Saturday, August 25, 2012

Amelia Earhart ... a reluctant bride

Six years before aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator mysteriously disappeared over the South Pacific while attempting to fly a plane around the world in 1937, she married publisher and publicist George Putnam after he asked for the sixth time – but not before making it clear that she would in no way be a lesser partner in the union. On their wedding day, she gave Putnam a note that he made public after her disappearance, calling it “brutal in its frankness but beautiful in its honesty.” An objective reader might also wonder why Earhart went through with the wedding, based on her words.

Putnam’s typed version of the letter, dated February 7, 1931, is part of Purdue University’s George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart papers. It is addressed to “GPP” and signed “A.E.”:

“There are some things which should be writ before we are married – things we have talked over before – most of them.
You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations, but have no heart to look ahead.
On our life together I want you to understand I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. If we can be honest I think the differences which arise may best be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else.
Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.
I must exact a cruel promise and this is that you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together.
I will try to do my best in every way and give you that part of me you know and seem to want.”

The couple must have found that level of happiness, because their union was still in place when Amelia’s plane disappeared long after the ceremony.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Washington ... turning from politics to alcohol

When George Washington’s second term as president ended in early 1797, his attention turned in large measure to a new endeavor – making whiskey. The idea came from his farm manager James Anderson, who had previous distillery experience in his native Scotland and Virginia. Anderson pointed out to Washington that a distillery would be a big success, taking advantage of his grist mill, a good supply of running water, and crops grown on Washington’s Mount Vernon lands, according to information from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DSCUS).

Initially, Washington had his reservations about the proposal, writing that “idlers (of which, and bad people there are many around it) under pretence of coming there with grist could not be restrained from visiting the Distillery, nor probably from tempting the Distiller, nay more robbing the Still; as the Mill would always afford a pretext for coming to that place.” But soon he came around, and authorized Anderson to establish the distillery at the Mount Vernon estate’s grist mill.

The initial distillery operation, overseen daily by Anderson’s son, with the help of a hired assistant and six slaves, became successful quickly. By early 1798, a new, stone distillery building was completed, housing five stills with a total capacity of 616 gallons – a much bigger operation that the typical distillery of the time, which had only one or two stills, according to the DSCUS.  In addition, Washington’s distillery building – measuring 75 by 30 feet – was the largest distillery in the country at the time.

Whiskey production reached nearly 11,000 gallons in 1799, valued at about $7,500 then (in the neighborhood of $100,000 in today’s dollars). The recipe called for 60 percent rye, 35 percent corn, and 5 percent malted barley. Because it wasn’t aged, the whiskey was clear – looking similar to moonshine. But Washington’s operation was legal, and he paid federal taxes on his stills.

After Washington died in 1799, his will left the distillery to a relative, who leased the operation to others. Production appears to have declined over the years, ending by 1815.

More recently, archeologists began exploring the site in 1997. The effort received a substantial boost in 2001, when the DSCUS supported the project with a $2.1 million grant that also allowed reconstruction of the distillery. The reconstructed, working distillery opened to the public in 2007.

And yes, you can buy whiskey produced by the distillery when limited amounts are produced today. It was last available in April 2012, when 600 bottles (375 milliliters each) were offered at $95 each. And you could only buy it by visiting Mount Vernon’s gift shop or the nearby gristmill and distillery.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

John Adams ... "His Rotundity"

After George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States, Congress – especially the Senate – witnessed heated debate on how he should be addressed.  Vice President John Adams, with a reputation for at least a bit of vanity in his personal view of life, argued fervently for a grand title befitting his view of the great dignity of the office and the respect that it should receive.  He and a few others suggested titles including the terms “His Majesty” and “His Excellency” in one form or another.  And a committee appointed to resolve the issue seemed to agree, recommending “His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of Rights of the Same.”

But others in Congress, such as Virginia Representative and future president James Madison, thought a less pretentious title would be better for the country. And soon, Adams’ unyielding support for an imposing, majestic title soon made him something of a joke on the issue, even among his friends.  One senator, Ralph Izard of South Carolina, suggested that the rather short, heavy-set Adams be himself called “His Rotundity,” and the joke spread throughout the chamber.

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives also had fun at Adams’ expense. In his 2001 biography entitled John Adams, author David McCullough wrote that Representatives John Page of Virginia and Thomas Tucker of South Carolina amused themselves with humorous notes to each other during the too-long debates on the issue.  Speaking of Adams, Tucker wrote to Page, “In gravity clad, He has nought in his head, But visions of Nobels and Kings.” Responded Page: “I’ll tell in a trice –, ‘Tis old Daddy Vice, Who carries of pride as ass-load; Who turns up his nose, Wherever he goes, With vanity swelled like a toad.”

Despite his considerable prominence even among those who laughed at his personality quirks, Adams lost this battle. Both the House and the Senate voted to address Washington and future presidents as "The President of the United States."  

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The General who dissed Lincoln ...

As the Civil War began, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln struggled to find a competent general to lead Union forces against those of the Confederacy. His first choice was Robert E. Lee – an option that evaporated when Lee declared his allegiance to his native Virginia as it joined the Confederacy.

General George McClellan
By fall 1861, following a series of battlefield disappointments, Lincoln turned to George McClellan, known primarily for his organizational skills and abilities. McClellan was appointed general-in-chief for Union armies.

McClellan’s contempt for civilian leadership became apparent a mere two weeks later. On November 13, 1861, Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and Lincoln’s secretary John Hay went to McClellan’s Washington home to discuss issues related to the war. In his diary, Hay recorded the event:

“I wish here to record what I consider a portent of evil to come. The President, Governor Seward and I went over to McClellan's home tonight. The servant at the door said the General was at the wedding of Colonel Wheaton at General Buell's and would soon return. We went in, and after we had waited about an hour, McClellan came in, and without paying any particular attention to the porter who told him the President was waiting to see him, went up-stairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half an hour, and sent once more a servant to tell the General they were there; and the answer came that the General had gone to bed,” Hay wrote.

“I merely record this unparalleled insolence of epaulettes without comment. It is the first indication I have yet seen of the threatened supremacy of the military authorities,” he continued.

“Coming home I spoke to the President about the matter, but he seemed not to have noticed it, specially, saying it was better, at this time, not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity,” Hay added.

Despite McClellan’s insubordination, Lincoln did his best to support the General – who called the President a “baboon” in letters to his wife – in coming months. But over time, Lincoln became more and more disillusioned with the General, who tended to spend almost all of his efforts preparing his army for a fight rather than meeting the enemy on the battlefield.  And when McClellan did move against the Confederate Army, his efforts were weak, tentative, and unimaginative, producing few if any victories, according to his many critics. He was very popular among his soldiers, however.

Lincoln’s growing frustration with McClellan’s military dithering reached a head in May 1862, and he demoted McClellan from his general-in-chief position. A series of other generals followed, none achieving much success for the Union until Ulysses S. Grant became general-in-chief in late 1863.

McClellan became the Democratic nominee for president in 1864, but lost the race to Lincoln, who won his second term. And Grant, of course, was elected President in 1868.

An interesting side note, though probably of questionable value:  McClellan ranked second among 59 students in his West Point military academy class, while Grant ranked 21st among 39 students in his class there.