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First Chapters: Tippecanoe and Wallace Too

By Alex Richards

Welcome to the latest in our series of first chapters showcasing our books. Today, we have Tippecanoe and Wallace Too, by Alex Richards


A terrible curse strikes the White House: its occupants, whoever they may be, will not serve for very long...

Alex Richards' imaginative and witty homage to Tom Anderson's 'The Curse of Maggie' takes the concept stateside, with hilarious results. After all, everything's bigger in America.



For almost 90 years America from 1931 was gripped by the notion of a curse afflicting those who held the nation's highest office, ensuring that each person to have been elected in a year divisible by 20 would die in office. As is the usual course with such affairs, even at its creation there was the exception of Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848 and died two years later, and Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974 posed another potentially troublesome statistic, but particularly in light of the assassination of John F. Kennedy the so called 'Curse of Tippecanoe' – named after a battle in which the supposed first victim William Henry Harrison had massacred an army of Native Americans – gained new currency.

By the 1980 election media attention was high, with the topic of its veracity coming up frequently in interviews with pundits and candidates alike; but with Reagan successfully surviving two terms in office, it seemed to many that the curse, if had ever existed, had been broken, and apart from a brief flurry around the 2000 election it has largely passed into the history books – now little more than a small anecdote in the rich tapestry of American history.

Yet this was hardly inevitable. Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush had high profile brushes with death throughout their Presidencies, and beyond the 20-year intervals set out by the original curse the post-war era has been littered with near-misses where death or scandal could have cut short a sitting President's term in office. Then there are the men who could have become President – many of whom themselves were afflicted with ill-health, misfortune or scandal. For all its myriad twists and turns, the Post-WWII Presidency has been remarkably stable – and not always for want of trying. It could so easily have been otherwise.


[32] March 4th 1933-January 20th 1941: Franklin D. Roosevelt/John N. Garner (Democratic)

1932 def: Herbert Hoover/Charles Curtis (Republican)

1936 def: Alf Landon/Frank Knox (Republican)

[32] January 20th 1941-November 14th 1943: Franklin D. Roosevelt/Henry A. Wallace (Democratic)

1940 def: Wendell Willkie/Charles L. McNary (Republican)

The longest running President in the nation's history, and the only one to stand for more than two terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt's premiership was one of both great successes and bitter failures. No more is this evident than his signature New Deal policy that brought employment for millions in a struggling economy and helped to ensure America was ready for the Second World War, but at the same time was criticised as an overweening extension of Federal Power and resulted in a permanent break with Vice President John N. Garner. Garner challenged for the nomination in 1940 but lost out to the still extremely popular President, and the former Republican Henry A. Wallace was selected as his replacement. This was a controversial pick; not only had Wallace switched parties in 1933, shortly after the President's election – an act which many saw as naked opportunism – but he was also increasingly enamoured with Oriental Mysticism, Buddhism and Russian spiritualism. Having already postponed retirement due to the Nazi conquest of France, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought America fully into the war, and while Roosevelt showed himself as capable in wartime as he had been in peacetime the Vice President clashed with military experts on several occasions.

Everything was to change, however, on the 14th November 1943, when the President undertook a visit to meet with Churchill and Stalin in North Africa. While crossing the Atlantic on the Iowa, the president was treated to a demonstration of anti-aircraft and torpedo operations. Tragically, and indeed farcically, the ill-fated William D. Porter, already suffering from a string of mechanical and personnel issues, accidentally fired a torpedo towards the Iowa, where it detonated against the side of the larger ship almost immediately below where the President was sitting. Fearful of an assassination plot, the remaining ships in the convoy fired their guns towards the William D. Porter, sinking the vessel before collecting the few survivors (including some very bewildered officers), while the Iowa struggled to remain above water for several hours before finally sinking below the waves of the Atlantic. It was undoubtedly one of the worst disasters in American naval history, all the more so for the loss of the President, and the surviving officers were court-martialled for their incompetence – the death sentence being only averted after it became clear that attempts had been made to alert the Iowa of the danger. By that time, and with the public muttering that the Curse of Tippecanoe had come to pass once more, the Presidency had already passed to Roosevelt's successor.

[33] November 14th 1943-December 3rd 1943: Henry A. Wallace/Vacant (Democratic)

[33] December 3rd 1943-January 20th 1945: Henry A. Wallace/Cordell Hull (Democratic)

If Wallace had thought that the tragic circumstances of his presidency or the still ongoing war would silence detractors, he was soon proved wrong. After an incredibly brief honeymoon period – in which the new President was able to get his Vice Presidential pick of Cordell Hull, a noted critic of Roosevelt's decision to stand for a third term, approved – relations between the President, his party and the military began to approach a complete breakdown. Propriety and common sense prevented delays to the Battle of Normandy and the ongoing progress of the war, but President Wallace was soon to be heard remarking that he preferred to have to deal with Stalin than Congress; after all, “at least he's halfway honest about his intentions”.

In that environment, it was inevitable that Wallace would face a primary challenge in 1944, and despite his best attempts to rally support neither Roosevelt's supporters nor his opponents found him all that appealing. As the Chicago conference dates of July 19th-21st drew closer, a collection of powerful figures – stretching from the party Chairman, Frank C. Waller, and Treasurer, Edwin D. Pauley, to Edward J. Flynn, the New York party boss – met to ensure the President was deposed and replaced with somebody less ‘exotic’.

Nonetheless, Wallace had his own tricks up his sleeve, and as the convention dawned the Convention hall was packed with his supporters, many entering with counterfeit tickets, waving banners and shouting slogans. The convention hall's organist was even playing popular Iowa tunes in honour of the current President. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the party bosses made phonecalls, called in favours and set up the ground game to oust the President.

The organist was the first to be dealt with, a quiet word being had to change to more generic American tunes (the President was, after all, meant to represent the whole nation). Then, just before the vote was due to occur, the session was suddenly suspended and the hall evacuated due to ‘safety concerns’. Wallace by that point knew something was up, but was powerless to control the situation.

The next day Wallace's supporters were kept outside the hall by the local police, and in a 695-to-480 vote the President was unceremoniously removed from the ticket and replaced with Senator Harry S. Truman of Missouri. Wallace first tried to contest the convention, and then contemplated an independent run, but by that point he had neither the time nor the connections to secure his position on the ballot in most states against determined opposition from the Democratic Party. Whether there is any truth to the notion that Wallace instead cursed the office of President using his own unique blend of Oriental mysticism is unknown, though considering later events it has certainly gathered many adherents. This was not to be the end of Wallace's involvement in national politics, however…

[34] January 20th 1945-June 18th 1948: Harry S. Truman/Alben W. Barkley (Democratic)

def. 1944: Thomas E. Dewey/John W. Bricker (Republican)

Recognising the divided state of the party, Truman turned to the Senate Majority leader Alben W. Barkley – one of the cornerstones of the New Deal Coalition, favouring similar policies to Truman's own 'Fair Deal', but still having the respect of the Southern Democrats – to serve as his running mate against the Governor of New York, Thomas E. Dewey, for the Republican Party. With the war going generally well in both Europe and the Pacific, the Republican Party still recovering from the organisational nadir of the 1930s, and the threat of a Southern Democrat third party run neutralised by Barkley, Truman set out his stall as the man who could win both the war and the peace, promising reforms to education, healthcare and employment practices once the war was over in a similar manner to the Labour campaign in Britain the following year. As a result, he was able to secure a relatively comfortable victory over his opponent in a historic fourth term for the Democratic Party.

His presidency was, however, to be dogged by controversy from the start. Abroad, the atomic bombings of Japan brought the war to a dramatic close, much to the disquiet of many, while the roll-out of the Marshall Plan proved unpopular with a nation who largely wanted to just go back to minding their own business. He was also accused of being weak towards the threat of the spread of international Communism, especially with Stalin's extended sphere of influence in Europe. Meanwhile at home, Truman invited controversy by attending the funeral of his former patron, the disgraced Tom Pendergast, in his response to the strikes of 1946, and with the ongoing conflicts within his party over civil rights. ‘Roosevelt would have done it better’ was a regular refrain, no matter how accurate it may have been, and Trumann struggled to escape from both the controversy of his immediate predecessor and the long shadow cast by Roosevelt.

Worse still for the President was the failure of his flagship policy. Southern Democrats had largely been disquieted by Truman's Fair Deal rhetoric, but with the end of the war seeming to be years into the future had, as a general rule, chosen to back his candidacy. Now that the war was over and the President had a chance to actually enact his agenda, however, they allied with the Republicans to block reformist legislation. Bills intended to expand the employment rights and protections of African-Americans, reform education funding and provide universal healthcare were debated at great length before being blocked, and by the 1946 midterms it was clear that, despite the active participation of the Vice President in the legislative process, Truman had failed to achieve anything beyond some minor tinkering around the edges.

Constitutionally the Truman Presidency also saw the clarification of the Constitutional situation of the Vice President. Whereas before it had been ambiguous whether a Vice President who acceded to the Presidency was merely an acting President, the 22nd Amendment outlined that, on the death of the President, the Vice President was indeed the President in full, but that on the death, resignation or accession of the Vice President his successor would have to be approved by Congress. Combined with the 23rd Amendment, passed at the same time, which formally limited the President to two terms in office, the modern rules of the Presidency were thus established in full.

At least it seemed that he could promise stability after the infighting the party had seen during the Wallace presidency; Truman used both compromise and strength as appropriate to ensure that the party presented a united front. That illusion was shattered in the summer of 1948, when the long term structural instability of the White House proved to be Truman's undoing. A musical family, the Trumans had no less than four pianos installed in the White House, including two in the room of his daughter Margaret. This proved to be too much for the ageing joists, and shortly after the First Family had returned from holiday, the floor gave way on June 15th 1948. Unfortunately for all concerned, the President was sitting in the breakfast room below at the time, and was severely injured as a grand piano fell almost directly upon him. Three days later, the President was dead – and, for the second time in five years, the nation mourned.



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