Why do Presidencies matter? How should we commemorate presidents? How do historical interpretations shift as new issues and questions change our understanding of public and personal behavior?
|Image created by Gabrielle Sinnott (Daemen, '19)|
From 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, October 1, the History & Political Science Department of Daemen College will host an in-depth exploration of these questions, focusing on history and memory, Presidential reputation, and the understanding of past Presidents at "The People's Forum on the American Presidency." As with previous events in our History & Politics events series, the goal of the People's Forum on the American Presidency is to bring together members of campus community and the general public with scholars who have deep knowledge of issues from history and political science. Our "People's Forum on the American Presidency" takes as its model the "People's Forums" held in Buffalo a century ago, which regularly brought together people from all walks of life to discuss matters of public importance and common interest.
This March 1913 story from The Buffalo Courier informed readers about the topics discussed at Buffalo's People's Forum.
In keeping with the times, discussion centered on political corruption and reform, and such third party movements as the Progressive Party and the Socialist Labor Party.
The “People’s Forum on the American Presidency” is structured as a half-day public forum. Attendees will have the opportunity to engage directly with five nationally prominent scholars to explore the intersection of history and memory, Presidential reputations, and the scholarly and popular understandings of past Presidents. Our experts will provide an overview of the presidency, along with in-depth discussions of four past presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding.
The afternoon forum includes three sessions, and attendees can choose to attend any or all of these. We start at 1:00 with an overview of the presidency and a round-table discussion that features our five Presidential scholars. From 3:00 until 4:00, participants will choose among breakout sessions, each led by a scholar who will focus upon a particular President; this enables members of the public to able to engage directly in Q&A with that scholar about the president of their choice. In the final session, running from 4:15 to 5:15, participants will reassemble for a final group conversation to share insights and observations derived from the earlier sessions. The day will conclude with a book signing by the authors (titles are available for purchase on-site).
1:00--1:15: Introduction and Welcome (Wick Social Room)
1:15--1:45: Introductory overview by Political Scientist James Campbell on the focal issue of presidential reputations (Q: Why do presidencies matter?)
1:45--2:45: Roundtable Panel of historians discussing presidents:
Peter Onuf on Thomas Jefferson
Charles Lachman on Grover Cleveland
Phillip Payne on Warren G. Harding
John Milton Cooper on Woodrow Wilson
3:00--4:00: Concurrent breakout sessions. Attend a session with the scholar of your choice:
Members of the audience have the opportunity for direct Q&A/discussion in smaller groups with our presidential scholars. Each scholar will have a separate space for this session. (Breakout sessions may pick up on themes we identify but participants will have a significant role in shaping the direction of these sessions.)
4:15--5:15: People’s Forum on historical memory and the role of the Presidency (Wick Social Room):
Participants reassemble for an open discussion about topics and issues sparked by the opening sessions (overview of presidency and roundtable discussion of individual presidents), along with questions and insights shared from the individual breakout sessions.
5:15--5:45: Book sale/signing: Books by our scholars are available for purchase.
** An exhibit of presidential memorabilia created for The People's Forum on the American Presidency by members of The American Political Items Collectors will be on display throughout the event and during the following week.
The People's Forum on the American Presidency is supported by an Action Grant from the New York State Council for the Humanities, by the Office of Academic Affairs, the Division of Arts & Sciences, and the History & Political Science Department at Daemen College. We also wish to acknowledge our two community partners: the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site (NPS) and the Association for a Buffalo Presidential Center. Additional thanks to members of The American Political Items Collectors for creating an exhibit of presidential memorabilia.
**For more information about this event, contact
Dr. Penny Messinger: email@example.com or
Dr. Andrew Wise: firstname.lastname@example.org
Key themes and questions:
The daily news is flooded by the controversies swirling around historical issues, symbols, and individuals (for examples, see the links at the end of this blog post). Our speakers will address a number of questions, many of them inspired by this year's lively campaign season, with discussion focusing around four presidents: Jefferson, Cleveland, Wilson, and Harding:
* Q: How does our understanding of history shape public debate in this presidential election year?
* Q: How do citizens acknowledge the important role of men such as Thomas Jefferson who founded this nation, while also wrestling with their less than stellar actions in personal and public life?
Renowned as the author of the Declaration of Independence and as the first Secretary of State (in Washington's administration) before being twice elected to the presidency (1801-09), President Thomas Jefferson's personal behavior has been the topic of historical scrutiny. This is most notable with his relationship with Sally Hemings, his enslaved concubine who gave birth to their four children.
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1805. (Image from U.S. National Archives)
*Q: How should communities commemorate or remember Presidents with difficult (and negative) reputations?
President Grover Cleveland (president 1885-89, 1893-97) was a civic leader from Buffalo and a two-term president, but recent scholarship has highlighted charges of sexual assault against Maria Halpin, who gave birth to a son for whom Cleveland acknowledged paternity.
1892 photo of Grover Cleveland from U.S. Library of Congress, digital ID:
Evaluating the legacy of President Warren G. Harding (1921-23) is even more difficult. Harding regularly comes in dead last in presidential rankings, thanks to the combination of scandals in his administration and his private life.
Photograph of Warren G. Harding from Business Insider: "Ancient US Presidential Sex Scandal Revealed," July 8, 2014.
* Q: How does the Wilsonian legacy continue to shape public debate about domestic and foreign policies in this presidential election year?
President Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) also has a complex presidential legacy; Wilson’s world vision still guides American foreign policy and international relations, yet his administration also oversaw the segregation of Washington, D.C., and the federal government.
This photograph of Woodrow Wilson accompanied the CNN story: "Erasing Woodrow Wilson's name is not that easy,"
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Politicians are flawed vehicles for expressing private virtues, a point that is perhaps more evident when viewed more dispassionately through the lens of time than in the heat of the present moment. Both symbolically and practically, the president represents the United States, and history is a profoundly public endeavor, since it belongs to all of us. Historians and political scientists have much to contribute to public discussions about past and present presidents, memory, and commemoration.
While the presidencies to be discussed during The People's Forum on the American Presidency should be understood through the historical lens of their own time, participants will be interested in the ways that the issues of these past presidencies continue to resonate today. We will also consider how past issues continue to spark public debate.
One area of connection between past and present lies in the 2016 presidential campaign, which has unfolded in unexpected ways with outsider candidates such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and businessman Donald Trump injecting energy into the campaign and drawing the interest of many voters. Ironically, Hillary Clinton's insider status as the candidate of choice for Democratic Party leaders overshadowed her groundbreaking role as the first female nominee of a major party. Divisive issues, personalities, and controversies threaten party unity, reflecting current social tensions in ways that evoke concerns of past generations. While the 2016 election seems like a new event, it is actually very similar to previous elections where popular discontent has disrupted the plans of party regulars. Our five presidential scholars--four historians and one political scientist--will help participants explore the legacies of Thomas Jefferson, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding, leaders whose presidencies collectively raise issues of institutional politics and matters of individual character during eras characterized by important social, economic, and political changes:
The eagle on this 1800 textile holds two banners: "T. JEFFERSON President of the United States of America" and "JOHN ADAMS no more."
● Grover Cleveland was elected in 1884 but lost his reelection bid in 1888 by losing the Electoral
College, even as he won the popular vote. He went on to victory in the election of 1892 only to see the economy collapse in the Panic of 1893 as insurgent populists angry over Cleveland’s conservative economic policies overtook the Democratic Party.
In this 1896 political cartoon from Judge, Cleveland is front and center among several politicians already attracted (and destroyed) by the appeal of "Free Silver," the central economic issue of the Populist movement of the 1890s.
|Uncle Sam eyes Progressive, Republican, & Democrat candidates in 1912 (LOC)|
● Woodrow Wilson was a latecomer to politics after an academic career. Following his brief stint as governor of New Jersey, he tossed his hat in the ring and won the Democratic Party nomination in the election of 1912. This election was a high water mark for the Progressive Movement, with voters divided between rival plans to address the social and economic disruption of industrialization, urbanization, and globalization. Wilson won despite the Democratic Party’s minority status because the GOP split between the progressive Teddy Roosevelt and the conservative William Howard Taft.
|Peace was a major theme in 1916|
With the emergency of WWI in Europe in 1914, Wilson urged neutrality and his 1916 re-election campaign used the slogan, "He kept us out of war." A year later, the US entry into the war launched an "American century" of increased power and influence in world affairs. Although Wilson's vision shaped the post-war world, both Wilson and the peace treaty were deeply unpopular in the US. A post-war recession was accompanied by continuing racial backlash, nativism, and a "red scare" that targeted political radicals.
● By 1920, World War I had left voters disillusioned with Wilson and with progressivism. The Republican Party failed, however, to unite behind a candidate and so nominated Warren G. Harding of Ohio as a compromise nominee at a contested convention. Harding went on to win a landslide victory that began a political realignment resulting in a decade of conservative Republican rule.
|GOP party pin, ca 1940 (credit: Andrew Wise)|
|Themes from the 1920 campaign of Republican candidate Warren G. Harding (at R) and his running-mate Calvin Coolidge (at L) have reappeared in 2016 Presidential campaign of Donald Trump. (Inaugural artifact from the Library of Congress.)|
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|Dr. James E. Campbell|
James E. Campbell is University at Buffalo Distinguished Professor of Political Science, and a leading analyst of American electoral politics and the presidency. Campbell is the author of a number of studies, among which are Before the Vote: Forecasting American National Elections (2000); The American Campaign: U.S. Presidential Campaigns and the National Vote (second edition, 2008); and the widely anticipated Polarized: Making Sense of A Divided America, scheduled for publication in fall 2016.
|John Milton Cooper (Princeton Alumni Weekly, 3-17-2010)|
John Milton Cooper is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a leading historian of early twentieth century American politics. He is the author of three widely discussed books on Woodrow Wilson: The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (1983); Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations (2001); and most recently Woodrow Wilson: A Biography (2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
|Charles Lachman (photo credit: Lisa Berg)|
|Peter S. Onuf|
|Phillip G. Payne|
This unique event was supported by an Action Grant from the New York State Council for the Humanities, and made possible by additional support from Daemen College's Office of Academic Affairs (student-faculty think-tank grants), by Division of Arts & Sciences, and by the History & Political Science Department at Daemen College.
We also wish to express appreciation for help with publicity to our two community partners: the Theodore Roosevelt (TR) Inaugural National Historic Site (National Park Service), and the Association for a Buffalo Presidential Center. Additional thanks to members of The American Political Items Collectors for creating an exhibit of presidential memorabilia for our event.
Dr. David A Gerber, Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University at Buffalo (SUNY);
Dr. Penny Messinger , Associate Professor of History and Chair of History & Political Science Department, Daemen College;
Dr. Phillip G. Payne, Professor of History, St. Bonaventure University;
Dr. Andrew Kier Wise, Professor of History, Daemen College.
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In the news: Recent press coverage about the presidents and issues related to our event:
- Review of "Most Blessed of Patriarchs": Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Peter S. Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed, (2016) "Thomas Jefferson, Neither God Nor Devil," The New York Times
Peter Onuf & Annette Gordon-Reed, (The New York Times, April 5, 2016)
- Scott Jaschik, "Jefferson Is Next Target," Inside Higher Ed. November 23, 2015. This story discusses student-led efforts to remove statues of Thomas Jefferson from the University of Missouri and William & Mary College. The story makes comparisons with similar efforts aimed at removing statues of Woodrow Wilson from Princeton:
"...Once again, students are raising the question of whether men seen as heroes in American history were decidedly unheroic when it came to issues of race -- and black students are demanding that colleges consider the impact of various honors for people whom they do not consider heroes. While Princeton has said it is considering the issue of the Wilson name, which could well remain, the student protest movement has led to widespread discussion of Wilson's record on race, which even fans of his idealistic internationalist vision admit was horrible. Publications such as Vox and Salon are running articles detailing just how bad Wilson was with regard to issues of race -- and giving prominence to a part of the historical record many have never considered...."
Students comment on Jefferson's legacy (Inside Higher Ed)
- Lillian Cunningham, "Racism, Feminism, and the Complicated Legacy of Woodrow Wilson," The Washington Post, July 11, 2016. Historian John Milton Cooper is featured in this issue of the Washington Post's "Presidential Podcast" series. From the lede:
"For a long time, the main legacy of President Woodrow Wilson’s hinged on his progressive domestic policies and his leadership during World War I that reshaped American diplomacy. But more recently, another part of his personal and presidential story—racism—is starting to overshadow those other elements."
- Jennifer Schuessler, "Woodrow Wilson's Legacy Gets Complicated," The New York Times, Nov. 29, 2015.
|Challenging Wilson's legacy at Princeton (NYT 11-29-15)|
"Was Woodrow Wilson a key founder of modern liberalism, a visionary whose belief in an activist presidency laid the groundwork for the New Deal and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s?
"Or was he a virulent and unrepentant racist, a man who not only segregated the federal work force but nationalized the Southern view of politics, turning the federal government itself into an instrument of white supremacy for decades to come?"
- Editorial: "The Case Against Woodrow Wilson at Princeton," The New York Times, Nov. 24, 2015. The Times Editorial Board endorses efforts by students at Princeton College to highlight Wilson's racist actions as President of the College and as President of the United States.
Warren G. Harding
- Russell Berman, "Warren G. Harding's Terrible Tenure," The Atlantic, August 14, 2015. This story discusses the reassessment of Harding's presidency following upon the results of DNA testing that validated claims of the extra-marital affair between Harding and Nan Britton. In addition to the personal scandals, the story highlights other shortcomings of Harding's presidency.
|President Harding (The Atlantic)|
- Ben Brumfield and Aparnaa Seshadri, "DNA test reveals President Warren Harding's affair and love child," CNN, August 14, 2015. Story reporting on DNA testing that validated Nan Britton's claim (made public in her 1928 book, The President's Daughter, to have had a relationship and a daughter with Harding.
- Peter Baker, "DNA Is Said to Solve a Mystery of Warren Harding's Love Life," The New York Times, August 12, 2015. Reports on DNA tests confirming that Nan Britton's daughter Elizabeth Ann was also Warren G. Harding's daughter. The tests also disproved claims that Warren G. Harding had black ancestry.
Nan Britton & daughter Elizabeth (with Harding). (NYT)"Long before Lucy Mercer, Kay Summersby or Monica Lewinsky, there was Nan Britton, who scandalized a nation with stories of carnal adventures in a White House coat closet and endured a ferocious backlash for publicly claiming that she bore the love child of President Warren G. Harding.
"Now nearly a century later, according to genealogists, new genetic tests confirm for the first time that Ms. Britton’s daughter, Elizabeth Ann Blaesing, was indeed Harding’s biological child. The tests have solved one of the enduring mysteries of presidential history and offer new insights into the secret life of America’s 29th president. At the least, they demonstrate how the march of technology is increasingly rewriting the nation’s history books..."
- Angela Serratore, "President Cleveland's Problem Child." The Smithsonian, September 26, 2013. This article recounts details of Cleveland's actions in relation to Maria Halpin, who said that a sexual assault by Grover Cleveland had resulted in her pregnancy and the birth of a son (named Oscar Folsom Cleveland). Cleveland admitted paternity for the child, but later took action to consign Halpin to a Buffalo insane asylum. He was also involved in legal maneuvers that resulted in the loss of her parental rights and her surrendering of the child for adoption.
"Not even a specific allegation of philandering, illicit pregnancy and coverup barred Grover Cleveland from the White House."
"...The story filled major newspapers during the summer and autumn of 1884—had Cleveland really taken part in the “seduction and ruination” of such a goodly woman? Was he indeed too much of a libertine to lead the nation? Or was his campaign telling the truth—that Maria Halpin was a harlot looking to cash in on a distant dalliance with the upstanding lawyer running for office on a clean-government ticket?"
Frank Beard's 1884 political cartoon about Cleveland