Lessons from History

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Winston Churchill


In 1800, U.S. President John Adams engaged in a bitter campaign for re-election, battling his own Vice President, Thomas Jefferson. The invective between Adams’ Federalist Party and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party set the standard for over two centuries of mudslinging. The Federalists characterized the Democrats as radical atheists who would ruin the country. The Democrats characterized the Federalists as anti-republican, due to the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts, essentially making it a crime to criticize the President. Adams was called mentally unstable. Jefferson’s affairs with his slaves were used against him. Historians still regard it as one of the ugliest Presidential campaigns in American history. When it was over, Jefferson emerged victorious. Adams was not happy, but quietly left the capitol at the expiration of his term, ceding power to Jefferson. It was the first time power changed hands peacefully between two political parties.


In 1876, Democratic Presidential candidate Samuel Tilden won a majority in the popular vote. Initially, it looked as if he won the Electoral College as well. However, South Carolina, Louisiana and Florida all reported disputed victories for Tilden’s opponent, Rutherford B. Hayes. This gave Hayes a single vote victory in the Electoral College (185-184). There was a lengthy dispute in Congress as to how the election results should be determined (a dispute made more complicated by the fact Democrats controlled the House while Republicans controlled the Senate). Tilden, obviously, hoped the election would be thrown to the House, where his victory would almost certainly be certified. During this dispute, Tilden consistently called for calm and rejected advisors who told him to call for mass demonstrations. Eventually, a 15-member commission was set up, consisting of five Republican congressmen, five Democratic congressman, three conservative Supreme Court judges and two liberal Supreme Court judges. Unsurprisingly, if you add up the numbers, the commission awarded all of the disputed states to Hayes in a series of 8-7 decisions. The House could have nullified the results by refusing to certify them. However, Southern Democrats pushed for a compromise that would allow Hayes to take office in exchange for ending Reconstruction. Republicans agreed and the Compromise of 1877 resulted in Rutherford B. Hayes being declared the winner of the election, two days before taking the Oath of Office. Tilden, essentially, became a pawn in a political game, losing the Presidency as a result. Some Democrats pushed for Tilden to reject the deal and take the Oath himself. Tilden, realizing this might plunge the U.S. into another civil war, declined and accepted defeat, saying, “I can retire to private life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office.”


On the morning after Election Day, 1960, Democratic candidate John Kennedy spoke to Republican candidate Richard Nixon, saying, “We still don’t know who won this thing.” By the middle of the afternoon, Nixon conceded. There were widespread reports of voter fraud in Illinois and Texas, both states won by Kennedy, and Nixon staffers urged their candidate to challenge the results in court. Nixon refused, believing that such a challenge would cause people to lose faith in elections and damage America’s standing in the world. He delivered a speech three days later, announcing he would not contest the results.


In 2000, the Presidential election came down to a 537 vote victory in Florida by Republican George W. Bush. Democratic candidate Al Gore contested the results, asking for a recount. Though Florida had certified its results, a federal judge allowed the recount to go forward. The case eventually wound up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 to halt the recount. Gore disagreed with the decision, but nonetheless, he conceded the election, saying, “for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.” He would later say that he could have continued to appeal, but that would have meant demonstrations in the street and that would not have been good for the country.


In the weeks leading up to the 1916 Presidential election, with the race considered very close, Woodrow Wilson formed a transition plan if he were to lose the election. With the possibility of the U.S. entering World War I growing more likely by the day, Wilson didn’t feel it would be fair for a lame duck president to make such a momentous decision. (Keep in mind, there were four months between Election Day and Inauguration Day back then.) Wilson’s plan in the event of his defeat was to first demand the resignations of his Vice President and Secretary of State. That done, he would install his opponent, Charles Evans Hughes, as the new Secretary of State. This would make Hughes the next in line to the Presidency. (In those days, Secretary of State was behind the Vice President in order of succession.) Wilson would then resign himself, making Hughes the President several months early. Wilson was willing to sacrifice the last few months of his term for the good of the country.


The United States entered World War II in December, 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor. In order to prevent shortages and to make sure a majority of goods were directed to the war effort, a system of rationing was set up. Tires and gasoline were the first to be rationed. A national speed limit of 35 miles per hour was established to save the existing supplies. Driving for sightseeing was banned. Automobile racing was banned. (The Indianapolis 500 was not run from 1942 to 1945.) Sugar and coffee were rationed, as well as meat, lard, shortening, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods, dried fruits, canned milk, coal, jams, jellies, and fruit butter. Typewriters, gasoline, bicycles, shoes, rubber footwear, silk, nylon, fuel oil, and stoves were rationed. Production of metal office furniture, radios, television sets, phonographs, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and sewing machines for civilians was discontinued.

Support for the war was widespread.


The influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 may have had its origins in Kansas, France, or China. Because information was restricted due to the war and the first notable cases were reported in neutral Spain, the virus became known as the “Spanish Flu.” Also because of wartime censorship, many countries suppressed reporting of the pandemic. Some newspapers were prohibited from reporting daily death tolls in order to prevent a mass panic. Misinformation spread about the disease. In Ireland there was a belief that noxious gasses rising from the mass graves at Flanders Fields were being blown all over the world by winds. There were also a belief that the Germans were behind it, poisoning aspirin manufactured by Bayer or by releasing poisonous gas from U-boats. U.S. cities passed ordinances limiting public gatherings, closing schools, theaters, and places of worship, as well as limiting capacity on all forms of public transportation. In New York City, the health commissioner ordered businesses to have staggered opening and closing hours, in order to limit capacity. Face masks came into common usage, but there were debates about their effectiveness. The Anti-Mask League of San Francisco was noted for its opposition to a city ordinance requiring the wearing of masks in public spaces. The ordinance was repealed a month after passage.

The pandemic produced four waves between 1918 and 1920. The worldwide death toll is believed to be between 17 and 50 million, but could have been as high as 100 million.

JOE DAVIS is the main character in a series of mystery novels by Randall J. Funk. Mr. Davis and Mr. Funk are delighted by the shocking similarities in their opinions and writing styles.

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