Grover Cleveland

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Henry F. Graff’s slender 138-page biography of Grover Cleveland is extraordinarily compact, and yet an excellent history of the man who served in America’s only ‘split presidency,’ and thus counts on the official list as both 22nd and 24th president of the United States.

Grover Cleveland is another in the Henry Holt and Company series on The American Presidents (see our earlier review of the volume on Ulysses S Grant here, here, here and here) edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Sean Wilentz. It is, without question, a worthy contribution to that collaborative enterprise.

Graff writes eloquently of his subject in the epilogue to the volume, observing that “Cleveland lives in the national memory today almost exclusively as the president who had two nonconsecutive terms of office. He deserves a better fate, for he was once revered by millions of contemporaries for genuine merits, especially integrity. They had seen virtue enough in him to accord him popular majorities in three presidential elections. He had the ill luck to be president in a time of rampant political corruption and of economic stringency for so many of his countrymen. The public understood that what the nation required, above all, was not brilliance but the cleansing honesty and straightforwardness that he provided. Though his was a gray personality, whose words were sometimes simple homilies more suited to the pulpit than the campaign trail, he exuded sincerity and decency. No one ever doubted what he meant or where he stood.

“His career extended into the twentieth century, but his years in power were part of the horse-and-buggy era. He occupied a White House not yet fully lit by electricity, and he worked in a time when the president answered important mail himself and by hand. Many could see, though, that a different, more dynamic world was coming into being. For Americans it would be symbolized by a political style that placed the president at the center of a giant revolving stage, dominating it all like a top-hatted ringmaster. As a result, well before his life came to an end, Cleveland seemed an anachronism – vey likely even to himself – but in his times the people idolized for his principled fearlessness in the role that the contingency of history gave him to play.”

Two other brief excerpts from Henry F. Graff’s Grover Cleveland:

On Cleveland’s reaction to the presidency of Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Cleveland in the 1888 election, only to be defeated by Cleveland in the election of 1892:

“Cleveland never took his eyes off the administration that had ousted him from office. Today, it is hard to know whether he privately sought vindication from the people, or whether he was bored by his life in retirement, or whether he was genuinely eager to finish the work that had been interrupted by the election of 1888.

“There was much in the Harrison presidency that distressed Cleveland. He saw his old rival, Blaine, who had helped get Harrison the nomination in 1888, once more named secretary of state. John Wanamaker, a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, had become postmaster general. Indeed, there were so many heads of companies in the cabinet it was tagged ‘The Businessman’s Cabinet.’ Moreover, these men had followed traditional practice: Wanamaker, for one, fired some thirty thousand Democrats in his department to make room for Republicans. Under the guidance of House Speaker Thomas B. Reed, ‘pork-barrel bills’ of all kinds were passed, to the delight of greedy interests everywhere. Harrison even signed a bill that provided a pension for every Union veteran – making Cleveland feel personally rebuked.

“On top of everything, Congress passed the highest tariff in American history; it bore the name of its principal advocate, Representative William McKinley of Ohio. The duty on raw sugar was removed, but American sugar growers were compensated by a bounty of two cents per pound for their crop. The tariff on manufactured goods was set so high – an average of 12 percent higher than it had been – that farmers, traditionally reliable Republicans, were irate, seeing that the manufactured products they needed would be more expensive than ever. This rural wing of the Republican party was mollified somewhat by the passage of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which increased the amount of silver purchased by the federal government each year and allowed the issuance of paper money backed by silver. Finally — John Sherman’s other contribution — the Sherman Anti-Trust Act had the appearance of eliminating monopoliesthat acted ‘in restraint of trade.’ It was a bipartisan measure designed to placate the public. Business leaders acquiesced in its passage because they regarded it as innocuous. The surplus that Cleveland had worried about so much was no more, and the country was operating in deficit. There were then many matters for the Democrats to clamor about as they set their sights on the next presidential election. Cleveland watched all of this but kept his counsel. He was observing the olde rule that ex-presidents do not comment publicly on the work of their successors.”

On Cleveland’s surgery in secret:

“Only two months after his [second] inauguration, Cleveland had begun to require medical help. He had developed a lesion in his mouth that was quickly diagnosed as a cancer, requiring immediate attention. Possibly, although there is no record that anyone said so at the time, the tumor had been caused by his use of chewing tobacco. The stakes were high, not only for the president but for the nation. The monied interests were relying on Cleveland to protect them from the nefarious designs of the ‘silver monomaniacs.’ If this ardent champion of their position should die, Adlai E. Stevenson, the vice president, a darling of the silver forces who had been made the president’s running mate solely for that reason, would sit in the White House. The alarm bells rang loudly, for the stock market could fall and the economy sink to the bottom.

“The urgent surgery on the president, therefore, was planned to be carried out in utter secrecy. Cleveland’s famous dictum, ‘Tell the Truth,’ went by the boards. It must be said, though, that the health of presidents was only beginning to be of public interest and concern, and the idea that the chief executive must reveal intimate facts about his personal well-being had not yet emerged. In Victorian America, as in Victorian England, even prying journalists knew that intimate matters concerning the body – and especially that of a respected public figure – were off limits. Chester Arthur, a decade earlier, had kept quiet the fact that he suffered from Bright’s disease, a serious ailment. While Woodrow Wilson’s massive stroke in 1919 was worldwide news, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s heart ailment and John F. Kennedy’s Addison’s disease were not made known until after their deaths. Openness about the president’s medical history has come only gradually.

“Some of the details of Cleveland’s treatment today have the aspect of bad theater. Because taking Cleveland to a clinic or hospital created a high risk of letting the cat out of the bag, the work was to be done on New York’s East River aboard the yacht of a friend, ‘Commodore’ Benedict. Anchored near Bellevue Hospital, the medical staff was ordered to stay indoors lest they be recognized by Bellevue resident doctors. To keep the president steady during the procedure as the boat edged its way northward, his chair was lashed tight to the mast . . . .In spite of rumors at the time, the general public was none the wiser until 1917, when Dr. Keen, in an article in the Saturday Evening Post, at last broke the embargo on the story.”

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Published in: on December 31, 2008 at 3:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

Scholarship Aid for Students

If you’re on the lookout for financial aid resources or comparative educational opportunities, whether for yourself, a member of your family or a student friend, consider using Fastweb.com, which bills itself as “the nation’s largest, most accurate, and most frequently updated scholarship database online”, “recommended by over 15,500 high schools and 3,500 colleges.” Among numerous other services, Fastweb offers free scholarship searches, personalized scholarship matching, side-by-side college comparisons, financial aid and student loan tips, and a search feature for part-time jobs and internships.

Published in: on December 28, 2008 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Product Recalls

In the aftermath of the Christmas buying season, the Federal Citizen Information Center has released this handy one-page webguide to recent product recalls, arranged into categories for Automotive Products, Children’s Products, Consumer Products, Food Products, Health Products and Plant and Animal Products. There’s also a convenient link allowing you to sign up for email reports of recalled products.

Published in: on December 28, 2008 at 2:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Downside: Dismal American Education

Despite the moderately optimistic appraisal of the preceding post, the yearend edition of the Kiplinger Letter highlights the most troubling aspect of America’s global situation – the woeful state of America’s education system vis-a-vis the world. As they write, there is “one area where the US is getting left in the dust: Public education. Over the last century, US workers were the world’s best educated. That’s no longer the case. Over the past three decades or so, South Korea, Japan, Norway, Canada, Switzerland and others have overtaken the US in the portion of people who enter the workforce with a high school diploma or its local equivalent. New Zealand, Hungary and other countries are on the verge of doing so.”

But it gets worse. Without even mentioning geography, history, civics and foreign languages, the Kiplinger Letter observes that “in math, science and literacy, foreign students are outpacing Americans. The US falls in the middle or bottom of the pack in the three continuing studies to compare young people’s academic achievement in a variety of countries, though one recent report showed significant gains in US math scores since 2003.

“Because more jobs require higher education, the trend’s especially troubling. By 2016, nearly 80% of all US jobs will require more than a high school diploma, but 70 million Americans between the ages 25 and 40 haven’t gone past grade 12. In fact, the US is the only industrialized country where the generation entering the workforce is less educated than the one leaving it [my bolding added], though Germany is getting close to that point.”

Published in: on December 28, 2008 at 12:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

America in the World Economy: Global Competitiveness Report

Those who are keenly interested in the upcoming debate on how to effectively restimulate the American economy, and most especially in the broader context of the role and place of the American economy within the larger world economy, would profit from reviewing the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2008-2009 released in early October.

The Forum summarizes its analysis by reporting that “the United States tops the overall ranking . . . [while] Switzerland is in second position followed by Denmark, Sweden and Singapore. European economies continue to prevail in the top 10 with Finland, Germany and the Netherlands following suit. The United Kingdom, while remaining very competitive, has dropped by three places and out of the top 10, mainly attributable to a weakening of its financial markets.” A summary of the complete rankings is available here. To browse the contents of the document, look here.

The forum’s focused brief summary profile of America’s current status appears in the Country Profile Highlights section of the report:

“Despite the financial crisis, the United States continues to be the most competitive economy in the world. This is because it is endowed with many structural features that make its economy extremely productive and place it on a strong footing to ride out business cycle shifts and economic shocks. Thus, despite rising concerns about the soundness of the banking sector and other macroeconomic weaknesses, the country’s many other strengths continue to make it a very productive environment. The United States is ranked first for innovation, and its markets support this innovative activity through their efficient allocation of resources to their most effective use. However, the United States has built up large macroeconomic imbalances over recent years, with repeated fiscal deficits leading to rising and burgeoning levels of public indebtedness. This indicates that the country is not preparing financially for its future liabilities and is on the road to making interest payments that will increasingly restrict its fiscal policy freedom going into the future.”

As with so many other similar analyses, the World Economic Forum’s report is an excellent reminder that neither euphoria nor despair is an appropriate response to our current challenges. We have much to do, but if done wisely it can be done well.

Published in: on December 28, 2008 at 11:22 am  Leave a Comment  

Preview 2: A New Human — The Wallace Line

Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee on the ‘Wallace Line’ in A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores, Indonesia:

“The Wallace Line snakes between Bali and Lombok, then north through the Macassar Strait between Borneo and Sulawesi. At first glance, it might seem an arbitrary, inconsequential line to nowhere, but basically it marks the eastern edge of the Asian continental shelf, on which the seas today are so shallow that ships can anchor anywhere over the vast area between the islands. At times of low sea level, this continental shelf was exposed as dry land, and islands such as Sumatra, Java, Bali and Borneo were part of the Asian mainland – and so were populated by a full range of Asian land animals. In contrast, farther to the east, such as Sulawesi, Lombok, Flores, Timor and the Moluccas, were separated by deep-sea barriers from both the Asian and Australian continents. Most land animals lacked the capacity to make sea crossings of such magnitude, and few managed to reach these oceanic islands.

“. . . Wallace first identified this line on the basis of a sharp break in the proportion of Asian to Australian bird species, but more generally it marks the change from continental islands with a wide range of Asian land animals to oceanic islands with few such species. In fact, comparisons between Borneo and Sulawesi show that, while a number of Asian land animals succeeded in crossing the Wallace Line, a much greater number have been stopped by it. For instance, only 13 of 59 species of shrew, 2 of 21 species of deer, 7 of 56 species of civet, and 14 of 196 species of squirrel crossed the Wallace Line. Of the primates, none of the leaf monkeys, the highly specialized proboscis monkeys, gibbons or orangutans managed the crossing – only tarsiers, macaques and humans.

“Wallace realized that for new species to emerge, there had to be barriers preventing breeding between divergent populations, and he had an explanation to account for the extraordinary juxtaposition of two such radically different arrays of animals. ‘I believe the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia, the eastern the fragmentary prolongation of a former Pacific continent.’ This sentence marks the birth of biogeography, the science of explaining where species originate and why they occur where they do. He was the first to realize that to really understand the distribution of species over the face of the earth, one had to appreciate not only the species’ evolutionary history, but also the geological history of the region where they occurred.”

Published in: on December 26, 2008 at 6:20 pm  Comments (1)  

. . . and Continues

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Published in: on December 23, 2008 at 2:03 pm  Comments (1)  

HCL Open House Continues

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Published in: on December 23, 2008 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

HCL Open House Begins – Come Join Us

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Published in: on December 23, 2008 at 11:12 am  Comments (1)  

Preview: A New Human

Homo floresiensis skull (American Museum of Natural History)

Homo floresiensis skull (American Museum of Natural History)

Arrival to the island of Flores, on the fabled Wallace line, in the Lesser Sunda group of Indonesia, as related by Mike Morwood in his work (co-authored by Penny van Oosterzee) A New Human: The Startling Discovery and Strange Story of the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores, Indonesia – a preview of our upcoming review:

“Having got our permits, we flew from Kupang to Ende on the central south coast of Flores, a small town surrounded by steep, rugged volcanic hills. The island, at 13,500 square kilometers, is the largest in the Nusa Tenggara, of Lesser Sunda, chain of islands that comprises dozens of volcanic and coral-reef islands strewn across the world’s deepest seas, which plunge down seven kilometers. It is characterized by rugged volcanic mountains up to 2,400 meters high, deep canyons and gravel plains. The main range runs east-west the length of the island and sheds water to the north and south coasts.

“On Flores you’re invariably walking on shaky ground because your feet are planted directly over the greatest tectonic collision zone on Earth. The Indonesian archipelago, with its chain of volcanic cauldrons spread over 3,000 kilometers, is itself the surface expression of the collision between the Indian-Australian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The thinner oceanic Australian plate, moving northward at around eight centimeters a year, plunges steeply beneath the lighter continental Eurasian plate. The australian plate doesn’t slide smoothly underneath the Asian plate; instead it moves in jolts, buckling and carrying bits of Asia with it. These jolts are felt as earthquakes, which occur from near the surface, where the Australian plate begins its descent, to depths of 700 kilometers, where the plate is caught up in the slowly moving molten material of Earth’s mantle.

“As a result, Indonesia is a world leader in volcano statistics. At 76, it has the largest number of historically active volcanoes, with at least 132 active during the last 10,000 years. Indonesia’s total of around 1,200 dated eruptions is only narrowly exceeded by Japan’s of almost 1,300. The archipelago also has suffered the highest number of fatalities caused by eruptions and the accompanying mudflows, tsunamis, giant upwelling mounds of lava, known as domes, and pyroclastic flows. The devastating effects of recent eruptions, such as Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java in 1883 and Tambora on Sumbawa in 1815, are well documented, but we can only infer what impacts earlier events had on human populations. The Toba eruption on Sumatra 74,000 years ago, for instance, was more than a hundred times bigger than the historic Krakatoa eruption, and put so much ash into the atmosphere that it resulted in a worldwide temperature decrease that lasted five years. Indonesia is a land of global-scale fireworks, and the island of Flores has seen more than its fair share.”

[For further information on Krakatoa, see our review of Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and our follow-up post concerning Anak Krakatoa. For additional information on volcanoes, see Robert I. Tilling’s brochure Volcanoes at the US Geological Survey website, or the USGS World Map of Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Impact Craters, and Plate Tectonics.]

Published in: on December 22, 2008 at 1:00 am  Comments (1)  

A Final Word: Ulysses S. Grant

Bodies of Union soldiers at Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

Bodies of Union soldiers at Gettysburg (Library of Congress)

One last brief excerpt from Josiah Bunting III’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant, on the realities of combat and costs in human suffering of the Civil War:

“The Civil War was the most terrible in our history. In the century between Waterloo (1815) and the beginning of World War I (1914) its costs, measured in blood and suffering, were the greatest of any of the world’s wars. Deaths attributable to combat, both sides together, were 698,000; adding in the wounded, the casualty total is 1,168,000, or 1.9 percent of the population of the United States. The equivalent percentage today, given the current American population, would be just over 5,400,000 casualties. Ignorant armies of boys and young men, led by volunteer officers appointed for reasons that had nothing to do with their fitness to lead soldiers in battle, tore at one another, employing the baffled, suicidal tactics of the day.

“We no longer grasp this. The numbers both overwhelm and numb our capacity to respond. Thousands died in single battles, often soldiers from the same towns or counties – their regiments having been recruited by appeals to local pride and patriotism. At Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, total casualties were greater than all losses in all American wars up to that date: twenty-three thousand killed, wounded or missing. Grant wrote: ‘I saw an open field . . . over which the Confederates had made repeated charges . . . so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing in any direction, stepping on dead bodies, without a foot touching the ground.’”

Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 8:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Ulysses S. Grant

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With at least 33 volumes now in print or soon to be published, Henry Holt and Company’s series of compact biographies of The American Presidents, edited until his death by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and since by Sean Wilentz, is an ambitious and worthy enterprise. If every volume in the series were as successful as Josiah Bunting III’s Ulysses S Grant, it would be a stunning achievement. Bunting’s biography of Grant is a slender (155 pages of text) but well-executed work, less detailed than more voluminous texts but satisfying despite the fairly stringent limits imposed by the series’ objectives. Indeed, Bunting offers occasional keen insights which might not be gleaned from the more “comprehensive” biographies.

Bunting’s appraisal of Grant is carefully balanced and objective, crediting his subject with many more positive achievements and a stronger record than was customary during the century after Grant’s two terms as president. This moderately “revisionist” view is more in accord with contemporary estimates (see, for example, Alvin Stephen Felzenberg’s The Leaders We Deserved (And A Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game; Felzenberg ranks Grant distinctly within the upper tier of presidents, tied for seventh place with Taylor, Truman, McKinley and Kennedy), and reflects the increasingly widespread perception that Grant was the strongest presidential exponent of Civil Rights between Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. As Bunting phrases it, Grant was for his era “the central force in the achievement of civil rights for blacks, the most stalwart and most reliable among all American presidents for the next eighty years.”

Bunting also emphasizes Grant’s relatively enlightened policy toward Amerindians: “Grant fought for and supported during his administration an Indian policy that for its time was humane, generous in instinct and intent, far ahead of the conventional cultural and political wisdom of its day. It failed to understand that what needed to be protected was Indian culture itself. But the attempt was admirably conceived. It is a testimony to the odd blindness of American historiography that it has never received its due.” In Bunting’s work, it finally does.

For selected excerpts from Bunting’s Ulysses S Grant, see our earlier posts here and here.

Additional Online Information:

Keya Morgan’s Grant Archives contain interesting photographs and images of documents and letters along with some biographical information; his Ulysses S. Grant homepage includes more extensive information, including this selected bibliography.

Published in: on December 21, 2008 at 4:22 pm  Leave a Comment