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Our Scandalous Vice Presidents

Now that Obama and McCain are on the cusp of choosing Vice Presidents, maybe it's time to take a look at 10 of the most memorable backup plans, and what they might want to avoid.

1. Chester Arthur was Canadian!

[Garfield's VP] Chester Arthur took office under the thickest cloud of suspicion. As a lieutenant in Senator Roscoe Conkling's political machine, Arthur held one of the most lucrative positions in government—collector for the port of New York. For seven years, Arthur raked in approximately $40,000 annually (about $700,000 today), running a corrupt spoils system for thousands of payroll employees. With so much money and power, Arthur developed an affinity for fancy clothes and earned the nickname "the Gentleman Boss." But his luck didn't last. President Rutherford Hayes eventually stepped in and fired him from the post.

Even with the kickback scandal and claims that he'd been born in Canada (which should've disqualified him for the vice presidency), Arthur still managed to get elected on James Garfield's 1880 ticket. After Garfield passed away 199 days into his presidency, Arthur didn't hesitate to sign the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. Much to the chagrin of Conkling, the Act revamped civil service by effectively killing the same patronage system that made Arthur very, very rich. In cleaning up civil service, Arthur also cleaned up his reputation, and he exited the White House a hero.

2. William Rufus de Vane King was (Pretty Definitely) Gay

[Franklin Pierce's VP] William R. King was sworn into office in Cuba, becoming the only executive officer to take the oath on foreign soil. King had gone to Cuba to recuperate from tuberculosis and severe alcoholism, but it didn't work. He died in 1853 after being vice president for just 25 days.

That might not be the most memorable thing about King, though. It's widely rumored that the former VP was homosexual. Further still, he's suspected of being James Buchanan's lover. Neither King nor Buchanan ever married, and they lived together in Washington for 15 years before Buchanan became president. Of course, King's predilection for wearing scarves and wigs only fanned the rumors. President Andrew Jackson used to call him "Miss Nancy," and Aaron Brown, a fellow Southern Democrat, dubbed him "Aunt Fancy."

3. Henry Wallace Diverted funds to his Guru

FDR-Wallace.jpg[FDR's 2nd VP]Henry Wallace was a dedicated devotee of Eastern mysticism. While serving as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the 1930s, he allegedly sent his guru to Mongolia under the pretense of collecting grasses that could withstand drought. In reality, Wallace was diverting funds to help his guru hunt for evidence that Christ had visited Asia.

But it wasn't Wallace's spiritual beliefs that landed him America's No. 2 job. Wallace was a big Franklin Roosevelt fan and supported his entire platform, which is why Roosevelt handpicked him as his third-term running mate in 1940. Wallace wasn't popular with the Democratic Party, but when Roosevelt made it clear he wouldn't run without him, the party acquiesced.

As vice president, Wallace made many international goodwill trips. Most famously, he traveled to the Soviet Union, where he experienced a political transformation that resulted in him becoming an avowed Soviet apologist. His communist leanings did nothing for his image, especially once he became secretary of commerce under President Truman. In 1948, Wallace unsuccessfully ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket, espousing views that sounded shockingly Marxist. He even described corporations as "midget Hitlers" attempting to crush the labor class.

But nobody can say Wallace didn't know how to own up to his mistakes. In 1952, he recanted his support of the Soviet Union in a magazine article called "Where I was Wrong." By then, however, his political career was over. Wallace spent the rest of his life conducting agricultural experiments on his farm in New York. [Image courtesy of Ron Wade Buttons.]

4. Richard M. Johnson's 3 black mistresses

[Van Buren's VP]Despite his credentials as a war hero and a Kentucky senator, Vice President Richard M. Johnson was never accepted in Washington. Perhaps that's because he dressed like a farmhand, cursed like a sailor, and made no secret of his three black mistresses, who were also his slaves. The first mistress bore him two daughters before she passed away; the second tried to run off with a Native American chief, but Johnson captured and resold her; and the third was the second one's sister. Johnson attempted to introduce this third mistress into polite society, but the couple wasn't well-received.With the support of Andrew Jackson, Johnson landed the vice presidency under Martin Van Buren in 1836. After four years of public relations disasters, Jackson withdrew his support. Nonetheless, Van Buren kept Johnson on his ticket, and the two lost their re-election bid in 1840.

5. Aaron Burr was a Cassanova

burr.jpg[Jefferson's VP] No story on vice presidents would be complete without Aaron Burr—best known for shooting and killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804. After the incident, Burr went back to presiding over the Senate. From there, he plotted a treasonous conspiracy to become emperor of the western United States and Mexico.

The plan could have worked, but one of Burr's co-conspirators ratted him out. He was tried in 1807 before the Supreme Court, which found him not guilty, mainly because he hadn't actually committed the treason yet. A free man, Burr turned his sights on Florida. He went to France and tried to convince Napoleon Bonaparte to help him conquer the swampland, but that plan foundered, too.

Although his political high jinks often failed, Burr consistently found success with the ladies. After his wife died in 1794, Burr remained a bachelor for 40 years, making the acquaintance of several eligible socialites. He enjoyed flirtations with Philadelphia debutantes, as well as a widow named Dolley Payne Todd—later known as Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison. At age 76, Burr married a wealthy widow of ill-repute and plundered her fortune. Citing numerous infidelities on his part, she filed for divorce and was actually granted it. Unfortunately for her, it came through on the day Burr died.

6. John Tyler borrowed cash to get to his inauguration

[Harrison's VP] When President Harrison succumbed to pneumonia in 1841 after only a month in office, John Tyler became the first vice president to take the Oval Office as the result of a president's death. Understandably, he was totally unprepared for the job. Like previous VPs, Tyler had expected to carry the title without responsibilities. He'd actually taken such a lax approach to the position that he was enjoying life on his Virginia farm when a messenger brought news of Harrison's demise. Tyler had to borrow money from a neighbor to catch the riverboat back to Washington.

As president, Tyler's administration was largely unremarkable, except that he annexed the Republic of Texas and became the first president to have Congress override his veto. Tyler was also the first president to receive no official state recognition of his death. Why? By the time of his passing in 1862, he was an official in the Confederacy.

7. Andrew Johnson took the oath Sloshed

andrew-johnson.jpg[Lincoln's VP] Andrew Johnson took his 1865 vice-presidential oath drunk as a skunk and belligerent as hell. Having grown up dirt poor, Johnson felt the aristocracy in Washington had abused his kinfolk. Glassy-eyed and smelling of whiskey, he reminded Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet, and pretty much everyone within hearing distance that they owed their positions to "plebeians" such as himself, then kissed the Bible and staggered away.

Needless to say, his address was poorly received. The New York World opined, "To think that one frail life stands between this insolent, clownish creature and the presidency! May God bless and spare Abraham Lincoln!" Unfortunately, God didn't. The South surrendered six days before Lincoln's assassination, leaving Johnson to handle Reconstruction—a job he bungled so completely that Congress moved to impeach him. Johnson avoided being booted out of office by just one vote.

8. John Breckenridge Hid Out in Cuba

[Buchanan's VP] By all accounts, John C. Breckenridge was a Kentucky gentleman in the grandest sense. He had an impressive career as a lawyer and a representative in the Kentucky House. More notably, at age 36, he became the youngest vice president in history. But, like Aaron Burr, things took a turn for Breckenridge when he was charged with treason. In September 1861, only a few months after his vice presidential term had ended, Union and Confederate forces invaded his home state of Kentucky. Breckenridge cast his lot with the Confederates, and the federal government promptly indicted him.

Breckenridge headed south and became Jefferson Davis' secretary of war. But when the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, Breckenridge was forced to go on the lam. He hid for the next two months in Georgia and Florida before escaping to Cuba. Breckinridge, his wife, and their children spent the next four years in exile, wandering through Canada, England, Europe, and the Middle East, until President Andrew Johnson issued a General Amnesty Proclamation on Christmas in 1868. The following March, Breckenridge returned to the country with his family, but his name wasn't officially cleared until 1958, when a Kentucky circuit court judge dismissed his indictment.

9. Nelson Rockefeller tore down that wall

2rockefeller.jpg[Ford's VP] Nelson Rockefeller, as his name suggests, was really, really rich. After a brief stint managing his family's property and running oil companies, he turned to public service by taking a job in the State Department.

Rockefeller quickly gained a reputation as a rather strong-willed person. In 1933, he commissioned Mexican artist Diego Rivera to paint a large-scale mural in the lobby of the RCA Building at Rockefeller Center. The mural featured a likeness of Vladimir Lenin, and the overt reference to communism offended Rockefeller. He asked Rivera to change it to a face of an unknown man, and the artist refused. In response, Rockefeller had the whole mural torn down and carted out in pieces.

Rockefeller was equally dissatisfied with his gig as vice president. He refused to run with Ford on the Republican ticket in 1976.

10. Spiro Agnew, the Archie Bunker of the White House

[Nixon's VP] Spiro Agnew, who preferred to be called Ted, was a seemingly safe choice for Richard Nixon's running mate in 1968—mainly because he faded easily into the background. But once in office, Agnew thrust himself into the limelight. By delivering a series of divisive speeches defending the Vietnam War and attacking peaceniks, Agnew became the crotchety Archie Bunker of the White House. He lambasted his enemies, peppering his rants with phrases such as "supercilious sophisticates," "vicars of vacillation," and "pusillanimous pussyfooting."

Still, much of the country loved him, especially as he remained unsullied by the Watergate scandal. When word got out that the Justice Department was investigating him for extortion and bribery, Agnew vehemently denied the charges. In September of 1973, Agnew spoke at the National Federation of Republican Women in front of thousands of screaming fans, many bearing "Spiro is our Hero" signs. He swore to them, "I will not resign if indicted!"

Two weeks later, however, he did just that. Agnew agreed to a plea bargain that involved leaving his post as vice president and paying $150,000 in back taxes. A former lawyer, Agnew was disbarred and took up writing to pay off his debts. In 1976, he penned The Canfield Decision, a tale of a vice president who becomes involved with militant Zionists and is consumed by his own ambition. In 1980, he covered some of the same ground in his autobiography, Go Quietly "¦ Or Else.

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Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


Stacy Conradt

The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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History
10 Surprising Facts About Alexander Hamilton
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Getty Images // Chloe Effron

The Broadway musical Hamilton, like Alexander Hamilton himself, is an improbable success story. The critically-acclaimed show has renewed America’s interest in the country's most enigmatic founding father, who rose from obscurity to help build a new nation—one where he earned friends and enemies at just about every turn. To celebrate Hamilton's birthday, here are 10 things you might not know about him.

1. HE PROBABLY LIED ABOUT HIS AGE

We know that Hamilton was born on January 11; what’s in doubt is the year in question. A native of Nevis (a small island in the Caribbean), Hamilton repeatedly said that he was born in 1757. But official Nevisian records cite 1755 as his birth year. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps his college search had something to do with it. According to Ron Chernow, whose biography of Hamilton inspired the Broadway show, “While applying to Princeton, Hamilton may have decided to ‘correct’ his real age and shed a couple of years. Prodigies aren’t supposed to be overaged freshman.” 

2. HAMILTON DABBLED IN POETRY.

For a self-educated orphan (his father had abandoned his family when Hamilton was just a boy, and his mother died not long after), the future founding father wrote with unbelievable polish. On August 31, 1772, a hurricane ravaged St. Croix. Teenage Hamilton—who’d been working on the island as a clerk—described the disaster in a letter that was eventually published in The Royal Danish American Gazette, writing, “It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place.” Little did Hamilton realize that these words were about to change his life forever. Blown away by the letter, readers quickly organized a scholarship fund for this talented young scribe. Before long, Alexander Hamilton found himself en route to King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City.

Essay writing wasn’t his only literary passion. A number of poems have also been attributed to Hamilton. When a dear friend’s 2-year-old daughter passed away in 1774, he eulogized her in a touching tribute called “Poem on the Death of Elias Boudinot’s Child.” Another piece helped Hamilton win over his bride-to-be, Eliza Schuyler. As they courted, he sent a tender sonnet to the object of his affection. Eliza liked it so much that she placed the poem in a little bag and hung it around her neck.

3. THE OLDEST UNIT IN THE UNITED STATES ARMY IS HAMILTON’S.

According to the Army Historical Foundation, “Battery D, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), traces its lineage to Hamilton’s Revolutionary War artillery company and is the oldest serving unit in the regular army.” On March 17, 1776, Hamilton was made captain of the group, and under his leadership, it saw action in several key moments—including the Battles of White Plains and Princeton. Impressed by the young man’s valor, George Washington made him an aide-de-camp (with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel) in 1777.

The father of our country couldn’t have picked a better man. In Hamilton, Washington found an energetic writer who was fluent in French and just so happened to share most of the General’s political views. Over the next few years, these assets made Hamilton an indispensable employee. Still, as time went by, he grew tired of essentially serving as a high-status clerk. In 1781, the aide-de-camp resigned from Washington’s inner circle. Afterward, Hamilton was put in charge of a new battalion and would pull off an impressive night attack against British forces at the decisive Battle of Yorktown.

4. HE AND AARON BURR OCCASIONALLY COLLABORATED.


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In postwar Manhattan, the future dueling partners were two of the Big Apple’s top lawyers. With the Revolution over, Burr and Hamilton paid their bills by practicing law. Clients gravitated toward the two decorated veterans from all directions, and Hamilton and Burr faced off in a number of legal showdowns. Every so often, though, they’d work together on the same criminal or civil case—including People v. Levi Weeks (1800), which is recognized as the first U.S. murder trial for which we have a formal record. 

In December 1799, a young woman named Gulielma Sands mysteriously vanished. Eleven days later, her body was found at the bottom of a Manhattan well. Fingers were immediately pointed at Levi Weeks. Both the carpenter and Sands lived in a boarding house owned by Sands's relatives, and Weeks had been courting her.

In the court of public opinion, Weeks was guilty. Luckily for the carpenter, though, his older brother had friends in high places. Ezra Weeks was an architect who had supervised the construction of Hamilton’s Convent Avenue estate. He’d also done business with the Burr-founded Manhattan Company—which, incidentally, owned the well where Sands’s body was found.

(Created as a means of providing “pure and wholesome” water to New Yorkers, Burr launched The Manhattan Company with some vocal support from Hamilton. The bill Burr would eventually put before the state legislature wasn't the same one that Hamilton saw, however; Burr's true intention for the company wasn't to provide water but to create a bank that would allow him to sway future elections. The bill passed and the bank was formed; in the 1950s, it merged with Chase Bank and today lives on as JPMorgan Chase & Co. The company owns the guns used in Burr and Hamilton's duel.)

Burr, Hamilton, and Brockholst Livingston (who later became a U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice) formed Levi Weeks’s defense team. In a two-day trial, they dismantled the state’s purely circumstantial case against their client, and the carpenter was found innocent. Eventually, Weeks moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where the accused murderer reinvented himself as an esteemed southern architect. 

5. VERMONT FOUND AN ALLY IN HAMILTON.

When Vermont declared its independent statehood in 1777, it upset certain New York industrialists, who considered Vermont to be a part of their state. For decades, New York and New Hampshire both tried to claim the area. So, in 1764, His Majesty decreed that everything west of the Connecticut River (Vermont and the granite state’s current border) belonged to New York. 

There was just one problem: most Vermonters were former New Hampshirites. Upon assuming control, New York refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of land grants established there by New Hampshire transplants. Vermonters responded by taking up arms against their neighbors to the west. Local militias—including one called the Green Mountain Boys—repelled New York emigrants by force. 

Then along came the American Revolution. In 1777, Vermont petitioned the Continental Congress to acknowledge its sovereignty as a state. Thanks to opposition from New York’s delegates, however, this didn’t happen. For the next 14 years, Vermont—unable to join the Union on its own terms—existed as an independent republic.

After the war, Congress refused to acknowledge the swath as anything other than a large chunk of New York. Thoroughly disgruntled, some locals lobbied to have their mini-nation absorbed by Canada.

From Hamilton’s perspective, the prospect of a British-ruled Vermont threatened America’s security. In 1787, he was working as a New York state legislator. During his tenure, Hamilton presented a bill that would instruct New York’s Congressional representatives to recognize Vermont’s independence. This measure died in the State Senate, but, in the end, Hamilton was able to spearhead a settlement between New York and Vermont. With the empire state’s approval (and payment from Vermont to New York of $30,000), Vermont finally entered the Union in 1791.

6. IT’S BELIEVED THAT HE AUTHORED MOST OF THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.

Apart from his stint as America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, this is the political achievement for which Hamilton is best known. Published between 1787 and 1788, the 85 Federalist Papers essays urged New York’s electorate to ratify the recently-proposed U.S. Constitution. The influential documents were written under the shared pseudonym Publius by Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay. Since none of them used their real names, we can’t be certain about how many papers each man wrote. Still, general consensus credits Hamilton with 51, Madison with 29, and Jay with five.

7. THE LAST LETTER THAT GEORGE WASHINGTON EVER WROTE WAS ADDRESSED TO HAMILTON.


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Two days before he died, America’s first President sent a dispatch to his former aide and cabinet member. Hamilton had recently argued that “a regular Military Academy” ought to be established, and his old mentor praised the idea. In a 1799 letter that would be Washington’s last, the elder statesman told Hamilton that such a place would be “of primary importance to this country.”

8. HE FOUNDED THE NEW YORK POST.

Established by Hamilton in November 1801, the paper was originally known as The New York Evening Post. The founding father conceived his new publication as a megaphone for the anti-Jefferson Federalist Party—which he’d also created. Hamilton himself generated many of The Post’s early editorials. “He appoints a time when I may see him,” editor William Coleman explained, “… as soon as I see him, he begins in a deliberate manner to dictate and I to note down in shorthand; when he stops, my article is completed.”

9. HIS ELDEST SON ALSO DIED IN A DUEL.

Then-Vice President Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, New Jersey on July 11, 1804. It was almost a case of deja vu: Three years earlier, another Hamilton had died under eerily similar circumstances. 

Like his father, Philip Hamilton was a bit quick-tempered. In 1801, the 19-year-old had a deadly run-in with George Eacker, a prominent Democratic-Republican lawyer. On July 4, Eacker delivered an Independence Day speech in which he not only denounced Alexander Hamilton, but asserted that the former Secretary of the Treasury would be willing to plot the violent overthrow of President Jefferson.

From then on, Philip harbored a passionate grudge against Eacker. Four months after the inflammatory address, the young Hamilton went to take in a show at New York’s Park Theater with his friend, Richard Price. Inside, they caught sight of Eacker. Bursting into his theater box, Hamilton and Price savagely heckled the attorney. Eacker—not wanting to disturb his fellow patrons—told them to meet him in the lobby, grumbling “It is too abominable to be publicly insulted by a set of damned rascals.”

“Who do you call damned rascals?” the teenagers shouted. A fistfight might have broken out right then and there, but Eacker diffused the situation by suggesting they all cool off at a nearby tavern. But the change in scenery did nothing to calm anyone involved: Later that night, the lawyer received a curt letter from Price challenging him to a duel. 

The ensuing Price-Eacker standoff was an uneventful affair, with both men failing to shoot their opponent. In the bloodless duel’s wake, Philip hoped that he might persuade Eacker to take back his insulting comments if he, too, apologized. Instead, Eacker flatly refused. Feeling that his honor had been intolerably attacked, Philip felt he had no choice but to issue a dueling challenge of his own—which the angry Jeffersonian accepted. 

Both combatants arrived at Weehawken on November 23. Each came brandishing a pistol provided by Alexander’s brother-in-law, John Baker Church. After the smoke cleared, Eacker would walk away unharmed—Philip would not. A bullet entered the young Hamilton above his right hip, tearing clear through to the left arm. Mortally wounded, Philip died the next day.

By all accounts, Alexander Hamilton was never the same man after his son’s untimely demise. When Burr and Hamilton met to settle their own score, they used the pistols from Philip’s duel.  

10. THEODORE ROOSEVELT WAS A BIG FAN.

Telescope Teddy was fascinated by all things Hamilton. In TR’s mind, this founding father stood tall as “the most brilliant American statesman who ever lived, possessing the loftiest and keenest intellect of his time.” Moreover, Roosevelt saw in Hamilton “the touch of the heroic, the touch of the purple, the touch of the gallant.” Our 26th President even found time to study the man while sitting in the Oval Office. Roosevelt read 1906’s Alexander Hamilton, An Essay on The American Union by historian Fredrick Scott Oliver. Before long, he was praising the book to Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, Secretary of State Elihu Root, and Whitelaw Reid, America’s ambassador to the U.K.

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