Have a drink with: John Tyler
Ask him about: Sick of that song yet?
In the anonymous New York Times opinion essay about staff dissent within the White House published earlier this month, the author mentioned (among many other things) deliberation over use of the 25th Amendment in response to perceived presidential instability.
To be fair, this is not a new topic: the the 25th Amendment has been a common topic in shouts and whispers over the past two years as pundits consider whether its terms would or wouldn’t realistically attach to the current occupant of the White House.
The 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1967 in direct response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the questions involved had well predated the 25th Amendment even if they had not been presented so directly: what to do when the Presidency changes fundamentally and irrevocably, due to death, removal, resignation, or disability?
Dealing with matters of succession and power transfer, the 25th was invoked in the 1970s around the Nixon administration, and is occasionally put into action when a sitting President is temporarily incapacitated (despite the promise of intrigue and drama inherent in the amendment, in reality it’s been used, for example, to cover the duration of each of the Bush presidents’ colonoscopies).
But for the first word on the matter of presidential succession, you’ll need to go back to 1840 and then-Vice President John Tyler, who set up a century-long American precedent on succession that boils down to a very Trumpy word: MINE.
Have a drink with: Fanny Fern
Reform yourselves, gentlemen!
Ask her about: Menswear styles for fall
“Fanny Fern” was the pen name of Sarah Willis Parton, a popular 19th century writer who advocated for women’s independence, kept her pencil sharp and her wit sharper, and insisted on being paid handsomely for her output: she got $100 a column, making her the highest-paid newspaper writer in the nation at the time, and was therefore criticized for “certain bold, masculine expressions that we should like to see chastened.”
Like fellow 1800s firebrand Delia Bacon, she was educated by Catherine Beecher and came into her adult fame and abilities after exercising considerable survival skills (her second husband was an abusive turd, and she overcame initial rejection and the opposition of her own family to get herself published).
Clear-eyed and honed sharp by the time she began publishing in her forties, Sarah was a dynamo, and did not shy from conspicuously poking at any hypocrisy or injustice that reared its head within her view.
Have a drink with: The Yale Medical School Class of 1824
Did you bring a shovel?
Ask them about: Buying your own school supplies
On a cold January morning almost 200 years ago in New Haven, Connecticut, someone came knocking on Jonathan Knight’s door. This itself was not necessarily unusual, as Knight had his thumb in many of the town’s proverbial pies: in addition to serving as a local doctor, he was also a professor at the young Medical Institution of Yale College. What was unusual, for the pre-breakfast slot on a Monday morning, was that the caller was a lawyer named General Kimberly, and that he was deeply concerned that some of the school’s medical students had apparently and emphatically not spent their Sunday at church.
Have a drink with: Daniel Sickles
Once I was the King of Spain…
Ask him about: What’s the name of his other leg?
Daniel Sickles sat weeping in a Washington, D.C. jail in 1859. The young, charismatic New York Congressman was an up-and-coming star in American politics – a favorite of President James Buchanan, in fact – and he was sitting in a dirty jail cell, heartbroken and awaiting trial for murdering his wife’s lover.
But before you feel too sorry for him, consider this: Daniel Sickles was a tool. How much of a tool?
He robbed the mail to take a political adversary’s advertisements out of circulation.
He was indicted for various financial schemes, including selling fake news subscriptions so he could drink the $1,000 profit at an upscale bar.
He took campaign contributions from his favorite prostitute, whom he also brought along as his companion and introduced to Queen Victoria while on assignment as James Buchanan’s secretary in London. While his pregnant wife was at home.
Whom he’d seduced, knocked up and married when she was sixteen.
After sleeping with her mother.
So his jailhouse blubbering is really a matter of the pot calling the kettle slutty, but you can thank Sickles for creating something we still use today: temporary insanity.
Have a drink with: George Logan
Officious intermeddler, or really nice Quaker?
Ask him about: Working vacation in Paris
As the public becomes suddenly, intensely interested in any shred of previously-confined-to-textbooks arcana that might be dragged out of the law closet to explain or mitigate the current Presidential administration, this is a bizarrely entertaining time for legal scholars. (Faithless electors! Emoluments! The 25th Amendment!)
The latest of these, invoked around the supposition of Trump associates conducting conversation with Russian government officials, is the 1799 Logan Act. To be fair, this is not a new issue: the Logan Act has been dragged out as a possible remedy by nearly any disgruntled partisan over the years to object to the conduct of some politician or activist they don’t like (don’t believe me? Just ask Jimmy Carter, Obama, Trump, Jesse Jackson, Jane Fonda and Ross Perot).
The Logan Act has a simple message. In short: “Hey, you! Yes, you. Are you part of the executive branch? No? Then don’t negotiate with foreign governments.”
Have a drink with: James Marsh
Maybe pass on the coffee, though…
Ask him about: Arsenic and old cases
In case you missed, it, I recently wrote at Atlas Obscura about 19th century efforts to take the threat and mystery out of arsenic poisoning, until then one of the most frequent and stealthy means of getting rid of that one person in your life who really can’t take a friggin’ hint. The development of the Marsh Test in the early 1800s meant that suddenly there was a precise, scientific means of figuring out whether someone had been knocked off with history’s own real-life version of iocane powder. Read on:
Have a drink with: The 19th Century Anti-Gun Lobby
“We’re all hot at the same time, and we should do somethin’ about it!”
Ask them about: Background checks
If you watch enough movies – Civil War dramas, Wild West adventures, Five Points gangland brawls, Mel Brooks – you’d be forgiven for thinking that the 19th century was one long festival of unmitigated gun violence.
Indeed, in the 1800s, industrialization was the catalyst for mass production and ownership of guns. Prior to that, gun ownership was relatively rare and despite a romantic ideal of the American militia, apparently most of them literally couldn’t hit a barn door.
But what might surprise you is that the American reputation for a history of unchecked gun culture is, on the whole, undeserved. In the 19th century concealed carry prohibitions were common – and serious.
Have a drink with: The Mainstream Media
Fake news. Sad!
Ask them about: thin-skinned Federalists
Today I’m over at the wonderful Historista blog with an essay on how the Trump administration’s efforts to control news media echo the 1798 Sedition Act.
Go check it out!
Skip drinks because it’s: The Speed Limit
You there, do you know how fast you were going?
Ask it about: Can it drive 55?
Most of us like to think that history is a parade of accomplishments, but when you get down to it somebody has to invent the everyday stuff, too – and as much as it pains me to say so, my home state has done more than most in making the world a duller place. Go ahead and thank Connecticut, pioneer of the boring, for we have given you: wooden nutmeg scandals, government paperwork, car taxes, the insurance industry, and the nation’s first law school.
And as if that weren’t enough, in 1901, my home state was first in the country to set a speed limit for motor vehicles.
No city driving over 12 MPH, now. In the burbs, you can punch it up to 15.