In a few short days, the Presidential Inauguration will be held.
The official theme for this inauguration is “Faith in America’s Future.” It honors our country’s determination and unity and marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
While talking with Dr. Calvin Davis last fall, I asked if he’d share with us some memories of elections he remembers and the elections he considers the most important in our history. Dr. Davis was a history professor at Duke University until he retired a few years ago and came back to his home territory. What he said about elections and his personal experiences will be the subject of this column off and on during 2013. He considers 2013 to be the sesquicentennial of the Civil War — but that’s for a later column.
Davis taught at the University of Denver for three years (1959-1962). He said they were among the most productive of his career as a teacher and historian. He taught in several fields and had large classes. He said it was easy to manage because the university was on the quarter system which meant that he could reserve some time each day for the doctoral dissertation he was completing at Indiana University. When he finished the dissertation it was awarded the Albert J. Beveridage award (1961) and was published by Cornell University Press.
He said: I was unhappy during the 1948 campaign because I couldn’t vote – my 21st birthday would be Dec. 3. I was a senior at Franklin College and I listened to the returns on my landlady’s radio. She and I wanted Dewey to win. She told me how disappointed she had been in 1916 when Charles Evans Hughes, the Republican candidate, failed to defeat President Wilson.
In 1952 I was able to vote in a Presidential election. General Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson didn’t debate but gave interesting speeches. The elder Arthur Schlesinger of Harvard polled historians asking their opinions of Presidents. He tabulated results “report card” style – “great, near great, average, below average or failure” Grant and Harding were declared failures (nonsense in both cases I believe). As a result, people were talking about generals as failures in the Presidency. I never believed that Eisenhower would fail at anything.
Possibly it was a personal factor; I had been stationed at the Armor School at Ft. Knox during much of 1952. Much of the time I was assigned to the library. One of the most frequent borrowers of history books was young John S. D. Eisenhower. In August, I was ordered to Germany where I was assigned to the 54th Combat Engineering Battalion headquarters. The battalion commander was Col. C. Craig Cannon who had been Eisenhower’s transportation officer at SHAFE (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces) at Versailles. We got along well and the previous Eisenhower connection - slight though it was – had something to do with our friendship.
Finally the absentee ballot came. I had to mark it on top of my footlocker in our barracks at Leisheim on the Danube. There was no privacy about that election for me. The room was full of soldiers – every one of them for Stevenson except me.
Another election that I experienced while abroad, was during the fall of 1976 with Ford and Carter campaigning. I was in London where I was spending a sabbatical leave from Duke doing research at the British Library and the British Archives –now called the Public Record Office. The Presidential campaign was attracting much attention from the British and from the many Americans who were living in the part of London in which I was staying. I was one of the few Americans who had decided to vote for Ford. I received my North Carolina absentee ballot at the last minute. I took it to the American Embassy hoping to get answers to a few questions. I had an experience I never expected. I was wearing a coat and tie. When I arrived at the embassy I found myself in a room filled with people much more informally dressed than I. They, like me, had questions. They assumed I was there to help them. I did the best I could to help and finally I did as well as I could with my own ballot. I handed it in and left. The embassy had failed to provide any special help for a large turn-out which its officers should have expected. I was surprised to learn how many Americans of modest circumstances were living abroad.
The memories of Dr. Davis continue next week when he will share what the elections of 1824, 1860 and 1912 have in common.
In a few short days, the Presidential Inauguration will be held.
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