High Plains Drifter, Part One: “You Feel Like You Should Kneel”

The first entry in a series of stories detailing my experiences and encounters in Plains, GA, birthplace and current residence of one James Earl Carter, Jr. To be followed up when I have access to wifi, electrical outlets, and maybe even both at the same time—a rare occurrence since Hurricane Irate.

First things first, Plains (pop. 637) is not convenient. Not a convenient place to live, not a convenient place to visit, certainly not a convenient place from which to run your presidential campaign. Three hours south of Atlanta, two and a half east of Montgomery, Al, two and a half north of Talahassee, with peanut farms extending as far as you can see in every direction

What I am saying is this: you are going to be traveling for a while.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

“Lord Only Knows”: The Many Birthplaces of Andrew Jackson

Four birthplace markers. Two states. One president.

"The seventh president of the United States was born a few miles southwest of this spot," declares a roadside historical marker in the main center of Waxhaw, NC. Appropriately, "a few miles southwest of this spot" could fall in either state. The marker offers no further clues.

What we know is simple. Andrew Jackson was born somewhere in the Waxhaws region backcountry of North and South Carolina, straddling the nebulous border between the two states, on March 15, 1767. But on which side of the border he was born—or whether there even existed a clearly defined border line—remains in question today.

The family’s definitive residence during the president’s boyhood (and until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War) was Lancaster, South Carolina, at his uncle James Crawford’s plantation. But at the time of his birth, Jackson’s mother was returning from a trip to bury her husband, Andrew Hutchinson Jackson, in North Carolina. She may have made it back to Crawford’s plantation before giving birth. She may have gone into labor  at another sister’s residence, the McCamie Farm, barely a mile from the border line in North Carolina. Jackson himself claimed in letters that he was born in South Carolina, even approving an 1825 map that pinpointed his birthplace in the Palmetto State. But could he even have known? The land then was so remote that the borders hadn’t even been surveyed yet.

Read the rest of this entry »


Presidential Tombstone Blues

I've seen a fairly ridiculous number of William Henry Harrison-related sites, considering he was only president for 31 days. Pictured here is his tomb in the tiny Ohio village of North Bend. Photo by Rachel Pincus.

I’ve been engrossed in this project for well over two months now. Which, by extension, means I’ve been grudgingly excitedly telling others about this project for well over two months. The best reaction I’ve received came from an 83-year-old man last month, the father of my Cleveland host. “Tell him what you’re doing in Ohio!” Laura ordered. So I did. He stared at me over his coffee. Then he scowled.

“Why?”

I mumbled something vaguely coherent, presidential birthplaces interesting blah blah insight into presidents’ backgrounds blah roadtrip blah blah school history.

“You’re focusing on the footnotes.”

“Right.”

Still, there are some questions I can’t escape. If this blog had an FAQs page, it’d look something like this:

“Are you gonna go to Hawaii?” (No.) “So when are you going to Kenya?” (No.)  Have you read Assassination Vacation? You should!” (No.) “But Lincoln was born in Illinois, right?” (No.) “Are you gonna visit presidential tombs next?” (Hrmmmph.)

Read the rest of this entry »


The Warren Gamaliel Harding Talking Front Porch Blues

” . . . not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity . . . “

Above: 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue, just across from the friendly local “Vacation Bible Camp” in small Marion, OH. Here Warren G. Harding lived with his wife, Florence, from the time of their home marriage in 1891. And here, on the porch of the family’s quiet Victorian home, then-Senator Harding ran a successful 1920 campaign for the U.S. presidency.

By which I mean: he stayed there. On his front porch. Giving over 100 speeches, advocating something about some made-up word called “normalcy,” waiting for wide-eyed supporters and curious voters to arrive in droves. While he—you know, just stayed put.

And they did.

Read the rest of this entry »


Remembering The Unremembered, Part Two: Handsome Frank and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Presidency

“He wasn’t proslavery. He was anti-abolition. There’s a difference.”

Franklin Pierce is the tragic story of the well-meaning but single-minded president who tried to please everyone and managed to please no one.

What’s up with that?

Read the rest of this entry »


How I Spent My Fourth Of July

I spent my Fourth of July parading, silent and solemn, through the street (there is no plural) of Plymouth Notch, Vermont—birthplace of Calvin Coolidge, birthplace of this project. We began by the village green. We arrived at the grave. There I paid respects—and wished the late Vermonter a happy and healthy 139th. Coolidge, ever silent, said nothing in return.

I spent my Fourth of July traversing 160 miles of dotted white line. I followed I-91 south from central Vermont to New Haven, Connecticut: from the president who spoke too little (who remains still among the most articulate conservatives in presidential history) to he who talked too much (who ranks easily as the least articulate conservative in presidential history). I stopped at the Vermont Country Store for free samples, at Starbucks for free Wi-Fi, free outlet access, free restrooms. I paid for gas.

I spent my Fourth of July lurking sketchily outside an inner-city hospital complex, backpack and camera in tow, doctors swarming by like ants to bread. I must have appeared on some security camera, suspicious and lost. By some miracle of God, I was not detained.

Read the rest of this entry »


Remembering the Unremembered, Part One: The Trouble With Arthur

or, “What Would Donald Trump Say?”

This is it. Fairfield, Vermont—a tiny Vermont farm town by the Canadian border, where cows seem to outnumber people four times over and Chester A. Arthur may have been born on October 5, 1829, or sometime in 1830, or perhaps not here at all. If you’re not yet confused, you’re not paying attention.

Read the rest of this entry »