Theodore Roosevelt Jumping, 1902

Rear view of an action photograph unusual for the time.

As one of history’s most active presidents came on the stage, photography raced to catch up with him.  This rather extraordinary photograph from 1902 shows Teddy Roosevelt, then president, jumping his horse over a split-rail fence.  Such beautifully crisp shots of objects in motion were exceedingly rare at that date. Continue reading

They Partied On

Frances Benjamin Johnson, "Inaugural decorations, McKinley Inauguration, Pension Building" (Courtesy Library of Congress)
On the evening of March 4, 1901, men and women in formal dress began drifting in to the Pension Building to attend the inaugural ball for William McKinley, who had been sworn in to his second term as president earlier that day.  The cavernous Great Hall of the Pension Building had been lavishly decorated for the occasion.  Guests were nearly lost in its magnificence: the endless garlands of lights, the immense stretch of polished floor, the massive stone columns stretching up to a ceiling over a hundred feet high.  Overhead a gold-draped canopy glowed, reflecting the elegant incandescence below.

It was the one-hundredth anniversary of the first inaugural ceremonies to take place in Washington City, and the ball’s organizing committee intended to make it the most spectacular of any.  The official souvenir program they got up preserves the essence of what they wanted to achieve.


With each recurring inauguration of a President of the United States the festivities in which the people of the nation join are carried out on an ever increasing scale of elaborateness and grandeur.  This year, as on several occasions in the past, the inaugural ball will be held . . . in the Pension Office building. . . . The magnificent court of this immense building affords suitable accommodations for the thousands who gather to make notable this great social feature of the induction of a Chief Executive into an office, which is the highest a republic can give.

The inaugural ball is a time-honored and always enjoyable function.  The newly announced President attends with the members of his personal and official family, and leads the opening grand march.  It forms a fitting and spectacular climax to a day of so much importance to the whole people.  It is confidently expected that the ball this year will be the most resplendent, the most inspiring scene of gayety that has yet marked an inauguration.  Over $18,000 has been spent alone in decorations, bunting, electricity, and flowers being the component parts of a scheme, which surpasses in glory of embellishment and detail the dreams of Oriental royalty.

The general color effect will be a most delicate shade of yellow known as old ivory.  The ceiling will be a canopy of gracefully looped bunting, studded with innumerable incandescent lights burning within frosted glass.  There will be no glare of dazzling arc lights, but an artistic mellow glow from the incandescent bulbs.  The balconies which surround the court, the grand columns that reach from the tiled floor to arching roof, will all be decorated lavishly by the most skilled artisans.   . . . This year American Beauty roses, rare orchids, and thousands of yards of twining vines . . .  form the basis of the floral scheme.

The US Marine Band was slated to play a special program of promenades.  A 125-piece orchestra was also on hand to play dance music throughout the night.  Admission to the ball was $5 a ticket, while tickets to the buffet were an additional $1 each.

On arriving, President McKinley and his family, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt and his family, were first shown to private suites of rooms off the Great Hall before emerging to lead the grand opening march.  President McKinley and his wife Ida were admirable figures, but the night really belonged to the new vice-president Teddy Roosevelt and his wife Ethel, whose youth and glamor threatened to eclipse the president entirely.  Roosevelt’s reputation as heroic leader of the ‘Rough Riders’ who helped liberate Cuba from Spain had endowed him with universal celebrity.  His very presence reminded everyone of the nation’s recent military triumph, further stoking the celebratory mood of the ball that night.

Image by noted photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Click here to go to the source.

March 4: Old Inauguration Day

two matched photographic plates showing the scene around the Capitol on inauguration day.

Historically, March 4 is a day for beginning.  In 1789, it was the day the federal government first convened under the US Constitution. From that date through 1933, it was the day when presidents–from George Washington through FDR–were inaugurated.  Then, pageantry, ritual, excitement, and uncertainty ruled the capital, combining in astonishing scenes richly documented in newspapers, eyewitness accounts, sketchbooks, albumen prints, and later celluloid.

Here is just one such image by way of tribute to our national birthdays past: a magnificent panoramic view of the Capitol on the inauguration of Theodore Roosevelt on March 4, 1905.  Please click on the image for a much enlarged view.

Image: panoramic photograph by George R Lawrence
from this source.

A Glimpse of Another Christmas

Washington DC market scene by E. B. Thompson (Courtesy DC Library via the Commons on Flickr)

E.B. Thompson was a successful photographer active in Washington DC in the early decades of the 20th century.  Thompson, who was probably born around the time of the Civil War, gained prominence around the same time as Theodore Roosevelt; indeed, the Rough Rider may have been Thompson’s chief patron.  Readers may recall reading this post about Thompson’s 1899 photograph of the coffins of American war dead awaiting burial at Arlington Cemetery.

Besides documenting the political scene, Thompson created and preserved many other pictures—photographs and stereographsof everyday life in the District and other subjects of local and personal appeal.  Among them was this picture of a turn-of-the-century open-air market, taken around Christmastime, as you can see.

Evidence internal to the photograph (such as the clothing and shutter speed) suggests it was taken no earlier than 1905.  Prints of the original image were then colorized for sale.  The color does a lot to draw us back into that earlier time.

Image: from this source.

A Prisoner of the Bully Pulpit Breaks Free

Photomontage of Theodore Roosevelt (Courtesy of Cornell University Library via Flickr Commons)


Theodore Roosevelt, though a fine president in many ways, left behind one baleful legacy: the idea of the presidency as a ‘bully pulpit,’ by which he meant a superb vantage from which to preach to others about how the nation should be.  When you hear presidential candidates speaking confidently of the miraculous feats that will follow from their being elected, it’s the misleading cadences of a bully-pulpit preacher you’re hearing.


To an extent difficult for us to appreciate today, Roosevelt’s conception of the president as an active visionary was revolutionary, departing in significant ways from the executive role the Constitution laid out.  Our scheme of government assigns the president a few plain duties, which, given the size and scope of the government and its role in the world, constitute a staggering burden.  In addition to serving as the symbolic and ceremonial head of the nation, the president executes the laws, conducts foreign policy, commands the armed forces.  Presidents often function as party leaders, but their constitutional function is essentially one of interdependence, for a president cannot make a law, placing every president in that regard very much at the mercy of Congress.


During the first century of the nation’s life, presidents grappled with this limitation in various ways, but Teddy was the first to dare to act as though it didn’t exist.  He was determined to make the president the determining force in all things.  Like Satan—the most powerful angel in Milton’s celestial firmament—, he chafed at playing second fiddle; he longed to be God.  Suiting actions to words, Roosevelt broke the mold, becoming a media-oriented president intent on using his considerable intellect and celebrity to reshape the nation and govern Congress.  Initiative pulsated from the White House.  It was all very thrilling.  Moreover, it kept Roosevelt constantly in the spotlight, which was something he liked.


Since then, Roosevelt’s conception of the presidency has become our conception, too.  In what is a sad distortion of the Founders’ vision, we expect the president—a single person—to do the work that Congress should be doing.  This, in turn, leads to a confusion about where responsibility lies.  The American people spend more and more time agonizing over presidential choice, more and more time trying to decide which campaign promises and bold visions please them more.


It was clear from the start that Barack Obama sought to be an activist president in the Rooseveltian vein.  His entire campaign the first time around was based on the premise that he could “change Washington,” reorganize the business of politics, and define a new political epoch singlehandedly.  For much of his first term, he seemed at odds with the presidential role, chafing at its limitations and behaving as though his ability to extract specific laws from Congress was the sole yardstick later generations would measure him by.

Influencing Congress became his preoccupation.  Whether the issue was health care or the debt ceiling, President Obama spent much of his first term lecturing Congress and the public—chiding and exhorting the nation to embrace his vision for us.  His love of showing his mettle prompted him to become over-involved in fruitless wrangles whose results were properly the responsibility of a weak and recalcitrant Congress.  The “victories” so gained were costly indeed: witness a health-care bill ahead of its time that, regardless of its merits, heightened partisan rancor and left much of the nation resentful and unpersuaded.


As recently as January, the president’s bully-pulpit predilections were on full display, when he chose to use the State of the Union address to tell Congress its business rather than report candidly on governmental progress.  Yet, between then and now, Obama has seen the light about an activist presidency, about what a dead-end it is, how it takes a certain set of conditions to achieve.  In the meantime, he has racked up a steady tally of gains, showing himself to be very able in directing foreign affairs and the military.  And he retains the support of a large part of the electorate, who value his honesty and intelligence and see him as persistent, prudent, and humane.


Which brings us to the president’s recent acceptance speech.  Some listeners were disappointed; others found the speech a bit desperate or weak.  We all noticed a difference.  The bully-pulpit fervor we’ve grown so accustomed to was missing.

Instead, the President re-articulated his fundamental role as ‘the people’s sovereign’—the keeper of the people’s interest, uniquely entrusted to embody and articulate their general sentiments and needs.  This emphasis on the president’s traditional role as the national symbol of the people’s rule enabled the President to remind his listeners of their primary role as citizens, in a system in which his power is ‘from the people.’


Lacking the glitz and razzmatazz of his earlier speeches, the president’s speech that night was pitched in a lower key.  Its high points were not remarkable for policy specifics, but for their embrace of a more constitutionally sound notion of the presidency, one focused on executing the will of the people and the astute exercise of presidential duty.  The speech’s most important moment came when Obama said, “I’m not a just candidate for the presidency.  I am the president,” a simple declaration that eloquently accounted for his changed tone.

For a sitting president who a year ago styled himself an underdog, this embrace of experience and authority marked a great leap toward political maturity.  Scaling back the high-flown rhetoric and grand visions of which he has been so fond, the president has raised his ambitions in another way: making a bid for greatness by renouncing a view of office that offers self-gratification now.

Regardless of the continuing deep divisions in Congress, the nation can repose confidence in the seasoned president we have now.  All in all, it was a moment I rejoiced to see: a prisoner of the bully pulpit breaking free.

President Obama delivering his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention, Sept 6, 2012 (Screen shot courtesy of WTTW Channel 11 Chicago)

Top image: “Five hundred different views of Theodore Roosevelt,” from this source.
Bottom image: Screen capture of PBS Newshour coverage of the Democratic National Convention.