. The decisive weapon of the war in the Pacific would not be battleships, but aircraft carriers, and the American carriers were out to sea when the Japanese struck, and thus they survived. What the attack had accomplished more immediately, however, was to thrust the United States into the Second World War.

For the next six months, the Japanese Empire ran amok in the Far East, capturing nations at will as the United States at first reeled, and then began to build the most formidable war machine in human history to that point. By the summer of 1942, the United States had begun the process of taking the fight to the Japanese, winning two stunning victories at Coral Sea and Midway. From then on, the Japanese were on the defensive. But on December 7, 1941, Americans didn’t know how things would turn out.

Many expected a Japanese invasion of the West Coast; any American with an Oriental look about them was soon considered suspect. Many whites had no time for subtleties  -to them, they all looked like the guys flying Zeros at Pearl Harbor and Midway. Not long after this, the internment order for Japanese-Americans would be issued.

For my father, then a seventeen-year-old living at St. Mary’s Industrial School on the present site of Cardinal Gibbons School, the entry of the United States into the war brought him to enlist in the Marines. He would eventually be wounded on the Japanese island of Okinawa in 1945, but lived to tell the tale. He quickly recovered and would have been part of the invasion of the Japanese mainland had not the atomic bomb ended the war. For this, I probably owe my existence, because conservative estimates put American casualties in Japan at around one million.

Marines on Okinawa

The day after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said that the date would “live in infamy.” For many younger Americans, the date has already lost its meaning, and the future looks bleak as less than 50 survivors of the attack remain. Soon, there will be no one to recall the events of that day, and we will become dependent on books, photographs and films.

But today, while we still have them here, let’s not pass up a chance to pause for a moment or two and recall their 9-11 moment, just as we hope that sixty years from now, our grandchildren will be able to recall ours.

Ranking the Most Important Constitutional Amendments (post-Bill of Rights)

For today’s History List, I look at the lesser known amendments to our constitution that were ratified after the Bill of Rights. (Everyone knows the 1st and 5th amendments, but what about the 23rd?) I rank them as to how important they are today, not necessarily how important they were at the moment they were ratified.

And away we go:

1. 13th Amendment – Ratified almost immediately after the end of the Civil War, this abolished slavery in the United States, removing America’s original sin and fundamentally changing the nation’s character. Without this, the United States would have lacked the moral gravitas to act as a force for civil rights around the world.

2. 14th Amendment – Makes the citizenship of former slaves part of the constitution, removing any potential legal challenges or clever legislative devices to deny the benefits of freedom to those formerly held as slaves. This amendment was largely a reaction to the attempts of Southern states to so restrict the movements and activities of African-Americans as to return them to something very much like slavery.

3. 15th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on race. Another Reconstruction amendment codifying the rights of former slaves.

4. 19th Amendment – Makes it unconstitutional to restrict voting based on gender. Giving women the right to vote took until 1920 – fifty years after African-Americans got the vote.

5. 24th Amendment – Another voting rights act, this time making it unconstitutional to compel voters to pay a tax in order to vote. These “poll taxes” were applied to Southern blacks as a way to discourage their voting. This amendment wasn’t passed until 1964, almost 100 years after the Civil War.

6. 16th Amendment – Allows a federal income tax. We may hate it, but this is how the massive machine that is our government gets paid for.

7. 12th Amendment – In the election of 1800 Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, running mates in the Presidential election, tied in electoral votes. (In those days, vote-getter #1 became President, while the runner-up became Vice-President.) The contest went to the House of Representatives, where Burr almost wrested the presidency from Jefferson.  This amendment straightened out the process, making it clear to electors who was running for President and who was running for Vice President.

8. 17th Amendment – United States Senators used to be selected by state legislatures. This amendment elects them by a direct vote of the people.

9. 21st Amendment – repeals the 18th amendment (prohibition of alcohol), ending the gangster era and bringing drunkards out of closet.

10. 22nd Amendment- Ratified in 1951 as a response to Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times, this amendment restricts the President to two terms of office. This amendment had the unintentional effect of making every two-term president a “lame duck,” with limited power and influence. In reality, a president has a term and a half to get his agenda passed, after that, forget about it.

11. 25th Amendment – Clarified the order of Presidential succession. Here it is, in case you were wondering:

Office Currently Held By
1 Vice President Joe Biden
2 Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi
3 President pro tempore of the Senate Robert Byrd
4 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
5 Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner
6 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
7 Attorney General Eric Holder
8 Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar
9 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack
10 Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke
11 Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis
12 Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius
13 Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan
14 Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood
15 Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
16 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan
17 Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki
18 Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano

12. 26th Amendment – In 1971, the voting age was dropped to 18, immediately causing millions of young Americans to ignore it.

13. 11th Amendment – Prevents states from being sued by citizens. Can you imagine how hopelessly clogged our court system would be if you could sue the government?

14. 23rd Amendment – In 1961, the voters of Washington, D.C. finally got included in the Electoral College. Democrats have been thankful ever since.

15. 27th Amendment – This amendment, which was only ratified in 1992, says that any Congressional pay raise (or decrease) cannot take effect until the next Congress is seated. In 1873, Congress tried to give themselves a 50% pay raise, backdated to the beginning of their terms! This ruse failed when the public caught wind of it.

16. 20th Amendment – Presidents used to be sworn in on March 4th, but with travel being much faster than it was in Washington’s day, this amendment changed the date to January 20, with Congress being sworn in on January 3.

17. 18th Amendment – (Prohibition of alcohol) This amendment tried to legislate morality and failed, giving rise to an era of speakeasies, gangsters and classic movies about speakeasies and gangsters. The 21st Amendment repealed it.

10 Worst Days in United States History

In honor of Black Friday, this week’s History List ranks the ten darkest days in U.S. history. In drawing up this list, I take into account not just fatalities, but also the impact that the event had upon the nation’s psyche. For this reason, only one battle makes the list.

Ready for a depressing trip down America’s Memory Lane? Here we go:

10. 01/28/1986 (Space Shuttle Challenger) – Before this tragedy, the U.S. space program had experienced nothing but success since the fatal January 27, 1967 Apollo I launchpad fire. I suspect that we had begun to take this success for granted, going so far as to include a civilian on this mission, Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher. America watched the shuttle explode live on television, instantly killing all on board, and then got to see the confused and horrified reaction from the crowd at the launch site, including McAuliffe’s parents. It was a stunning and sobering reminder that the United States was not infallible, and that space exploration was still very dangerous business.

Christa McAuliffe, in the back row, second from left.

9. 04/18/1906  (San Francisco earthquake, 3,000-6,000 dead) As devastating as this 8.0 magnitude event was, the subsequent fires that tore through the largely wooden buildings caused 90% of the damage in the city. In addition to the dead, 300,000 survivors lost their homes, with losses estimated at $6.5 billion (in 2009 dollars).

8. 04/04/1968 (Martin Luther King, Jr. Assassinated) The murder of Dr. King, followed by days of bloody race riots, heralded the end of the spirit of non-violence the slain civil rights leader had championed, and initiated a period of extreme anger and confrontation. 1968 would soon see the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the chaotic Democratic National Convention and a call for a return to “law and order.”

7. 09/08/1900 (Galveston hurricane, 6,000- 12,000 dead) At the time of the hurricane, Galveston, on the Gulf coast, sat just 8 feet above sea level. The storm surge alone was 15 feet high. You do the math. After the town had been obliterated, the stench of corpses could be smelled for miles; they were collected on carts and hauled outside of town for mass burial.

6. 11/22/1963 (Kennedy Assassination) For all of his moral flaws and practical inability to get much done, John Kennedy was perhaps the most inspiring leader of his time. While his popularity represents the triumph of style and ideals over substance and achievements, millions of young Americans saw him as representative of their (and America’s) future. His brutal killing in Dallas, followed by a very public period of mourning, will forever mark the end of an American period of innocence, and it set the stage for a darker, more conflicted time in America’s history.

5. 12/07/1941 (Pearl Harbor) As Christmas 1941 approached, most Americans were thankful to have thus far avoided the scourge of war, and assumed that the nation would continue to do so. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet’s base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, ended this illusion. The tally: 4 battleships sunk; 4 battleships damaged including 1 run aground; 2 destroyers sunk, 1 damaged; 1 other ship sunk, 3 damaged; 3 cruisers damaged; 188 aircraft destroyed, 155 aircraft damaged; 2,345 military and 57 civilians killed, 1,247 military and 35 civilians wounded. Images of the Pearl Harbor disaster covered newspapers the next morning, and a Japanese invasion of the American Pacific coast was considered entirely possible. The internment order for Japanese-Americans would soon follow.

4. 09/11/2001 – Before this day, Americans assumed that terrorism was something that other countries had to worry about, as if our geographic separation from the Middle East would save us. The sheer magnitude of the 9/11 attacks stunned the people of the United States and reminded them of their vulnerability in what could be a very frightening world. It also brought to the surface the depths of the hatred with which some Muslims viewed Americans, and the lengths to which they would go to kill Americans (2,976 on this day alone). Feeling insecure in the aftermath of these attacks, Americans willingly accepted intrusive laws, a government with unheard of investigative powers, and military intervention in the Middle East.

3. 4/15/1865 (Lincoln dies) Abraham Lincoln was the nation’s one constant during the trial of civil war. Generals came and went, territory changed hands and the fortunes of war rose and ebbed, but Lincoln never wavered. Only weeks after having been inaugurated for a second term as president, Abraham Lincoln was dead at the hands of an assassin with Southern sympathies. Just when it had seemed as if the nation would be restored without further antagonism, the main proponent of “letting the Rebels up easy”  had been murdered, and the victors held the vanquished fully responsible. What came next was Radical Reconstruction, as many in the North sought not so much reconciliation as retribution. The Old South would be militarily occupied for another dozen years, and forever relegated to the status of economic backwater.

2. 10/29/1929 (stock market) The largely unregulated stock market, full of excesses that had fueled the Roaring 20′s, met with disaster on this day. Banks that had invested poorly folded, taking businesses and family savings with them. The ripple effect brought on the Great Depression, sending millions to the unemployment rolls and devastating the nation’s economy for 12 years, where it could only be ended by the ramp up to World War II. The financial turmoil of this event helped dictators rise to power in Europe and left scars upon a generation that never fully healed. (Just ask anyone over 75.)

1. 08/24/1814 (Washington, D.C. burned) In an event that is today little talked about and even less understood, the capital of the United States was occupied by a foreign power and laid waste. And Americans were helpless to stop it. In 1814, the third year of the War of 1812, England, having finally dispatched Bonaparte, focused its full attention on the wide expanse and paltry military of the United States. While its army and navy occupied eastern New England and planned multiple invasions, British negotiators demanded large land cessions as the price of peace (seeking not only to establish a neutral Indian buffer state in what is now the states bordering the Great Lakes, but also revising both the Canadian‐American boundary and the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that had established the United States as an independent nation). When Washington, D.C fell, almost effortlessly, to the British invasion forces, many thought that the United States was finished as an independent nation. New England actually considered seceding from the United States, and made plans to hold a convention with that object in mind. At the end of August 1814, America teetered at death’s door as a political entity. Fortunately, there would be miracles soon forthcoming at Baltimore and Lake Champlain.

(Dis)Honorable Mentions, in no particular order:

04/12/1861 (Ft. Sumter)

11/16/1776 (Ft. Washington abandoned)

3/06/1857 (Dred Scott)

04/12/1945 (FDR’s death)

04/09/1942 (Bataan)

09/17/1862 (Antietam)

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