On December 31, 1837, Democrat Amasa J. Parker, congressman from New York, sat down in his quarters in Mrs. Pittman’s boarding house in Washington, D.C., to write a letter to his wife, miles away at their Catskills home in Delhi, New York.
You write that you are sick and have been for a fortnight and did not inform me before. Is this right? I should have informed you if I were sick…I have been meditating what I should do…I ought to be with you to take care of you for I am sure we can take care of each other better than any body else can.
Parker’s letter of December 31 includes a seating chart indicating Mrs. Pittman’s regular diners, a group that included future presidents Millard Fillmore of New York and James Buchanan of Pennsylvania.
The Amasa J. Parker Papers, 1836-1875 contain more than sixty letters written by Parker to his wife during his term of 1837-39. Perhaps Parker’s frustration at being far from his wife during her illness was a factor in his decision not to run for reelection. At the end of his term, he returned home to Delhi to private life.
Parker resumed the practice of law and continued his political service, but confined his activities to the state of New York. Parker went on to become a circuit judge in Albany and one of the founders of Albany Law School.
Turn-of-the-century progressive reformer John Peter Altgeld was born in Germany on December 30, 1847. Despite his humble origins and a father who saw no benefit in education, Altgeld read law and was admitted to the bar in Anderson County, Missouri. There, he committed himself to politics and served as city attorney of Savannah, Missouri (1872-73) and county prosecutor (1874-75). Altgeld moved to Chicago in 1875 and continued his legal and political career, next getting elected to the Cook County Superior Court (1886-91). He won the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor in 1892.
As governor, Altgeld made improvements in state institutions and passed reforms in the penal and legal systems, as well as in early child and women’s labor legislation. However, he is most famous for his June 1893 pardon of the three surviving bombers involved in the May 1886 Haymarket Riot, a labor protest in support of the eight-hour day. The protest had escalated into a violent confrontation in which seven policemen were killed. Altgeld, whose law partner was Clarence Darrow, argued that the trial had been unfair because the judge was prejudiced and the jury stacked.
A year later, in May 1894, Altgeld refused to order the militia to intervene in the Pullman railroad strike when the American Railway Union protested a reduction in salary without an accompanying reduction in the cost of company-owned housing and other expenses. Ultimately, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to suppress the strike, exercising his authority to protect mail and interstate commerce. Altgeld’s Progressive Era-legislation and commitment to the laboring classes made him a hero to activists, workers, and farmers, and an enemy of big business.
Using income derived from his legal work, Altgeld had successfully amassed a small fortune by investing in real estate and construction in Chicago in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, he suffered financial disaster in the late nineteenth century and lost almost his entire estate in 1900.
Andrew Johnson, the seventeenth president of the United States, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, on December 29, 1808. His father’s death when the boy was three left the family in poverty. From age fourteen to age seventeen, young Johnson was apprenticed to a tailor. He then moved with his mother and stepfather to Greeneville, Tennessee, where he established himself as a tailor. Johnson never attended school but taught himself to read and write—he all but memorized the U.S. Constitution—and after his 1827 marriage to Eliza McCardle, a shoemaker’s daughter, acquired a good common education under her tutelage.
A gifted orator, Johnson quickly ascended the political ladder. In 1829, he won his first office, as an alderman. In steady succession he became mayor of Greeneville, a member of the Tennessee state legislature (1835-37, 1839-43), U.S. congressman (1843-53), governor of Tennessee (1853-57), and U.S. senator (1857-62). In Congress, Johnson supported the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War, and sponsored a homestead bill that anticipated the 1862 Homestead Act. He also was the only Southern senator who firmly supported the Union and remained in the Senate throughout both the secession crisis and the Civil War. In the spring of 1862, after federal forces captured portions of Tennessee, President Lincoln appointed him military governor of the state, an office he held despite constant danger to his life.
Two years later, influential moderates such as William Seward worked to secure Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, as Lincoln’s running mate on the Republican Party ticket. According to a May 20, 1865, editorial External in Harper’s Weekly, Seward had seen in Johnson “that his fellow-Senator, a land-reformer, a stern Union man, a trusted representative of the people of the South as distinguished from the planting aristocracy, was the very kind of leader by whom the political power of the aristocracy was ultimately to be overthrown in its own section.”
After Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, little more than a month after their inauguration, Johnson assumed the presidency. His administration ran more smoothly in the foreign than the domestic arena: in 1867, Secretary of State Seward purchased Alaska and helped negotiate France’s withdrawal of troops from Mexico.
Domestically, Johnson faced a crisis with radical congressional Republicans who deemed his post-war Reconstruction policies far too lenient toward white Southerners and insufficiently supportive of former slaves. Regarding secession as a legal impossibility that ought to require little legislation to cancel, and bearing a white Southerner’s racial prejudices, Johnson sought to minimize the conditions under which those who had seceded could resume full citizenship and wished to do little beyond the Thirteenth Amendment to ensure rights and protections for the freedmen. (He had no interest, for example, in guaranteeing newly emancipated men the right to vote.) Ill will and deep political disagreements culminated in Congress voting articles of impeachment against Johnson in February 1868. On May 16, 1868, the U.S. Senate acquitted Johnson of the charges by a single vote and he served the remainder of his presidential term.
After his presidency, Johnson sought to vindicate himself by gaining reelection to the Senate. His first two bids were unsuccessful, but in 1875, he again became a U.S. senator from Tennessee. He died just months into his term.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, in Staunton, Virginia. His father was a Presbyterian minister whose religious moralism deeply influenced young “Tommy Wilson” (as he was then known) during his formative years growing up in Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. (He later dropped his first name.)
It is not needful or possible at this time, whilst yet he lives, to say that Wilson is a Washington or another Lincoln, but he is a great American. He is one of the great presidents of American history.
The twenty-eighth president of the United States, Wilson served two consecutive terms in the White House, from 1913 to 1921, including the pivotal years of the First World War. “He thinks he is another Jesus Christ come upon the Earth to reform men,” French president Georges Clemenceau once complained—and indeed, such idealism was both Wilson’s strength and his downfall as an international political visionary.
Before entering politics, Wilson took his undergraduate degree at Princeton University, briefly studied law at the University of Virginia, and earned a doctorate in history at Johns Hopkins University. He then taught history, law, and political science at Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and Princeton while producing a distinguished series of scholarly publications.
In 1902 Wilson became president of Princeton, instituting far-reaching educational reforms that contributed to his election as governor of New Jersey in 1910. The politicians who nominated him had assumed that a college president would be politically unsophisticated and easy to manipulate, but Wilson instead struck out on a bold course of independence and progressive reform.
Two years later, the Democratic National Convention nominated him for president of the United States. Facing a divided Republican Party with former president Theodore Roosevelt as the breakaway Progressive Party nominee, Wilson defeated incumbent President William Howard Taft to win the White House, the first Southerner and second Democrat to do so since the Civil War half a century before.
On the day before Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913, the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and local suffrage groups organized a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., to bring the question of women’s suffrage to the forefront of national and presidential attention. More than 8,000 people marched in the parade, which also met large numbers of protesters. It is said that when Wilson arrived in town, he found the streets empty of welcoming crowds and was told that everyone was on Pennsylvania Avenue watching the parade.
A true progressive reformer in many respects, Wilson was not so completely. He retained the racial prejudice of his white Southern roots, instituted racial segregation at the Federal level, and proved unsympathetic to women’s struggle to gain the vote, although Congress ultimately passed the Nineteenth Amendment during his second term.
Suffrage was only one of the volatile issues that Wilson faced during his presidency. A man who believed the president should be a strong force for democratic change, he succeeded in reforming the nation’s tariff system, its banking and currency laws, and its antitrust policies. Yet his progressive measures often met with opposition, and in foreign policy he faced greater challenges than any president since Abraham Lincoln.
Determining whether or not to involve the U.S. in World War I severely tested his leadership. Wilson was initially reluctant to enter World War I and struggled to maintain American neutrality. When German submarines began sinking U.S. ships shortly after his second inauguration, however, the United States entered the conflict with a formal declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917. Wilson framed even this event in terms of his governing ideals: he asked Congress to take the nation to war on the grounds that “the world must be made safe for democracy.”
Less than a year later, on January 8, 1918, Wilson made his famous Fourteen Points address, in which he proclaimed that the outcome of the war should be an expansion of national self-determination, greater freedom and transparency in international relations, and disarmament. He also introduced the idea of a League of Nations, an organization that would strive to preserve territorial integrity and political independence among large and small nations alike.
Wilson intended the Fourteen Points to help end the war and achieve an equitable peace for all. He worked tirelessly to promote his plan at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. The charter of the proposed League of Nations was incorporated into the conference’s Treaty of Versailles, but most of the other Fourteen Points fell by the wayside.
For his peacemaking efforts, Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize. The award was bittersweet, however, because he was unable to convince congressional opponents, such as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, to support U.S. entry into the League of Nations. United States membership, Wilson believed, was essential to ensuring lasting world peace, for he considered the League “the only hope for mankind,” and its creation a God-given mission for America. Despite his appeal directly to the American people in a nationwide tour, the Senate in the end refused to ratify the treaty.
By that time the exhausted president had suffered two strokes, the second massive and incapacitating. He refused to resign. His beloved first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, had died in 1914; now his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, hid the severity of his illness from the public and quietly took almost complete control of his presidency as he struggled towards a partial recovery.
Though she had no authority to do so and no first lady, or any woman, had ever held such power in the United States before, Mrs. Wilson justified her actions on the grounds that her husband’s life was more important than the nation’s legitimate political order. As she put it, “Woodrow Wilson was first my beloved husband whose life I was trying to save, fighting with my back to the wall—after that he was the President of the United States.” For the final year and a half of his presidency the nation never realized how ill Wilson was, or how completely his wife held the reigns of power.
On December 27, 1900, Carry Nation brought her campaign against alcohol to Wichita, Kansas, when she smashed up the bar at the elegant Carey Hotel. Earlier that year, Nation had abandoned the nonviolent agitation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in favor of direct action that she called “hatchetation.” Since the Kansas Constitution prohibited alcohol, Nation argued that destroying saloons was an acceptable means of battling the state’s flourishing liquor trade.
Strike For The Cause Of Temp’rance, Wield In Your Mightiest Blow…
Born in Kentucky in 1846, Carry Amelia Moore accompanied her family to Missouri in the 1850s. Her first husband, a physician, died of alcohol-related illness early in their marriage, leaving her to support herself, her young daughter, and her mother-in-law. Carry earned a teaching certificate and taught primary school for four years, before losing her position. At this point, according to her autobiography, she prayed that she would find a suitable husband. In 1877, she met and married David Nation–in just six weeks.
Arriving in Kansas in the 1890s, she became active in mainstream temperance organizations. The failure of Kansas authorities to enforce the ban on alcohol initially rallied some support for Nation’s attacks. However, her extreme methods and unladylike behavior ultimately distanced Nation from state and national temperance societies.
Eventually, state fairs and medicine show tours became Nation’s pulpit and source of financial security. Dressed in stark black and white, she promulgated her equally unambiguous views against liquor, tobacco, fraternal orders, and excessive fashion. Freeman Willis of New Hampshire encountered her on the state fair circuit. He later recalled the incident for a WPA interviewer:
The Belknap County Fair at Laconia was a great time for Dr. Greene. He had Carrie Nation…yes, hatchet and all…out there, once, for advertising. He spent a pile of money on advertising. And while Carrie was there the town was hers…as much of it as Dr. Greene’s money could buy.
Yet, Nation’s celebrity was based more on her notoriety as a hatchet-wielding saloon buster than for an appreciation of her cause. Willis recounts that he saw Nation a second time at the Buffalo State Fair. There, she complained, “they don’t believe…a lot of them don’t…that I’m the real Carrie Nation. They think I’m a fake…dressed up to imitate Carrie. I wish you’d tell them I am the real Carrie.”
Many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century reformers supported the prohibition of alcohol. Suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton often urged adoption of temperance legislation. Lacking legal rights to their property, their wages, and even their children, women’s lives in the nineteenth century were easily devastated if the men they depended on “took to drink.”
This flowery tribute captures the sense of romance with which turn-of-the-century Americans regarded the naval hero of the Spanish-American War, Admiral George Dewey. Dewey was born in Montpelier, Vermont, on December 26, 1837.
On a bright May morning two years ago there came from out the ocean mist an untried naval squadron, mirroring in the rippling waves the flag of the mistress of the Western world, the lustre of whose shining stars has never been dimmed by dishonor or defeat, seeking in Manila Bay the naval pride and power of Spain…from out the din and smoke of battle there arose a colossal figure, calm and majestic, cool and self-reliant…a naval hero, the splendor and brilliancy of whose achievement have written on the eternal tablet of fame…the immortal name of Admiral George Dewey…
An 1858 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Dewey served in the Union Navy during the Civil War. He fought in the battles of New Orleans, Port Hudson, and Donaldsville, Louisiana. Dewey rose steadily through the Navy’s leadership ranks. In 1897 Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, appointed Dewey commander of the Asiatic Squadron stationed in Hong Kong.
Dewey made careful preparations for a battle with the Spanish fleet in the Pacific, departing for the Philippines on April 25, 1898, the day that the U.S. declared war on Spain. Just before 6:00 a.m. on the morning of May 1, 1898, Commodore George Dewey commenced the Battle of Manila Bay, uttering the famous command, “You may fire when ready, Gridley.”
Within six hours, Dewey’s squadron of six ships, including the flagship USS Olympia, had sunk every ship in the Spanish fleet. There were few casualties and no loss of life on the American side. On August 13, 1898, U.S. troops occupied Manila, bringing the United States closer to an ultimate victory in the Spanish-American War.
Dewey’s decisive victory at Manila on May 1, 1898, is credited with U.S. recognition as a major naval power. The acquisition of the Philippines gave the United States a strong presence in the Pacific. Admiral Dewey became a national hero, and his triumphant homecoming in 1899 was celebrated with wild enthusiasm.
As the Honorable Josiah Settle described it:
…when, home at last, his gallant flagship lay anchored in the bay of the second city of the world, her teeming millions were mad with joy and impatience to do such honor to the hero of Manila as was never shown mortal man before; and it can be truly said that such unlimited display of loyal affection and costly magnificence as New York gave the home returning hero was greater than was ever shown before to any other man.
On December 25, Christians around the world celebrate the birth of Christ. The origins of the holiday are uncertain; by the year 336, however, the Christian church in Rome observed the Feast of the Nativity on December 25. At that time, Christmas coincided approximately with the winter solstice and the Roman Festival of Saturnalia. Today, observations of Christmas incorporate the secular and religious traditions of many cultures, from the ancient Roman practice of decorating homes with evergreens and exchanging gifts at the New Year to the Celtic Yule log.
For Margaret Davis, born in Clarke County, Georgia, in 1887, Christmas brought to mind memories of the food and family that filled her parents’ home between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. She recalled:
Mama killed turkeys, chickens, and…cooked cakes for two weeks….
…that was the way we spent our Christmas then, eating and dancing, and parties all through the week….
There was not so many things for children to get then, as they have now, but we got many nice things.
Alan Wallace of Brookfield, Massachusetts, cherished his mother’s tradition of making Christmas gifts by hand. When she was a girl during the Civil War, he recalled, her family “couldn’t afford to spend money on anything but food. The habit stuck to her and so, when my brothers and I came along she taught us to do many things that ever since makes Christmas to me.” Preparations for Christmas began, Wallace remembered, when the family went to the seashore for their summer vacation:
…half the fun of going was the finding of shells to take home to make into Christmas presents. We’d pick up the prettiest clam shells and scallop shells, a whole basket full, and then when we got back home, we’d paint them in the evenings – make ash trays, pin trays and – and – oh, yes, paper weights and sometimes door stops.
As I look back on it now I realize that some of them were pretty awful but Mother always seemed delighted with our efforts, no matter how feeble they proved to be.…
To Father and Mother, Christmas meant love and love means happiness—doesn’t it?
‘Tis December 24, the day before Christmas, and all through the land, families send excited children to bed with a reading of Clement Moore’s classic poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there….
Moore is thought to have composed the tale, now popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas,” on December 24, 1822, while traveling home from Greenwich Village, where he had bought a turkey to fill the last of several baskets that his family was accustomed to donating to the poor during the holiday season.
Perhaps inspired by the plump, bearded Dutchman who took him by sleigh on his errand through the snow-covered streets of New York City, Moore penned “A Visit from St. Nicholas” for the amusement of his six children, with whom he shared the poem that evening. His vision of St. Nicholas draws upon Dutch-American and Norwegian traditions of a magical, gift-giving figure who appears at Christmas time, and was likely influenced by descriptions of St. Nicholas appearing in several publications from recent years, including Washington Irving’s A History of New YorkExternal.
Clement Moore was born in 1779 into a prominent New York family. His father, Benjamin Moore, president of Columbia University, in his role as Episcopal bishop of New York participated in the inauguration of George Washington as the nation’s first president. The elder Moore also administered last rites to Alexander Hamilton after he was mortally wounded in a tragic duel with Aaron Burr.
A graduate of Columbia, Clement Moore was a scholar of Hebrew and a professor of Oriental and Greek literature at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He is said to have been embarrassed by the light-hearted verse, which was made public without his knowledge in December 1823. Moore did not publish it under his name until 1844.
…But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
On December 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Owen-Glass Act, creating the Federal Reserve System, an independent agency of the U.S. Government. Before the Federal Reserve began its operations in November 1914, America’s banks functioned in widely divergent ways. These varied banking practices resulted in four major financial crises in less than forty years.
Under the terms of the first major banking reform to follow the Civil War, the Federal Reserve System, or “Fed,” was designed to keep the economy healthy through the formulation of U.S. monetary policy. As the nation’s money manager and central banking authority, the Fed has regulatory and supervisory responsibilities and ensures that sufficient amounts of currency and coin circulate to meet the public’s demand. It also establishes interest rates and monitors the availability of money and credit.
The Federal Reserve consists of a board of governors, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve fourteen-year terms of office, twelve regional Federal Reserve Districts–or regions, and branches of Federal Reserve banks in twenty-five other cities. The Federal Open Market Committee sets the Fed’s monetary policy–carried out through the trading desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The Federal Advisory Council, the Consumer Advisory Council, and the Thrift Institutions Advisory Council advise the Federal Reserve Board directly on its various responsibilities.
All national banks chartered by the federal government are required to join the Federal Reserve System; to subscribe to capital stock in the Federal Reserve Bank in an amount equal to six percent of its combined capital and surplus; to invest three percent (as a reserve requirement) of their holdings in the system; and to hold another three percent subject to call. These stipulations enabled the Fed to curtail the money and credit flow problems characteristic of the late 1800s and early 1900s and to respond to many of the demands of the growing economy. Nonetheless, the early Federal Reserve System proved fallible. After the Great Depression and again after the inflation and disinflation crises of the 1970s and 1980s, the role of the Federal Reserve was reexamined and overhauled to meet new needs. New banking acts were passed and the banking industry underwent reforms. This process continues today as the actions of the Fed profoundly impact the national and global economy.