About amerchistory

I like to read and write about American history.

First in General Lee’s Class

Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point with zero demerits.  The valedictorian of Lee’s class is not a household name, although he was very successful in his own right.  Charles Mason, first in Lee’s class, was born in New York.  After graduating from West Point in 1829 with an exemplary record, he stayed on as a professor for a couple of years, before resigning his commission.  A few years later, he moved to the territory encompassing Iowa, and was later appointed Chief Justice of the Iowa territorial court, and then the Iowa Supreme Court, writing a notable opinion concerning a fugitive slave.  In 1853, President Franklin Pierce appointed him Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office.  During the Civil War, Mason was a peace democrat, and came out in support of General McClellan in 1864.  Mason died in 1882.

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Some Interesting Articles

There are some great articles touching on American history that are online this week:

Interview with Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power.

Article asking whether we face another dust bowl.

An article about Geronimo after he was imprisoned by the United States.

American History Magazine has a great article on Mount Vernon.

Reviews of new books on Jefferson, Grant, and J.P. Kennedy.

The Smartest Presidents

A reader emailed me, asking me to delve into presidential intelligence a bit more.  I’ve thought about it, read what some presidential scholars have said, and used a little bit of common sense.  In considering the issue, I’ve looked at the definitions of intelligence offered by dictionary.com, and settled on this one: “manifestation of a high mental capacity.”  So which presidents had the highest manifestations of mental capacity?  Here’s my list:

1.  Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson was a brilliant political philosopher and master wordsmith, capturing in one document what would become the defining ideal of our nation – that all men are created equal.  But what separates Jefferson from other presidents was his accomplishments in a wide range of other areas.  He designed one of the most unique and beautiful homes in the United States.  He invented numerous gadgets, including a primitive copy machine, a system for closing doors, and a swivel chair.  He ran a successful plantation, using many new agricultural techniques.  For his wide range of accomplishments across diverse areas, he has to be considered our most intelligent president.

2.  Abraham Lincoln.  Most presidential scholars disagree with me here, and don’t even place Lincoln in the top five.  Certainly Lincoln did not have Jefferson’s refinement, education, or cross-disciplinary accomplishments.  But Lincoln was a master of language.  In this one area, his accomplishments may even exceed Jefferson’s.  The Gettysburg Address has become almost as much a part of our democratic foundation as the Declaration of Independence, and the Second Inaugural Address is a masterpiece.  Lincoln wrote like a poet (and was a poet), using phrases like “mystic chords of memory” and “the father of waters again goes unvexed to the sea.”   Besides his written command of the English language, he was an accomplished orator.  He was also, as libraries of books attest, a political genius.

3.  James Madison.  Madison wrote large portions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and authored some of the Federalist Letter.  His authorship of these documents is a testament to his brilliance as a political philosopher and legal thinker, and mastery of the English language.  Madison was also highly educated, spoke numerous languages, and studied a wide variety of subjects.

4.  John Adams.  John Adams, like the three presidents preceding him on this list, was a master of the English language.  He was perhaps the most effective orator among the Founding Fathers – an extraordinary accomplishment.  His speeches helped ensure passage of the Declaration of Independence.

5.  Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt, like Jefferson, had accomplishments across several different areas.  He was a historian, writer, military leader, and naturalist.  Roosevelt also had a photographic memory.  It is likely his photographic memory that enabled to him to write more than ten books on topics from ranching to the history New York City, over the course of his very busy life.

Presidential IQ

The United States has had some extraordinary presidents.  Lincoln was a master wordsmith; Jefferson a true renaissance man; Hoover a brilliant manager.  When comparing presidential intelligence, though, I see plenty of room for error.  What made a man intelligent in the 18th century could differ from what makes a man intelligent in the day.  Managerial and administrative intelligence are likely more important now, given our complex world and unwieldy political systems, then they may have been when Jefferson was president.  But writing may have been more important then as it was the primary medium through which people communicated.  When attempting to actually quantify IQ, I see even more room for error.  We simply don’t have the same number of data points in the historical record from which to compare, say, FDR’s intelligence to Washington’s.  

I found an interesting blog post from 2006 in which Professor Thomas Reeves, author of biographies on John F. Kennedy and Chester A. Arthur, debunks the notion that presidential IQ can be measured.  

The Controversial History of the Department of Education

Some pundits and politicians call for the abolition of the Department of Education.  Questions over the role of the Department of Education are not new.

The Department’s predecessors trace back to 1867.  Congress passed the Department of Education Act of 1867, creating a federal agency to collect statistics on the state of education in the country. Draft Saved Within a year of the agency’s creation, Congress began to believe that the Department was a waste of money.  Accordingly, Congress passed legislation providing that in 1869, the Department of Education would become an office within the Department of Interior.  It remained there for 70 years.

In 1939, the Office was transferred to the Federal Security Agency, which oversaw social welfare and education programs.  In 1951, most of the FSA’s functions became part of a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that was created by Eisenhower’s Reorganization Plan No. 1.

The current iteration of the “Department of Education” as a cabinet-level agency was created by Congress in 1979, with the Department of Education Organization Act, and signed into law by Jimmy Carter on October 17, 1979.   The Act went into effect on May 4, 1980.

At the time it was created, the Department of Education was controversial.  The Act creating it squeaked through the House of Representatives by a 215 to 201 vote.  That was particularly close given the fact that there were 292 democrats in the House, compared to only 143 republicans.  In the senate, the vote was a more comfortable 69 to 22.

The history of the Department of Education suggests that federal involvement in education has long been part of the federal government’s functions, and predates the modern regulatory state.  But history also shows that federal government involvement in education has been controversial from the moment it began.

Some pundits and politicians call for the abolition of the Department of Education.  Questions over the role of the Department of Education are not new.

The Department’s predecessors trace back to 1867.  Congress passed the Department of Education Act of 1867, creating a federal agency to collect statistics on the state of education in the country.  Within a year of the agency’s creation, Congress began to believe that the Department was a waste of money.  Accordingly, Congress passed legislation providing that in 1869, the Department of Education would become an office within the Department of Interior.  It remained there for 70 years.

In 1939, the Office was transferred to the Federal Security Agency, which oversaw social welfare and education programs.  In 1951, most of the FSA’s functions became part of a new Department of Health, Education, and Welfare that was created by Eisenhower’s Reorganization Plan No. 1.

The current iteration of the “Department of Education” as a cabinet-level agency was created by Congress in 1979, with the Department of Education Organization Act, and signed into law by Jimmy Carter on October 17, 1979.   The Act went into effect on May 4, 1980.

At the time it was created, the Department of Education was controversial.  The Act creating it squeaked through the House of Representatives by a 215 to 201 vote.  That was particularly close given the fact that there were 292 democrats in the House, compared to only 143 republicans.  In the senate, the vote was a more comfortable 69 to 22.

The history of the Department of Education suggests that federal involvement in education has long been part of the federal government’s functions, and predates the modern regulatory state.  But history also shows that federal government involvement in education has been controversial from the moment it began.

The Invention of the Price Tag

The price tag is an accepted part of our daily lives.  Prior to the mid-19th century, though, Americans haggled over prices.  When the price tag emerged in the 1860s, it was therefore a significant innovation.

There is some question as to who “invented” the price tag.  John Wanamker, a Presbyterian storekeeper in Philadelphia, often gets credit.  Wanamaker operated a flagship department store in Philadelphia, and several other department stores in other cities, including New York.  In 1861, he introduced price tags in his Philadelphia store, which were prominently placed on his products.

Before Wanamaker introduced the price tag, however, Quakers commonly used fixed prices for their goods.  Out of a belief that all men are equal before God, some quaker merchants decided all men should receive the same price.  Philadelhia Quaker merchants were fairly successful throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, so the practice apparently worked it.  It’s not surprising, then, that the price tag itself should be invented in the Quaker hotbed of Philadelphia, even if it was not invented by a Quaker.