(The following article is from the January/February 2017 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)
Library of Congress historians Julie Miller, Barbara Bair and Michelle Krowl contribute their knowledge of the presidents to a new podcast series.
In 2016, The Washington Post presented a podcast series called “Presidential” that featured 44 episodes examining the American presidents during the months leading up to the November election. Hosted by Lillian Cunningham, editor of The Washington Post’s “On Leadership” section, and archived online, the series features interviews with journalists, biographers, historians and other experts on the American presidency. Among them are Julie Miller, Barbara Bair and Michelle Krowl, three historians from the Library’s Manuscript Division who together discussed 17 presidents from George Washington to William H. Taft. Their remarks were informed by primary sources, including presidential papers, housed in the Library of Congress.
As curator of the papers of the earliest presidents, Miller was the first of her colleagues to be interviewed. Cunningham asked a question that she would pose in reference to each of the presidents: What would it be like to go on a blind date with George Washington? Miller observed that Washington, as a model 18th-century gentleman, knew how to dress, how to dance and how to behave in public. He would have been a charming date, as the widowed Martha Custis discovered. Miller also noted that institutions such as the Library of Congress care for primary sources such as the letters in George Washington’s papers because each generation will want to bring its own questions to them, such as the one Cunningham posed.
Bair joined NPR reporter Steve Inskeep and biographer Jon Meacham in analyzing the limitations of Jacksonian democracy. She spoke of Jackson as a “man of the people.” But which people? In solidifying white land ownership in the South and fostering the expansion of slavery and the repression of Indians, Jackson primarily represented “white wage workers and [those] who wanted to settle on farms,” as well as the “southern slave-owning gentry.” Bair and historian Mark Cheathem looked at the “Little Magician” Martin Van Buren as a political master-mind and commented on the rise of the two-party system. William Henry Harrison died soon after taking office, likely from the contaminated water supply in Washington. Bair read a letter documenting the trepidation Vice President John Tyler expressed upon finding himself unexpectedly the leader of the land. Tyler set the precedent for vice presidents taking on the full power of office in event of a presidential death – even ones that violated the political platform of their own party.
Krowl suggested that presidents sometimes make surprising moves. Chester A. Arthur supported civil service reform, though his history made him the least likely person to support political change. Adding to observations by Stateline executive editor Scott Greenberger, Krowl demonstrated how the Arthur papers at the Library of Congress help fill in the details of Arthur’s story. Documenting Arthur’s life is challenging because he ordered the destruction of most of his personal papers just before his death. Elements of his life and character must be gleaned from the limited sources that were saved. These include a love letter to his fiancée, a few letters to a bosom friend in early adulthood, an abundance of bills and receipts and a particularly interesting set of letters written by a woman named Julia Sand, who encouraged Arthur to make a positive contribution as president. “Julia Sand saw something noble in Arthur,” Krowl said. “She urged him to create a presidential legacy that was ‘pure and bright.’ Significantly, her letters were among the few that were saved.”