Just a Few Generations

I stumbled across an interesting news clip on YouTube. John Tyler, born in 1790 and president of the United States from 1841 to 1845, still had two living grandsons as of 2019.

Not great-great-grandsons or even great-grandsons. Grandsons.

Watch the video here:

At least one, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr., has passed away since then. Still, it’s remarkable to consider how a mere three generations could stretch from the founding era to the present.

The feat was made possible by Tyler marrying a much younger woman as his second wife, and then their son doing the same thing.

It’s a reminder that American history isn’t all that long in the grand scheme of things.

When I was working as a reporter for the Herald-Progress newspaper years ago, I liked to browse through the paper’s archives when time allowed. The office had original, physical copies going all the way back to 1919.

In a 1929 edition of the paper, I found a picture of an elderly man shaking President Herbert Hoover’s hand. (Unfortunately, this isn’t something I can link to.) The caption said this gentleman had shaken hands with every Republican president going all the way back to Abraham Lincoln.

Two of my grandparents were already born when that photo was taken. I found it fascinating that my grandparents were alive at the same time as anyone who had met Lincoln. The math made sense and wasn’t any real surprise, of course, but I don’t think I had consciously worked it out before coming across that visual evidence.

The past—at least, the U.S. past—isn’t as remote as we tend to think.

In any case, Tyler is a president I haven’t read much about yet, and I need to rectify that at some point. The latter half of Tippecanoe and Tyler Too, he was the first vice president elevated to the presidency following a president’s death in office (William Henry Harrison in this case), and I’m sure there’s more to him than that. Let me know if you’ve read any great books on Tyler (or anyone from that pre–Civil War era).

Tyler and I, it turns out, are fellow graduates of William & Mary. Granted, he was there many years before me—or perhaps it wasn’t so long after all.

The Founders’ Fears

We all have our doubts, and so did America’s Founding Fathers.

Fears of a Setting Sun: The Disillusionment of America’s Founders, a recent book by Dennis C. Rasmussen, examines precisely what the title describes. But it’s not as depressing as it sounds.

The bulk of the book focuses on four key founders and the major doubts they experienced later in life. George Washington feared the rise of partisanship. Alexander Hamilton worried that the government wasn’t vigorous enough. John Adams, the first to become disillusioned, didn’t think people were virtuous enough to sustain the republic. Thomas Jefferson, highly optimistic for a long time, eventually came to dread that slavery would tear the country apart.

Each one, as well as other founders, became disillusioned about the United States’ ability to endure. Though they all sacrificed much to give the new country the best possible chance, they were increasingly doubtful they had built something that would last.

Given the serious issues that plagued the young nation throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—tensions with France, the War of 1812, slavery, and so much more—how could they not have doubts?

An excess of certainty can often be creepy, so, in a strange way, it’s reassuring to see how these important historical figures understood their own limitations. They all knew that perfection was unattainable, so they instead aimed for something that might work despite its faults. But there was no way of knowing that it actually would work, and certainly not for 230+ years and counting.

Rasmussen closes his book by focusing on a fifth founder, James Madison, who survived until 1836, allowing him to witness close to half a century of the Constitution in action, withstanding all sorts of challenges from various directions decade after decade. And though not free of doubts himself, Madison remained generally optimistic about America’s prospects.

“[Madison] did occasionally harbor some real worries and experience some palpable disappointments, as might be expected, but these concerns were never so deep or lasting as to lead to disillusionment with the political order as a whole or to despondency about its future,” Rasmussen writes.

Rasmussen speculates about why Madison was the exception to the rule, citing temperament as one likely explanation. But another was that he “had lower expectations than most of the other founders regarding what was politically possible, and he pointedly refused to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Madison was a realist, even more so than the other founders. He understood partisanship was going to happen and that men were not angels, and he held more balanced views about centralization and decentralization of power than Hamilton and Jefferson.

James Madison

The most appealing reason Rasmussen puts forth, however, is Madison’s longevity.

“Long experience had, moreover, persuaded Madison beyond a doubt that the American form of government was preferable to the alternatives—throughout history and around the world—and he sought to convince (or remind) his fellow citizens of that basic but crucial fact,” Rasmussen writes.

The fact that Madison was a participant or at least an interested observer throughout decades of turbulent situations, and yet still died confident about America’s future, inspires hope.

Rasmussen quotes Madison’s final advice to U.S. citizens: “The advice nearest to my heart and deepest in my convictions is that the Union of the States be cherished & perpetuated. Let the open enemy to it be regarded as a Pandora with her box opened; and the disguised one, as the Serpent creeping with his deadly wiles into Paradise.”

I never expected a book about disillusionment to be so uplifting. It’s worth a read.

The Graciousness of Grant

The surrender at Appomattox has the ingredients for a great one-act play.

The two leads are perfect foils. The defeated general, a living legend to his men, is fifteen years older and held a much higher rank than the victorious general the last time they met, many years earlier (an encounter the older man doesn’t even remember). The victorious general, a failure in civilian life, shows up in “rough garb,” by his own admission, in sharp contrast to the defeated general’s polished ceremonial attire.

The victorious general begins with friendly chitchat, to which the defeated general responds cordially. But the defeated general can’t hide his grave demeanor; the fate of his men depends on this rough-hewn, middle-aged failure sitting across from him. Will he be vengeful? Will he push for punitive measures against the Southern army? Or will he show mercy?

Painting by Thomas Nast

Fortunately, General Ulysses S. Grant chose to be merciful and kind to Robert E. Lee and his army. Without excusing the Confederacy’s wrongdoings, Grant was able to emphasize with his opponents and remember their humanity.

Grant later wrote in his memoirs, “I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse.”

As Ron Chernow describes in his superb biography, Grant, the Union general came prepared with terms, but he drafted the specific language on the spot. “Grant trusted to the moment’s inspiration,” Chernow writes.

The terms included the following: “The Arms, Artillery and public property to be parked and stacked and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them…This done each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes not be disturbed by United States Authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.”

The U.S. government would have been within its rights to charge Confederate soldiers with treason and put the recovering nation through a lengthy series of trials. But that would not have facilitated healing, nor would it have moved the country forward.

Chernow notes that Grant chose not to ask Lee to surrender his sword. It wasn’t just to avoid making a martyr of the man; Grant also didn’t want to humiliate him.

“With no tinge of malice, Grant’s words breathed a spirit of charity reminiscent of Lincoln’s second inaugural address,” Chernow says.

Lee accepted the terms with only minor revisions. “It is more than I expected,” he said.

Grant also arranged to provide food for Lee’s hungry troops.

“Grant showed genuine compassion for the Confederate soldiers, saying he assumed most were farmers and wanted to plant crops to tide them over during the winter. To this end, he issued a directive that rebel soldiers who owned their horses or mules should be allowed to take them home,” Chernow writes.

Chernow also notes how pleasantly surprised the Confederate troops were, as many were expecting punitive measures from Grant. Chernow quotes an unnamed soldier as having said, “The favorable and entirely unexpected terms of surrender wonderfully restored our souls.”

To avoid wounding the Southerners’ pride, Grant even halted the celebrations of his own men while both armies were still in the area.

James Longstreet, a Confederate general, visited Grant at Appomattox. Grant offered him a cigar, and they renewed their friendship over a card game they used to play.

According to Chernow, Longstreet said, “Great God, thought I to myself, how my heart swells out to such a magnanimous touch of humanity! Why do men fight who were born to be brothers?…His whole greeting and conduct toward us was as though nothing had ever happened to mar our pleasant relations.”

“Grant’s courtesy at Appomattox became engraved in national memory, offering hope after years of unspeakable bloodshed that peace, civility, and fraternal relations would be restored. It was a fleeting, if in many ways doomed, hope, which may be why it has had such staying power in the American imagination,” Chernow writes.

And true, Grant’s good manners did not foreshadow a smooth Reconstruction period, and that’s one of history’s many tragedies. But Grant behaved exactly right on April 9, 1865, showing us how to treat our defeated enemies as friends, and how forgiveness is more important than punishment.

“Such was Lee’s unrivaled stature that his acceptance of defeat reconciled many diehard rebels to follow his example. At the same time, it was Grant who set the stage for Lee’s high-minded behavior by treating him tactfully, refusing to humiliate him, and granting him generous terms that allowed him to save face in defeat,” Chernow says.

The surrender could indeed make a great play, one that combines aspirational ideals with tragic undercurrents.

The enemy of my enemy is not a trustworthy friend

History is more interesting with additional points of view, and that’s what The Daughters of Yalta accomplishes.

Written by Catherine Grace Katz, the book recounts the Yalta Conference from the perspectives of three eminent daughters: Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s favorite child; Anna Roosevelt, FDR’s daughter who was tasked with guarding the secret of the president’s ailing health; and Kathleen Harriman, daughter and most trusted confidante of U.S. ambassador Averell Harriman.

Their inclusion adds greater depth to the history, and Katz does an excellent job of getting inside everyone’s heads, fathers and daughters alike, to present the personal dimension. For example, we get a sense of how Winston was haunted by Europe’s failure to achieve a lasting peace after the previous World War.

The book also shows the friction within the U.S.-British-Soviet alliance, and how the Soviets were generating the bulk of that friction. The Americans and British were indeed swimming with sharks to defeat the Nazis (sharks who were previously allied with the Nazis, who of course could also be described as sharks themselves).

On one hand, the Soviets showed excessive hospitality at Yalta. Their guests’ most casual wishes were granted. Sarah Churchill mentioned how lemon would go nicely with the caviar she was eating, and wouldn’t you know it, a lemon tree appeared on the premises the next day.

But the wish-granting had a dark side. The Soviets were spying on the Americans and British. They planted non-metallic bugs and installed microphones to eavesdrop on their guests.

“They steered FDR toward their listening devices in the Livadia gardens by tidying certain garden paths, so he could manage them in his wheelchair, practically guaranteeing that they could follow his every move,” Katz writes.

Soviets would transcribe private conversations and report summaries to Stalin in advance of meetings.

The NKVD secret police were an ominous presence at the conference. Katz explains that they were “an elite force of terror under Stalin’s leadership. The agency became the secret police and assassination squad. It made the supposed enemies of the people, whether political dissidents or an entire ethnic minority, disappear.”

Kathy Harriman had already learned to be suspicious of the Soviet government, and she was not alone in her concerns. Working as a newspaper reporter in London, she was tasked with covering press conferences given by leaders of exiled European governments, such as those of Poland and Czechoslovakia.

“At these press conferences, the issue that raised the most immediate concern was not Nazi aggression, but rather Britain’s new alliance with the Soviet Union. The exiles were not pleased with the sudden rush of support for Stalin in Britain and the United States,” Katz writes.

“The exiled Polish leaders were particularly vocal. They argued that Stalin would look for any opportunity to seize Poland and install a de facto Soviet regime. Kathy believed them. Not until the late summer of 1944 would Averell realize that Kathy had been right to listen.”

Even before the conference, Kathy Harriman experienced the Soviets’ duplicity firsthand, though she didn’t realize it until later. She and several other journalists were invited to Katyn Forest in Russia to observe a mass grave containing the remains of thousands of Polish soldiers.

What had actually happened was that the Soviets executed nearly 22,000 Polish citizens in 1939. This included “soldiers, intellectuals, and aristocrats — anyone who might have the means and desire to actively resist Soviet rule,” Katz writes. 

“With so many ‘enemies of the state’ in their clutches, the Soviet leaders realized they had a prime opportunity. They could begin liquidating the Polish ruling class, thus making it easier to control the country once the war was over.”

Stalin ordered the executions, and the Soviet agents tampered with the evidence to make it look like the Nazis committed the massacre. The Soviets then fooled the journalists, including the skeptical Kathy Harriman, into believing their innocence regarding this particular atrocity.

“The Nazis committed countless crimes against humanity … but the Katyn Forest massacre was one crime they did not commit,” Katz says.

She later adds, “No matter how much the British and the Americans abhorred the atrocities the Soviets committed, defeating the Nazis remained paramount.”

The Daughters of Yalta is an excellent, insightful book. I’ve provided only a glimpse of it. Read the whole the thing!

John Hancock, America’s first proto-president

Long ago, I was an assistant manager at a clothing store. For reasons that were never sufficiently explained, whenever I completed a refund transaction, I had to get the signature of one of the other employees—in addition to my own and the customer’s, resulting in a most impressive triple-signature document.

One day I asked a 21-year-old co-worker to sign one of those receipts, and she said, “All right, I’ll give you my John Hancock.” Then she stopped and thought for a moment, wondering aloud, “Why do they call a signature a John Hancock?”

John Hancock

I immediately responded, “John Hancock was the first person to sign the Declaration of Independence, and he signed it really large.”

She laughed, clearly not expecting anyone to actually know such a thing. “OK, nerd.”

(And I didn’t even mention that the guy presided over the Continental Congress, or that he’s a character in the hit Broadway and motion picture musical 1776.)

My response—and, I believe, valid question—was, “But wait, who doesn’t know who John Hancock is?”

Naturally, this led to a poll among the other employees who happened to be there. To my dismay, only two others were familiar with the late Mr. Hancock. One was a friend of mine from William & Mary, thereby doing nothing to dispel the “nerd” allegation. In fact, that was the rebuttal: “Oh, well, you two went to the nerd school.”

So we were apparently disqualified. The other was a high school junior whose history class had only just covered the Revolutionary era.

The high school boy answered, “Oh! He signed his name big enough that the king could read it without his spectacles!” That may just be a myth, but close enough.

There were several others working that day, all in the teens through 20s range. None of them had the slightest clue who the man was, and they were all astonished that anyone would know this seemingly random piece of trivia.

I may have been ahead of the curve by knowing an entire thing or two about Hancock, but I didn’t know nearly enough.

Recently, I read a full biography on the man in question, John Hancock: Merchant King and American Patriot by Harlow Giles Unger (2000). Turns out, Hancock is much more than a signature. He was an important figure leading up to the American Revolution, and as president of the Continental Congress from 1775 to 1777, he was essentially the first chief executive as the colonies adopted the Declaration of Independence—in a sense, the first proto-president of the United States of America.

According to Unger, what made Hancock indispensable as the Continental Congress’s president was his skill as a moderator, which he honed at Boston town meetings, in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and at the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

“In all three, he had often reconciled Tories with Whigs, radicals with conservatives, and rural interests with urban interests. Congress elected John Hancock unanimously. He considered his election as president of Congress the greatest honor of his life,” Unger writes.

Impartiality was vital to his role as president, and his neutrality earned him the respect of the delegates.

Unger says, “He was the perfect president, with some appeal to all factions but favoritism to none. He understood everyone’s point of view. His experience as moderator and legislator appealed to moderates; his wealth, business position, and education appealed to conservatives; and his defiance of British authority in Boston appealed to radicals. And what appealed to all was his vast experience directing a large organization, namely the House of Hancock.”

Unger emphasizes the importance of Hancock’s broad appeal, as the states were anything but united before the Declaration.

Additionally, after the delegates voted on each matter, the task of executing fell to the president, as did the responsibility of communicating with the leaders of each colony.

Hancock had to “supervise the acquisition, collection, and shipment of money, arms, and ammunition that Congress approved for transfer to the army. Congress legislated, but President Hancock executed,” Unger writes.

Also, Hancock’s wasn’t merely the first signature on the Declaration of Independence. For about a month, his signature was the only one on the document, and “it constituted tangible evidence of treason that would have cost him his life if he had been captured,” Unger says.

One of his final accomplishments as president was helping guide the Articles of Confederation to adoption. Though far from perfect (as we now know with our historical hindsight), the Articles were a necessary stopgap measure at the time.

“His imminent departure evidently forced delegates to recognize how important his mediative skills had been in holding Congress together. Without him, many delegates would have deserted and shattered the unity essential to effective prosecution of the war. In his absence they would need a contract to bind them together,” Unger says.

So that’s a little more about Hancock, and that’s still just a glimpse of the man behind the signature. Read Unger’s book for a more thorough portrait.

Lincoln and empathy

A. Lincoln has a great little anecdote. In the grand scheme of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it’s hardly more than a footnote, and it takes up less than a page in the paperback edition.

Early in his career, Lincoln ridiculed an opponent and felt bad about it.

It really shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given how nasty people can get toward each other when arguing online, it’s worth highlighting.

According to Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln, then 31, was campaigning for William Henry Harrison and speaking against Martin Van Buren during the 1840 presidential election. That summer, a young Democratic politician named Jesse Thomas criticized Lincoln at a debate.

The criticism angered Lincoln. Though not initially present, once he got word Lincoln made his way there and was given time to respond, and he attacked back. “His attack quickly moved beyond the content of Thomas’s remarks,” White writes.

Lincoln resorted to imitating Thomas’s voice, gestures, and walk, making a caricature out of the man. And the crowd loved it. Their cheers fueled Lincoln’s mockery of his opponent, at the time blinding him to the pain he was causing Thomas.

Thomas eventually fled the scene in tears, and the incident became known as “the skinning of Thomas.”

“Lincoln was mortified,” White writes. “Sometime later he found Thomas and offered an apology. The young Lincoln, the man who prized reasonableness, struggled to control his emotions when he felt he was wronged.”

Lincoln succumbed to the heat of the moment and took things too far. The impulse to fight back is an understandable one, but he erred in how he did so. 

The important thing, though, is that he realized his error and learned from it. After ridiculing Thomas, Lincoln put himself in his opponent’s head, remembered his humanity, and acknowledged the pain he caused. This helped him steer clear of such immature, hurtful attacks later on in his career, which might very well have done more harm than good by undermining the causes he fought for.

It’s worth remembering whenever someone on the internet says the “wrong” thing.

Where no one had gone before

I recently watched and enjoyed For All Mankind on Apple TV. The series presents an alternate history in which Soviet cosmonauts landed on the moon before American astronauts. The first season is excellent; the second is a mixed bag, but at times excellent.

The series got me curious about the actual history of the space program, so I picked up Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger (2017).

Though the Apollo 8 mission is the centerpiece of the book, Kluger also recounts the history of the U.S. space program leading up to the first lunar flight, and he spends time getting to know Apollo 8’s crew: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Kluger does so in a clear, narrative form, even throwing in some dialogue to bring the scenes to life.

The book goes into gritty detail about how challenging and claustrophobic space travel can be—the constant danger, the cramped quarters, the stale air, the utter lack of privacy, and the absence of proper restroom facilities and the resulting indignities. At first glance, biological necessities do suck much of the romance out of exploration, but such details help illustrate what a tremendous, aspirational feat this whole mission was, with an abundance of courage, effort, intelligence, ingenuity, humility, and competence needed to make this voyage happen.

NASA achieved something unprecedented by sending three people far enough into space to view the entire Earth as a single, whole entity. Previous astronauts and cosmonauts had seen the Earth from space, but never so completely.

Kluger writes, “Now, however, Borman, Lovell, and Anders could see the planet floating alone, unsupported, in space. The Earth was no longer the soil beneath their feet or the horizon below their spacecraft. It was an almost complete disk of light suspended in front of them, a delicate Christmas tree ornament made of swirls of blue and white glass. It looked impossibly beautiful—and impossibly breakable.”

The mission occurred in the context of the Cold War, and competition between the United States and Soviet Union provided a motivating factor. But it seems to have quickly become about much more than trying to one-up a rival power.

Ultimately, Apollo 8 became an achievement for humanity, one that tapped into a shared thirst for exploration and discovery. The 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon’s orbit brought together the then-largest audience to view a single broadcast. Never had so few been heard by so many. For that matter, never had anyone been heard by so many. Interest in this mission united people from varying countries, backgrounds, and beliefs. Men were flying around the moon, and it was amazing.

The crew chose to read a Bible passage during the broadcast, one from Genesis. I appreciate the choice, not so much for the religious context, but just the idea of reading an ancient text while doing something that had never been done before. When the Genesis story was first written down, the idea of sending people into the heavens was nothing but a distant fantasy, utterly unobtainable.

But what was once impossible is now part of history.

After the flight, Borman predicted that scientists would someday station themselves on the moon, like they do in Antarctica. “I’m convinced it is no longer whether we’ll do these things, it’s a question of how long it will take and how much we’ll spend,” he said. “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit, and I hope we will never forget that.”

Outside of fictional TV shows, that moon base clearly hasn’t come to pass … so far.

Judging Washington in context

Henry Wiencek shows us the right way to judge historical figures in his book, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2004).

Wiencek examines how George Washington’s views on slavery evolved throughout the course of his life. As a young, ambitious man, Washington uncritically accepted slavery, but at the end of his life, he amended his will to free all his slaves and provide for the younger ones’ education. In between, he gradually acquired scruples about slavery, such as when he realized that perhaps it was wrong to split up families when selling slaves.

The author doesn’t let Washington off the hook for participating in such an evil system. For example, Washington was once callous enough to raffle off slaves as prizes, and Wiencek doesn’t shy away from informing his readers about it. But he also gives credit where credit is due, painting a three-dimensional portrait of “a man of his time and ahead of his time,” as the jacket blurb in my edition describes Washington.

Washington never evolved on the issue as much as we would have liked him to. He was quite possibly the one man in America with the moral authority to provide real leadership and make real headway in ending slavery, but he failed to do so. Nevertheless, he increasingly questioned his own beliefs even as his own family remained firmly pro-slavery, which was a feat in its own right.

Read these books back to back.

In the introduction, Wiencek starts at the end, with Washington’s decision to free his slaves. The author writes:

“It was an astounding decision. As he sat in his study—a room that one visitor called ‘the focus of political intelligence for the new world’—Washington felt the isolation of the man who can see what others cannot or will not. He was a man who had discovered that his moral system was wrong. He had helped to create a new world but had allowed into it an infection that he feared would eventually destroy it.”

Throughout the book, Wiencek illustrates how degrading, inhumane, and brutal slavery was, and he explores the culture surrounding the horrible institution. He mentions one slaveowner, Robert “King” Carter, who would have his overseers cut off slaves’ toes so they wouldn’t run away—a practice that received the blessing of the law in 1705.

We all understand that slavery was a historical atrocity. An Imperfect God helps show us how it was an atrocity. At the same time, the book, through Washington, foreshadows young America’s ability to improve.

Coincidentally, not long after I read this book, I read Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the history and the historical fiction was stark indeed, revealing how the novel sanitizes slavery to an offensive degree. 

As a novel, Gone with the Wind is brilliant. As historical fiction, it’s fiction. The novel depicts an idealized version of the antebellum South, as well as the destruction of that idealized world. That makes for a great story, but we have to take it for what it is—an entirely fictitious story set in an alternate reality.

I likely would have reached similar conclusions even without having read Wiencek’s book. But fortunately, I did read the nonfiction first, and it enriched my experience reading Gone with the Wind

To those who haven’t already read them, I recommend both books—but start with the actual history.

Herbert Hoover, hero of Belgium

Herbert Hoover typically ranks fairly low among U.S. presidents. It’s certainly hard to consider his presidency a success when it coincided with the Great Depression.

For some time, a myth persisted that Hoover was a do-nothing, laissez faire president who stood idly by while the economy collapsed. That’s blatantly false, and historians have been correcting the record on that. He may not have taken the correct courses of action as president, but doing nothing was not in his nature.

Herbert Hoover

At his core, Herbert Hoover was a hands-on problem solver, a trait he demonstrated during World War I when he, as a civilian, took it upon himself to organize food relief for Belgium’s entire population of 7.5 million people.

The German army had invaded and occupied Belgium, and among the tragic results, shipments stopped coming into a country that imported eighty percent of its food supply. The Germans consumed much of what was on hand, and they felt no obligation to feed the occupied population.

The British believed the Germans were responsible for feeding its captured territories, and the Germans blamed the British navy for blocking shipments. Meanwhile, 7.5 million people faced the prospect of starvation.

According to Kenneth Whyte in his biography Hoover, Herbert Hoover was living in London at the outset of World War I, and he met an American engineer, Millard Shaler, who was tasked with shipping 1,500 tons of cereals into Belgium. British trade officials wanted the neutral United States to supervise the delivery.

Washington, sadly, was slow to act, and $100,000 worth of food wasted away on a dock. A newspaper headline at the time read, “U.S. red tape starves Brussels.”

Hoover, Whyte writes, “was as galvanized by Belgium’s distress as he was furious at Washington’s foot dragging.”

So, Hoover developed a plan. With the support of U.S. Ambassador Walter Page, he met with various officials over the course of four days to discuss the situation and what could be done. Issues ranged from dietary requirements to difficulties of wartime shipping. The main challenges would be convincing the British to allow the food to be shipped into enemy territory and preventing the Germans from seizing the food for themselves.

The cold-hearted militaristic perspective was that if Belgium starved, the citizens would revolt and thus divert the attention of the German forces, thereby helping the Allies. To counter this, Hoover proposed a public relations campaign to elicit sympathy for the suffering nation, and that was merely one facet of the overall plan.

Hoover drafted a charter for the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB). Based in London and chaired by Hoover, the organization would be private, neutral, and run by volunteers. Its officers were to be men with relevant commercial experience also working for free, ensuring that the money raised actually went toward the mission of feeding Belgium. 

The CRB would fundraise from public and private sources alike, purchase food from different countries, and ship the food to Rotterdam and then into Belgium. A Belgian committee would handle the distribution from there.

Hoover insisted on strong centralization within the organization, and he believed a monopoly would be most effective, rather than diluting relief efforts among numerous well-meaning organizations, none of which would be vigorous enough to accomplish the monumental job.

Whyte notes that the CRB was not the first international humanitarian relief effort, but it possessed an unprecedented scope.

“The aim of the CRB was to provide almost the entire food supply for a nation of 7.5 million people, indefinitely. Hoover, representing a neutral country, intended to move massive supplies of food from the capital of one belligerent country (London) to the capital of a captive country (Brussels) occupied by their mutual enemy (Berlin). He would manage all of this in an atmosphere of war-bred suspicion and hate, and despite the disruption of conventional transportation and commercial activity in what was already shaping up to be the most destructive war in history,” Whyte says.

He continues, “No humanitarian venture, public or private, had ever approached Hoover’s initiative in scale or audacity.”

As CRB chair, Hoover acquired a unique form of diplomatic immunity. “Perhaps no other individual in the world moved so easily across enemy lines during the Great War,” Whyte says.

Hoover was also willing to sacrifice his personal fortune for the cause. “Let the fortune go to hell,” he’s quoted as saying.

There were, of course, difficulties. Costs exceeded projections, with a monthly $1 million tab ballooning into $4 million a month, and then $6 million a month. In 1915, the CRB expanded its scope to include feeding an additional 2 million people in Northern France.

Hoover sought government subsidies, which weren’t so easy to come by. The British believed relief efforts would ultimately just help the enemy and prolong the war, and the Germans weren’t eager to help either. Hoover realized that appealing to the combatants’ better natures wasn’t an effective strategy in this situation, so he played on their fears, telling both sides whatever he thought they needed to hear. Hoover saw his job as keeping Belgium fed, and if he had to bend the truth to accomplish that goal, so be it.

At one point, Hoover toured Belgium to observe the situation firsthand. He described the country as “a land of imprisonment” and said the Belgians were “surrounded by a ring of steel and utterly unable by any conceivable effort to save themselves.”

However, Hoover couldn’t bring himself to look at the food lines or directly interact with anyone receiving aid.

Whyte quotes an unnamed U.S. official as saying, “He told of the work in Belgium as coldly as if he were giving statistics of production. From his words and his manner he seemed to regard human beings as so many numbers. Not once did he show the slightest feeling.”

Reticent though Hoover was, those human feelings apparently did exist deep within, and he was particularly bothered by the plight of hungry children. “It is difficult to state the position of the civil population of Belgium without becoming hysterical,” Hoover said.

It’s true that Hoover was no saint. He could be rather thin-skinned and vain in the face of criticism, often resorting to ad hominem to defend himself. In any situation like this, it’s easy to take the cynical view and question a person’s motives in undertaking such a mission, especially when the person later goes into politics.

But the bottom line is that the CRB succeeded in saving many from starvation.

Hoover chaired the CRB for thirty months, until the United States entered World War I and he could no longer pass for a neutral entity. During those thirty months, according to Whyte, the CRB spent $200 million and shipped 2.5 million tons of food. Dutch and Spanish authorities then took over its operations, and by the war’s end, the organization had spent $865 million in total, with only $4 million of that going to administrative overhead.

Without Hoover’s intervention, the situation in Belgium could have been so much worse.

Whyte writes that Hoover’s “vision and experience enabled him to foresee the demands of industrial-scale humanitarianism in an age of industrialized global war.”

Hoover may not have been the man America needed during the Great Depression, but he was the man Belgium needed during World War I.

Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, and continuous improvement

Abraham Lincoln improved the Declaration of Independence.

He didn’t revise a single word of it. He didn’t need to. The words were always correct. The introduction, in particular, is timeless. But he expanded the scope of whom the words applied to.

Abraham Lincoln

The Declaration states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Obviously, when this was written and adopted, the American colonies did not practice what the document preached. It’s easy to point the finger back through history and pass judgment on the glaring hypocrisy of a slaveowner writing these words, as well as on the failure of the Founding Fathers to eradicate slavery as they secured greater freedoms for themselves. And criticism is absolutely deserved.

But we also need to remember the full historical context of the culture the Founding Fathers inherited and the improvements they made within it. They did what they could, and subsequent generations would need to take the next steps. 

Lincoln understood that. When he argued against slavery in the 1850s, he didn’t self-righteously blast the Founders for their failures on the issue. Rather, he noticed the torch they dropped, picked it up, and ran it down the next leg of the relay, even while many didn’t want him to.

Slavery’s defenders and apologists attempted to downplay the importance of the Declaration of Independence. They dismissed the notion that “all men are created equal” as either flat-out wrong or as intended to refer only to white men.

As Ronald C. White Jr. writes in the biography A. Lincoln, “For many Whigs, the Declaration became noteworthy chiefly as a historical signpost. This view, as Lincoln well understood, defused the Declaration as an impetus for reform in mid-nineteenth-century American life.”

So Lincoln, instead, helped reassert the importance of that document, elevating the ideals it espoused and pointing out how broadly they applied.

“The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain,” Lincoln said, as quoted in Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk, “and it was placed in the Declaration, not for that, but for future use. Its authors meant it to be, thank God, it is now proving itself, a stumbling block to those who in after times might seek to turn a free people back into the hateful paths of despotism. They knew the proneness of prosperity to breed tyrants, and they meant when such should re-appear in this fair land and commence their vocation they should find left for them at least one hard nut to crack.”

Lincoln was not as enlightened on racial issues as we would have liked. Though opposed to slavery, he did not believe in full social equality. Still, he was ahead of the curve compared to many of his contemporaries, and that should not be dismissed.

White quotes Lincoln as saying, “I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.”

But, Lincoln went on to say, the Founders did declare that all men were created equal in terms of the inalienable rights listed in the document: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“There is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man,” Lincoln said, as quoted in Lincoln’s Melancholy.

According to Shenk, Lincoln said that the Founders were hostile to the principle of slavery and tolerated it only by necessity.

As Shenk writes, “The Founders recognized the evil, Lincoln said, and made accommodations to restrict it, believing that the very experiment in liberty could be spoiled if they acted to end it too quickly.”

Shenk adds, “The spirit of the Declaration, Lincoln said, was meant to be realized — to the greatest extent possible — by each succeeding generation. The Founders cast off despotism and created the framework for a free republic, invoking, as they did, not arguments of mere self-interest but the ideal of natural, universal, God-given rights.”

“They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for … even though never perfectly attained,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln’s focus was not on perfection but on improvement, something he practiced in his own life as he rose from humble origins.

The Founders were not perfect, not by a long shot, but they improved the world around them. The world required further improvement. Lincoln, also far from perfect, achieved significant milestones with the Emancipation Proclamation and his leadership in defeating the Confederacy, and he knew there would be still further improvement needed after his time, and for all time.

“That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent,” Lincoln said during an 1860 debate, identifying the issue as “the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world.”

Lincoln continued, “They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other is the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says: ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it’” (A. Lincoln, White).