On this day–February 25–in 1870, the first African American ever elected to the office of Senator was sworn in. Hiram Rhodes Revels was elected by the Republican-dominated Mississippi legislature to fill out the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis. Revels had distinguished himself in a variety of leadership roles from Maryland to Mississippi, working as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a recruiter of black regiments in the Union Army, an army chaplain, and as an organizer of schools for freedmen. Upon his arrival in the Senate on February 23, 1870, a few Senators tried to block the acceptance of his credentials, arguing that he and other African Americans had gained citizenship only four years prior, with the passage of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. (The US Constitution stipulates in Article I, Section 3, clause 3 that “No person shall be a Senator who shall not have . . . been nine years a Citizen of the United States.”) The argument was specious, as Revels’ supporters pointed out; while residing years earlier in Ohio, Revels had exercised his citizen’s right to vote. After two days, Senator Charles Sumner made a forceful speech that brought the debate to an end.
The strange argument over Revels’ credentials calls to mind a powerful speech made shortly before the end of the Civil War by Frederick Douglass. Speaking to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society on “What the Black Man Wants,” Douglass insisted on the granting of full civil rights for African Americans at the conclusion of the Civil War. Emancipation had been granted as a war measure, so as to add the strength of African American troops to the Union Army. But full citizenship rights, including suffrage, should follow. To not grant these would not only deny the equality of black men to other Americans; it would impugn the honor of a nation that would soon be working out a system to readmit the rebel states to the Union:
Do you mean to give your enemies the right to vote, and take it away from your friends? Is that wise policy? Is that honorable? Could American honor withstand such a blow? I do not believe you will do it. I think you will see to it that we have the right to vote. There is something too mean in looking upon the Negro, when you are in trouble, as a citizen, and when you are free from trouble, as an alien. When this nation was in trouble, in its early struggles, it looked upon the Negro as a citizen. In 1776 he was a citizen. At the time of the formation of the Constitution the Negro had the right to vote in eleven States out of the old thirteen. In your trouble you have made us citizens. In 1812 Gen. Jackson addressed us as citizens—“fellow-citizens.” He wanted us to fight. We were citizens then! And now, when you come to frame a conscription bill, the Negro is a citizen again. He has been a citizen just three times in the history of this government, and it has always been in time of trouble. In time of trouble we are citizens. Shall we be citizens in war, and aliens in peace? Would that be just?
Two months after assuming office, Franklin Roosevelt delivered a radio address—one of his “fireside chats”–on measures he had so far taken to stabilize the nation’s economy. He recalled the national emergency he faced on entering office: “The country was dying by inches. It was dying because trade and commerce had declined to dangerously low levels; prices for basic commodities were such as to destroy the value of the assets of national institutions such as banks, savings banks, insurance companies, and others.” Under these circumstances, he asserted, strong actions had to be taken without long deliberation over economic principles: “We were faced by a condition and not a theory,” he said. Roosevelt named the measures taken to avert further foreclosures and bankruptcies and to put people back to work, saying that Congress had fully supported them, realizing “that the methods of normal times had to be replaced in the emergency by measures which were suited to the serious and pressing requirements of the moment. There was no actual surrender of power . . . . The only thing that has been happening has been to designate the President as the agency to carry out certain of the purposes of the Congress.” This fireside chat on the scope and purposes of the New Deal well illustrates Roosevelt’s skill in reassuring the many still suffering the effects of the Depression while quelling the objections of those who were more concerned about his assumption of new executive authority.
Last week we reprinted Professor John Moser‘s comment on Hoover’s letter to FDR of February , 1933, in which he asked the incoming president to make a pre-inaugural statement to reassure a worried public. Roosevelt ignored Hoover’s “cheeky” advice, waiting for his inaugural address to make a statement promising measures that would bring economic recovery. FDR’s first inaugural speech is famous for his rebuke of the psychological paralysis gripping the nation: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But perhaps the more important announcement of the speech came in the president’s call for “broad executive powers to address the emergency,” the equivalent of powers normally granted to the presidency only during war. Again we reprint a document introduction by Professor John Moser, co-chair of the Master of American History and Government at Ashland University:
Today, we’re reprinting a document introduction written several years ago by John Moser, Professor of history and co-chair of the Master of Arts in History and Government at Ashland University. Moser comments on a letter Herbert Hoover wrote to Franklin Roosevelt three weeks before Roosevelt’s inauguration as president in March 1933:
In early 1933 Americans waited anxiously in the midst of economic crisis for a new president to begin his term of office. In this light, Herbert Hoover’s letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt of February 18, 1933, makes for fascinating reading. During the fall of 1932 the economy had shown signs of recovery, but by February overall unemployment stood at 25 percent and the nation’s banking system stood on the brink of collapse. Hoover believed—not without reason—that uncertainty over Roosevelt’s intended policies was contributing to the general atmosphere of “fear and apprehension.” He called on the incoming president to issue a public statement giving “prompt assurance that there will be no tampering or inflation of the currency” and “that the budget will be unquestioningly balanced even if further taxation is necessary.”
Roosevelt chose to ignore Hoover’s request, privately calling it “cheeky.” No doubt he saw little reason to associate himself with the seemingly discredited economic policies of his predecessor. But Roosevelt’s key economic policy adviser, Rexford G. Tugwell, admitted that same month that he and the president-elect “were wholly aware of the bank situation and that it would undoubtedly collapse in a few days, which would place the responsibility in the lap of President Hoover.”
– Professor John Moser
Tomorrow is Abraham Lincoln’s 205th birthday. It seems a good time to recall a speech in which Lincoln outlined his political principles while still a young man, before leading the nation through the great crisis of our civil war. While a legislator in the Illinois House, Lincoln spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
Lincoln was speaking about 50 years after the ratification debate over the Constitution, and at the end of the speech he shows his consciousness that the last survivors of the revolutionary generation had all but departed. He took as his theme, then, the question of how Americans might maintain their dedication to those republican principles the Founders had articulated and enshrined in law. Asserting that the only serious threats to the nation would arise from within, he warned against allowing any disrespect for law to enter American life. He insisted that recently reported instances of mob violence in the nation gave cause for alarm; but he also spoke of a potential successor to such civil unrest, an ambitious leader who might seek his own glory through the destruction of democratic institutions. This portion of the speech has fascinated his biographers, some of whom argue that Lincoln spoke from an awareness of his own ambition and where, if he chose, it might lead.
Speaking in New York near the close of the 1928 Presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover presented the choice between himself and his opponent, Democrat Al Smith, as one between “state socialism” and the protection of private enterprise. He reminded his listeners that during its involvement in World War I, the US government had directed energy toward the war effort by assuming unprecedented powers to regulate private industry. He made the case that the country’s recovery from the war effort was due in large part to the government’s relinquishing these powers at the war’s conclusion, contrasting this decision with that of some European powers, whose economies were still struggling.
A little less than halfway through this speech, Hoover introduced his famous characterization of the American economic system as based on “rugged individualism”: Continue reading
Calvin Coolidge’s address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in January 1925, shortly following his re-election to the presidency, offers a clear example of his confidence that democracy and laissez-faire capitalism are compatible. He focuses on one node of our economic and political systems that some have seen as problematic: maintaining a free and independent press when journalism is conducted as a for-profit enterprise—or, as Coolidge puts it, “the dual relationship of the press to the public, whereby it is on one side a purveyor of information and opinion and on the other side a purely business enterprise.”
While this speech is the source of Coolidge’s oft-quoted maxim: “the chief business of the American people is business,” it also expresses another idea in which Coolidge places his ultimate confidence: “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. . . . No newspaper can be a success which fails to appeal to that element of our national life.”
Coolidge himself cultivated good relations with the press, holding 520 press conferences during his five and a half years in office.