Sunday, May 27, 2012

General Washington's wayward stepson ...

As American patriots rejoiced following the British defeat at Yorktown in fall 1781, General George Washington found himself dealing with a family tragedy involving his stepson.

When Washington married Martha Custis 22 years before the Yorktown battle, she brought her two children to the union – Patsy, 2, who later died as the result of an epileptic seizure when she was a teenager, and John, 4, nicknamed “Jack.”

Jack, who enjoyed partying and other frivolities much more than tending to his responsibilities even after he married and became a father, exasperated Washington. In school, he lived on the edge of being expelled, and he dropped out of college years later. As a husband and father, he became so angered when his wife delivered a daughter instead of a son that his mother sought to adopt the baby. In his business dealings, he cheated Washington in a cattle purchase – calculating the price based on only the least-desirable animals and applying that value to the entire herd that he was buying from his stepfather, who was away leading troops.

But despite his notable shortcomings, “Jack remained Martha’s darling. She would not tolerate any criticism of him from anyone, even George,” wrote Thomas Fleming in his 2009 book The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

Martha would not consider allowing Jack to become a soldier for the American cause. But as the British army under Lord Cornwallis became trapped at Yorktown in fall 1781, Jack pleaded with Washington to join his staff as an aide. Because the battle was shaping up as only a siege of the British garrison, and that Jack would face even less danger if he remained with Washington’s staff, he was allowed to join the general at Yorktown.

As the American siege of British forces came to a head in October, Jack became ill with “camp fever,” which was probably typhus. After the British surrender, Washington sent Jack to the home of Jack’s maternal uncle, about 30 miles away, for better care and recovery. Washington’s wartime duties fell to a level that allowed him to visit Jack and check on his status a week or two later.

Upon arriving at the uncle’s home, Washington was surprised to find Martha, Jack’s wife Nelly, and Jack and Nelly’s eldest daughter there, all deeply upset. Jack was near death. Only 27, he soon succumbed, and Martha in particular was overwhelmed with grief.
“Washington spent the next five days there, overseeing the funeral and trying to console his wife ... while everyone else in Virginia and the rest of America was celebrating the Yorktown victory over the British,” wrote Fleming. Depite that victory, the war was not over, and Washington had to return to his troops, for whom war raged for another two years. Martha's brother reportedly agreed to oversee Jack's estate, but refused an offer to take responsibility for Jack's wife and children. So George and Martha ultimately took on much of that role.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Abe Lincoln ... on the wrong side in the "mileage" scandal

As a first-term congressman from Illinois in 1848, Abraham Lincoln found himself on the wrong side of a scandal regarding reimbursement for travel expenses to and from Washington and his home state. To be fair, he broke no laws and wasn’t alone, but the episode reinforced the view of many, even a century and a half ago, that Congress is wasteful and possibly corrupt.

Another new member of Congress at the time was Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, who was elected to serve only four months at the end of an unexpired term. Greeley soon discovered that in the previous session (during which he was not yet a member himself), almost all members of Congress based their travel expenses on the “usually traveled route,” which was usually much longer than the most-direct mail route – the route between post offices. So for each member of the U.S. House of Representatives and each member of the U.S. Senate, Greeley published in the Tribune the amount of travel funds each received, how much each would have received based on the shortest postal route, and the difference between these two figures.

For his travel expenses to and from his home state and Washington, Lincoln was reportedly reimbursed $1,300.08 for 1,626 miles, or $676.80 more than he would have received for the most-direct route of 780 miles. For the Senate and House together in that session, the total overage came to $62,105.20 for 77,632 miles, the Tribune story concluded. (Curiously, six Congressmen were reimbursed for less than the most-direct postal route for their travels.)

Background information that accompanied the published list in the Tribune was written personally by Greeley and noted that the reimbursements were not illegal, but suggested that the system was highly susceptible to abuse. The “law expressly says that each shall receive eight dollars for every 20 miles traveled in coming to and returning from Congress ‘by the usually traveled’ route, and of course if the route usually traveled from California to Washington is around the Cape Horn – or the members of that Embryo state choose to think that it is – they will each be entitled to charge some $12,000 mileage per session accordingly.”

“We assume that each man has charged precisely what the law allows him … but we insist that the law not continue to allow such charges as these. Is not the distinction a clear one?” Greeley’s article asked.

Many members of Congress were outraged by the publication of the list, and the mileage issue was the talk of Washington – not to mention the chambers of the House and Senate, where discussions became heated – for many days. Greeley biographer Lurton Dunham Ingersoll wrote in his 1873 book The Life of Horace Greeley that the “reform of the law which he had in view was defeated, but ‘the usual routes of travel’ were henceforth very much less ‘circuitous’ than they had been, and some years afterward the rate of mileage was reduced by 50 percent, and constructive mileage utterly prohibited.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Charles Dickens on America's “most disgusting” habit

English author Charles Dickens first visited the United States in 1842, and his letters back to friends in Britain offer a fascinating glimpse of American life at that time. Slavery and the pirating of his books among the American population disturbed him greatly, but it was another American practice – tobacco chewing – that drew the greatest amount of his disgust.

In a March letter to Albany Fonblanque, a friend and highly regarded newspaper editor in England, Dickens painted a vivid image about the “prevalence of spit-boxes” and related unsavory issues: 
“They are everywhere. In hospitals, prisons, watch-houses, and courts of law – on the bench, in the witness box, in the jury box, and in the galley; in the stage coach, the steam boat, the rail road car, the hotel, the hall of a private gentleman, and the chamber of Congress; where every two men have one of these conveniences between them – and very unnecessarily, for they flood the carpet, while they talk to you. Of all things in this country, this practice is to me the most insufferable. I can bear anything but filth. I would be content even to live in an atmosphere of spit, if they would but spit clean; but when every man ejects from his mouth that odious, most disgusting, compound of saliva and tobacco, I vow that my stomach revolts, and I cannot endure it. The marble stairs and passages of every handsome public building are polluted with these abominable stains; they are squirted about the base of every column that supports the roof; and they make the floors brown, despite the printed entreaty that visitors will not disfigure them with tobacco spittle. It is the most sickening, beastly, and abominable custom that civilization ever saw.”

This letter and others containing Dickens' impressions of American life in that period are published in The Letters of Charles Dickens - Vol. 3, 1836-1870. He also wrote about his American visit in a book titled American Notes for General Circulation (Cambridge Library Collection - North American History). Both of these sources provide first-person insight, based on an outsider's view of everyday life, that you don't often find recorded.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

President Cleveland's big secret ...

As a severe economic crisis challenged the U.S. in 1893, President Grover Cleveland faced an additional, personal crisis. A sore spot on the roof of his mouth had become more and more painful. His doctor took samples of tissue from the inflamed area he found and sent them – without identifying the source – to two labs for analysis. Both reported the tissue to be cancerous.

“Keeping secrets in the 1890s was easier than it would be a century later, but Cleveland didn’t want to take any chances,” wrote historian H.W. Brands in his 1995 book The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. News of the president’s serious health problem could push the nation’s already-teetering economy over the edge, it was feared.

An elaborate plan to hide the president’s surgery was devised. Cleveland quietly left Washington on a train, supposedly to visit his pregnant wife at their summer home in Massachusetts. But instead, he was taken to a yacht on the Hudson River. On that boat, as it sailed in the waters surrounding New York on July 1, a team of surgeons and a dentist began to operate on the president.

The first step was to remove several of the president’s teeth to allow surgeons access to the tumor. Nitrous oxide – “laughing gas” – was used as an anesthetic at first. But when the medical team became concerned that it might be wearing off as the surgery continued longer than expected, ether was administered, putting Cleveland into a much deeper anesthetic sleep. After the tumor was extracted, the golf-ball sized hole was packed with gauze and the president was sent to private room to recover on the yacht.

One day later, Cleveland was able to walk in his room, but remained below deck to avoid being seen. Security became an increasing concern, however, when the medical team’s dentist – Dr. Ferdinand Hasbrouck – left the yacht to perform a previously scheduled surgery on another patient. Rumors about the president’s health had already arisen, and he was brought ashore to his Massachusetts summer home on July 5. There, a presidential aide responded newsmen’s inquiries, saying only that Cleveland had an infected tooth that had been removed.

The president spent four weeks recuperating at his residence. During this period, a special rubber plug was inserted into the hole on the roof of his mouth. It prevented food particles from entering the incision and helped restore the fullness of Cleveland’s face, Brands wrote in his book.

Rumors about the president’s health gathered strength. Speaking to a colleague, Dr. Hasbrouck casually mentioned his service to the president, and the colleague mentioned the story to a friend who was a reporter for the Philadelphia newspaper. The reporter then went to Hasbrouck, telling him that he had the story but just needed a few more details, thereby duping the dentist into telling all that he knew.  But when the reporter then sought insights from the other members of the medical team, they would confirm none of Hasbrouck’s story. Instead, they said that Hasbrouck had screwed up on pulling the president’s bad teeth and had been dismissed. Hasbrouck made up his fantastic story in retaliation, they suggested.