Common Ground? Try Pie!

Pumpkin pie. Vector illustration.

Thanksgiving 2020: Looking for a common denominator to bring the family together? Why not pie? In late November, nary a cherry or blueberry pie would suggest the right or the left to commemorate the season. This is the season when bright orange pumpkin pie, or apple/pear simmered together, or maybe even maple-flavored, Texas-grown pecan pies rule the side table, tempting little fingers to sneak a taste. Orange may become the purple of the season, bringing us together. Who can quarrel with pumpkin?

Maybe this is one time when dessert should come first. Send sweetness flowing throughout the room, mellowing dinners before the main course, when verbal fireworks would be more likely to commence.   

Celebrity chefs Scotchman Gordon Ramsey, Italian Emeril Lagasse, Americans Bobby Flay and Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten might not swear to the success of bringing on the familiar pastry first to greet their guests, as a panacea to family division. But I might gamble that Paula Dean and Rachel Ray would join America’s sisters, mothers, and grandmamas desperate to create a peaceful kingdom in the dining room and just bring on the pie!

Of course, politics is not the only topic that can heat up a meal. Religion comes a close second, along with the usual cultural battlelines we’ve leaned into during the 2020 campaign.  But this season, politics is the topic that haunts us. Maybe it’s time to bring out the board games? My understanding is that Chess sets are flying off the shelves/online during the Pandemic. Maybe some dinner guests can help initiate the less experienced players as they dig into a more cerebral contest.

Union—Is it out there?

If you’re a Past Becomes Present reader, you know I began a few weeks ago looking into Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh’s book Union, A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground. One a Republican, the other a Democrat, crisscrossed America from New Hampshire to the Carolinas and Chicago to Mobile, Washington, DC to Northern California and Los Angeles, in an inherited Volvo taking the temperature of the nation, and sometimes struggled to maintain their own equilibrium along the way.

As they pulled their way out of the Oregon lowlands to Crater Lake, the green forests made Chris a little homesick for California’s redwood groves. Chris’s role now to help Jordan write the “manly maid-of-honor” speech for his sister’s wedding by the time they reached Sonoma. “So tell me about your older sister,” Chris asked in his speechwriter mode. “Jenna always protected me growing up, “ Jordan explained, even though they went to different high schools. “She went to one of the most liberal high schools in the country, and there was a lot of Republican-bashing going on,” he said, wincing at the memory.  “At one point she’d had enough and stood up before a school assembly—about 500 people,” Jordan said.

Jenna took no prisoners. “All of you need to stop it,” she said. “My parents and my brother are Republicans, and they are still good people!”

“I’ll never forget that,” he relayed to Chris.

Chris finished writing the speech prior to his sister’s wedding, then they found themselves back on the road a year later as Jordan started year two of business school and Chris flew to California after writing in DC that summer. They headed to Tijuana but made a detour to peruse a Trump rally in Phoenix after Chris noted hashtags #PhoenixRally and #Trump. 

After the speech and the posturing by the various segments of the crowd and counter-protesters, they saw how people engaged. “What gave us hope was that performances are not who we really are,” Chris wrote. “Performances are artificial, like the borders and lines we draw around one and other. And that meant we could overcome them.”

They headed towards Zion National Park in Utah before sunrise. From a plateau atop a valley, their discussion led to: “We humans will likely always separate ourselves into tribes, requiring us to give up a piece of ourselves in service to the group’s rules and mores.” This came after an evening drinking with Marines who pulled Jordan in as one of their own, after two tours in Afghanistan, and accepted Chris as his road-trip buddy.

Chris and Jordan gave homage to community, as we are different people with a range of ideas: ”Community makes us stronger, and when done right it makes us less suspicious and more noble-–be it churchgoing folk gathering on a Sunday for a homily, soldiers swapping photographs in a foxhole, or protesters singing the same melodies as those who came before them.”

Their trips around America revealed to them that “the stories we tell each other and the parables we whisper our children” pinpoint responsibilities that grow out of each and DEMAND GENEROSITY!

That brings us full circle.  By immediately sharing your orange pumpkin pie with those who put their feet under your Thanksgiving table (or neighbors and friends out the kitchen door), you could help promote a positive Thanksgiving. By changing the mood before the meal, you could encourage your guests to select a non-famous person who makes them happy to be alive. See where that goes.

Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh, Union, A Democrat, a Republican, an a Search for Common Ground. (New York: Little Brown and Company, 2020)

America two countries or one?

Red State Blue State


 When did primary colors invade politics? NBC, the first television channel with color (Remember the expanding wings of the peacock?) wanted to show off their Crayola colors on a massive wall behind their newsmen (and newswoman Jessica Savage) in 1976. The authoritative voice of John Chancellor and much younger sidekick Tom Browkaw explained states tinted blue were for incumbent Representative Gerald Ford, while Jimmy Carter’s states would display in red. (Ron Elving, “The Color of Politics: How did Red and Blue States Come to Be?” Nov. 13, 2004, NPR.) Those original colors came from Union blue, during the Civil War, and rebels from the South were red.

Reagan’s Landslide Turned GOP Red

But by the time of the Reagan landslide in 1980, his GOP states were switched to red, which were there in abundance with his 270 electoral votes to Carter’s 15. NBC called the election at 8:15 pm Eastern for Reagan. But not all the other networks followed the same color scheme

By the 2000 Bush-Gore match-up, Red (GOP) and Blue (DEM) were an established function of political analysis because the decision process continued, so the media map returned to home screens night after night. Eventually to avoid confusion, red became the universal GOP color and blue represented the Democrats.  

In that contest political journalist Michael Barone described it in a Wall Street Journal essay: “The 48 percent to 48 percent cut in the 2000 election (became) two nations of different faiths. One is observant, traditional-minded, moralistic. The other unobservant, liberation-minded, relativistic.” Church attendance was a better barometer of the divide by 2000 with 59 percent of the GOP voters for Bush regular attenders vs. 39 percent of the church attenders for Gore.

A slight majority of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States have voted the same way over the past seven elections, up until 2016. All but 10 states have repeated their choice of party three times. The current red-versus-blue map was mostly written by 1988, when the first president Bush defeated Michael Dukakis. (Robert David Sullivan, “How the red and blue map evolved over the past century,” American magazine, June 29, 2016)

 The keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004, attempted to erase the metaphor for partisanship that red and blue had become. “The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red state Republican and blue states for Democrats,” Barack Obama said. “But I’ve not news for them. We too worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries (referring to the Patriot Act) in the red states.”

Obama Flipped Nine States Blue

Four years later Obama was the candidate for President and won decisively 365-173 in the electoral college against John McCain. The screens were royal blue that year. Obama flipped nine states from 2004: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia. He pulled in 69.5 million votes, the most since LBJ in 1964 until the 2020 election.

Moving into 2014, the division became two more diverse systems– red America: traditional religious, self-disciplined, and patriotic, and blue America: modern, secular, self-expressive, and uncomfortable with patriotic display. Flash forward two years: self-discipline appeared to be excused at the top.

The divide between the states grew deeper in 2016. The proportion of voters living in counties that were   won in a landslide for the Democratic or Republican presidential candidate has steadily increased over the last seven elections and now makes up a whopping 60 percent of the electorate, according to Gregory Aisch, Adam Pearce, and Karen Yourish, “The Divide Between Red and Blue America Grew Even Deeper in 2016,” November 10, 2016, New York Times. Nearly all this 10-point increase came from Republicans in rural and small-town America, who swept Donald Trump into office.

Bill Bishop, co-author of the 2008 book “The Big Sort,” found that in 1992, 38 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties, defined as being won by over 20 percentage points or more. This shift reflects the tendency of like-minded people to live near one another. Lifestyle, which drew people together in the past, has come to be reflected in politics.

By 2019, 64 percent of white Christians were Republicans and 30 percent white Christians were Democrats. (Ronald Brownstein, “How  Religion Widens Partisan Divide,” CNN, October 22, 2019). Among Evangelicals, which make up 16 percent of the US population, 75 percent vote GOP (including a portion of the Hispanic vote) and 19 percent Democrat, which came into play in 2020, but the white suburban women helped make up the difference for the Democrats. As church attendance continues to drop, even the Evangelicals who provide the foundation for the GOP base could be less plentiful. Demographic changes as the aging White population disappears and people of color increase in parts of the country.

So where are we by 2020? Have we been convinced that people that reside in either the red or blue states, depending on our own preference, are so different from us that it would be difficult to live next door? Do people pick their location based on politics, or work, or family? Or has this political shorthand cast the people on the coasts in opposition to those in the middle and those in the upper Midwest against their neighbors and their Western neighbors?

Political writer David Brooks does not characterize this as a Wild West scenario. In “Nation Slightly Divisible,” in The Atlantic, December 2001, he saw it more like a high school cafeteria with the Jocks and the Nerds, the Creatives, the Cheerleaders, etc. where there are cracks, not division cleaved with a knife. For his article, he traveled from Blue Montgomery County in Maryland 65 miles north into Red Franklin County, Pennsylvania (a trip he or someone might need to repeat to explain where we are today after the election of 2020). He realized then as we understand now that there are differences that suggest not just political, but also cultural and demographic between the states. The Red vs. Blue system is based on a winner-take-all electoral college vote distribution by 48 states (not Maine or Nebraska, they split their electoral votes by congressional district and statewide).

At the local level, individual members of those parties have a variety of positions and outlooks, so that nearly every town, city and patch of farmland in the country is “purple,” a mix of neighbors, friends, and family, each of whose own mixed political preferences tip the scale to vote for one side or the other in a contest.  They cannot be reduced to red or blue. Purple maps were drawn showing this idea in 2004, to consider the nation as less divided, made up by individuals. (Phil Fox Rose, “We Are All Purple: The Destructive Lie of Red States and Blue States,” Patheos, November 7, 2012.

What would it take to bring America together?

Brooks may have seen different world views when he spoke to residents of Franklin County nearly two decades ago. Issues that burn hot today–health care, racial justice, climate change, law enforcement, international engagement, and the economy—were important, but not as critical as they are now. The cost of living was cheaper where they live, and they appreciated the slower pace of life and the beauty of rural life. It was their choice to live in a small town where they knew most everybody. The coastal cities were far away, and they liked it that way.

Then post 911 the country came together after the shock of an attack on American soil that took 3,000 lives at three locations. Today’s threat to our families nationwide does not have the impact of a loaded 737 crashing into and destroying the Twin Towers. The threat is invisible until it strikes.  By the end of July, it infected 9 percent of Americans. About one-third of these were in densely populated places like New York City, leaving those in small towns and rural areas to sigh in relief.

Now Covid-19 comes around for a second, and in some places third time, just in time for Thanksgiving, at least an awareness of the danger creeps across the nation. Smaller communities now being hit are farther from major health care facilities that could treat an outbreak. ICUs and hospital beds in small and medium-sized communities are reaching capacity. Since the beginning there has been a reluctance to wear masks and socially distance in parts of the country that believed they were immune or feared the financial loss due to closed businesses outweighed the danger of the disease. Now we are in this together: 10,904,891 Americans have been infected since March and 245,600 people have died. It might be time to find a way to treat this as a universal threat that could bring a purple agreement to save lives and prevent further loss of businesses before a vaccine eventually is available nationwide in spring or summer 2021.

Democracy Can Be Messy – Example: 1876

Democracy word play, GoGraphics This image outlines some of the elements that play a part in America.

While Americans were eager to find out who would be the 46th U.S. President this week, I went backwards in time to discover the 1876 election of the 19th President. After President U.S. Grant left the stage under the cloud of Teapot Dome, whether deservedly or not, the 1876 Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden Presidential race came on with all the steam the Republicans and Democrats could muster. Smithsonian Magazine called it “The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever.”

When Republican Rutherford Hayes went to bed election night, Democrat Samuel Tilden led in the popular vote, eventually stretching ahead 260,000 votes. But eventually there were 19 electoral votes in dispute that denied the Electoral College to either candidate. (Stay tuned for key tips about the Electoral College.)

Trivia questions: 1) Who were the Five Presidents who lost the Popular Vote, but won the election?

2) Which Presidential election yielded the highest number of voters?

A bipartisan Electoral Commission went to work and devised The Compromise of 1877, which seems from here to have been a dirty bargain. During intense closed-door meetings, Democratic leaders agreed reluctantly to give Hayes all 20 outstanding electoral votes in return for the withdrawal of federal troops put in place after the Civil War in the last two still-occupied states—South Carolina and Louisiana. Republicans agreed to several handouts and entitlements, including federal subsidies for a transcontinental railroad line through the South (which never materialized).

The compromise ended Reconstruction and turned the South over to the Democratic “Redeemers,” who disenfranchised black voters.  Jim Crow laws were strengthened in the South, suppressing Black votes and within time pushed a vast migration from the South into the Northern industrial towns. Support for Reconstruction had dwindled as plummeting cotton prices ushered in the economic downturn of 1873 and the severest depression the South had experienced since 1861-65. This paired with the allegations of corruption in Republican Grant’s Administration helped Democrats win control of the House in the 1874 Midterm Election—for the first time since the war.

We cannot determine what the results would have been if a fair election had been held without the violence and intimidations throughout the South that disenfranchised many African Americans made eligible to vote under the 15th Amendment. But it is likely that Hayes would have won 189 electoral votes to Tilden’s 180. (The term “bulldoze” came from this election — meant to intimidate by violent means, sometimes by whipping or flogging. Both Democrats and Republicans used this intimidation technique on political opponents and African Americans in Southern states, particularly Louisiana). Black voters now eligible to cast a ballot under the Fifteenth Amendment made up the majority population in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Louisiana would likely have voted for Republican Hayes. Florida with a majority White population would have gone to Tilden.

Wonder why America did not address racial issues during the Bicentennial?

Three years prior the Supreme Court came into play, not in the election per se, but through the Slaughterhouse Cases, which delivered a blow to Reconstruction. The Court ruled the 14th Amendment’s promise of due process and equal protection covered violations of citizen’s rights by the states, but not by individuals.  This ruling made it more difficult to prosecute anti-Black violence perpetrated by the Klan and White supremacist groups, disenfranchising Black voters and reassert White control of the South. In 1876 the Supreme Court overturned the convictions of three white men convicted in connection with the massacre of more than 100 Black men in Colfax, Louisiana, three years earlier, as part of a political dispute. The men had been convicted of violating the 1870 Enforcement Act, which banned conspiracies to deny citizens’ constitutional rights and had been intended to combat violence by the Ku Klux Klan against Black people in the South.

Election 1876: Historic voter turnout

This election was the second of five presidential elections in which the person who won the most popular votes did not win the election (see Trivia question), but the only one in which the popular vote winner received a majority of (rather than a plurality) the popular vote—Tilden 50.9% to Hayes 47.9%.  In the end, Hayes recorded the smallest electoral vote victory (185 Hayes – 184 Tilden). This election yielded the highest voter turnout of eligible voters in American history (81.8%). Final tallies for 2020 election are running at 41%, although the vote totals for mail-in ballots, triggered by the Pandemic, will likely be the highest number of ballots cast, but there were fewer Americans in 1876, so the percentage was higher.

President U.S. Grant considered running for a third term, but in 1873, the House by a vote of 233-18 passed a resolution declaring the two-term tradition put in place to prevent a dictatorship. This came for two reasons, to follow George Washington’s two-term example, and because the Teapot Dome and other financial shenanigans had come on Grant’s watch, whether he was involved or not the buck stopped on his desk.

The Republican National Convention had met in Cincinnati, Ohio, giving Ohio Governor Hayes a leg up and helping him reach 384 by the seventh ballot.  In St. Louis, Tilden, the New York Governor and prosecutor who sent political boss William M. Tweed to jail, had a clear path among the Democrats from the beginning, eventually receiving 738 votes.

Here are accounts of each candidate, neither completely capturing its subject:  Henry Adams, a historian of the period, said of Hayes, a wounded Civil War Major General: “A third-rate nonentity whose only recommendation was that he is obnoxious to no one.” Newspaperman John Defers described Tilden: “A very nice, prim, little withered-up, fidgety old bachelor, about 120 pounds avoirdupois (overweight), who never had a genuine impulse for many or any affection for women.” A bit cruel, in this era maybe even libelous without facts to back it up, but a picture from one reporter. (Holt, Michael F., By One Vote, University Press of Kansas, 2008, pg. 129)

Southern states and future elections

No Republican presidential candidate until Warren G. Harding in 1920 would carry any state that seceded and joined the Confederacy. That year he carried Tennessee, which never experienced a long period of occupation by federal troops well before the first Presidential election of the Reconstruction period (1868).

Long memory in the South: None of the Southern states that experienced long periods of occupation by federal troops after the Civil War (until 1876) was carried by a Republican again until Herbert Hoover in 1928. (He won Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia.) This was the last election in which the Republican candidate won Louisiana until 1956, when World War II General Dwight D. Eisenhower carried it. And the last in which the Republican candidate won South Carolina, until 1964 when conservative Republican Barry Goldwater carried it along with four other Deep South states (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia), and his home state—Arizona, but nothing else. When we look at the birth of Red states and Blue states next week, we will see what changes have taken place.

The Electoral College—how did it come to America?

  1. The Holy Roman Empire used an Electoral College from the Middle Ages through 1792. When the Founders met in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention (1787), this was one of the more challenging issues. The greatest number did not want Congress (and its politicians) to select the President, but rather the American people. Electors were to be from each state, but NOT politicians.
  2. Actually “Electoral College” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution. Article II of the Constitution and 12th Amendment to the Constitution refer to “electors” not the College. The words do not appear in federal law until 1845.
  3. Today the electors are bound either to a political party or a state
  4. Nothing is in the Constitution about how the states allot the electoral vote. Now all the states, except Maine and Nevada, have passed laws giving electoral vote to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state.  Electors are no longer independent but promised to the state’s winner. They gather in their state capitols about six weeks after the election to cast their ballots.
  5. Founders expected the House of Representatives would decide if no one won majority—each state one vote.
  6. Founders figured there would be lots of candidates, which would help decide the electoral vote. In the beginning, there were no separate ballots for Vice President. The person with the second most votes became VP. But early on (see Jefferson-Burr run off) this did not work out, so they changed it. National parties formed and number of political parties shrank. Only two Presidential elections have been decided by House—the last in 1824 John Quincy Adams v. Andrew Jackson.

Much talk occurs during every Presidential Election about whether the system would favor the popular vote without the Electoral College, but then smaller states and rural areas might be short-changed. Eliminating the Electoral College is easier said than done, since to do so would require a 2/3 supermajority in Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment. Then the amendement would need to be ratified by 2/3 vote in each of the states. A high bar.

Next week: How did America become divided into Red Republican states and Blue Democratic states?

We’ll update an article by Robert David Sullivan, a senior editor at America magazine laid out in 2016: “How the red and blue map evolved over the past century.” The blog on the road trip across America in Union will come after that.

Trivia 1) 5 elected Presidents  John Quincy Adams beat out Andrew Jackson, who led in popular vote in 1824 and was ahead in the Electoral College, but Jackson lacked the winning number in the Electoral College. Jackson was shy 32 electoral votes, so it went to the House. After another deal, Adams won.

Rutherford Hayes (above) 1876

Benjamin Harrison 1888 beat Democrat Grover Cleveland, who won popular vote by 90,000. Cleveland lost electoral vote 233-168. Following election Cleveland took the prize.

George Bush 2000. Al Gore took the popular vote by 500,000, but the electoral votes came down to Florida and Gore lost, 271 to 266.

Donald Trump 2016 won 304 electoral votes to Hillary Clinton’s 227 but lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes.

Trivia 2. An overwhelming number of Americans voted in 2020, but per capita the number of eligible voters who cast a ballot in 1876 nearly doubled 2020’s percent with 81% voting. At the time of this writing 41% of those Americans eligible to vote in 2020 did. About 150 million Americans out of 239, 931, 921 eligible voters. Not all 309 million Americans are eligible. (Census figure)

Notes: Gilbert King, “The Ugliest, Most Contentious Presidential Election Ever,” (Tilden’s opposition had called him everything from a briber to a thief to a drunken syphilitic.) September 7, 2012,

John Kelly, “What in the Word?” The racist roots of bulldozer, Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press.

Between 1828- 1928. Voter Turnout in Presidential Elections: 1828-2008. The American Presidency Project. University of California, Santa Barbara.

Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction (1973)

Table 397. Participation in Elections for President and U.S. Representatives: 1932 to 2010. Census Bureau. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012. U.S. Census Bureau.

Morris, Roy, Jr. (2003) Fraud of the Century: Rutherford B. Hayes, Samuel Tilden, and the Stolen Election of 1876. New York: Simon and Schuster, pp. 168, 239. ISBN 978-0-7432-5552-3.

Polling Around the World Differs

Is it the BBQ or socializing?

Australians, you knew they might have a different take on it. Honest, it is the “barbie” for them.  They are concerned to find the best BBQ place before selecting a polling place. Seems they queue up to grab their customary “Democracy Sausage.” The queue for the meat is often longer than the queue to vote.

Our neighbors, the Canadians, according to researcher Brandon Tozzo, pre-register when they file taxes and are mailed a slip with the location to vote. There are dozens of voting places in a riding (decided by a non-partisan federal institution) that is well staffed. A voter goes in, shows their voting slip, and casts a ballot. Rarely takes more than five minutes (course there are fewer Canadians, mainly stuffed near their southern border by the cities, but others are spread out throughout a vast wilderness).

One Canadian commentator in Ontario wrote that a nonpartisan national commission runs the election, while another note: “I’ve waited longer for a bus than I have ever waited to vote.”

An Irish woman told researcher Tozzo: “20 minutes (it took me to vote) but that was because I met a neighbor, then a friend, then knew the returning officer so said hello, then finally voted.

“Took another hour to leave the pooling station, nothing like an election for Irish people to get a chance to chat.”

Folks in Norway, Germany and other European countries said there were plenty of placed to drop off ballots ahead of time and that unlike in the U.S., most polling locations were a short walk from home. (In fairness these countries are more compact that the United States, which adds to the challenge.)

Voting is simplified in a variety of countries from Germany to Israel by scheduling Election Day on a weekend—thus not cutting into a working day or complicating day care for families (although children are welcome in polling booths in the U.S.)

One man from India, the second most populous country in the world, points out his country handles more ballots than any other democracy in the world. At the same time India has a higher level of illiteracy than the U.S. and a lot more people vote in India than in the U.S., but still without these long lines.

Some Appreciate the Enthusiasm

Some like Annie of Austin, TX, waiting in the dark and cold with friends for the polls to open on the first day of early voting, see enthusiasm in the line wrapped around the building and down the street. Pizza to the Polls in Austin, TX, came to the aid of voters there. The company vowed to “make democracy delicious” by delivering free food to all polling places with long lines. They reported scanning twitter for locations and have sent 2, 418 pies in 2020.

Roland Martin from Atlanta said he had voted all his life, but he had tears rolling down his face in his car outside Friendship-West Baptist Church in Atlanta. He drove up and saw a long line rolling down the street and felt honor in the length of the line.

Former Congressman John Lewis 1940-2020

Martin remembered civil rights leader John Lewis, who played a pivotal role in the Selma, Alabama march and later served decades in Congress. In July he was buried from Martin Luther King’s church in Alabama. Lewis’s words came to Martin: “The vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.”

American citizens have different opinions about what the voting experience should be. Voting in America, particularly registering to vote, is more complicated than it needs to be. Yet as of Sunday, November 1, 2020, a total of 93 million early ballots have been cast 68% of the total votes cast in the 2016 Presidential Election. After the Pandemic we need to devise a simpler means of voting—polling places that don’t vary or confuse voters and a simpler mailing process, which will be proved a safe means of balloting after this election—moving closer to the true meaning of democracy.

Next week well have Part 2 of Union, the story of a cross-country road trip by two college graduates talking with Americans on all sides of the political circle. This story about polling around the world seemed to fit in better right now. 

“Your Neighbor as Yourself”–Obsolete?

Sierra Nevada. One of many breath-taking scenes in American wilderness. Classroom material

This phrase reflects a basic idea traced to religion–the Second Commandment: Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. When applied to our secular life, some communities sit in direct opposition–reflecting the angry words of the political divide that carves deep into our neighborhoods. Ugly words bubble up automatically.

Seeking a route to a more hospitable future, I found Union, the story of two college acquaintances—a Republican and a Democrat–who got to become friends on a coast-to-coast road trip. They stopped to see the beauty of America, reflected in the Sierra Nevada above, view some of the ugly disagreements, and noticed how some disagreed but found ways to stay in the conversation, using logical arguments.

In a negative environment, where anything and anyone can be open game for ridicule, we will be left with a divided nation after the 2020 Presidential Campaign ends in November, no matter the final outcome of the election.

Thinking about how America could regain its balance, I ran across Union, a 2020 book by two curious college graduates raised in California—Chris, a speechwriter, and Jordan, businessman/ entrepreneur/ former Marine from opposite political parties. They made three road trips East to West and wore out the Volvo Chris inherited from his 87-year-old grandfather (literally, the engine’s ghost gave up in North Carolina on the last trip). They stopped for beautiful scenery like Yellowstone, Red Rocks Canyon in Colorado, Bryce Canyon in Utah, Casco Bay near San Francisco, but their main objective was to listen to partisans on all sides to see where openings occured to slowly stitch the country back together block by block.

The idea for their American Odyssey began as Chris, the one with the longer hair, wearing a “Berkeley Political Review” tee shirt, sped the Volvo around the black, volcanic rocks of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon hurrying Jordan to Northern California to serve as “man of honor” for his sister’s wedding. The flashing red lights came up behind them, causing Chris something this side of heart palpitations. He had been going well over the posted 70 mph.

The stop progressed from a through-the-window exchange of registration and license to “out of the car” and moved to Chris being seated inside the Idaho State Patrol car. “You say you’re from California, but you have a D.C. license, and Jordan’s car is registered in New York—to a different name (probably his grandfather). . . and you can’t stop shaking. It just doesn’t add up, kid.”

“I know it sounds crazy,” Chris said. “But he is who he says he is, and so am I.”

At this point the trooper gets out of the vehicle after barking, “Stay here,” as he goes to the Volvo to talk with Jordan, who gets out of the car. Chris starts to think next; I will be moved to the backseat where the doors do not open from the inside.  All Chris can see is hand waving and gestures to the car by the officer first, then by Jordan, and a bit of conversation, which he cannot hear. Jordan throws his head back and laughs. Then a smile breaks on the officer’s face. Chris now totally confused as they approach the patrol car together. Turns out they are both Marines—a brotherhood that covers a lot of ground and finds forgiveness with a word of caution for two guys trying to make it to a family wedding.

As the Volvo drove around Oregon’s Crater Lake after escaping the state’s steamy eastern lowlands, Jordan starts to talk about his older sister, Jenna, the bride-to-be. She paved the way for him in school and protected him at his school across town by sending her male senior buddies to have a “talk” with the bully pestering her freshman brother. This came in particularly handy during Bush v. Gore. She went to one of the most liberal high schools in the country, so Republicans were not treasured. She got up at an assembly before 500 people and laid it out. “All of you need to stop it. My parents and my brother are Republicans, and they are still good people.” (Union, p 35)

Jordan saw first-hand in Afghanistan what happens when the rule of law breaks down, leading to endless civil war.  In one of their pre-trip conversations, Jordan said: “I really like the idea of a Constitution as a covenant, something that binds us together in a society of mutual trust and collective responsibility.”

Jordan offered: “One of my professors described it as an intergenerational project in which every American has a role in helping to achieve a more perfect union.” But how does it work?  That is what our struggle will be through the end of 2020 and marching beyond.

The conversation continued as they struggled to determine what this means and what binds us together. Jordan said he could see “almost a spiritual dimension to all of this.” He pointed out that Americans find meaning in a multitude of things—art, culture, work, even politics. But now? We focus on our differences. (Union, p. 5)

Chris said it was obvious to him “something was amiss.” His solution was to go out and see America for himself because how could he talk or write intelligently about the people in the country without meeting more of them.  Jordan invited him on their first-cross country road trip—East to West.

Is “My Neighbor as Myself” an unreasonable pipedream? Are we so nestled in our homes due to Covid 19 that we are ignoring our neighbors? Or by pulling back our responsibilities beyond home are we having more time to converse over the fence, at the end of a dog leash, or through the car window?

Maybe “loving our neighbor” is too high a bar and maybe a downgrade to “tolerate” our neighbor might be an improvement over “despise” or “hate” our neighbor’s politics. Perhaps we can learn to love their lavender tree?

Stick with Past Becomes Present for Part 2 of Union as I dig deeper into the book. How did these frenemies survive the discussions on the road? What did they learn about America while on the road? How could we begin to dialog, rather than talking past each other—when no one is listening?

Jordan Blashek and Christopher Haugh, Union, A Democrat, a Republican, and a Search for Common Ground (New York: Little Brown and Company) pp. 291

Your Choice for a Beer: Adams or Jefferson

Jefferson, the wordsmith vs. Adams, the convincer-in-chief

Would you select a political candidate depending on whether they could be comfortable in a pub enjoying a beer?  Who were these men and what would make you want to share a beer?

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson come from a more formal era, but there were pubs and tavern galore where one could stop for a pint to trade local gossip or stay the night and get a wider spectrum of political ideas from travelers. Back then pubs were based on the “Cheers” example, “where everybody knows your name.” Men were likely to have a favorite pub just around the corner or down the block, which made it easy for politicians to catch the temperature of their constituents, particularly in New England, even in current times.

Taverns granted wider polling opportunities for Jefferson on the way to and from Virginia’s House of Burgesses or while both men travelled to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, and later Congressional meetings in Washington. In the 1770s bars and taverns belonged to men. Women who valued their reputation stayed far away. Politicians then did not worry about these absent women in these haunts because they would not become voters until 1920.

Adams looked forward to stopping in for a brew and testing the political waters. Jefferson preferred life on his mountain to time on the road, even when Monticello was just a one-room possibility. In the 1770s they shared a common goal—to get their countrymen to see the country joining as a single country and not as men clinging to separate regional perspectives.

Pulled by Opposite Parties—An Extrovert v. Introvert

Politically they clung to opposite parties—the Federalist for centralized government (Adams) and the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson) of states’ rights. Physically they were an odd pair. Jefferson at around 6’2” seemed on an easy path to the leadership roles imparted to tall men, like George Washington at 6’4,” who stood out in a crowd of Colonial men, who averaged 5’7”-5’9” tall. Adams could not compete with their height, but he undersold himself as short only in comparison to the taller politicians, since he stood with average men at around 5’8.”

Opinions by his contemporaries whether Jefferson was handsome varied. He had a prominent chin, high cheekbones, deep-set, nondescript hazel eyes, sandy-red hair, and ruddy skin, but he had habitually poor posture, according to John Ferling in Setting the World on Fire. (1) His intelligence, personal charm, passionate curiosity, and manner made his company pleasant, according to Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, in Most Blessed of the Patriarchs. (2)

There would be no debate about Adam’s beauty—he being portly, balding, pallid, ungainly, and indifferent to fashionable attire or as an acquaintance remarked, “careless of appearances.” Neither a backslapper or a flatterer and on occasion known as “irascible,” yet Adam’s friend Jonathan Sewall, a rival in pre-war legal circles in Massachusetts, said later “Adams has a heart formed for friendship.” Sewall saw Adams as honest, open, approachable, good-natured, and down to earth, attributes that drew friends throughout his life .(3)

By comparison Jefferson loathed arm-twisting politics and did not appear for debate in Congress, as he hated public speaking, possibly due to shyness and a thin voice that did not carry in great halls. While Jefferson could write well-crafted arguments, he relied on someone else to present those ideas to Congress. Passing acquaintances found him reserved, even cold, but Jefferson showed up in committee with direct, not flowery, or oratorical, comments that added substance to the discussion.

In 1787, before their presidential rivalry, Jefferson told his lifelong friend, Madison, that Adams was so friendly “that you will love him if ever you become acquainted with him.” (4)

Adams had ample opportunities to develop friendships and referee discussions between 1775 and 1777 he served on ninety communities, including twenty-five that he chaired, likely more than any other congressman—developing his skill as a leading political thinker, a foremost expert on foreign affairs, and an expert on military affairs (and probably lining up chits to eventually land the number two spot behind Washington.)

 Historian Joseph Ellis noted Adams’ s mastery of detail, pointing to him as possessing “the clearest head and firmest heart of any man in Congress” in 1777.  While Adams did not have the Pied Piper talents of Samuel Adams or was not as electrifying an orator as Patrick Henry, but in May 1775 when Congress needed to change tacks from confrontation to management and diplomacy, Adams’ star rose. Jefferson had found Patrick Henry to be “electrifying.” But by mid-summer 1775, he saw him as “a man of very little knowledge of any sort.”’

Jefferson’s method of the personal relationship centered around Monticello as you see here in a note to Henry Knox, then Secretary of War who had served as a key general during the Revolution. “When the hour of dinner is approaching, sometimes it rains, sometimes it is too hot for a long walk, sometimes your business would make you wish to remain longer at your office or return there after dinner, and make it more eligible to take any sort of a dinner in town,” Jefferson wrote in 1791. “Any day and every day that this would be the case you would make me supremely happy by messing with me without ceremony or other question than whether I dine at home.” He finishes with the time: from quarter to three quarters after three. . .you’ll be sure to meet a sincere welcome.”

Orator vs. Writer

Adams enjoyed mixing it up with fellow legislators and became known for his skill drawing out his colleagues and convincing them that his plans were in their own self-interest. Jefferson would be more comfortable secluded on his mountaintop in Virginia. When Jefferson spoke before the Continental Congress, he would speak in low tones for ten minutes or less. It went to Adams to sell the Declaration to the legislators, all of whom knew they could be signing their death notice or that of their family and the possible destruction of their homes, fields, or businesses.  The Founders went to Jefferson, the young wordsmith, to prepare the sizzling document that gave life to their ideas, which would be passed to orator Adams, who would entice the legislators to be bold and sign on.

Jefferson’s role as scribe relied on his exquisite wordsmithing, but also on his brevity, covering Adams’ epistles in one-tenth the space (a talent perhaps not missed by Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address of 263 words!). Jefferson’s assignment in 1775: to draft the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms. He started with a long list of grievances against Great Britain, which would appear a year later in the final Declaration of Independence. (5)

In 16 years in Massachusetts courtrooms, Adams chose gravity paired with eloquence, rather than relying on the dramatics we see today. A Pennsylvanian Congressman noted Adam’s ability to see “the whole of a subject at a single glance.” (6)

The Case that Made Adams

Bostonians called it the Boston Massacre; Adams called it “slaughter on King Street” in the winter of 1770. On March 5, British soldiers fired on a crowd in front of the Customs House, who were responding to their killing of a young boy. In this second event, five were killed. Samuel Adams and other protesters convinced Adams to defend the British to avoid the feeling that it would be a sham trial.

Adams had the trial postponed to autumn to help rage subside and obtained separate trials for the commanding officer. He argued the commander had not ordered the shooting. Preston, the commander was acquitted along with six of the eight soldiers. Two were convicted of manslaughter, not homicide, and escaped punishment by pleading benefit of clergy, a technicality for escaping the death sentence. Once the trial ended, one of four Boston representatives resigned, leaving an opening which Adams was elected to fill. (7)


Both men were visionaries sharing a concern that the Union they fought to achieve could be destroyed in the long-term division of the country over the issue of slavery. (This is a longer discussion.) Not surprisingly the decision to count African Americans as 3/5 of a person–were baked into state and national governance and would influence decisions of governance even before their deaths.

The Election of 1800, in which these two men were both candidates for President—Adams for a second term and Jefferson for his first—would turn first on the census that determined the electoral ballots per state. As it turned out, Adams earned 65 votes towards a second term and Jefferson and Aaron Burr tied with 73. This kicked the decision to the House of Representatives, where it took 36 ballots (Federalists were voting for Burr to deny Jefferson the Presidency) for Jefferson to prevail. The backroom dealings further disrupted the Adams-Jefferson relationship.

Twelve years after the 1800 Election the two men resumed their friendship, after Abigail sent a letter to Jefferson sending condolences after the death of his daughter, but it took Benjamin Rush’s diplomacy between the two men to remind them of their respect and love for each other that stood above the politics of the past. They continued as pen pals until they both died on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Both Adams and Jefferson are worthy of a seat at the bar, though Jefferson would probably prefer a glass of French wine or one pressed from his own Monticello grapes to a pint at the pub.


  • Ferling, John. Setting the World Ablaze (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 48)
  • Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf, Most Blessed Patriarchs, (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016), p. 101.
  • Ferling, p. 105
  • TJ Summary View, in Robert J. Taylor et. Al., eds. Papers of John Adams. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1977.
  • Ferling, p. 105
  • Ibid.
  • DAJA, L. H, Butterfield,, eds., The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, vol. 3, 293)
  • Noble Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason, The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987
  • Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power, (New York: Random House, 2012)

Worst Presidential Election: 1800

Founders prior to fireworks: Franklin, Adams and Jefferson.

American elections and political campaigns can be messy. Sometimes the desire for “victory” overwhelms or restructures “democracy,” no matter the century.

In 1800 the confusion landed in the House of Representatives. With just 16 states, it took the votes of nine to win a Presidential runoff. (Today the winning number in the Electoral College is 270 votes.) In the contest between President Federalist John Adams, 65, running for a second term, and his Vice President and thorn in his side, Republican Thomas Jefferson, 57, seeking his first term as President. Jefferson took New Yorker Aaron Burr (well-known from the Broadway play, “Hamilton”) onto the ticket in the second spot as a balance and to draw that state’s ample electoral ballots, but he was very much the wild card. Burr served in the Continental Army and as a lawyer in New York. He supported a bill ending slavery in New York, but owned slaves himself. Adams’ selected South Carolinian Thomas Pinckney as number two to add Southern votes to his New England base. Pinckney served in the Revolutionary War, as South Carolina’s Governor, in the U.S. Congress, and helped negotiate a treaty with Spain.

The 1800 ballot did not list a candidate for Vice President, but the person with the second highest number of votes took the second spot. That is how Jefferson, a small government Democratic-Republican, became VP to Adams, the strong national government Federalist were voted in four years earlier.  This created political fireworks, but certainly conformed to “checks and balances!”

 Fallout from French Revolution

Seen from the 21st century we might not imagine the French Revolution would impact American politics. But it did. Just thirteen years after the Declaration of Independence, Federalists, like Adams, were shocked by the violence in France and felt aligning with Britain would help quell the bloodletting. Adams refused to declare war against France, angering his own party. Jefferson’s Republicans feared “radical conservatives” wanted to return to the British colonial template.

Just before Adams’ inauguration in 1796, France threatened not to allow the U.S. to trade with Britain. The strong French Navy could ruin the U.S. economy by sweeping America’s relatively meager ships from the seas, threatening the young nation with an economic depression. The French would not accept Adams’ envoys sent to negotiate a settlement.  Eventually Adams came to an agreement with the French, which further angered the Federalists, who really wanted WAR.

The most extreme Federalists (anyone thinking Tea Party or next up?), known as Ultras, scored great victories in the off-year elections of 1798—taking charge of both the party and Congress. They created a provisional army and pressured Adams into putting Hamilton (who was considered an Ultra) in charge. (

Next they levied heavy taxes to pay for the army and passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which provided jail terms and heavy fines for anyone who uttered or published “any false, scandalous, and malicious” statement against the U.S. government or its officials.  This angered many Americans still smarting from the taxes levied to pay for the Revolution twenty-five years earlier. Jeffersonians saw this as a way of silencing his Republicans and a violation of the Bill of Rights.

Unpopular Federalists’ Uphill Battle

This just to set the stage for the 1800 National Election. Then the Constitution stipulated each of the 138 members of the Electoral College cast two votes for president, which allowed electors to cast one vote for a favorite son and a second for a candidate who might actually get elected.

Here is the sticky part. The Constitution then stated that if the candidates tied, or none received a majority of the electoral votes, the House of Representatives “shall chuse (SP) by Ballot one of them for President.” Ballots to determine the President were not to be opened and counted until February 11. But nine days after the vote on December 3 in each of the state capitols, DC’s National Intelligencer newspaper broke the news that Jefferson and Burr were tied with 73 electoral votes. Adams received 65 and Pinckney 64. The decision as to the next President would rest in the House of Representatives.

How Adams Could Have Had Second Term

Adams became the first presidential candidate to fall to the notorious clause in the Constitution that counted each slave as three-fifths of one individual in calculating a state’s population, used to allocate both House seats and electoral votes. Had slaves, who were much more numerous in Virginia and the Southern states than in New England and Northern states, not been so counted, Adams would have edged Jefferson by a vote of 63 to 61. (It would be 1869 before African Americans received the vote with passage of the 15th Amendment in 1869 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that enforced it.)

Critical  Deadline: March 4, 1801

If neither Jefferson nor Burr were selected by March 4, when Adams’ term ended, then there would be no Chief Executive until the newly elected Congress convened the following December, nine months later. This upped the ante for the electors, but it did not really speed the process. It took 36 ballots, the first during a DC snowstorm, on February 11, 1801, to decide between Jefferson and Burr, a moment in history seemingly lost from modern memory. The electors most certainly must have realized the importance of their work, as only one of the 101 eligible electors were absent despite the inclement weather.

Public opinion did not matter as it does now because the public did not directly participate in the vote. Yet it seemed to side with Jefferson. His party’s nominating caucus supported him. He had served longer and in more prestigious roles (Secretary of State, Vice President) than Burr. This four years before the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, the seeds of animosity were well planted.

Hamilton Lobbies Against Burr

Hamilton, a Federalist like Burr, did not trust him and wasted no time lobbying against him with a “fierce” letter-writing campaign from mid-December through January 1801 to electors deemed soft on Burr.

“There is no doubt, but that, upon every virtuous and prudent calculation, Jefferson is to be preferred,” Hamilton wrote to Oliver Wolcott Jr. on December 16. “He is by far not so dangerous a man and he had pretensions to character.”

Some Federalists were not influenced by Hamilton because of his vicious attacks on Adams (and his own problems with a mistress and a payoff to her husband).

When balloting began, Delaware Federalist James A. Bayard, appeared in the cat-bird seat. Being the lone representative of his state, if he changed his vote, his state’s vote would also change. Bayard’s first vote went to Burr, which gave him six states to Jefferson’s eight—one short of attaining the Presidency. Burr received Bayard’s vote 34 more times over the next six days.

Hamilton had written Bayard on January 16 arguing Burr to be “a man of extreme & irregular ambition.” Republican newspapers also applied pressure, suggesting possible military intervention if a decision were not reached. Hamilton historian Ron Chernow indicated that Bayard “suggested in a caucus that he might vote for Jefferson to prevent a constitutional crisis,” while other Federalists shouted him down calling out: “Deserter!” (Ibid.)

Resolution and a Duel

Bayard realized he was able to make a deal, so he met with Jefferson’s friends, John Nicholas of Virginia, and Samuel Smith of Maryland. Bayard wanted assurance that as President Jefferson would maintain certain Federalist policies, including Hamilton’s financial system (National Bank) and retain Federalist officeholders. On February 17, Bayard submitted a blank ballot on the 36th round of voting. Vermont and Maryland also stepped aside, allowing their delegations to vote for Jefferson.

Federalists would never win another presidential race and by 1815 ceased to be a political party. The 12th Amendment at the end of Jefferson’s term separated the election of President from that of Vice President. When Burr learned that Hamilton had worked against him, his anger rose until it spilled over in their duel in July 1804. Hamilton shot high; Burr shot for Hamilton. Burr won the duel but ended his political career. Jefferson went on to win the 1804 Presidential Election.

Stay tuned for more about that election and “Who’d You Rather Share a Beer With– Adams or Jefferson?

Living in “Interesting Times”

58th Berlin Conference on “Living in Interesting Times”

Never can I remember times like these that surely qualify for the American version of what we have named “The Chinese curse,“  “May you live in interesting times.” Barely recovered from the debauched Presidential Debate this week, when we received news early Friday morning via the President’s tweet that he and his wife and White House assistant Hope Hicks tested positive for the coronavirus.

Now several members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who attended an event at the White House a week ago Saturday, have also tested positive. Separate of how and when the virus spread, it’s important to wish the President and his wife, staff, and any legislators (and all others throughout the country still suffering from the virus) a speedy recovery.

Just a month remains in what feels like an endless 2020 political campaign for President. Here in Texas tomorrow marks the end of Voter Registration. Mail-in ballots, many from people over 65 fearful of entering the polls during the Pandemic, are already being deposited at locked boxes under the control of the Texas Elections Commission. Last week as the process began, the Governor mandated drop off points be limited to just one per county, despite the width and breath of most counties in this proud, very large state. That will force those living far from the drop off points to rely on the U.S. mail, slowed in recent weeks maybe to reduce costs, but when the mail carries electoral ballots, the nation requires efficiency and transparency to get this vital job accomplished with all possible speed. It is not the time to question this agency, but to support the Post Office where overtime and equipment are needed NOW to be prepared for the onslaught and to meet the federal mandate!

As we are faced with so many challenges to our lives, our finances, and the crumbling of dreams we held close, it seems we are surrounded by uncertainty. We may feel discouraged, distressed and even depressed over our prospects. I may be considered a Pollyanna, or a wishful thinker, but I believe it can be darkest before the dawn. We must stay the course, keep our heads held up as we plow through the darkness, never sacrificing our beliefs, always striving for the truth. There’s rocky road ahead, no doubt, but we must stay the course.

Former Attorney General Robert Kennedy, addressed distressing circumstances in 1966 after the assassination of his brother and Martin Luther King, prior to his own assassination. “Like it or not, we live in interesting times,” he said. “These are times of danger and uncertainty, but these are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.” Six years earlier his brother, President John F. Kennedy, said on Oct. 1, 1960: I am a friend of freedom and wherever freedom is, I feel at home.” Today to maintain this “land of the free,” we must stay the course of democracy in order to “feel at home” here. Today as we assess our circumstances, certainly we are in “unusual times,” but we must continue our efforts to rebuild a nation that nurtures freedom and seeks to shape a creative response to our problems. Only by working together can we shed light on solutions that will bring a ray of hope to guide us out of the darkness.

In the 1930s a British MEP, Sir Austin Chamberlain, said he learned of an ancient Chinese curse from an ambassador, but such a curse never actually existed. Never the less, it continues more as an imaginary curse, repeated in American culture for ninety years.

Surprise: Partisan 19th Century Supreme Courts

But Lincoln Waited

Abraham Lincoln thinking in his untidy world. Free Art

Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Roger Taney died October 12, 1864, in an election year. Not unexpectedly, as he had been ill most of Lincoln’s first term. At the time of Taney’s death, Lincoln was in the thick of his re-election campaign and in the fourth year of the Civil War that he hoped to conclude soon, but it alluded and frustrated him.

John Hay, Lincoln’s wordsmith, wrote of Taney in his diary that night: “Already (before his old clay is cold), they begin to canvass vigorously for his successor.” Chase men say the place is promised to their magnifico.” (1) Lincoln had several cabinet members competing, but primarily his former Secretary of Treasury, whose resignation Lincoln had accepted earlier because Chase was working against him politically.

Lincoln let the question of Taney’s replacement on the Court settle a bit, not rushing to fill the seat before the election. He took time to consider which choice would benefit him most after the election and the nation after the war. He could have sent around the name of a person he favored, but he didn’t have the experience of the “Big Reveal” that came 170 years later. In reality, there would not have been enough time to nominate, pay respects to Senators (some of whom were out campaigning for Lincoln), and bring them back for a vote before the election.

In the meantime, Lincoln made it clear that he expected loyalty, which included campaigning on his behalf. Former Ohio Senator, Governor, and former Secretary of Treasury Salmon P. Chase went to the Midwest and barnstormed for Lincoln (he really wanted to be Chief Justice (2). Rumors of a bargain surfaced. (3)

Lincoln won election to a second term on November 8, 1864, immediately focusing on the war effort after re-election, then turned to consideration of a Chief Justice. He knew that despite Chase’s multiple flaws, including naked ambition, imperious nature and arrogant style, the President believed that on the two critical, fundamental articles of his political faith—abomination of slavery and the righteousness of the war effort—Chase was a true ally, according to Michael Kahn, President of the Board of Directors for President Lincoln’s Cottage.(4)  

Legend held that Lincoln said he would “rather have swallowed his buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase,” according to J.G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure. (5) Maybe buckhorn chairs passed for “crow” back then.

Lincoln followed a pattern established from his first election—attempting to harness and co-opt Chase’s political and personal power to use in his own causes. But in these two critical areas, Lincoln did not have to strain because the two men were to grab a phrase from Forest Gump, “like two peas in a pod” in their fundamental beliefs. On December 6, 1864, Lincoln nominated Chase and sent his name to the Senate, which approved him by unanimous consent.

In all Lincoln nominated five jurists to the Supreme Court during his Presidency. In 1862, John Campbell, known as a Confederate firebrand, left the Court to go South to be named Assistant Secretary of War in the Confederacy. Another Justice died (before Taney) and they expanded the court to ten (still determining why). Of some interest as the partisan question is considered, Lincoln named a friend he made from the Illinois Eighth Circuit, David Davis, who remained a friend throughout their lives. Later Davis became the executor of the Lincoln estate. He was one of a trio who managed Lincoln’s Presidential campaign in 1860.

Lincoln nominated Davis as a recess appointment, when Congress was not in session in 1862. Davis wrote the opinion that year limiting the authority of military courts to try civilians that is seen as a restraint on arbitrary military power to this day. He became a member of the 1872 Electoral Commission that would resolve the 1876 Presidential election, just as the 2000 Court would do, but he resigned to take a seat as Illinois Senator (a seat for which I presume he campaigned). It wasn’t until the 1960s that politicians were not considered for positions on the Supreme Court in favor of sitting jurors on the federal courts.

Slowly Change Occurs

Quick review: Chase’s predecessor Chief Justice Roger Taney resided over the Dred Scott Decision (7-2) March 6, 1857, ruling that Blacks were not included in the U.S. Constitution as citizens and did not have the rights and privileges the Constitution confers, regardless of being slave or free. This ruling was overturned by Constitutional amendments XIII, XIV, XV and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, just after the end of the Civil War.

Chase was installed as Chief Justice on December 15, 1864. John S. Rock, an African-American lawyer, was the first of his race admitted to practice before the Supreme Court on February 1, 1865 on a motion by Senator Sumner (who had lobbied Lincoln ceaselessly for Chase), which assured Rock’s acceptance.(6)


(1) Quoted in Benjamin P. Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A biography, (New York: Alfred A. Knoph, 1952)   at 491.

(2) David H. Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), at 536.

(3) J.G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1955), at 273.

(4) Michael Kahn, “Lincoln Names a Chief Justice,” Abraham Lincoln’s Appointments to the Supreme Court: A Master Politician at his Craft,” Journal of Supreme Court History 1997, Vol. II.

(5) J.G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President: Last Full Measure (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1955), at 271.

(6) David M. Silver, Lincoln’s Supreme Court (Urbana, Il.: The University of Illinois Press, 1987), at 203.

Where There’s a Will. . .

Justica by Fabiano Millani

We look up to tall people—think George Washington and Abe Lincoln—both at 6’4” stood out in a crowd. Today there are more people that reach that height or higher– the Lakers’ LeBron James and former New England QB, now Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady.

Consider a person who would barely come up to the waist of any of these men and whose bird-like body weighed a fraction of any of them, yet she trained that body and worked her essential muscle, her brain, to lay out a positive future that will live on. Whatever scenarios play out while prayers over her body are yet to be sung, her legacy will not be stolen from us.

I can attest to her small stature. Seven years ago, I saw her step out of the back seat of a black car and make her way slowly towards the Watergate residences, where she owned an apartment. Surprised that she was indeed as diminutive as reported, I could see the strength of purpose that came from within this then 80-year-old woman as she walked.

Steel Will

Born in 1933 to a low-income, working-class family, Ruth came a generation after my grandmothers who daily swept the steel filings off their porches in Gary, Indiana, both living to be near 90. We swore that steel found its way into their spines. Ginsburg forged her own steel as she met and overcame challenges that could have melted a lesser woman. How did she become RGB? Let me count the ways.

  1. Her mother struggled with cancer throughout her daughter’s high school days, dying the day before Ruth graduated. She carried her mother’s memory as she attended Cornell, graduating first in her class with a degree in government in 1954. Ruth Bader married Martin Ginsburg and he was drafted that year.
  2. Two years later, military duty completed, now with a child, they enrolled in Harvard Law School together. Ruth was one of eight women among 500 law students, unlikely any of the women had a child and needed to balance that role with that of a law student and wife.
  3.  The law school dean reprimanded those eight women for taking the place of a qualified male.
  4. Her husband, Martin, contracted testicular cancer in 1956. Ruth took notes for him in class, cared for him and their daughter, and continued her own studies. Still she excelled academically to become the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.
  5. Martin recovered, graduated Harvard Law and accepted a job with a New York law firm.
  6. To keep the family together, she transferred to Columbia Law School and was again elected to the school’s law review.
  7. Despite graduating FIRST in her class at Columbia, law firms put out a “no women need apply” sign.
  8. Ruth clerked for a federal judge for two years, then taught law students at Rutgers for nearly a decade, before accepting a position at Columbia. There she taught for eight years and became the FIRST woman at the law school to receive tenure.  
  9. She directed the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU in the 1970s and brought six cases to the Supreme Court, winning five. One came out of the Social Security Act (SSA). A man’s wife had died in childbirth, making him a widower. He wanted to raise their child himself. Then if he had been a widow, he would have received benefits enabling him to do so, but not as a widower. She argued successfully that SSA should cover men as well as women.

 This background propelled Ginsburg onto the U.S. Court of Appeals for DC, when her accomplishments caught the eye of President Jimmy Carter. In 1993 President Bill Clinton selected her to fill the seat vacated by Justice Byron White. Some on the Judiciary Committee grumbled about her evasive answers to hypothetical questions, but candidates for the Court rarely engage queries of that nature, including the two most recent additions to the Court. The Senate confirmed her with a 96-3 Senate vote. After the Assistant Attorney General administered the oath, his son slipped around from behind him and the face of the newly sworn Justice lit up, welcoming the boy and shaking his hand. A warm human reaction she would also extend backstage to opera singers of Washington’s Metropolitan Opera, according to opera lover Thomas Saunders III, Chairman of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative group in DC. Antonio Scalia, her polar legal opposite on the Court, enjoyed discussions about music and opera with her—anything but the law. They laughed about it.

Moderate-Liberal for Gender Equality, Worker’s Rights Cases

United States v. Virginia – Ginsburg wrote the 1996 landmark decision that state-supported Virginia Military Academy could not refuse to admit women.

Bush v. Gore – She dissented in the Court’s decision in the 2000 presidential election, concluding with the words, “I dissent,” not adding “respectfully.”

King v. Burwell – Ginsburg upheld critical components of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2015 allowing the federal government to continue providing subsidies to Americans who purchase health care through “exchanges,” whether they are state or federally operated in a 6-3 decision.

Obergefell v. Hodges – Ginsburg had officiated same-sex marriages and ruled with the 5-4 majority.

During the 2016 campaign, she registered her opinion of the Republican candidate that he was a “faker,” then later apologized for speaking out. He released a list of candidates he would consider for the Court, as he discussed the future of elderly justices, including Ginsburg, then 84. The petite Justice responded by hiring a full slate of clerks through 2020, when she would turn 87.

Fighting to the end, Ginsburg pushed her diminished body through five bouts with cancer, but finally the strength of her will could not win a battle against a physical foe she had held at bay for over a decade.

RBG They Would Call Her

Eight tall men walked across a well-trod stage followed by a diminutive woman in 1993. When they sat down, the woman’s face barely rose above the dais. Her soft, quiet voice barely created a ripple in the room. But the steel in her words and the content of her character woke a nation, slowly bending the arc of justice towards progress that will not be stopped.