In our last episode, we discussed President Polk’s unlikely rise to the White House and his success in annexing Texas and settling the Oregon territory. But by late April 1846, he was leading his nation to war with its southern neighbor, Mexico. As a former dark horse candidate with no military experience, many wondered whether Polk had what it took to win the war. And even more questioned whether Polk’s war was a just war. At stake were his presidency and the future of his country. The story of that war and its legacy for our nation is the subject of this episode of This American President, The Great American Conqueror Part II.
In this episode we continue the theme of expansion in early America, telling the story of the Mexican-American War and the president who, though largely forgotten and little understood, remains a giant in the annals of American history.
History often seems inevitable. When we look back at a historical event, we usually look at it with the outcomes or the results in mind. For example, when we think of World War II, we know that it ended in 1945. We know that the Allies won. Our entire view of that war is framed by those two facts. So when we study the year 1944, we know that the end is near, that within a year the war would be over, but that’s not how the people who lived at the time experienced it. They didn’t know that things would turn out that way until they did. They were no sure of the future than we are of our own future. Think about it: how sure are you about how things are going to turn out? How sure are you about who will win the next World Cup or next year’s Academy Awards? How sure are you about who will win the next presidential election or how the crisis in North Korea will turn out? Unless you’ve been given some sort of supernatural insight, you are probably like me and have no clue how things will turn out. You feel a sense of uncertainty about these things. That sense of uncertainty… that’s the same feeling every generation had about the times in which they lived. Rarely did anything seem inevitable. And someday, decades or centuries from now, people will probably look at our time the same way; they will view our time period with a sense of inevitability, with 20/20 hindsight. But when you view history that way, where you know the outcome of an event and you view it with that lens, you lose something. You lose the uncertainty… the contingency of the moment. You lose the perspective of the people alive at the time. You lose the element of risk—the stakes that underpinned every event and every decision.
I’ve always felt that American history is especially susceptible to this. In some ways, our country’s history seems inevitable. It’s like there’s a neat, linear progression to how our country came to be. America declared independence, fought a war, defeated the British, created a government, and elected a president. Then it rose to become a world power. Now that America is a fact of life and has become the most powerful nation in the world, it’s hard to conceive of anything differently. It’s hard to imagine the United States not following that straight path.
We just lived through the first election in which a woman won the nomination of a major political party to be President of the United States and came close to being elected. To many, this was a sign of major progress . In fact, there are more women today in American government than ever before. But despite the fact that women have had the right to vote for almost a century and the fact that they consist of half of the country’s population, no woman has ever served as President of the United States.
But that doesn’t mean that no woman has ever tried. In fact, many actually have. When Hillary Clinton announced her runs for the presidency in 2008 and 2016, many people discussed the topic of a woman president—what it could mean and how it might play out. But I noticed that few, including those who hoped for a woman president, knew much about the history of women running for President or even knew their names. So, I decided to investigate. Since 1872, there are have been several dozen women who have run, almost all of them long shots with little chance of winning; but that doesn’t mean they weren’t important or interesting. And many of them achieved other firsts in American history. If so many people want a woman president, isn’t it worth knowing the story of how we got to where we are today?
This episode is not a comprehensive history of every woman candidate, but it will focus on those who made the biggest strides to put a woman in the White House: Victoria Woodhull, Margaret Chase Smith, Shirley Chisholm, and Edith Wilson. They were all strong-willed individuals who faced ridicule and resistance. And most of them, by virtue of their background, were unlikely figures in the annals of American history. Their stories—and their dream to attain the nation’s highest office—are the subjects of this episode of This American President: The Women Who Would be President.
In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was a little-known politician running for president. In February of that year, he was in New York City to deliver a speech at the Cooper Union building. Just before his remarks, Lincoln stopped by the office of photographer Matthew Brady. There, Brady took a photo of Lincoln to mark the occasion of his speech. At Cooper Union, Lincoln then delivered a rousing address where he strongly opposed the extension of slavery. Within weeks, the photograph and the speech were printed in magazines and newspapers across the country. Although awkward and gangly in real life, the photo depicted Lincoln in a statesmanlike pose. This was the first time Americans were introduced to the obscure rail-splitter from Illinois. By the end of the year, Lincoln had won the presidency of the United States. Later, Lincoln said, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President.”
Stories like these demonstrate the power that photographers have over us and over history. Sometimes, all we remember about a historical event or figure is a single image. Think about World War II in the Pacific and you might picture the famous image of soldiers putting up the flag on Iwo Jima.
But what about the person behind the camera? Who are they and what is it like to document history? How do you capture an iconic image? Well, we are pleased to have one such individual as our guest. His name is Bob Knudsen and he has taken thousands of photographs over the years of many prominent people. And his father, Robert Knudsen, was one of the first official White House photographers, serving six presidents and capturing many iconic moments. We will explore his and his father’s stories on this episode of This American President. Continue reading
In the first episode of this two-part series on FDR, we explored the man, his times, and the unusual circumstances surrounding the 1944 Democratic Convention. We discussed FDR’s legendary poker face, his deteriorating health, the fact that his doctor warned him that he couldn’t survive a fourth term, and his dream to create the United Nations; an organization he hoped would make future world wars impossible. We also discussed the Democratic Party bosses’ successful effort to remove Henry Wallace as Vice President from the ticket in 1944. But as we said earlier, big questions remained. Could the Allies secure a long-lasting peace in the postwar world? Could the United States work with the Soviet Union? Would the United Nations work? Could FDR achieve his vision despite his failing health? We will explore the answers to these questions on this episode of This American President.
We’re very excited what we are creating here at This American President, and want to continue bringing you more fascinating stories about American Presidents. Creating a podcast takes a lot of work: researching, writing, recording, editing, etc. When we started this podcast we made a goal of producing an episode every three weeks, and we’ve been successful for 6 episodes so far.
If you like what you’ve been hearing, we now have two ways for you to support our podcast: Patreon and Paypal. Patreon is a service that allows you to support content creators like podcasters, with any amount you choose. You can set up automatic payments that will only be sent when we release a new episode. You can also send one-time payments to our Paypal account.
We expect to continue producing episodes about every 3 weeks, mostly monologue stories featuring by host Richard Lim and occasional interviews with special guests.
We want to thank everyone for their support!
If we were to do an episode on the entire life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it would have to be at least a 12 hour series. Instead, we will focus on a short period of his life that is one of the most fascinating—the end of it. This isn’t the FDR of the famous 100 days—the one who captivated the nation by the sheer power of his strength and charisma. Instead, this is the FDR who, after years of leading the nation through depression and war, found himself physically exhausted, racing against his own mortality to build his vision for a new world.
By then he believed he was working to save the world from future catastrophe. What we will find is a man who appeared to remain the master politician, mentally still at the top of his game, orchestrating events from behind-the-scenes. But those abilities were put to their greatest test when he faced an agonizing dilemma in the realm of world politics—whether to pursue that vision of a new world at the expense of our deepest values and in cooperation with one of the greatest mass murderers in all of history. And all the while, he was physically at his weakest point and was hiding a secret from the American people—a secret that exposed his country to great risk at a critical time. This is the FDR—whose actions were both inspiring and unsettling—who we will explore in this episode of This American President.
This week on This American President we interview author, public speaker, and former executive assistant to President Ronald Reagan, Peggy Grande. Peggy recently wrote a book titled The President Will See You Now: My Stories and Lessons from Ronald Reagan’s Final Years. It’s a wonderful book about her time serving President and Mrs. Reagan and how she and her family became very close with them. To find out more, please visit peggygrande.com and order her book.
Historians have often noted that our Founding Fathers didn’t like democracy. Our second president, John Adams, once said, “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There was never a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” Our fourth president, James Madison, wrote, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”
The election of 1876 would prove to be one of the greatest tests of American democracy. Learn about this pivotal moment in American history in this episode of This American President.