The American Presidency: four degrees of separation
Next month the American Presidency comes to Australia.
For all that is written about the American Presidency one of the aspects which is most intriguing is that its history can be condensed into the lives of four people: three who are known, one to be identified. Each person knew the next in line and together they may have known all 44 Presidents from Washington to Obama.
John Quincy Adams, the eldest son of America’s second President – John Adams, led a truly remarkable life.
Abroad with his father who was on ambassadorial duties in the 1770’s and 1780’s, JQA had seen much of Europe including travelling alone from St.Petersburg to The Hague all by the age of 15. As a 17-year-old he spent his evenings chatting with his father, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in Paris.
His public career began in 1794 when, aged just 27, he was sent by Washington to Holland as US Ambassador. He was himself the 6th President and died at the age of 80, still a sitting Congressman, having served with Andrew Johnson the future 17th President and a young Abraham Lincoln who was destined to become the greatest President of them all.
Today he is best remembered for successfully representing the slaves of the Amistad in the US Supreme Court.
Having known both Washington and Lincoln it is very likely that JQA met every one of the first 17 American Presidents.
One morning in 1843 JQA’s 5-year-old grandson Henry decided, as 5-year-olds do, that he didn’t want to go to school that day. The former President, on hearing the uproar, stopped his work, grabbed Henry by the hand and walked him to school, not letting go of the recalcitrant boy until he was safely delivered to the classroom.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, Henry Adams was his father Charles’ secretary and the Washington correspondent for Boston’s Daily Advertiser. His father was close to Lincoln and Henry would have met him.
Henry spent time as a professor at Harvard, and was also a prodigious traveller seeing every continent in the world including Australia in 1891.
He became a leading member of Washington society and settled permanently there in 1879, meeting a string of Presidents stretching from the 19th President, Rutherford Hayes, through to the First World War President Woodrow Wilson at the time of his death in 1918.
A regular at Henry’s home on Lafayette Square across from the White House during the 1890’s was a young Theodore Roosevelt. A decade later Henry would cross Lafayette Square and become a guest of President Roosevelt in the White House. There, he would have met another favourite of Washington Society Alice Roosevelt.
Alice was Theodore’s eldest daughter and the only child of his first marriage with Alice Hathaway Lee.
Alice was born in 1884 and was described as a celebrity in an age before Hollywood. During TR’s Presidency she was dubbed Princess Alice. In 1905 she even assumed diplomatic responsibilities travelling with future President Taft on a goodwill mission to Japan.
In 1906 she married Congressman Nicholas Longworth (later to become the Speaker of the House) in the East Room of the White House. After her husband died in 1936 Alice remained in Washington and became known as “the other Washington Monument”.
At the age of six TR took her to meet the 24th President Benjamin Harrison. Alice met both Cleveland and McKinley before her father assumed the office in 1901. From TR though to President Carter she was a guest in the White House of every serving President. She died in 1980 at the age of 96.
Almost all of the American Presidency has been captured by these three lives. Alice knew Henry who knew JQA and between the three of them they may have known every US President excluding the incumbent.
There might be gaps. Did JQA ever meet Zachary Taylor? Did Henry Adams ever meet Ulysses Grant ? The answer to both is probably yes.
Less likely is whether Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush all met Alice Roosevelt. In the late seventies all were prominent people (or the son of a prominent person) and so such meetings were not out of the question. Indeed it would seem probable that Reagan did meet Alice. The others should be asked.
With Barack Obama in the White House there is no doubt that a fourth life must now carry the thread. There are many who would currently qualify: a person who has met Alice Roosevelt and every President since Carter. Yet, if the first three are a guide, a long and prominent life will need to be led in order to ultimately become the Fourth American Life.
Henry Adams once said of the Presidency that it “resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek.” The cumulative journey of each of the Presidents is the journey of the American Republic itself. It seems almost incomprehensible that a journey through the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Civil War, two World Wars, the moon and to the inauguration of an African American President could be traversed by just four lives.
It is a reminder that despite the richness of American History, relative to the Old World, the United States remains – just as Lincoln described it at Gettysburg – “a new nation”.
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