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Charles Meredith: Looking back at presidents


Dear Friends,

Good morning. Don’t forget this Saturday, Sept. 14 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Main Street, Quakertown. Everyone’s invited to the dedication of the Pennsylvania Historic Marker honoring the memory and deeds of Richard Moore, the Quaker educator and businessman who conducted a “station” on the underground railroad.

He helped more than 600 slaves escape to freedom in Canada. A free bus will move observers to various events along the Main Street route.

Speaking about the Civil War, Father Fred Riegler, the recently retired Pastor of St. Isidore’s Catholic Church in Quakertown, sent several thoughtful emails to me about the Quakers who opposed slavery. Father Fred reminded me that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 enforced the return of captured runaway slaves to their Southern owners. Abolitionists … especially the Quakers … disobeyed that law and risked heavy fines and imprisonment to anyone aiding slaves to escape.

Father Fred added, “Abraham Lincoln was elected not to abolish slavery but as a reaction to the South’s demand that slavery be accepted everywhere.”

The election of Lincoln has always fascinated me. He was the first to be elected as an Independent and one who’d not won the popular vote. On the 1860 presidential ballot, there were four candidates … Lincoln from the new Republican Party; John Breckinridge, Southern Democratic Party; Stephen Douglas, Northern Democratic Party; and John Bell, Constitutional Union Party.

Lincoln received only 39.8 percent of the popular vote; Breckinridge, 18.1 percent of the popular vote; Douglas, 29.5 percent; and Bell with 12. 6 percent. Had the two Democrats (Breckinridge and Douglas) not split the vote, Lincoln would have lost the popular vote … but not the electoral vote. In 1860, a presidential candidate needed 152 electoral votes to win. Lincoln received 180.

It reminds me about the Al Gore v. George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton v. Donald Trump elections where the popular vote victor didn’t win … but the electoral winner did.

Father Fred is a historian. He told me that one should not judge a president’s effectiveness until a generation has passed.

“The reason is that in light of subsequent events, people have changed their minds,” Father Fred wrote. “Three cases in point: President Grant … long considered corrupt and ineffective; but today historians (cf. Chernov’s Grant) acknowledge his clear-sighted analysis of race relations in the South.

“Had his plans been followed, no Jim Crow Laws, no segregation, and especially no lynchings. Harry S. Truman, left the presidency with the lowest approval ratings in the 20th century. Yet today, he is considered among the best. The Reason? Truman’s part in establishing an effective Cold War strategy vis-a-vis the Soviet Union and his support for Civil Rights.

“Dwight Eisenhower. Considered dull and boring in light of the Kennedy years, his presidency keeps looking better. Balanced budget for seven out of eight years; no one has come close to that. He ended the Korean War and wisely avoided Vietnam; used the federal government to enforce the law of the land in regard to desegregation; and probably had the best managed presidency of the 20th century.

“If you had asked me about any of these three back in the 1970s when I was getting my feet wet at the college level teaching, I would have said “Nonsense.” Well, I was wrong. And now as an historian, I am reluctant to rate presidents. That does not mean that I will avoid voting that is different. But “best and worst”? I will acknowledge that unlike the pope, I avoid taking an infallible position.”

You can understand why Father Fred is one of my favorites. When I thought about his summaries about Presidents Grant, Truman and Eisenhower, I thought of the Pennsylvania German expression: “We get too soon old and too late smart!”

Sincerely, Charles Meredith

By the way, Mighty Betsy and I were sad to read about the passing of Mary Harper of Allentown. She was the wife of James Harper, a fellow board member of the American Automobile Association (AAA), East Penn division.

Mary Harper was a fabulous musician who taught piano for decades. Her long obituary in the Allentown Morning Call described her many accomplishments.

Mighty Betsy and I remember our days traveling with Mary and Jim in China. Mary had bright blond hair which caused Chinese heads to turn. The Asians laughingly called her “Devil Woman.” And that’s what we always called her too.

Mary Harper, a thoughtful, lovely woman.


Charles Meredith