President, Public, and Press: A Romance Gone

Harry Dart’s charming cartoon from 1911 conjures up a vision of the US president, public, and press bound together in a happy if inescapable relationship.  William Howard Taft was then president, and the nation’s falling into a star-struck frenzy as he fled Washington to spend a few weeks at a “summer White House” in New England supplied the theme for Dart’s cartoon.  Between 1909 and 1912, the 300-pound Taft and his wife Helen summered in the Massachusetts town of Beverly, generating headlines and intense local curiosity.  In making a resort community “the nation’s summer capital,” Taft was following long-established custom.  Presidents at least as far back as Buchanan and Van Buren had traded stifling conditions on the Potomac for the salubrious pleasures of a few weeks by the sea, in the hills, or at a fashionable watering hole.

No matter how “ordinary” the Tafts sought to be, their presence turned the starchy enclave of Beverly all circus-y.  Journalists and others clogged its byways to glimpse the President passing in his car or the First Lady patronizing the local shops.  According to the Boston Globe, “motorists in goggles and dusters formed a half-mile line outside the president’s cottage awaiting his emergence for a Sunday drive.”  Gawkers paddled skiffs out into the harbor to inspect the grand presidential yacht, The Mayflower, a 273-foot vessel with a staff of 166 under eight officers.  Mrs Taft claimed that only by boarding the yacht and sailing up the coast could the president get a short interval of rest, “steaming away out of the reach of crowds.”

In fact, the pressure of the Tafts’ celebrity affronted Beverly’s carefully cultivated aura of exclusivity.  “Secret service men patrolled the grounds” around the president’s temporary residence, “trampling the flower beds and generally spoiling the serene summer atmosphere.”  Souvenir hunters snatched the prayer books the president had used while worshiping at the local Unitarian church.  All the while, Taft kept up with his official duties, visiting the executive offices set up for him at Pickering House when not indulging in his well-known passion for golf.

Yet the hoopla surrounding the president’s appearance spoke to the prestige of the presidency itself.  The comical aspects of the public’s love affair with the president are gently satirized in Dart’s cartoon, which imagines George Washington, the first president, similarly circumstanced at “the first Summer Capital” of Mount Vernon.  Messengers dart across the grounds, delivering urgent messages to an executive office set up in one of the plantation’s outbuildings, while on a veranda, man-servants tote trays of cold martinis.  Temporary quarters have been set up for the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and War on Mount Vernon’s front lawn, where Washington, dangling a tennis racket, ponders an urgent communique that has interrupted his game.

Radical dames crusading for the right to vote crowd around outside, bearing signs reading “Our Rights Are Paramount; Let Congress Wait” and “If We Don’t Get Our Rights This Year, We Will The Next” (which is funny because women’s perennial effort to gain the franchise had been going on for more than seventy years and would not culminate in success until 1920).  The president’s security detail is badly outnumbered, allowing groups such as the Daughters of the Revolution and suppliants for pensions to breach the sanctity of the presidential compound.  The presidents’ friends lounge at a table in the shade, trading political intelligence and waiting to get away with G. W. for a round of golf.

Dart’s cartoon evokes nostalgia, because no American would think of drawing or publishing such a cartoon today.  Over the past decades, changes in the press, the public, and the presidency have made the gentle affection that infuses this cartoon a rarity.  The press, the public, and the president are no longer united in a virtuous dynamic of mutual dependence and trust.  Above all, President Trump’s meanness and talent for alienating others makes such a happy scene unthinkable.

 

Image: Harry Grant Dart, “Mount Vernon, The First Summer Capital,”
Puck, vol. 70, no. 1798, 16 August 1911,
from this source.

“A Thanksgiving Truce”

Teddy Roosevelt and wild animals gathered around a table for a Thanksgiving meal.
The Bear, raising his glass in a toast to Teddy Roosevelt, says with much feeling,: “Here’s hoping that when next we meet, we see you first.”

Image: from this source.

After The Tax Bill Passed

cartoon shows tax inspectors looking under a woman's crinoline and under a bed in her home.

A federal income tax was first levied in the United States in 1862.  Congress instituted the tax to meet the extraordinary expenses of the Civil War.  The Revenue Act of 1862 levied a progressive tax on Americans, of 3% on incomes between 600 and 10,000 dollars, and 5% on incomes over 10,000 dollars (roughly $238,000 today).

Prior to the Civil War, the federal government relied primarily on tariffs (duties on goods imported into the US) to finance its activities.  The use of the tariff protected the growth of nascent American manufactures, by making foreign goods more expensive relative to those made in the US.  This arrangement allowed the government to operate without taxing citizens directly.

The cartoon above, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper soon after the Revenue Act went into effect, captures its impact on American psyches.  The tax is depicted as indecorously invasive.  In the drawing, four federal tax collectors are snooping around inside the home of an American citizen named Scroggs.  Caught in the act of arranging his hair, Scroggs faces interrogation armed only with a brush and comb.  A tax commissioner in a high hat accosts him while fingering Scroggs’s pocket-watch.  Another visitor peeks under his wife’s skirt, while still others scrutinize the couple’s clothes and look under their child’s bed.  The caption: ‘Scroggs says he is ready and willing to pay any amount of tax, but he would like them to leave his wife’s crinoline and other domestic trifles alone.’

Did instituting the income tax create an antagonistic relationship between citizens and the government that had not existed before?  What we do know is that in 1867, the Civil War at an end, the income tax was sharply reduced, and in 1872 it was eliminated.  According to the Internal Revenue Service website, between 1868 and 1913, 90 percent of internal revenue was garnered through taxes on alcohol and tobacco.  The income tax was re-instituted only in Woodrow Wilson’s era, following the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, which increased Congress’s discretion in levying income taxes directly on the citizenry.

Image: from this source.