The Door Stop at the Eisenhower National Historical Site

When you go to Gettysburg, you go because you think you will hear about Abraham Lincoln. You do not go because you think you will hear about Dwight D. Eisenhower—he is 80 years removed from the Civil War battle that made the town famous. But hear of him you do, because he bought his first and only house adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield, now a National Park Historic Museum.

Should you doubt that you are adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield, all you need to is glance a couple hundred yards away at the observation tower built to survey where the troops once fought. Eisenhower’s secret service attachment had conniptions over that tower, and pressed Eisenhower to remove it. He refused. If it was for the public’s edification of important history, who was he to take it down? So they bought him a book on the subject of what assassins with high-powered rifles could do. ‘Take it down,’ he said.

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Of course, by the time you spot the tower, you will be in no doubt as to the Musuem’s proximity, because it is only by shuttle bus from the Museum that access to the Eisenhower ranch is gained. It is itself a National Historical Park Site.

On the grounds that came with the farmhouse, Ike used to putz around on a golf-cart type of vehicle. Dignitaries that he would invite away from the congestion of Washington would putz around with him, and Ike would show them the Angus cattle that he raised. Khrushchev was one who rode with him. If the Soviet leader was fond of railing about the materialism of the West, he would have been hard pressed to make his point here. The farmhouse has more rooms than is typical, but otherwise it is no different than any farmhouse of the era. The extra bedrooms are not large. Some of them are downright tiny.

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The farmhouse was not a budget-buster in itself, but the rehab work proved astronomical, the equivalent of two million dollars today. The brick facade proved to be just that—the covering on a log frame that was rotting away. He should have had an inspector look the place over for him before signing on the dotted line. After Ike was done, he bought a car (hard to photograph because it was in the closed-off garage) for his wife (he did not drive himself) and told her that they were now broke. It is about that time that he figured he had better begin writing his memoirs.

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The elderly docent who greeted us in the living room apologized for sitting as he did so, but he had reached the age where standing was too hard on his feet. He did not seem to know how to silence his phone calling pre-recorded to remind him of a doctor’s appointment—he told it to “shut up” once or twice before at length shutting it off. He had once been a building facilities specialist in the military and had at that time been granted Top Secret clearance. People would call him for help even after retirement, and he tried to avoid them because, after all, he was retired—ask the new guy—but he could usually be prevailed upon to tell how to adjust the air conditioning up or down—nothing is straightforward when it has government overtones.

I learned all this because after his speech, While others were roaming the house, I asked him whether he had ever seen the movie ‘Guarding Tess.’ (He had not.) The reason that I asked him that was because he had related before the group grapevine reports that Mamie, Ike’s wife, would make the secret service take notes on her soap operas whenever she was not able to watch them in person, just the sort of thing that Tess, the fictional former First Lady of the movie would have done—though otherwise there appears no similarity at all—do not think I am suggesting that the movie was modeled after the Eisenhowers.

Eisenhower, a recent West Point graduate, had wanted to see action during World War I, but they stuck him in Gettysburg instead in order to head up Camp Colt, a training ground for the Army’s new Tank Corps. He trained his untested volunteers so well—their first task had been to get over the flu they all came down with—that, by the time World War II came about, he vaulted over many more well-known prospects to eventually become Supreme Commander, not just of American forces, but to all Allied Troops.

In his almost embarrassingly modest back enclosed porch (for a president), he liked to watch Westerns as the day wound down. Gunsmoke was a favorite. In this he was just like my Dad, who also liked all Westerns, but would reliably emerge from his den like clockwork only when he heard the Gunsmoke theme music that heralded Matt blowing away yet another miscreant in the street who had drawn his gun first—they always did, the louts—and Matt always outdrew them, saving Dodge City once again.

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An odd and unusual door stop caught my wife’s attention before it did mine. It was metalwork—a statue of Jacob wrestling with the angel, about 8 inches tall.  Maybe his Jehovah’s Witness mom had given it to him with the note ‘Do you remember?’ I entertained for a split second, but dismissed it immediately. Of course he remembered it—the biblical scene has for centuries been fair game for painters and sculptors alike. Or maybe he didn’t remember—or if he did, he was not swept off his feet with appreciation for it. I mean—come on!—a door stop is not an especially honored place for a work of art. It beats weighing down the toilet handle so the water doesn’t run, but still...

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I decided I would ask about that statue, because the subject had come up recently in another connection. Did the ranger (not the one in the living room) know where it came from? No, she said, she did not, but she then dove into the task of discovery with surprising gusto. There is a master log of every single item in the room, if not the entire house. She led me to it and we combed through the pages together.

Ah - here it is. It was a gift presented to the President in 1955 by the Swedish artist Carl Mille, and he used the biblical story to symbolize the present struggle for world piece. How much do you want to bet that before he came calling—hopefully, he didn’t just drop in—Mamie Eisenhower (who kept everything, the docent stated) retrieved it from the humble spot she probably put it in to begin with, spiffed it up, and displayed it prominently on the mantelpiece. I learned that trick with regard to my in-laws ages ago.

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Ike really didn’t get as much use out of his house as he would have liked. No sooner had he bought it, at the conclusion of the war, then Truman asked him to become leader of NATO, which meant living in Europe. Afterwards, elected President of the United States, he would have spent more time in Washington than his Gettysburg home. He willed his home to the National Park Service. After that, he lived but a few years until heart trouble—he had been drinking 25 cups of coffee per day—confined him to nursing facilities. The Park Service granted Mamie permanent occupancy until her health, too, failed. At that time David Eisenhower, the son, told family members to remove the keepsake items they wanted from the home—but make it sparing—and from that time on the farm home and surrounding ranch became the haunts of Park Rangers and docents. The view is spectacular—no wonder the Eisenhower’s liked it. The entire Gettysburg area is gently undulating landscape—the perfect spot for the epic battle of the Civil War 80 years before he and Mamie moved there. It is what went through our minds as we took the shuttle bus back.

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Why Isn’t THAT in Your Museum, National Historic Park Service - Eisenhower’s Mom

They wanted to make him king? And he declined?

“Therefore Jesus, knowing they were about to come and seize him to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain all alone.” (John 6:15)

Few who have read the verse will have had that same offer, much less the experience of accepting it. But Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the few. The victorious general gets to be president—it worked for George Washington, then Andrew Jackson, then Zachary Taylor, then Ulysses Grant. And it worked for Dwight D. Eisenhower, elected “king” in 1952. He had served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces during World War II.

At the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Pennsylvania, the ranger almost immediately made a mistake. Ike and his siblings were raised in the Mennonite religion, she said. I knew it was wrong. They were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses—‘Bible Students’ was the name back then. Yet even when I had one-on-one time with the ranger, I did not challenge her because 1) I had forgotten about it, and 2) the reason I had forgotten about it is that I had initially told myself that maybe his parents were Mennonites longer than they were Witnesses, or maybe they were not Witnesses during their childrens’ formative years. However, I checked later. They were. She was wrong—amazingly wrong, because the National Historical Park Service is not wrong about anything.

The most authoritative source will be this entry of the Kansas Historical Society. If I recalled the name of that ranger, I would contact her first. Alas—like most of the ‘Aha!’ moments of life, it occurs to me too late to act upon it.

If a Mennonite background might sink you as a Presidential candidate in 1952, God help you if were found to have a Jehovah’s Witness background. The Eisenhower children and their handlers kept that background very very secret, so as not to hurt Ike’s political career. Pundits would have destroyed him. I have to admit, even I would have enjoyed a crack at it—there would be my cartoon of Ike and his wife doing street work in front of the White House, holding aloft the Watchtower and Awake, the cover emblazoned: ‘Can Presidents Bring Peace?’ Oh yeah, they would have had a field day with it.

No U.S. religious group was more unpopular during World War II than Jehovah’s Witnesses, who not only refused military service, but also refused to salute the flag—Witnesses do not salute any flag anywhere. Often Witness youths refusing the military draft were sentenced with considerable emotion. Like this example: “I sentence you to five years in a federal prison to be approved by the Attorney General. My only regret, you yellow coward, is that I cannot give you twenty five years!” [from the book ‘Oer the Ramparts They Watched’ - by Victor V Blackwell, an attorney who represented many of them]

Mob violence was common following a 1940 decision of the Supreme Court that school pupils could be compelled to salute the flag. Mobs formed, waving the flag, demanding Witnesses salute it. When they would not, they were attacked and beaten, even into unconsciousness. Their homes, automobiles and meeting places were torched. In small towns, some were rounded up and jailed without charge. In four years, over 2500 mob-related incidents occurred.

The Solicitor General of the United States took to the airwaves: “Jehovah's Witnesses have repeatedly been set upon and beaten. They have committed no crime; but the mob adjudged that they had, and meted out punishment The Attorney General has ordered an immediate investigation of these outrages...The people must be alert and watchful, and above all, cool and sane. Since mob violence will make the government's task infinitely more difficult, it will not be tolerated. We shall not defeat the Nazi evil by emulating its methods.”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt echoed the plea of the Attorney General. The ACLU also spoke out: “It is high time we came to our senses regarding this matter of flag-saluting. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not disloyal Americans…They are not given to law-breaking in general, but lead decent, orderly lives, contributing their share to the common good.” The High Court reversed its decision three years later, partly because they were aghast at what they had unleashed.

A question might be asked: Why didn’t Ike defend them? If not he, (for he was at the time fully immersed as brigadier general overseas) then why not one of his several siblings, who were in position to clarify that declining the flag salute had nothing to do with lack of patriotism, but of respecting the 2nd of the Ten Commandments. They would also have been in ideal position to explain that non-participation in war was completely in harmony with Bible standards. Instead, it was left to the ACLU to explain that “Jehovah’s Witnesses are not disloyal Americans…They are not given to law-breaking in general, but lead decent, orderly lives, contributing their share to the common good.” Ike’s kin might have done it, if not for their former faith itself, then for the sake of dear ol Mom, who held faithfully to it.

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s service to his country, and even the world, will be the trump card for most persons. Had he not been appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, maybe someone less capable would have botched the job. Even for Jehovah’s Witnesses, this will likely be the trump card—for he did liberate the German concentration camps where many of them were, after all, and that must have made Mom proud.

Yet the Eisenhower sibling’s service to the cause of faith is not so stellar. When the Word states that Christians will be hated in all the nations on account of Jesus’ name [“Then people will hand you over to tribulation and will kill you, and you will be hated by all the nations on account of my name.” - Matthew 24:9], is it because those nations will say that they hate God? No. They will say that they love God, but there will be some hot-button issues—in this case, refusal to salute the national flag or engage in military service—that will enrage them, be the matter biblically supported or not.

In fact, a third reason that Jehovah’s Witnesses were reviled is that they called out the major churches for their enthusiastic war cheerleading on both sides of both World Wars. Had even one of the major churches in Germany renounced war participation, Hitler might never have become the world threatening menace that he did become. If you are not going to stand up for peace during time of war, just when do you stand up for it?

Eisenhower’s kin could have explained it all, even if not going along with it themselves. They didn’t. One can only conclude that they were deeply embarrassed, if not ashamed, of their Jehovah’s Witness mother, and to this day wish to keep it a deeply held secret—and that even the National Historic Park Service, who seldom miss the slightest detail, acquiesces to their desire to keep this worst of all worst disgraces out of the public eye. Look, nobody cares—the Watchtower organization is certainly not outraged by it—they don’t do celebrities over there. However, the fact that nobody cares can be said of most details of history. It is history, and history is the National Historical Park Service’s reason for existence. They ought to get it right!

In the mid-seventies, Modern Maturity magazine ran this quote from Melvin Eisenhower, Ike's brother:Mother and Father knew the Bible from one end to the other. In fact, Mother was her own concordance: Without using one, she could turn to the particular scriptural passage she wanted. . . . We had an ideal home for I never heard an unkind word between Father and Mother. They lived by the cardinal concepts of the Judaic-Christian religion.” Really? Well what “Judaic-Christian religion” was it? Alas, it must never be told, for fear of dropping in the eyes of others.

From a Bible standpoint, it is not good. “Everyone, then, who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father who is in the heavens.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will also disown him before my Father who is in the heavens,” says Jesus at Matthew 10:32-33. Should a literal observing of his words be treated as a dirty little secret that must never see the light of day for the sake of preserving popular social approval? “How can you believe,” Jesus spoke again, “when you are accepting glory from one another and you are not seeking the glory that is from the only God?” (John 5:44)

The October 15, 1980 Watchtower tells of a World War II American soldier who became one of Jehovah’s Witnesses while enlisted. Efforts to speak with his superiors about his new-found neutrality went nowhere. So the fellow wrote, not to General Eisenhower, but to his mom! Sometimes you have to do that. Do you want President Trump to do something for you? You can’t write him – he’s busy. You have to write his mom, who will nag him into doing what you want.

One testy exchange between this new Witness and his superiors turned around quickly: “As I entered the headquarters tent, where all the ‘top brass’ had gathered, I didn’t salute.”

One of the officers said: “Don’t you salute your superiors?”

“No, Sir.”

“Why not?”

The soldier gave his reasons, based on his new and incomplete understanding of the Bible. At that the officer said: “General Eisenhower ought to line you Jehovah’s Witnesses up and shoot you all!”

“Do you think he would shoot his own mother, Sir?’ The soldier asked. He then produced the reply that he had just received from Eisenhower’s mom. The senior officer read the letter, and the other officers also gathered around to look at it. He then replied: “Get back to ranks. I don’t want to get mixed up with the General’s mother.”

Why isn’t THAT in your museum, you who miss no detail of Ike’s life? The letter is reproduced below:

 

Abilene, Kansas - August-20-’44.

Mr. Richard Boeckel.

 

Dear Sir: A friend returning from the United Announcers Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses, informs me of meeting you there. I rejoice with you in your privilege of attending such convention.

It has been my good fortune many times in the years gone by to attend these meetings of those faithfully proclaiming the name of Jehovah and his glorious Kingdom which shortly now will pour out its rich blessings over all the earth.

My friend informs me of your desire to have a word from General Eisenhower’s mother whom you have been told is one of the witnesses of Jehovah. I am indeed such and what a glorious privilege it has been in association with those of the present time and with those on back through the annals of Biblical history even to Abel.

Generally I have refused such requests because of my desire to avoid all publicity. However, because you are a person of good will towards Jehovah God and his glorious Theocracy I am very happy to write you.

I have been blessed with seven sons of which five are living, all being very good to their mother and I am constrained to believe are very fine in the eyes of those who have learned to know them.

It was always my desire and my effort to raise my boys in the knowledge of and to reverence their Creator. My prayer is that they all may anchor their hope in the New World, the central feature of which is the Kingdom for which all good people have been praying the past two thousand years.

I feel that Dwight my third son will always strive to do his duty with integrity as he sees such duty. I mention him in particular because of your expressed interest in him.

And so as the mother of General Eisenhower and as a witness of and for the Great Jehovah of Hosts (I have been such the past 49 years) I am pleased to write you and to urge you to faithfulness as a companion of and servant with those who “keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus”.

There can be no doubt that what is now called the post-war period is the “one hour” mentioned at Revelation chapters 17 and 18. Ten here being a symbol not of just ten nations but rather of the whole number or all of the nations, then if we have a real League of Nations acting efficiently as a super guide to the nations of earth at the close of this war that should be ample proof.

Surely this portends that very soon the glorious Theocracy, the long promised Kingdom of Jehovah the Great God and of his Son the everlasting King will rule the entire earth and pour out manifold blessings upon all peoples who are of good will towards Him. All others will be removed.

Again may I urge your ever faithfulness to these the “Higher Powers” and to the New World now so very near.

Respectfully yours in hope of and as a fighter for the New World,

Ida E. Eisenhower

 

See also the chapter ‘Enemies’ of my ebook ‘Tom Irregardless and Me.’

And ‘The Military-Industrial Complex and Jehovah’s Witnesses’

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See overall post of our visit to the Eisenhower National Historical Site here.

 

 

 

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At the Cincinnati William H Taft Home

Cincinnati one hundred years ago was a low-lying bowl of pollution. Doctors told William Howard Taft’s parents to move high on the perimeter hills for the sake of his mother’s lungs, but she died soon after anyway. Driving past those hills one hundred years later in the course of our Cincinnati visit, we spotted the sign pointing up to his childhood home on Mount Auburn, now a National Historic Registry site with park rangers who do not go outside without donning their distinctive ranger hats.




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Taft, the 27th president, is not a well-known president, and one can commiserate with the rangers for the misfortune of not having been assigned a more famous person. Still, I ventured as a consolation, they probably do not have to unspin the apocryphal stories of self-styled experts who ‘know’ this or that bit of nonsense about Washington or Lincoln. They don’t, the guide acknowledged, but the reality is worse: self-styled experts don’t bother with Taft, leaving only the genuine experts, some of whom enjoy playing ‘stump the ranger.’ Our ranger confessed that she didn’t like that game.

Don’t tell Cincinnatians that their president was a nobody. Being mid-westerners not inclined to be overly full of themselves, they will concede that he did not exactly hit a grand slam in the game of fame. However, Cincinnati is Taft town, with multiple roads and institutions bearing the surname. William comes from a civics-minded family, and several generations right down to the present have served in political office. One grandson is featured below beside his unusually modest car for a Yale educated graduate. But politicians have been known to be ever-conscious that they are in the public eye, and perhaps his Ford Maverick is an attempt to reel in the suckers with this bit of proof that he, like them, is but a regular guy.

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Upon reflection, you may discover even before the locals do that William might have become a heavy hitter had not his former mentor and friend returned from shooting elephants in Africa to turn adversary and run against him, splitting the Republican ticket with his newly formed ‘Bull Moose’ party. Had it not been for that, Taft would have won a second term in 1912 and Woodrow Wilson would not have become president. Since Taft was staunchly anti-war, perhaps the U.S. would not have entered the Great War, later rechristened World War I when there proved to be a sequel.

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William Taft is unique in that he is the only person to have headed two branches of government. Eight years after his presidency he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by then-President Harding. Continuing to work after the presidency has not happened during my lifetime, but our guide pointed out that the monitory rewards of the job were not that great at the time, still reflecting the ideals that persons in government would serve for a relatively short time before returning to private life. It is the same reason that Martin Van Buren, whose home I also visited, is listed in a post-Presidency census as farmer in his New York State community.

Word association being what it is, one wonders if Taft does not subconsciously suffer in the public eye due to his name rhyming with graft. If anyone will blow that ‘science’ out of the water, he will. Consistently we read of an impeccable character. For example, an interpretive poster on display at the home reads: “Campaign financing was an issue because of the fear that big corporations were corrupting politics for their own ends. Taft personally turned down questionable campaign contributions. Roosevelt, somewhat less fastidious, wrote to him “I have always said you would be the greatest President, bar only Washington and Lincoln, and I feel mighty inclined to strike out the exceptions. My affection and respect for you are increased by your attitude about contributions. But really I think you are oversensitive” in this matter, and the rift between the two men, once BFFs, began when Taft began to regard with suspicion some of Roosevelt’s Big Business friends.

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Anti-corruption ran in the family. Despite his father Alphonso’s being in the doghouse locally, he was appointed to a position on Ulysses Grant’s cabinet, since he was “as honest as the day is long.” The ‘doghouse’ came because, as Justice of the Cincinnati District Court, he ruled against inclusion of the King James Bible in public school curriculum. He was forever labeled irreligious, but his concern was, ‘What of the Catholics and Jews who used different texts?’ He didn’t want to elevate one branch of religion at the expense others. Our ranger guide said he probably would not have had a problem with the curriculum otherwise. It was a decision he remained ever proud of.

One of Alphonso’s law students, a black man, George Washington Williams, went on to become an Ohio politician, historian and diplomat, and had high words of praise for Alphonso as he seconded his nomination for governor in 1879: “Judge Taft, the only white man in the cabinet of any President during the last eighteen years who had the manhood, the temerity and humanity to exact the powers of the Constitution of the United States to protect the black man in the re-exercise of his constitutional rights.”

The William Taft home, high upon the hill in North Cincinnati, doubled in space soon after the boy Taft, his siblings and parents moved in; eight rooms for six people proved too tight for an upper middle class family. The addition results in an odd interior design of a stairwell running straight up to the second floor meeting an inline one running straight down. The house was sold in time to one owner after another as the area declined, and the latter owner converted it into apartments. When the National Historic Society bought it back, they managed to strip several layers of wallpaper to uncover the original, which was in bad shape, but from it an exact replica could be made.

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Can an honest man be truly happy in politics? “Taft was ambitious, but it almost seems that he ran for the Presidency to satisfy his supporters rather than himself,” says an interpretive poster at his old home. William’s mother had forecast that, “the malice of the politicians would make you miserable,” and he himself confessed to his wife, ‘politics, when I am at it, makes me sick.’ It is little wonder that after the presidency, he himself dove into the world of the Supreme Court, where he could referee and straighten out some of the messes that his former cohorts made.

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Thomas Jefferson - "How Cheap a Price for the Good Will of Another."

“I have mentioned good humor as one of the preservatives of our peace and tranquility. It is among the most effectual, and its effect is so well imitated and aided, artificially, by politeness that this also becomes an acquisition of first-rate value. In truth, politeness is artificial good humor; it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute nearly equivalent to the real virtue. It is the practice of sacrificing to those whom we meet in society all the little conveniences and preferences which will gratify them, and deprive us of nothing worth a moment's consideration; it is the giving a pleasing and flattering turn to our expressions, which will conciliate others and make them pleased with us as well as themselves. How cheap a price for the good will of another! When this is in return for a rude thing said by another, it brings him to his senses, it mortifies and corrects him in the most salutory way, and places him at the feet of your good nature in the eyes of the company. 

"But in stating prudential rules for our government in society I must not omit the important one of never entering into dispute or argument with another. I never saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument. I have seen many, on their getting warm, becoming rude, and shooting one another. Conviction is the effect of our own dispassionate reasoning, either in solitude or weighing within ourselves, idspassionately, what we hear from others, made Doctor Franklin the most amiable of men in society "never to contradict anybody." If he was urged to announce an opinion, he did it rather by asking questions, as if for information, or by suggesting doubts. When I hear another express an opinion which is not mine, I say to myself, he has a right to his opinion, as I to mine; why should I question it? His error does me no injury, and shall I become a Don Quixote, to bring all men by force of argument to one opinion? If a fact be misstated, it is probable he is gratified by a belief in it, and I have no right to deprive him of the gratification. If he wants information, he will ask for it, and then I will give it in measured terms; but if he still believes his own story, and shows a desire to dispute the fact with me, I hear him and say nothing. It is his affair, not mine, if he prefers error.

"There are two classes of disputants most frequently to be met with among us. The first is of young students, just entered the threshold of science, with a first view of its outlines, not yet filled up with the details and modifications which a further progress would bring to their knowledge. The other consists of the ill-tempered & rude men in society, who have taken up a passion for politics. (Good humor and politeness never introduce into mixt society a question on which they foresee there will be a difference of opinion.) From both of those classes of diputants, my dear Jefferson, keep aloof as your owuld from the infected subjects of yellow fever or pestilence. Consider yourself, when with them, as among the patients of Bedlam, needing medical more than moral counsel. Be a listener only, keep within yourself, and endeavor to establish with yourself the habit of silence, especially on politics. In the fevered state of our country, no good can ever result from any attempt to set one of these fiery zealots to rights, either in fact or principle. They are determined as to the facts they will believe, and the opinions on which they will act. Get by them, therefore, as you would by an angry bull; it is not for a man of sense to dispute the road with such an animal.”

The Futility of Disputes (from a letter to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, dated Washington November 24, 1808) - Thomas Jefferson

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Touring the Martin Van Buren Home

“I Martin Van Buren, of the town of Kinderhook, county of Columbia, state of New York, once governor of the state, more recently president of the United States, but for the last and happiest years, farmer of my native town…” Thus begins the will of Martin Van Buren and I thought well of the man for having his priorities straight.


I confess I didn’t know much about Martin Van Buren till a recent tour of his home in upstate New York, near the Hudson. More or less, I had assigned him to the list of ‘duds’ who were presidents from Andrew Jackson up to Abraham Lincoln. Upon my excepting Van Buren, the guide let my observation about duds stand, with the observation that no president served more than one term during those years, since “the challenges leading up to Civil War were thought to be unaddressed by those presidents.” It is not for a National Park Service Department of the Interior tour guide to suggests that former chiefs-in-state were turkeys, and I was content to not be dismissed altogether. As it was, Van Buren lost his run for a second term to a turkey, because a depression allowed his enemies to characterize him, a tavern owner’s son educated in a one-room schoolhouse, as the aristocratic high-rolling “Martin Van Ruin,” but the turkey lived only 30 days before succumbing to pneumonia, which is, in fairness, a little too soon to definitively label him a turkey, but his Vice President successor (whose identity escapes me—someone else will have to get on it) was a fellow who was never imagined for the Presidency and is more aptly considered a genuine turkey.


The opening film they show you at the visitor center of the Van Buren home is among the most compact language-wise that I have seen, with every line conveying a solid and interesting fact. He was the eighth president of the United States, and the first to be actually born in the country. He was the founder of the first political party, which in time became the Democratic Party. Until then, it was until then expected that men would come and go as independent gentlemen and would settle their differences unbuttressed by political ‘party.’ In fact, some of them settled their differences through duel, a favorite technique of Andrew Jackson, whom Van Buren served as Vice President before running for the chief office himself. Aaron Burr famously plugged Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and the guide confirmed as probably true what I had heard—that Hamilton loathed the idea of taking a man’s life and so fired into the air, a strategy not employed by his rival.


The house has a curiously cobbled feel to it, notwithstanding what my cousin (the one who restores original Mustangs) matter-of-factly observed, that there are only so many ways in which you can add rooms to a house. The house did indeed undergo major expansion under the direction of a Van Buren son, and the by-that-time former president writes that he is amused to see what his heir will do with it. Perhaps the feature most ‘clunky’ is the major dining room, which accommodates 18 chairs, and more closely resembles a widened hallway, with no windows, with exterior lighting only on one end and sometimes on the other if the door is opened. There is a chandelier overhead and the guide explained that she would normally have activated it, but an employee had accidentally taken the remote home recently and it had not yet returned. This led me to do my bit for history and suggest that Van Buren likely never allowed use of the remote to prevent just that catastrophe. The cobbled look dissipates once you go to the top floor, where massive bedrooms surround a spacious common area. One room had strewn on the floor toys of the era, which added to the impression that Van Buren did indeed many enjoy his latter enjoyable days in his large home, surrounded with children and grandchildren.


Though the man had once been President, the 1850 census listed his occupation as farmer. There was some sort of a survey form one could fill out at tours’ end, supposedly for some special occasion, but possibly routine. I don’t bother with that sort of nonsense when it is business, since most often they are trying to ascertain just how little service they can get away with until customers scream or, worse, bolt. This one I filled out gladly, however, and dropped it in the mail. I gave it high marks.

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Ben Franklin Strikes Out in Both Worlds!

Ben Franklin courted the widow Helvetius. However, she spurned him because she wanted to be loyal to her deceased husband, whom Franklin had known previously.

Immdediately afterwards, Franklin falls into a deep sleep and has a dream in which he meets the man in heaven. The following are his words, from 'Letter to Madame Helvetius:'

"He asked me a thousand questions relative to the war, the present state of religion, of liberty, of the government in France. “You do not inquire, then,” said I, “after your dear friend, Madame Helvétius; yet she loves you exceedingly: I was in her company not more than an hour ago.”

“Ah,” said he, “you make me recur to my past happiness, which ought to be forgotten in order to be happy here. For many years I could think of nothing but her, though at length I am consoled. I have taken another wife, the most like her that I could find; she is not indeed altogether so handsome, but she has a great fund of wit and good sense; and her whole study is to please me. She is at this moment gone to fetch the best nectar and ambrosia to regale me; stay here awhile and you will see her.”

“I perceive,” said I, “that your former friend is more faithful to you than you are to her; she has had several good offers, but refused them all. I will confess to you that I loved her extremely; but she was cruel to me, and rejected me peremptorily for your sake.”

“I pity you sincerely,” said he, “for she is an excellent woman, handsome and amiable....As he finished these words the new Madame Helvétius entered with the nectar, and I recognized her immediately as my former American friend Mrs. Franklin! I reclaimed her, but she answered me coldly:—“I was a good wife to you for forty-nine years and four months,—nearly half a century; let that content you. I have formed a new connection here, which will last to eternity.”

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