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From Little Ben and Uncle Jumbo to a Teddy Bear and a Big Lub

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Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Benjamin Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio on August 20, 1833. Despite being from one of America's oldest and most distinguished families, he grew up on a modest farm. He attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and studied law in Cincinnati. He was nicknamed, "Little Ben" during the Civil War because he stood only 5'6" tall. Little Ben was discharged as a breveted brigadier general following the Union victory in 1865. He became a brilliant lawyer in Indianapolis, Indiana and was elected to the United States Senate in 1880 where he championed the rights of Native Americans, Civil War Veterans and homesteaders and advocated for high tariff. Harrison unseated the incumbent President Grover Cleveland and became the 23rd President of the United States while winning the Electoral Vote but losing the popular vote. Cleveland held the umbrella for Harrison during the rainy inauguration on March 4, 1889. He earned another nickname, "Centennial President" because he was in office during the 100th-anniversary celebrations of George Washington's inauguration. Harrison believed the future prosperity of the U.S. was linked to international trade and cooperation. He sponsored the first Pan-American Congress. In domestic affairs, he supported increased import duties, a new Pension Act, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act which regulated monopolies and the Silver Purchase Act thus authorizing the minting of additional silver coins. Other notable events included the addition of six new states joining the Union which was more than under any other President. Also, Congress authorized the first billion-dollar budget and tariffs in a single session which gave Harrison's legislative branch the nickname "the Billion Dollar Congress." He was the only President who was the grandson of a President, William Henry "Tippecanoe" Harrison. In addition, his great-grandfather, also named Benjamin Harrison, signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Little Ben died of pneumonia at his home in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 13, 1901. He left us this quote, "No other people have a government more worthy of their respect and love or a land so magnificent in extent, so pleasant to look upon, and so full of generous suggestion to enterprise and labor."

As stated above, Grover Cleveland won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College vote and therefore the election to Benjamin Harrison in 1888. He remained active in politics and criticized Harrison's policies. He was against the Sherman Silver Purchase and McKinley Tariff Acts of 1890. Because of his political stances and stature as a former President he faced Harrison again in the 1892 election and won both the popular and Electoral College votes to become the only former President to regain the office when he was elected 24th President of the United States. Shortly after his inauguration in 1893, America was faced with the financial "Panic of 1893" with high unemployment and a severe economic depression. Cleveland blamed the Sherman Act and managed to have it repealed. During his second term as President from 1893 to 1897 his greatest success was his forceful efforts at putting an end to the strike by the Pullman Company railroad workers in Chicago. This strike had paralyzed commerce and mail delivery in the Midwest. He became renowned for his firm stance on political matters of the day. Because of his large and portly appearance from his love of beer and rich food, he became affectionately known as "Uncle Jumbo." Following the end of his term in 1897 he retired in Princeton, New Jersey. He never attended college, nevertheless he became a trustee of Princeton University in 1901. He later died at his Westland Estate of a heart attack on June 24, 1908. He leaves us with, "What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?"

William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio on January 29, 1843. He attended Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, became a teacher then enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was promoted to Major and served under Rutherford B Hayes during the War. After the War, he became a lawyer. With Hayes' encouragement, he was elected to the House of Representatives at the age of 34 where he served 14 years and sponsored the protectionist McKinley Tariff Act of 1890. This act raised the average duty on imports to nearly 50% and was designed to protect domestic industries and foreign competition. McKinley earned the reputation as a champion of people's rights against private interests and for protecting American businesses by creating tariffs on imported goods. Supported by a wealthy businessman, he was twice elected Governor of Ohio. He was nicknamed the "Idol of Ohio" and was chosen as the 1896 Republican Presidential candidate. From his "front porch" in Ohio, he spoke of a "full dinner pail." His opponent, William Jennings Bryan from Nebraska was against McKinley's high tariff and gold standard. Bryan appealed to farmers and the less fortunate and advocated "free silver" to increase the money supply. Because of the economic upturn, McKinley won the 1896 election and took the oath of office in 1897 as the 25th President. The economic depression which started in 1893 had ended and the nation was on the path to prosperity. The period from 1897 and into the 20th century was the time of prosperity and growth which became known as the "Gilded Age." Might I remind you of Mark Twain's satirical point of view from all of his famous books including The Gilded Age.

McKinley was the last Civil War veteran elected President and the first incumbent President to win re-election since Grant in 1872. A defining event of his reign was the Spanish-American War, ignited by the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. The United States blamed Spain for the attack and sunk the Spanish fleet which led to a swift victory for America with territorial gains in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. McKinley set the stage for an "open door" trade policy with China and sponsored annexation of the Hawaiian Territory in 1898. Because of his popularity he was easily re-elected over Bryan in 1900. Just six months into his second term, he was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He died on September 14, 1901 and was replaced by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt. McKinley left us these words, "That's all a man can hope for during his lifetime - to set an example - and when he is dead, to be an inspiration for history."

Theodore Roosevelt (Teddy) was born to wealth and privilege in New York City on October 27, 1858. He was an ill, frail, near-sighted and asthmatic child who transformed himself into a robust and vigorous leader with indefatigable dedication to exercise and progress for himself and America. He was a historian, an author, an egotist, a braggart, an explorer, a hunter, a cowboy, a war hero, a naturalist, an aggressive and progressive reformer, an activist, a statesman, an expansionist, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a founder of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and a leading conservationist who established national parks, forests and monuments. His face rests between Jefferson and Lincoln alongside Washington on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He was also one of the original members of the American Institute of Arts and Letters and a president of the American Historical Association. Most of all, Teddy Roosevelt embodied the strains of America's transformation from a rural, agrarian, and relatively isolated society into a modern industrialized nation placing it among the great world powers; no different than how he transformed himself from that of a sickly child to nearly an indestructible man of masculinity and vitality.

He received a Harvard education, studied law and entered politics in 1882 as the youngest member of the New York State Assembly. He ran as a Republican, because he believed the Democrats supported Tammany Hall, the infamous and corrupt political machine of New York City. Personal tragedy struck early in his career. On Valentine's Day of 1884, shortly after the birth of their daughter, Alice Lee, aka "Baby Lee," his wife Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt died in the arms of the 25-year-old Theodore Roosevelt. To make matters worse, several hours before his young wife's death, he had already said a final goodbye to his mother, Martha who died of Typhoid in the same house. In his diary that day, he left a big "X" and wrote, "The light has gone out of my life." Afterward he spent two years in solitude on his ranch in the Dakota Territory. As an aside if you care to dare, you will not be disappointed if you read about his oldest daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.

You will be quite amused about this socialite who graced the White House from her father's administration into the Carter administration and was considered "The Other Washington Monument." Among the many quips about her, President Carter wrote, "She had style, she had grace, and she had a sense of humor that kept generations of political newcomers to Washington wondering which was worse - to be skewered by her wit or to be ignored by her." It was believed that Teddy Roosevelt could do anything except one. One day in the Oval Office following many interruptions by his daughter Alice, Teddy threatened to throw her out the window and stated, "I can either run the country or I can attend Alice, but I cannot possibly do both."

Following his return from solitude, Teddy became police commissioner of New York City then Assistant Secretary of the Navy during the McKinley administration. When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 he organized his "Rough Riders" Calvary unit and led his troops into battle at San Juan Hill, Puerto Rico. He returned to New York and became governor and then Vice President of the United States. Following McKinley's assassination be became the 26th President, the youngest President in American History. He won re-election in 1904. As President, Roosevelt launched a "trust-busting" campaign against big business. In foreign affairs, his greatest achievement was the Panama Canal which began under his leadership, and also he sent the Navy's "Great White Fleet" on a world journey to demonstrate America's military strength. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for helping end a war between Japan and Russia. During his terms, the Wright Brothers made their first flight and the Ford Model T was introduced. He created his own "Bull Moose" Party in an unsuccessful bid for a third term as President in 1912. It was during this campaign when he was shot by John Shank in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. TR's metal eyeglass case and the manuscript for his speech protected his heart. Teddy delivered his speech with his blood stained manuscript before being rushed to the hospital. He died on January 6, 1919 at his Sagamore Hill home in Oyster Bay, New York either from a pulmonary embolus or a stroke. Nicknamed and affectionately known as T.R., he left us with, "I have always been fond of the West African proverb: 'Speak softly and carry a big stick: you will go far.'"

William Howard Taft, whose father served as a judge and later as Attorney General and Secretary of War under Grant's administration, was born in Cincinnati, OH on September 15, 1857. A graduate of Yale, he attended Law at the University of Cincinnati. After working as a lawyer and a judge, he was dean of the University of Cincinnati Law School. President McKinley named him Governor of the Philippines, and President Teddy Roosevelt appointed him Secretary of War. Ardently supported by TR, "Big Bill" Taft won the Presidential nomination in 1908. Roosevelt recognized he could influence the affable Taft but not mold him in his own image. In any event, political critics dubbed Taft (TAFT) as Take Advice From Teddy. Roosevelt was a dynamo, vigorous and visible, Taft was more restrained. Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan and was inaugurated the 27th President. Weighing in over 330 lbs, he was the heaviest President. He was derisively nicknamed "Big Lub" in reference to his weight during his childhood. This nickname stuck with him. During his presidency, TR's trust-busting policies continued, the 16th amendment passed allowing Congress to collect federal income tax and the Boy Scouts of America was formed. In 1910, Taft started the tradition of throwing out the first ball of the baseball season. After his presidency, Taft became a professor of law at Yale until he was appointed Chief Justice of the United States in 1921. He has been the only President to serve on the Supreme Court and considered it his greatest honor. Taft later commented, "I don't remember that I was ever President," a job that intimidated him. He died in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 1930 in coma as a consequence of cardiovascular disease. He was the first President buried in Arlington National Cemetery and he leaves us with "A government is for the benefit of all the people." ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Harry J Sievers, Benjamin Harrison - Hoosier Statesman and Hoosier President
  2. Allan Nevins, Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage. Volumes I and II
  3. Margaret Leech, In the days of McKinley
  4. 4David McCullough, Mornings on Horseback
  5. H W Brands, Theodore Roosevelt: The Last Romantic
  6. Donald F Anderson, William Howard Taft: A Conservative's Conception of the Presidency

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