FDR’s Early Misdeed: The Newport Sex Scandal

In 1912, New York State Senator Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a fateful decision when he backed Woodrow Wilson for the Democratic nomination early and Wilson took notice of this energetic young man opposed, like him, to bossism and corruption. In March 1913, he was nominated Assistant Secretary of the Navy by President Wilson and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. Roosevelt was directly in charge of human relations, naval operations, and contracts while Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels dealt with big picture and political issues. He was 31 years old and an energetic administrator, just the type of man Wilson thought made for an ideal public servant. On the outbreak of the First World War, Roosevelt knew the significance and that the US would eventually become involved. Like Theodore Roosevelt, he stressed preparedness and building up the navy, a position that was not too popular in the Wilson Administration nor among many Democrats, including Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan. While he performed well in his role during World War I, it was what he did after the war that proved scandalous.

FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy

In February 1919, two patients at Naval Station Newport, Rhode Island, got to chatting. One of them, Thomas Brunelle, confided to the other, Petty Officer Ervin Arnold, that at the Army and Navy YMCA and the Newport Art Club in the city were hotspots for homosexual sex and companionship among naval personnel and civilians and that he had participated in it. He revealed names of people involved, which included an Episcopal chaplain. Arnold investigated the matter for himself and it confirmed what Brunelle had told him and he found heavy use of alcohol and cocaine at these parties in which the men cross-dressed. He reported this to the Naval authorities and Roosevelt gave an official investigation his approval. Arnold managed to convince the Naval authorities in Newport to put him in direct charge of the operation given his nine years of experience as a detective in Connecticut. He assembled a group of sailors under 30 years old who were willing to go undercover with the approval of naval higher-ups. The situation got rather out of hand, as author John Loughery (1998) describes, “The specific duties the recruits were charged with fell into three areas: to gather information about “cocaine joints” and the sale of liquor; to gather information “pertaining to cocksuckers and rectum receivers” and any network of “said fairies”; and to gather information about prostitutes in the area. In reality, once their project hit its stride, Arnold’s band of investigators showed no interest to speak of in the “fallen women” of Newport and only minimal concern with the illegal drug traffic. What went on behind closed doors at the YMCA or in the romantic shadows of Cliff Walk was another matter. In their pursuit of the “cocksuckers” Arnold had charged them to find–and in the fairly staggering amount of oral sex they enjoyed in the line of duty–this group of young men was all but tireless. In fact, their assiduous performance was to become by the end of the summer a profound humiliation to the Department of the Navy and its leadership”.

After two months of sending sailors to have sex with other men and collecting evidence, Arnold started arresting the people named by his enthusiastic investigators and the sailors among them were incarcerated for three months in solitary confinement. On May 1, 1919, Lieutenant Commander Murphy Foster announced that fifteen sailors were going to be court-martialed, but Arnold wanted to cleanse Newport of homosexuality altogether. He expanded his scope and arrests to civilians, with the approval and funding of Roosevelt. The matter became explosive when Reverend Samuel Neal Kent was arrested and charged. The two trials that would occur had testimony from the investigators that proved damning…for the Navy. The public and the jurors were outraged by the methods used in the investigation and the notion that the Navy would be a place where young men would be used in such a manner was scandalous. Bear in mind that the actions these men engaged in were regarded as unprintable in this time. Kent was acquitted both times given the disgust over the methods used here. FDR staunchly denied criticisms of him and the operation, and this resistance to admit any wrongdoing was at least partly due to conservative journalist John R. Rathom getting on his case about it through his newspaper, The Providence Journal. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels started an investigation into the matter, but the report was a whitewash. In 1921, the Senate officially investigated and found that sailors had been denied legal counsel, beaten for confessions, and coached in said confessions. The investigating committee officially condemned Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, finding the latter’s conduct in the matter “reprehensible”.  That same year, Kent was quietly disqualified from performing religious services. By 1928, the scandal had faded from public memory and Roosevelt was elected Governor of New York. As Roosevelt wrote to Daniels, “In the long run neither you nor I have been hurt by this mud-slinging… what is the use of fooling any longer with a bunch who have made up their minds that they do not care for the truth and are willing to say anything which they think will help them politically” (Brenkert).


Brenkert, B. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Forgotten Anti-Gay Sex Crusade. The Daily Beast.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt – Assistant Secretary of the Navy. National Park Service.

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Loughery, J. (1998). The Other Side of Silence. New York Times.

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“Uncle Joe” Cannon: The House’s Beloved “Czar”

On April 19, 2018, I published “Quick Thought: Joseph G. Cannon: A Link from Old to Modern Republicanism”, which was a short bit back when I thought I’d be doing short entries here and there, on one of the most significant legislative players in American political history. Looking back on it, justice isn’t really done for him in my short entry. Such a character Joseph Gurney Cannon (1836-1926) was, he deserves a full post! Born in Garden City, North Carolina to Quakers, they moved to Bloomingdale, Indiana in 1840 as his parents wanted to escape the pro-slavery culture of the region. His father participated in the Underground Railroad and was even one time given a hefty fine for allowing a freed slave to work alongside young Joseph in a field (City of Tuscola).

Cannon pursued law as a young man and became a follower and friend of Abraham Lincoln’s after attending the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. While president, Lincoln appointed him a regional prosecutor. As Republicans gained in Congress in the 1872 election that overwhelmingly returned Ulysses S. Grant to office, Cannon won his first race to Congress from Danville, Illinois. His earlier years placed him as a bit more moderate of a Republican and his views on currency issues could diverge significantly from his party as he was more favorable to inflationary currency than the more conservative Republicans of the Northeast. He supported the Bland-Allison Act in 1878, which established bimetallism over President Hayes’ veto. His record steadily overtime became more conservative, but he still wavered in currency and bankruptcy policy questions.

The 1890 Midterms and Rise to Speakership

Although Joe Cannon was usually popular in his district, 1890 was a difficult year for the Republican Party. Democrats had material for which to conduct a successful offensive. Among the issues they campaigned against the 51st Congress under Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine were the unpopular McKinley Tariff, spending the Cleveland surplus on naval expansion and Union veterans pensions, support for “English only” education laws in the Midwest, support for the Lodge Federal Elections Bill, and perhaps most of all the Panic of 1890. These combined to result in a 90-seat loss for Republicans in the House, and Cannon was among the defeated. However, he was not one to back down from life’s challenges and he regained his seat in the 1892 election which also elected President Grover Cleveland.

Although Cleveland and Cannon both opposed free coinage of silver, they parted ways on repeal of the Bland-Allison Act in 1893, as the latter at heart was still a bimetallist. By the McKinley Administration, however, Cannon was firmly in the staunch conservative camp. Indeed, there was a notable change in him from 1873 to 1897, and 1897 to 1923. In his congressional years in the former period, his MC-Index average score was 72%, moderately conservative. However, in the latter period, it was 95%, archconservative. Although Cannon had had too formidable of competition for the position of Speaker when up against the brilliant Thomas Brackett Reed of Maine, on September 16, 1902 he saw his opportunity with Speaker David B. Henderson of Iowa’s sudden announcement of retirement, which may have been due to a potential scandal or his increasingly poor health. Thomas Brackett Reed was no longer in Congress, having resigned over the Spanish-American War in 1899. Although Cannon was an older man than Henderson and had lost three prior races for the speakership, he was raring to go.

Speaker Joe Cannon

Upon his election in 1903, Cannon proceeded to consolidate power as no Speaker has since. Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed had greatly increased the powers of Speaker in the name of legislative efficiency, and Cannon proceeded to make the House in his image. His simultaneous post as Speaker and as chairman of the Rules Committee permitted him to determine what legislation would be given consideration as well as having the ultimate authority who got on what committee. Thus, his Rules Committee would be stacked with loyalists among the Republicans. For Democrats, he chose to make nice with the minority Democrats by giving Minority Leader John Sharp Williams of Mississippi, also a member of the Rules Committee, the authority to decide on Democratic committee assignments. Williams reciprocated this favor by excluding from important committees Democrats who particularly irked Cannon. On his role in the Rules Committee as part of the minority, Williams joked, “I am invited to the seances but I am never consulted about the spiritualistic appearances” (Bolles, 54). Cannon also could permit or deny representatives the floor for speaking. Although Cannon was criticized as a dictator for his iron-fisted rule of the House and like his strong predecessor Reed was given the label “czar”, he was personally well-liked by just about everyone for his honesty and integrity and was affectionately known as “Uncle Joe”. His philosophy on political power he stated, “Sometimes in politics one must duel with skunks, but no one should be fool enough to allow skunks to choose the weapons” (Hill). 

🔎 Speaker Joseph Cannon Dethroned

So powerful Cannon was that reportedly after one constituent wrote their Congressman asking who made the rules in the House, he was sent back a photo of him. Speaker Cannon could scarcely be seen without a cigar hanging out of his mouth and frequently told off-color jokes. Although Cannon was a character himself, he had to contend with the larger-than-life Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he had some key ideological differences. Roosevelt wanted to be more activist while Cannon was a “standpatter” who supported high tariffs and wanted government’s hand on business to be light. While Roosevelt was a staunch advocate of conservation, the speaker said in response to a forestry bill that he would spend “not one cent for scenery” (TIME). His appraisal of Roosevelt’s adherence to the U.S. Constitution was that he “had no more use for the Constitution than a tom cat has for a marriage license” (Hill). Nonetheless, Cannon did help Roosevelt pass the Food and Drug Act of 1906, and its final product was a form that was acceptable to Republican conservatives. A scholar of the day said of him, “There is some room for saying Cannon is even more powerful than the President of the United States. Today, the Speaker is the absolute arbiter of our national legislation” (TIME). In 1907, Cannon was put forth as a “favorite son” candidate for president, but Theodore Roosevelt already had a successor in mind: William Howard Taft.

Joseph "Joe" G. Cannon, bust portrait, with cigar in his mouth LCCN2016651346.jpg

In 1909, Cannon had a more friendly president to work with in Taft and managed to limit the extent of tariff reductions in the Payne-Aldrich Act, ultimately only resulting in an average 5% reduction from the record high Dingley Tariff. This didn’t go over well with the public, and nor did the struggles the Taft Administration had with conservationist Gifford Pinchot in the Ballinger-Pinchot controversy. Cannon himself was facing trouble from an increasingly vocal contingent of progressive Republicans who were dissatisfied with his leadership and the Taft Administration. This band of rebels was led by George W. Norris of Nebraska, a man who had initially been friendly with the GOP establishment but had turned against the pro-business policies of the conservatives and had become an advocate for Theodore Roosevelt style progressivism. In 1910, the opportunity for the progressives came.

The Revolt

On March 17, 1910, many Republicans were out of the House to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Norris saw this as his opportunity to curb Speaker Cannon’s power. He proposed a resolution regarding his power and cited the Constitution in his assertion that this was privileged and thus could not be blocked. Cannon and his allies desperately summoned supporters to the House as ally John Dalzell of Pennsylvania objected to the resolution, resulting in a long debate over Norris’s resolution. The session on Cannon’s power lasted 29 hours, with the result being Cannon ruling against Norris’s resolution but the House overriding his objection on March 19th. The speaker was now prohibited from holding chairmanship of the Rules Committee, the committee’s size was expanded from five to fifteen, and unilateral authority over committee assignments came to an end. This would result in instead of the speaker exercising such powers, committee chairmen having such authority, and they themselves became quite powerful. Although Cannon was stripped of his more extraordinary powers, he survived a vote he proposed as a referendum on him as speaker: even progressive Republicans were not willing to surrender Republican control of the House to the Democrats. Despite this unwillingness, it happened anyway with the 1910 midterms ultimately serving as a referendum on Taft and Republican “standpatters”. This midterm, with all the results it produced in state legislatures, would set the stage for the direct election of senators and the income tax being ratified as constitutional amendments.

Defeat and Comeback

In 1912, Cannon was defeated for reelection by Democrat Frank O’Hair in what was a tremendous year for Democrats, thanks to the Republican vote being split between Cannon and a candidate from the Progressive Party. The upstart who led the revolt against his speakership, Norris, was elected to the Senate. Although he was getting well into his seventies, Cannon sought a comeback, and in 1914 he won his old seat back at the age of 78. In his final years in Congress he contended with the Wilson and Harding Administrations and retained his conservative viewpoints: on May 23, 1917, although he had voted for U.S. entry into World War I, he was one of sixty-one representatives to vote against raising income taxes to fund the war effort. Cannon opposed the Wilson Administration’s progressivism as well as the League of Nations, but he wasn’t entirely opposed to reform measures as he voted for both the Prohibition and women’s suffrage amendments.

In his final term, Cannon had an ideologically friendly president in Warren G. Harding. He voted for his economic agenda quite staunchly including reduced income taxes, increased tariffs, and voting to sustain his veto of the Veterans Bonus bill. In 1922, true to his old support for Reconstruction, Cannon voted for the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill. Upon his retirement at the age of 86, he was featured in the first cover for TIME Magazine. Cannon died in his sleep on November 12, 1926, at the ripe old age of 90. The Cannon House Office Building is named after him.


The commonly held significance of Cannon is that he was perhaps the most powerful Speaker of the House in American history and used this for a “hold the line” conservatism, but he serves a special significance to me as a historical researcher. This is a man who you can connect to the time of Lincoln and Grant, in which many of the issues of the day that involved left-right perspectives are rather unfamiliar and inaccessible to contemporary casual observers, Cannon served in office with only two brief interruptions over a period of 50 years. The votes he cast in last few terms are far more accessible ideologically to the contemporary casual observer and point to a conclusion that is downright startling for the pundits in the mainstream media: the Republican Party has always been more or less conservative. Cannon, like the Republicans of today, was a conservative. Although social issues were not as ideologically telling back then as they are now, his support of anti-polygamy legislation goes nicely with contemporary Republican views on the nuclear family. And just imagine how Cannon would view the contemporary Democratic Party given its “woke” influences considering he said as speaker, “I am goddamned tired of listening to all this babble for reform. America is a hell of a success” (TIME).


Bolles, B. (1951). Tyrant from Illinois: Uncle Joe Cannon’s experiment with personal power. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Hill, R. (2014, September 21). ‘Mr. Speaker’: ‘Uncle Joe’ Cannon of Illinois. The Knoxville Focus.

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The Honorable Joseph G. Cannon. The City of Tuscola.

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The House’s All Night Session to Break Speaker Joe Cannon’s Power. United States House of Representatives.

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 The Nation: Uncle Joe Cannon: Iron Duke of Congress. (1973, January 15). TIME Magazine.

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Can the Senate Hold Impeachment Trials of Former Officers of the Government? A Look at Two Precedents

On January 14, 2021, President Donald Trump was impeached a second time, with the charge being that he incited the riot of January 6th, in which several hundred fringe right protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol, with four of them dying and one officer being murdered. Additionally, his call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger was added. While whether his words in the speech being incitement would hold up in court is questionable given that most of the rally participants didn’t storm the Capitol and that there was no direct call to violence, what is not questionable is that Trump pushed a most destructive lie in his “Stop the Steal” media campaign: that the election was stolen from him on account of voter fraud, and that the storming of the Capitol wouldn’t have occurred without this lie and the rally. However, since the Senate reconvenes on January 19th, it is impossible that a trial will be held before he leaves office the following day. Thus, the question here is, can the president be impeached after he has left office? On a national scale, there are two precedents that we can consult.   

Precedent #1: William Blount, 1797.


The first precedent that can be cited is the case of Senator William Blount of Tennessee. Blount, who had been a signatory of the U.S. Constitution, found upon being elected one of Tennessee’s first two senators that his ventures into land speculation had placed him deep in debt, and only his position as a senator had kept him out of debtor’s prison. He thus hatched a scheme to address this problem with Great Britain, which was currently at war with Spain, and the latter was rumored to be selling Florida and its New Orleans territory to Revolutionary France. Blount conspired to lead a group of white settlers and Choctaw Indians to conquer these lands and turn control of them to Britain, thus raising the depressed value of his land. An incriminating letter written by him managed to make it into the hands of President John Adams, who sent a message to Congress that was read aloud, to Blount’s horror. The Senate voted to “sequester” his seat, which was de facto expulsion, by a 25-1 vote on July 8, 1797 for his violation of US neutrality law. However, they also wanted to impeach him and tried to have him brought back to the Capitol, but Blount was under protection in Tennessee. The proceedings occurred in his absence, and his defense argued two points, that senators were not “civil officers” under the Constitution’s impeachment clause and that since Blount was already expelled that he was no longer under the jurisdiction of the Senate.

Blount’s impeachment was dismissed 14-11 on January 11, 1799, with all Jeffersonian Republicans voting to dismiss and Federalists voting against 7-11. The Senate had found him to not be an impeachable officer. Whether the senators had agreed with one of or both of the defense’s arguments is in question. No member of the legislative branch has been impeached since, with expulsion being the chosen method since of kicking them out of office. Despite Blount having been an expelled senator, he managed to continue having a political career in his home state, whose residents didn’t seem to mind that he had engaged in such a scheme. Future President Andrew Jackson, for instance, remained a loyal supporter. He served as speaker of the Tennessee Senate from December 3, 1798 until his death from an epidemic on March 21, 1800.

Precedent #2: William Belknap, 1876.

William W. Belknap - Wikipedia

The second precedent that can be cited is William Belknap. Belknap was President Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of War from 1869 to 1876 and was one of the reasons his administration became notorious for corruption. He regularly threw lavish parties in Washington that brought into question how he could afford to do so. On March 1, 1876, the House’s Clymer Committee, which had been set up to investigate Belknap, discovered a reason why. In 1870, he crafted an arrangement after he appointed at the behest of his wife Carita contractor Caleb P. Marsh as head of the trading post at Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory despite John S. Evans already being appointed to the post. This permitted Evans to remain head provided he allocate $12,000 in annual profits to Marsh, while Marsh had to pay half the sum to Belknap’s wife. After his wife and their child died, Belknap received the payments, and after marrying his late wife’s sister, Amanda, they shared the $6000. The House promptly drafted the impeachment and on March 2, 1876, Belknap tearfully handed his resignation to President Grant minutes before he was unanimously impeached. Despite his resignation, the Senate decided to consider an impeachment trial. All senators were agreed that he had accepted kickbacks from Marsh, but the question was whether an officer of the government could be impeached after having left office.

On May 29, 1876, the Senate voted 37-29 to declare as its opinion that Belknap could be impeached after he left office. Democrats voted 24-2 that this could be done while Republicans voted 13-27 against. However, although the majority of senators voted for all counts of impeachment none reached the needed threshold of 40 votes, and it failed on August 1st based on the objections as to the constitutionality of it by the minority. Belknap never held public office again yet remained popular with the veterans of his home state of Iowa and died in 1890. Perhaps if the Senate had mustered 40 votes for conviction, this would have been a decisive precedent and we wouldn’t be debating this today. Also interesting to note is that if Democrats vote in the case of Trump that this is proper and Republicans vote against, it would reaffirm their old positions about late impeachments.  

What we have here are two deeply unsatisfying precedents even though they involve two clearly guilty men. While Blount’s case was dismissed by the Senate, this could have been that senators didn’t think that members of the Senate were part of the definition of “civil officers” under the Constitution and not because they thought late impeachments were unconstitutional. The Belknap case is a bit more revealing as it deals with a cabinet officer whose trial took place after his resignation and doesn’t have the added complication of him being a senator, and although the Senate officially opined that it could be done, not enough senators agreed this was constitutional to warrant a conviction. We have a precedent for the Senate holding such a trial, but no consensus on whether this action was constitutional. After all, it’s not like Congress hasn’t acted in ways that were found unconstitutional before.

The division as to whether late impeachments can be tried by the Senate doesn’t seem any less divided now than it was 145 years ago: law professor Cass Sunstein and former appellate Judge J. Michael Luttig hold that late impeachments are not constitutional, while law professors Michael Gerhardt and Brian Kalt hold that they are, with the former believing that the impeachment itself must have happened while the officeholder was in office. What we have never seen, and what would be truly satisfying as a precedent, would be a conviction or a judicial ruling on whether this is constitutional. However, the Supreme Court has not been willing to intervene in Senate impeachment convictions so far: in the case of Nixon v. United States (1993), in which Judge Walter Nixon challenged his impeachment conviction for perjury, the court unanimously ruled that the matter was a political question and not subject to Supreme Court review, although some of the more liberal justices left open in a concurrence whether an “unjust” impeachment conviction could be appealed. This suggests that whether an impeachment trial is constitutional is almost if not entirely up to the Senate itself. In conclusion, this is a major gray area, and I cannot say I’m decided on which is right here.


Eschner, K. (2017, July 7). This 1797 Impeachment Has Never Been Fully Resolved. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Folmsbee, S.J. (1979). Blount, William. NCpedia.

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Fowler, R. (2019, February 27). Blount on the Run. Tennessee Bar Journal, 55(3).

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McFeely, W.S. (1981). Grant: A biography. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Nixon v. United States, 506, U.S. 224. (1993).

The Expulsion Case of William Blount of Tennessee (1797). United States Senate.

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The First Impeachment. United States Senate.

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War Secretary’s Impeachment Trial. United States Senate.

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Weiss, D.C. (2021, January 13). As House impeaches Trump for second time, some say Senate trial after his presidency is unconstitutional. ABA Journal.

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1921-1923 MC-Index

File:Warren G. Harding inauguration - convertible.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
On the way to inauguration in 1921, Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding in back, Rep. Joe Cannon (R-Ill.) and Sen. Philander Knox (R-Penn.) in front. Harding has the most Republican Congress of the 20th century to work with, the 67th.

The next two years we’ll have a slightly Democratic House, an evenly divided Senate, and Democratic President Joe Biden. This is a little bit of the opposite of how things were one hundred years ago. Democrats were dominant in the South while Republicans were dominant everywhere else given the 1920 election produced a supermajority for House Republicans. Northeastern Republicans were the most conservative in this time, and New York is a remarkable contrast in its senators to today. This Congress would in fact be the last one in which New York had two conservative Republicans representing the state in the Senate: William M. Calder and James Wadsworth Jr., who score 95% and 100% respectively. Wadsworth would later be one of the most hardline opponents of FDR’s New Deal, while being his ally on foreign policy. It is also the last Congress in which Republicans would hold a majority of New York City Congressional districts: the Democrats had done that badly in 1920 thanks to Woodrow Wilson! Today the GOP holds only hold one of New York City’s districts, the Republican leaning Staten Island.

Viewing the issues of the time, it is interesting how some of the issues involve similar arguments that we have now. Republicans, now as then, are concerned with the United States’ ability to compete abroad and want to use the tax code to help this happen. Most notable in the 67th Congress is Republicans voting for tax exemptions for U.S. businesses that operate in China as well as votes for tax reductions. Additionally present is a vote on a bill to exempt the Great Lakes from the crew requirements of the La Follette Seaman’s Act. Unlike now, they backed tariffs as a means to protect businesses while Democrats firmly opposed. Congress’s resident socialist, Meyer London of New York, scores a 13% in this Congress. “Uncle Joe” Cannon, a friend and protege of Abraham Lincoln’s from Illinois, who had served with only two interruptions since 1873, has his final term in this Congress and scores a 95%. Democrats showed support for the notion of states’ rights but in a different manner than you might think today as they were insisting that state authority be deferred to rather than ICC rulings for a bill that permitted interstate telephone companies to sell and purchase property. In this case, states were used as a check on the growing power of corporations.

Some notable issues are not on this scorecard because they don’t translate terribly well to ideology in this time. These include Prohibition and the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill. For the former, there were conservative arguments for and against it, and for the latter civil rights didn’t figure on the liberal-conservative scale until after World War II…here its mostly the North vs. the South.

The first link is the legislative scorecard, and the second consists of descriptions of what was voted on. Democrats are in plain text, Republicans in italics. London of New York is a Socialist and Shreve of Pennsylvania is an Independent Republican.

The Gunman in the Capitol and the Man Who Disarmed Him

In light of the seditious riot by a group of alt-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally on Capitol Hill on January 6th in which they stormed the Capitol, my thoughts go to other times in which it has come under attack. I already wrote about the 1954 Capitol Hill shooting by Puerto Rican terrorists that injured five representatives. However, there’s another story, one that involved great courage.

On December 13, 1932, the nation was in turmoil with the Great Depression and one disturbed man demanded to be heard. This was Marlin Kemmerer, a 25-year old department store clerk from Allentown, Pennsylvania, who chose to do so by pulling a gun in the House visitors’ gallery. He shouted that he demanded to be allowed to address the House on the depression. Most members fled the chamber, but three decided to stick around.

Edith Rogers (R-Mass.) and Melvin Maas (R-Minn.) spoke with the gunman. Rogers, who had experience dealing with shell-shocked war veterans, calmly said in a reassuring voice, “You won’t do anything” (Waters). Maas told him that by the rules of the House members can’t speak unless they are not armed. Kemmerer shouted in response, “I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes” and Maas said, “All right son. Throw down your gun first” (Waters). He initially hesitated but dropped his gun to Maas. Fiorello La Guardia (R-N.Y) rushed to apprehend him along with a D.C. Capitol police officer.

Melvin J. Maas (1898-1964)

In response to the event, Rep. Thomas Blanton (D-Tex.) proposed that people who visit the gallery of the House should be properly vouched for and comes with a legitimate purpose and that “all this countenancing of cranks and crooks ought to stop. An anarchist has no business in a gallery of this Capitol of the people” (Petersen & Manning, 5). Ultimately no change occurred.

Kemmerer was incarcerated for a brief period but was released on January 13, 1933, on the request of the representatives. He ended up making good of his life: by his death on June 29, 2000, he had been married and had two children and seven grandchildren. Maas would receive a Carnegie Hero Fund silver medal for his courage and although he had lost reelection in 1932, he won again in 1934. Despite serving in the Democratic district of St. Paul he would continue to be reelected in three-way races as the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers would split the liberal vote. He would later serve in World War II from its start until fall 1942, and then again after his reelection loss in 1944 when the Democrats and Farmer-Laborers united behind a candidate. The flash from a bomb in his subsequent service would damage his optic nerve and over a four-week period in August 1951 he went completely blind. Already a champion for disabled veterans as a member of the Committee on Employment of the Handicapped, Maas continued his work and in 1954 President Eisenhower appointed him chairman. He carried out his duties energetically until his death on April 13, 1964, from complications of heart disease and diabetes at the age of 65.


A Gunman in the House Gallery in 1932. House of Representatives.

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Nelson, P. (2015, May 4). Maas, Melvin (1898-1964). MNopedia.

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Petersen, R.E. & Manning, J.E. (2017, August 17). Violence Against Members of Congress and Their Staff: Selected Examples and Congressional Responses. Congressional Research Service.

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Waters, D. (2020, January 19). The Depression-era gunman who tried to hold the House of Representatives hostage: ‘I demand the right to the floor for 20 minutes.’ The Washington Post.

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A Look at Election Challenges: 1877 and 2005

The 1877 Electoral Commission

There are a number of Republicans who wish to challenge the Electoral vote count ostensibly on the number of allegations of voting irregularities and fraud, and Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) raised the objection, apparently on behalf of those who are concerned over these allegations.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and ten other senators have proposed an Electoral Commission, with their joint statement holding that, “In 1877, Congress did not ignore those allegations, nor did the media simply dismiss those raising them as radicals trying to undermine democracy. Instead, Congress appointed an Electoral Commission — consisting of five Senators, five House Members, and five Supreme Court Justices — to consider and resolve the disputed returns. We should follow that precedent. To wit, Congress should immediately appoint an Electoral Commission, with full investigatory and fact-finding authority, to conduct an emergency 10-day audit of the election returns in the disputed states. Once completed, individual states would evaluate the Commission’s findings and could convene a special legislative session to certify a change in their vote, if needed” (Cruz). They will object to the counts in one to three states.

Critics of these senators regard this as an attack on democracy, presuming that their real aim is to try to hand the election to Trump in a “coup”. Senator Cruz already cited the 1877 commission as a distant precedent and Josh Hawley can cite the 2005 objection as a precedent. I intend to describe how the situations that were present in 1877 and 2005 are like today and how they are not.

1877 Electoral Vote Commission

The 1876 election was an incredibly contentious race. Democrats had their best chance at winning a presidential election in twenty years and they had ammunition to make their case for election. Their nominee, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, was a reformer who tackled Tammany Hall corruption under the notorious Boss Tweed. The scandals of the Grant Administration seemed to provide the perfect contrast for such a campaign. Additionally, in the Democrats’ favor was the increasing vote in the South for them, due in part to whites increasingly unifying behind them and also in part to using means legal and illegal to suppress the black vote. The Republican nominee, Rutherford B. Hayes, was ideal in some ways as well. He had a reputation as a moderate Republican, was not involved with the current administration, and was able to win the 1868 gubernatorial race in Ohio in a year that was tough on the GOP in the state. After Election Day, the results were that Tilden had scored the majority of the popular vote but three states were contested for the Electoral College: Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Oregon was also in play over a disputed elector, although the state was agreed to have been won by Republicans. All Tilden needed was one more electoral vote to secure the win, and accusations flew left and right. Republicans charged Democrats with employing physical intimidation and bribery to suppress black and white Republican votes in those states while Democrats charged Republicans with dirty election tactics of their own, among their claims was that the Republicans deliberately ruined Tilden ballots in Florida by smearing ink on them. Both sides claimed fraud and intimidation generally.

The Electoral Commission was initially a balanced split: seven Republicans, seven Democrats, and one Independent, the latter who sat on the Supreme Court. The Independent was going to be Supreme Court Justice David Davis of Illinois, but he was elected to a Senate seat in Illinois, and his replacement was Justice Joseph P. Bradley, a Republican who had a reputation for being apolitical. The commission’s vote, unsurprisingly, was 8-7 for Hayes. Supposedly Bradley had received a visit the night before from a Republican senator who said to him, “whatever the strict legal equities, it would be a national disaster if the government fell into Democratic hands”, if Democrat Congressman Abram Hewitt’s account is accurate (Digital History). This of course didn’t satisfy the Democrats and talk of a repeat of the War of the Rebellion was at hand, but ultimately a compromise was brokered: they would agree to Hayes as president if Reconstruction was ended, funds were allocated for projects in the South, and a Southerner was appointed to his cabinet. Regarding Reconstruction itself, it likely wouldn’t have mattered if Hayes or Tilden were elected here. Tilden would have without doubt ended Reconstruction as Democrats of the time were unified against it, and the Democratic House would have hamstrung any efforts of the Republican Senate to continue. The nation was by and large tired of trying to get Southern whites to regard blacks as their social and legal equals…that would have to wait 80-90 years. Over the next 20-25 years, the Jim Crow process would be completed in the South. 

The 1876 election had the following official results in contested states for Hayes: Florida, 992 votes (1.97%), Louisiana, 4807 votes (3.3%), and South Carolina, 889 votes (0.49%). By contrast, the 2020 election results were as follows for Biden: Arizona, 10,457 votes (0.31%), Georgia, 12,670 votes (0.24%), and Pennsylvania, 81,660 votes (1.16%). The raw numbers are much lower in the previous case but the percentage difference is on average lower in the latter. The population is simply much, much higher with the states we’re looking at now. However, in raw numbers the highest margin for Hayes, Louisiana, is over 5500 votes less than Arizona, the lowest margin for Biden. It is much easier to mess with smaller numbers of ballots and particularly so in 1876, as fraudulent practices in voting were considerably more common. Also, the notion that there will be any “satisfactory” resolution to an Electoral Commission is wishful thinking at best. The vote was bitterly divided and many Democrats still didn’t accept Hayes as a legitimate president, taking to referring to him as “Rutherfraud” and “his fraudulency” throughout his presidency (Barnard). Senator John J. Ingalls (R-Kan.) reflected in a debate ten years later on the Electoral Count Act, “The Electoral Commission of 1877 was a contrivance that will never be repeated in our politics. It was a device that was favored by each party in the belief that it would cheat the other, and it resulted, as I once before said, in defrauding both” (Bomboy). I think these Republicans just want this commission to be a sounding board for anyone who signed an affidavit to air their grievances on how the 2020 election went, and people won’t change how they felt about the election. This was largely true of feelings of the 1876 election as well.

The vote on the electors has not been cast yet, but when it is some may remember the 2005 vote on the electors. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) officially objected to the total and cited Ohio. They cited allegations of voting irregularities in the state of Ohio. Although some currently serving senators, such as Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) who condemn Hawley’s objection praised Boxer for her objection at the time, she was ultimately the only one in the chamber to vote to object. In the House, 30 Democrats joined Tubbs Jones in her objection. Among those currently serving are Maxine Waters of California, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Ed Markey of Massachusetts (now a senator), and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (who has condemned the current objection). Waters herself also objected to the count in 2016, and there was an objection in 2000 as well. These two, however, got no Senate support. Presumably, Hawley can make the same claim that Boxer can about his act here. After all, like in 2004, the winner prevailed with both the popular and electoral vote. There is also no question, that staunch Democrats in 2004, like staunch Republicans in 2020, had concerns about the voting process. The difference, however, lies primarily in the thoughts and actions of one man: the man who lost the election.

The objection of Boxer was not pushed for by John Kerry, who had conceded the morning following the election, and Kerry didn’t publicly express that this was his backdoor ticket to the White House. The same cannot be said for Donald J. Trump. Rather than this being an unexpected development on his behalf, Trump has not conceded and has led the push for this objection along with his most vocal supporters in conservative media. They have pushed wild claims about widespread and systemic voter fraud with no greater evidence than interpreting the voting statistics of the year as strange (admittedly true compared to past elections given the high turnout and mail-in ballots) and pointing out that mail-in votes came in overwhelmingly for Democrats, even though Trump himself told his supporters not to vote by mail. Although the vote has not been cast yet on the objection, it is looking like 12-13 senators will vote for it and possibly at least 100 representatives, all of course Republican. This is a major increase from one senator and 31 representatives, all Democrat. While you might argue that the senators who are engaged in this are acting on behalf of their concerned and angry voter base (and in the cases of Cruz and Hawley trying to get their votes for 2024) and are not really intending to overturn the election, the president is saying this is the case. Although the objection is officially about concerns that are very much like those of Boxer and Tubbs Jones in 2005, the leading role he has played here and the scope and magnitude of those objecting are substantive and cannot be ignored. Without Trump at the helm on this, yes, this could be compared well to the 2005 objection, if a bit larger. This objection is only somewhat comparable to the 2005 objection and the implications are far different given the actions and words of Trump, especially now with the infamous Trump-Raffensberger call, which make no mistake, was not made in good faith. If it were, Trump would not have asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger for just enough votes to win. And apparently, he’s engaging in this despite having privately admitted that he’s lost! According to Politico’s Anita Kumar, he wants to keep fighting to keep public attention on him and to please his fans. This makes the Republican senators who go along with this supporting actors in the final episodes of The Trump Show as it approaches the cancellation date of January 20th.

I think the complaint isn’t really at its heart about how the vote went down. Its about the entire political environment of 2020 that brought about the vote: the Trump impeachment, the riots that accompanied the massive anti-racism protests that followed George Floyd’s demise at the hands of the police and the Democrats’ tepid and milquetoast reaction to them, the stark contrast between the media coverage surrounding Trump and that surrounding Biden, the view that elected Democrats granted privileges in the wake of COVID-19 for woke activists and not for common people, and the rising “woke” culture. However, all these things and more cannot be the official reason behind the objection, but the political grievances of 2020 are the real reasons. The environment of 2020 itself was thought to be unfair, and a number of conservatives wish to use the electoral objection as a means to express protest…after all a few congressmen delivering speeches bemoaning the political environment of 2020 isn’t as memorable as an objection. However, other presidents of history could make the claim that the political environment was unfair to them. After all, it’s a damn shame for Herbert Hoover that in 1932 General Douglas MacArthur was far too gung-ho in carrying out his order to clear out bonus marcher encampments, that voters no longer liked his Prohibition stance, and that the Great Depression grew worse. It’s a damn shame for Jimmy Carter that the economy was in the crapper and the whole Iran Hostage Crisis was going on in 1980. It’s a damn shame for George H.W. Bush that despite having a war in Iraq that was by all metrics successful in 1991, economic recovery from a mild recession wasn’t moving along fast enough in 1992 to get him reelected and that Democrats used his willingness to compromise with them on tax increases against him on an election year.


Barnard, H. (2005). Rutherford Hayes and his America. Newtown, Connecticut: American Political Biography Press.

Bomboy, S. (2021, January 4). Looking Back: The Electoral Commission of 1877. Interactive Constitution.

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Cruz, T. (2021, January 2). Joint Statement from Senators Cruz, Johnson, Lankford, Daines, Kennedy, Blackburn, Braun, Senators-Elect Lummis, Marshall, Hagerty, Tuberville. U.S. Senator for Texas Ted Cruz.

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Kumar, A. (2021, January 5). Trump privately admits it’s over, but wants to brawl for attention. Politico.

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Olsen, T. (2020, December 31). Democrats who praised 2004 objections to Electoral College certification now slam Hawley. FOX News.

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The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876. Digital History.

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Harold Knutson: 32 Years of Trial and Transformation

In 1916, Congressman Charles Lindbergh, Sr. of Minnesota (yes, the father of the famous aviator) decided to run for the Senate. He had throughout his career stood on the progressive wing of the Republican Party and was adamantly opposed to getting involved in World War I, the latter which cost him his Senate bid. Succeeding him was Harold Knutson (1880-1953), who almost immediately upon taking office found himself facing a vote of great importance: American participation in World War I.

Harold Knutson in 1917.jpg
Knutson in 1917.

Voting on War and Backing Harding

Public sentiment was overwhelmingly on the side of going to war given Germany’s increased aggression through unrestricted submarine warfare as well as the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917, in which German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann offered Mexico the states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if they should ally with Germany and prevail. Despite public pressure, Knutson voted against declaring war on Germany, one of fifty representatives to do so, a group that included the first woman in Congress, Jeanette Rankin, and the only Socialist in Congress, Meyer London. Those who voted against faced accusations of disloyalty. The electoral consequences for those who voted “nay” were real: seventeen representatives who had voted against lost reelection or renomination. Senators James K. Vardaman of Mississippi and Asle J. Gronna of North Dakota lost renomination in 1918 and 1920 respectively. Senator Harry Lane of Oregon had also voted against and was facing a recall but died only a month later. Fortunately for Knutson, his district seemed to like his vote and reelected him. In his first few terms in Congress he was a staunch advocate for farmers and veterans and politically was moderate conservative. Knutson gained enough respect as a legislator to serve as majority whip from 1919 to 1923 and in this role, he broadly supported the policies of President Warren G. Harding, but differed on veterans bonuses, voting to override his veto. In 1924, however, an event occurred that threatened his political career.

The Sex Scandal

Police found him in a parked car on the side of the road in Arlington, Virginia, with Labor Department employee Leroy M. Hull and arrested him on a “grave moral offense”. Knutson tried to bribe the officers with $100, but was indicted. This “grave moral offense” was probably sodomy, but a jury ultimately acquitted him after Congressional colleagues testified as character witnesses. Homosexuality was regarded as an unspeakable matter in 1924 (“don’t ask, don’t tell” comes to mind) and this incident may have given him some problems in his reelection bid, as his race was closer than in 1922. Nonetheless, Knutson survived.

Knutson: The Survivor

He continued to take some stances that were rather courageous, including changing his mind on Prohibition and voting against immigration restrictions when they had reached the height of popularity in 1924. Knutson even managed to thrive: he was one of the Republican legislators who managed to stay in office the entirety of FDR’s presidency. This was an impressive feat given the dire straits of the GOP during much of the Roosevelt Administration. He was initially open to some New Deal measures, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, but by FDR’s second term he had become a staunch foe. A supporter of lower income taxes, he didn’t appreciate the hefty tax increases that came with maintaining the New Deal bureaucracy. On civil rights, Knutson’s record is mixed. He voted against an anti-lynching bill in 1937 and an anti-poll tax bill in 1943, but voted for anti-poll tax legislation in 1942 and 1947 as well as an anti-discrimination rider in 1946. Consistent with his views on entering World War I, he was a staunch non-interventionist up until the attack on Pearl Harbor. This time he voted to declare war.

Knutson and FDR’s “Fala Speech”

In 1944, Knutson had learned of a rumor that President Roosevelt had accidentally left his Scottish terrier, Fala, on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a Navy destroyer from Seattle to pick him up. Republican Thomas Dewey seemed to be riding high and Roosevelt’s campaign was not going so well: there were rumors flying about the poor state of his health and he had delivered a weak campaign address in Bremerton, Washington on August 12th. On August 31st, however, Knutson spoke in Congress about this rumor and accused Roosevelt of extravagance, which was echoed by Republican leaders and newspaper columnists. After the Navy issued a denial, Knutson instead charged that a plane had been sent, but this was denied as well. This gave Roosevelt a chance for a comeback, and he used it well. On September 23rd, he delivered a speech before the Teamsters Union which also played on the radio where he covered the matter:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog” (Lewellyn, 66-67).

This speech helped reinvigorate his campaign and got the public to see that Roosevelt was good for another term. Exactly eight years later, Richard Nixon would invoke his own dog, Checkers, to save his career. As it happened, FDR wasn’t good for another term given his health and died three months into his fourth term.

Harold Knutson vs. Harry S. Truman


Knutson as chair of House Ways and Means Committee.

Knutson proved no friendlier to his successor, Harry S. Truman; he was one of his leading Congressional antagonists. The 1946 election gave him a chance to strike a blow for lower taxes. With the election of a Republican Congress, Knutson became the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and succeeded in getting passed a bill reducing income taxes over President Truman’s veto. He also remained non-interventionist in his views as evidenced by his votes against the Greek-Turkish Aid Act and the Marshall Plan. However, Truman’s numerous attacks on the 80th Congress, particularly on the issue of grain storage, proved quite effective against rural Republicans. In 1948, he lost reelection to political newcomer Democrat Fred Marshall. The last time a Democrat had won the district was in 1892. Knutson chose to retire rather than try for his old seat in 1950. A lot had changed since 1917 for Knutson: he was much older, far more conservative, and the American political consensus was behind internationalism rather than the unilateral nationalism of old. His MC-Index score averaged 70% in his first ten terms (1917-1937), but it averaged 93% in his last six terms (1937-1949). Knutson had become too confident in his ability to retain elected office and it cost him.


Congressman Knutson Arrested on Grave Charge. United States House of Representatives.

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Kestenbaum, L. Politicians in Trouble or Disgrace: Minnesota. The Political Graveyard.

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Llewellyn, J. (2010). Paws, Pathos and Presidential Persuasion: Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fala Speech” as Precursor and Model for Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech”. Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, 37(5), 64-75.

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A History of America’s Most Infamous Hate Group

On December 24, 1865, six Confederate veterans founded a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee, inspired by the Sons of Malta. Initially they just engaged in initiations, ceremonies, and the like. This is how it stayed for a little while, but the question arose of what the purpose of the organization was. According to Albert Stevens (1907), “Beginning in April, 1867, there was a gradual transformation…The members had conjured up a veritable Frankenstein. They had played with an engine of power and mystery, though organized on entirely innocent lines, and found themselves overcome by a belief that something must lie behind it all – that there was, after all, a serious purpose, a work for the Klan to do”. They decided this purpose was to restore government under Southern whites and opposed carpetbaggers, scalawags (Southerners who supported Reconstruction), and politically active blacks. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was the organization’s first leader.

A depiction of early Klansmen who had planned to murder a family.

The first Klan was easily the most violent of the Klans, and disguised under their hoods (which were not the white uniform you think of) they engaged in intimidation, committed whippings, tortures, and lynchings against politically active blacks, carpetbaggers, and scalawags. Their crimes exceeded all those of the subsequent Klans combined and became a huge problem for Reconstruction governments, with murders committed by people identifying as the KKK in the thousands. Despite the KKK having “official” leaders, it never had a real centralized structure and by 1869 people identifying as Klansmen who engaged in terrorism went so far that Forrest officially disbanded it, but in keeping with the organization’s lack of a central structure, it continued to engage in such activities and was found by a federal jury to be a terrorist organization in 1870. Their acts provoked federal responses, such as the Force Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, which permitted the president to suspend habeas corpus to fight the group. These were vigorously enforced and proved effective in destroying the first Klan.

Although the aims of the first KKK didn’t occur while they were active, what they wanted in the South ultimately occurred between 1877 and 1900. Additionally, although the Klan was ended, there were still violent paramilitary organizations with this aim in mind, such as the White League and the Red Shirts. These organizations declined once their goals were achieved. Some in the first Klan would go on to have political careers, including:

John Tyler Morgan – U.S. Senator and Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK.
Joseph E. Brown – U.S. Senator, Georgia
John B. Gordon, U.S. Senator, Georgia, a founder of the organization in his state.
Edmund Pettus – U.S. Senator, also Grand Dragon of the Alabama KKK.
George Gordon – U.S. Representative from Tennessee, the first Grand Dragon for Tennessee, authored the group’s precept.

The Second Klan: The Most Successful (1915-1944)

See the source image

In the early 1900s, there were many changes occurring in the United States, including influxes of immigrants, urbanization, and a perceived lessening of social standards and fear of radicalism. In 1915, the film Birth of Nation showed in theaters and it was a highly popular albeit controversial film, which inspired the formation of the second Klan that year by William J. Simmons at Stone Mountain, Georgia. This Klan began the practice of wearing white hooded uniforms as well as cross burnings, which was an old Scottish clan practice. Simmons was ousted in 1922 and succeeded by Hiram Wesley Evans, a Texas dentist who in the previous year had led a group of Dallas Klansmen who kidnapped Alexander Johnson, a black bellhop, gave him twenty five lashes, and burned “KKK” on his forehead with acid for having relations with a white woman. The case was not prosecuted as many community leaders, including the sheriff, were Klansmen themselves. However, Evans as leader publicly discouraged vigilante activity as he realized it got the KKK bad press.

The Klan initially grew under Evans and he emphasized 100% Americanism, which in his view meant white and Protestant. His description of the Klan was:

“1. This is a white man’s organization. 2. This is a gentile organization. 3. It is an American organization. 4. It is a Protestant organization” (Rice).

Strangely enough, the Klan for a short time even branched out into Canada, emphasizing, along with being white and Protestant, “Britishness”. However, although this incarnation of the Klan was the least violent it was also prone to vigilantism. The Dallas KKK was in particular known for its violence. The most common act was flogging people at night for “moral offenses”, with most of the people targeted being fellow white Protestants. As a political organization, they had some successes as their pushes against Catholic and Jewish influence and immigration resonated among many voters. This Klan was nationwide and supported people from both parties…their politics were neither on the whole conservative or progressive and they appealed to both parties to grow their organization. The Klan also engaged in activities that got them good press such as charity drives, summer camps for children, donations to churches, and raising money for Protestant hospitals (Rothman). They had their greatest successes in the states of Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas. These included:

. Electing fellow Klansman Earle B. Mayfield to the Senate in 1922.
. Electing Clifford Walker Georgia’s governor in 1922, who would be revealed as a Klansman in 1924.
. Electing Klansmen Rice Means to the Senate in 1924 and Clarence Morley governor in Colorado. The latter pushed to exclude all non-Protestants from teaching at the University of Colorado and to ban sacramental wine.
. Electing Governor Owen Brewster in Maine in 1924. Although Brewster never publicly endorsed the Klan, he never condemned them either.
. Electing in Indiana ally Edward Jackson as governor and Klansman Arthur Robinson to the Senate.
. Electing Oregon’s Walter Pierce governor in 1922 and as well as having the Speaker of the Oregon House, Kaspar K. Kubli (that’s right, KKK was his initials), as a Klan member. They supported a law that banned private schools, which had the purpose of ending Catholic schools and was overturned by the Supreme Court. Pierce lost the organization’s support after backing Robert La Follette for president in 1924.
. Electing Alabama Klansman Hugo Black to the Senate in 1926, who succeeded vocally anti-Klan Oscar Underwood.
. Getting Republican leaders, including Calvin Coolidge, not to condemn them by name in 1924. Despite Coolidge opposing many Klan platforms and opposing the Klan itself, not publicly calling them out by name, supporting Prohibition, and signing into law the Immigration Act of 1924 was sufficient for them to back the Republican ticket that year. Additionally, the 1924 Democratic convention was so divided between pro and anti-Klan people that it became known as the “Klanbake”. Although the platform contained no condemnation of the KKK, compromise nominee John W. Davis did so himself.

These successes were helped by people who joined them as a means of social networking as in many communities social leaders joined the organization as one that promoted Protestant values. Fryer and Levitt (2012) state of the second Klan, “Rather than a terrorist organization, the 1920s Klan is best described as a social organization with a very successful multilevel marketing structure fueled by an army of highly incentivized sales agents selling hatred, religious intolerance, and fraternity in a time and place where there was tremendous demand”. In the North, the KKK placed its emphasis on anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism rather than anti-black racism, which remained an emphasis in the Southern Klans. By 1925, the organization had 4 million members.

These successes, however, were short lived. The organization was getting more and more backlash from the vigilante violence, corruption surrounding the organization, and moral hypocrisy from its leaders. Its politicians were also losing reelection to anti-Klan candidates: Governor Brewster, Senator Means, and Senator Mayfield lost renomination, and Governor Clarence Morley lost reelection thanks in part to his incompetent and corrupt administration.

The Crime That Ended the Indiana Klan and Weakened the National Klan

D.C. (David Curtiss) Stephenson was one of the most prominent and ambitious Klan leaders, leading the Indiana Klan, which became a force in itself in the organization. He was an effective leader whose efforts had helped elect Edward Jackson governor, got a quarter million people as members in the state, and had managed to influence legislation on various subjects. However, he had a dark side that was exacerbated by his drinking problem. He was prone to violence while drunk and had physically attacked his first wife. In 1926, he was arrested for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of school teacher Madge Oberholzer. Oberholzer had been beaten, ravished, and raped by Stephenson, who had bit her everywhere. He told her after the rape, “You must forget this, what is done has been done, I am the law and the power” (Abbott). Oberholzer subsequently poisoned herself with mercury and died. A prosecutor not involved with the Klan, William Remy, indicted Stephenson. he was convicted of kidnapping, rape, and second-degree murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. Governor Edward Jackson’s career fell along with Stephenson, as he aired his dirty laundry when Jackson wouldn’t pardon him.

This scandal as well as others badly harmed the Klan and wrecked it in Indiana. By 1928, membership had dropped to 4,000. Stephenson would be released in 1950. The Klan’s membership after the 1920s would primarily be in the South and even there it would be in decline: by 1930 Alabama’s KKK would be down to 6000 members. The organization had increasing money troubles and in 1939 Evans resigned. There were still sporadic incidences of violence surrounding the Klan in the South, including the murders of a young white couple they caught on a lovers lane as well as a white barber who was beaten to death for drinking in Atlanta. In 1944, the organization was unable to pay its taxes and folded.

The Third Klan: The Least Successful and Popular One (1946-present)

See the source image

In 1946, Atlanta physician Samuel Green founded the third and final incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. This is the one we know of today and it focused on opposition to civil rights and communism. This Klan used violence specially targeted at blacks, most notoriously the 1964 murders of civil rights workers in Mississippi, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham which killed four girls, and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers. There were numerous bombings of black homes at this time. They saw some gains in membership in the 1950s and 1960s, but this growth was limited to the South. Legal action on a federal level and FBI infiltration helped bring the organization into decline. However, there still were acts of violence from Klan members, such as the killings of five communist protestors in 1979 in Greensboro, North Carolina and the lynching of black nineteen-year old Michael Donald in 1981.

The most successful figure in this period was arguably David Duke. Duke, who had been a member of the American Nazi Party in his younger years and had once been Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and had tried to make the Klan have a more respectable appearance. After running for office as a Democrat, he switched to Republican in 1988, claiming that he was a born-again Christian and that he had renounced racism and anti-Semitism and managed to win a seat in the Louisiana House. Duke tried to run for the Senate in 1990 and managed to win the Republican nomination for governor in 1991 as a product of a three-way race among them. The Republican leadership did not support Duke, and he lost badly to incumbent Edwin Edwards.

The KKK remains a fringe organization that has at most a few thousand members nationwide but is nonetheless a most potent symbol of hatred and the first thing people think of when they think of a racist organization.


Abbott, K. (2012, August 30). “Murder Wasn’t Very Pretty”: The Rise and Fall of D.C. Stephenson. Smithsonian Magazine.

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Fryer, R.G. & Levitt, S.D. (2012, November 9). Hatred and Profits: Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(4).

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Gruberg, M. Ku Klux Klan. The First Amendment Encyclopedia.

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Miller, T. (October 2020). The First Black Dentist in Texas. D Magazine.

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Rice, A.S. (1962). The Ku Klux Klan in American Politics. Public Affairs Press.

Rothman, J. (2016, December 4). When Bigotry Paraded Through the Streets. The Atlantic.

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Stevens, A.C. (1907). The Cyclopædia of Fraternities; a compilation of existing authentic information and the results of original investigation as to more than six hundred secret societies in the United States. New York City and Paterson, New Jersey: Hamilton.

The Other Disney: Wesley Disney of Oklahoma


Although images of Mickey Mouse, fairy-tale princesses, and Walt Disney himself are conjured in the mind when the word “Disney” is heard, Oklahoma has its own Disney, Wesley Ernest Disney (1883-1961) of Tulsa. The 1930 election was a great one for the Democrats, as they won 52 seats in the House as well as control of the chamber in response to the start of the Great Depression, and one of these gains was in Oklahoma’s 1st district (Tulsa), a swing seat that had switched between Republicans and Democrats since the 1914 election. Disney defeated the incumbent Republican, Charles O’Connor, by less than half a percentage point, but unlike his predecessors, he would stick around.

Disney had made a splash previously as an Oklahoma legislator. Representing Tulsa, he had a background as a “tough on crime” prosecutor and thus prosecuted Governor Jack C. Walton on impeachment charges which were initiated partly in response to his illegal suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Tulsa County in 1923; any state official suspending habeas corpus was explicitly prohibited by the Oklahoma Constitution. Walton had been engaging in numerous measures to beat back the Ku Klux Klan for reasons that were at least as much if not more political than moral, including martial law for Tulsa and Okmulgee counties. Indeed, the Klan’s influence and membership had been growing in Oklahoma partly in response to rising crime and tensions that had been growing from a major increase and urbanization in population as well as widespread suspicion by whites of blacks and other non-whites that they were radicals. The worst product of this tension was the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, in which a group of whites targeted the black population, which included arson, murder, and even aerial bombings. The death toll is disputed, with 39 officially confirmed dead (26 black, 13 white), but it is possible that 75 to 300 people were killed. The business section of the Greenwood district of Tulsa (which was the black district) was destroyed as well. This was the context of the rise of the Oklahoma KKK, which since its founding in 1920 developed a particularly nasty reputation for violence, which included numerous nighttime floggings for people who didn’t meet the Klan’s standards of moral conduct as well as some murders. Although they were without doubt racist and targeted minorities with racial motivation, most of their attention was on enforcing morality for their fellow white Protestants. Disney’s efforts against Walton, who had imposed martial law on the entire state after impeachment charges were initiated against him, were successful. He was convicted on eleven of twenty-two impeachment charges, including graft, incompetence, and abuses of parole and pardon powers. The Oklahoma Senate had voted unanimously on some of them, and he was removed from office on November 19th. Disney subsequently urged the passage of a strong anti-mask law against the Klan to refute plausible accusations that the legislature was Klan-dominated, but the result was a watered-down law from what he had proposed. By 1928, however, the Klan had become irrelevant in Oklahoma’s politics.

Disney began his career in Congress as a progressive, being a staunch foe of President Herbert Hoover and proving a strong supporter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. He, as did other Oklahoma Democrats save for Senator Thomas Gore, regarded the New Deal as good for the state’s farmers. However, as numerous rural Democrats did, he began having second thoughts about Roosevelt during his second term and after the 1938 midterms became a foe of the New Deal. Disney was something of a representative of how Oklahoma was changing as a state: at the time of its foundation in 1907, it was a strongly progressive state that had one of the strongest state Socialist parties, which was able to win nearly one and five votes with regularity. However, by 1920 the Socialist Party lay in ruins due to its opposition to American participation in World War I. Although it made a minor comeback during the Great Depression, this was quite temporary and would be overshadowed by a long-term rise in right-wing politics. Disney’s progressivism had turned into conservatism and he was a rather extreme example of how some Democrats shifted from favoring the New Deal to becoming opposed to it: in the 73rd Congress (1933-35) he scored an 8% on the MC-Index while in the 78th Congress, Disney was voting like a conservative Republican, scoring an 87% on the MC-Index. His lifetime score was a 41%. Disney’s turn was also observed in other legislators and among the state’s electorate. Even Roosevelt’s friend and supporter in the Senate, Elmer Thomas, scored a 53% on the MC-Index in the 78th Congress, and in the 1942 Senate election, New Deal loyalist Josh Lee had lost reelection by ten points to ultra-conservative Republican oilman Edward H. Moore. Disney also voted against civil rights legislation in his time in office, opposing two anti-lynching bills and the 1942 bill banning the poll tax.

Wesley Disney’s political transformation, plotted using MC-Index scores.

He was a staunch foe of price control during World War II, voting against the 1942 price control bill as well as voting to limit controls once implemented. In 1943, he battled the Roosevelt Administration on the October 3rd presidential order on wage freezes and managed to successfully alter it. The policy changed to freezing them at their highest rate from January 1st to September 15th, 1942 rather than prohibiting wage increases save certain exceptional circumstances.

In 1944, Disney tried to oust Senate incumbent Elmer Thomas in the Democratic primary, running as an anti-Roosevelt “state’s rights Democrat”, calling for the return of many functions assumed by the federal government to the states. Roosevelt campaigned for Thomas’s renomination, and Thomas prevailed. Disney never ran for office again, being succeeded by ultra-conservative Republican George B. Schwabe. For the remainder of his life, he pursued a successful lobbying career and continued practicing law.


Hanneman, C.G. Disney, Wesley Ernest. Oklahoma Historical Society.

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Langeveld, D. (2016, January 3). Jack C. Walton: general incompetence versus Invisible Empire. The Downfall Dictionary.

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O’Dell, L. Ku Klux Klan. Oklahoma Historical Society.


Is America a Christian Nation?

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As perhaps the loneliest Christmas in living memory approaches for many, the whole “War on Christmas” seems to be rather muted given all the hubbub surrounding Biden’s upcoming inauguration and Trump’s continuing truculence on the election results and of course the depressing reality I mentioned. Given that this time of the year is upon us, I am covering a topic I have been keen to discuss, and that is the relationship of America and Christianity. Particularly the question, is America a Christian nation? Some groups and people have answers for this question:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State holds, “The U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as officially Christian” (Americans United for Separation of Church and State).

The 1517 blog, which is explicitly Christian, states, “A person, not a nation, can be a Christian because only a person can be saved by grace through faith in the work of Christ” (Voorhis).

Professor Mark David Hall (2011), writing for The Heritage Foundation, holds, “Christian ideas underlie some key tenets of America’s constitutional order. For instance, the Founders believed that humans are created in the image of God, which led them to design institutions and laws meant to protect and promote human dignity. Because they were convinced that humans are sinful, they attempted to avoid the concentration of power by framing a national government with carefully enumerated powers. As well, the Founders were committed to liberty, but they never imagined that provisions of the Bill of Rights would be used to protect licentiousness. And they clearly thought moral considerations should inform legislation”.

It is also important for us to think about what this question means. Does it mean that the United States was founded on Christian principles and should thus morally operate on said principles? Does it mean that the people of the United States are Christian? Does it mean national customs and traditions are Christian? Additionally, we must consider how much value this has in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Some pieces of evidence have been accumulated for the “yes” and “no” position here. These are, starting with the “yes” position:

People v. Ruggles (1811) (New York State Supreme Court Decision) states, “the people this state, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity” (Barka).

Updegraph v. Commonwealth (1824) (Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Decision) states, “Christianity, general Christianity, is, and has been, a part of the Common Law of Pennsylvania…” (Barka)

Supreme Court Justice David J. Brewer declared in Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892) that America was a “Christian nation”. In 1905, he published The United States: A Christian Nation, a series of lectures which used historical examples and official references to Christianity, but held that the United States wasn’t a Christian nation in the sense that it had an official religion or that the government pushes people to be Christian.

Article I, Section VII of the Constitution reads, “If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law” (Barka).

Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland stated in United States v. Macintosh (1931), “We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God” (Barka). The central finding of this decision was overturned in 1946, but there was no comment on this sentence.

As for the “no” position:

The 1797 treaty with Tripoli states that the United States “is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”.

Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists includes this sentence: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” (Jefferson).

Opponents of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution condemned it as a “godless” document, as it lacked and still lacks reference to God.

Certain important Founding Fathers were Deists, as opposed to Christians, and the way others practiced religion wouldn’t be recognized today.

A few words on some of the evidence presented:

The Jefferson letter is widely considered one of the most powerful pieces of evidence for the notion of a strict secularist approach to government. This letter has been cited in over 50 Supreme Court cases, and in Reynolds v. United States (1878) the Supreme Court declared the “wall of separation” was “almost an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect” of the Establishment Clause. However, there are those in the legal community who have argued that this letter has been misused to further a secularist agenda, including the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Potter Stewart. Additional controversy on the matter came when in 1998 the Library of Congress released an analysis of the letter by James H. Hutson, chief of the library’s manuscript division, which stated, ”The Danbury Baptist Letter was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more” (Goodstein).

The judicial decisions can be said to be opining on the state of the American people and possibly the motives of the Founders themselves, but not necessarily holding that the United States is in any legal sense a Christian nation.

The Tripoli treaty seems quite good as a legal document but the language can also be interpreted as diplomatic language to ensure the Muslim nation of Tripoli that religious differences are of no relevance.

For the “Sundays Excepted” provision, why mention Sundays excepted unless regarded as an exceptional day? Sunday is of course the Christian day of rest, and at the time there were numerous laws prohibiting travel and business transactions among states and towns in the young nation. While it can be said that the reason for such laws existing and Sunday thought of as a day of rest is based in widespread Christian belief and practice, the provision in the Constitution is an acknowledgment of society as it existed then. The colonists of the young United States were approximately 98% Protestant, with most of the remainder being Catholics (Hall, 2011). Thus, those who would be thought of as citizens of the United States were almost entirely Christian. The cultural traditions and customs that exist are also based in Christianity. That Easter and Christmas are recognized as public holidays is evidence of the Christian heritage of the United States, but the “Sundays Excepted” provision does not indicate any more than an accommodation of common legal and business practices. There in fact are better things in the Constitution to cite if one is looking for Christian influence. For instance, the Founders’ negative views on human nature influenced the “checks and balances” structure of American Constitutional government, which is itself influenced by the Bible. In Federalist No. 51, James Madison wrote “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary” (Hall, 2011).

What is to be said here? America is and isn’t a Christian nation. America is not a Christian nation in the sense that Christianity is an established religion, the government compels people to practice Christianity, or that the Constitution favors Christianity over other religions and that this was the intent of the Founders. It is a Christian nation in the common morality, culture, and traditions of its people. It can also be said that Christian belief influenced the founding of the United States as it heavily influenced the Founders’ mistrust of human nature (hence separation of powers and checks and balances) and that few of them were as unorthodox as Jefferson and Franklin in their beliefs. As Professor Hall (2011) writes, “These individuals, without exception, called themselves Christians, and a good case can be made that many were influenced by orthodox Christian ideas in important ways”.

This argument is made as well in broad strokes by Barry Alan Shain in The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origins of American Political Thought. It also receives interesting empirical support from Donald Lutz, who examined 15,000 pamphlets, articles, and books on political subjects published in the late 18th century. His study found that the Bible was cited far more often than any other book, article, or pamphlet. In fact, the Founders referenced the Bible more than all Enlightenment authors combined” (Hall). Additionally, Thomas Jefferson himself stated on religion, “Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious disciple, has been delegated to the General [i.e., federal] Government. It must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority” (Hall). However, this may not mean agreement with the notion that America’s founding had inspiration in Christianity. As historian John Fea writes, “Just because John Adams and George Washington quoted from the Bible or made reference to God does not mean that they were trying to construct a Christian nation. Granted, the Founding Fathers were the products of a Christian culture, but most of them were never comfortable with the beliefs that defined this culture. Very few of them would qualify for membership in today’s evangelical churches” (Fea).

Even with the affirmative answer common morality, culture, and tradition it is less so than it used to be. America is considerably less Christian than when Justice Brewer wrote about America being a Christian nation over 100 years ago and far less than at the time the Constitution was ratified. Demographically, 65% of Americans today are Christian if the definition applies to Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons. 26% are unaffiliated, 2% are Jews, and 1% each are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists. Robert Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State goes as far as to say about the 19th century, “the unpleasant truth is that nineteenth-century America was a mild form of Protestant theocracy. In this period, Protestantism was America’s de facto established religion” (Barka).

American Christians are painfully aware of the decline in belief, and the challenge presented for them is not the single digit percent populations of other religions rather the whopping 26% of those who don’t identify with a faith. While the umbrella known as Christianity is still the majority, the second largest group is the unaffiliated, which means atheism, agnosticism, or some belief in a higher power independent of religion has a significant minority…they even outnumber Catholics. These people are more likely to go for a “freedom from religion” as opposed to a “religious freedom” perspective and support a strict secularism based on an expansive interpretation of the “wall of separation” in Jefferson’s letter. The American people of today are dealing with a document and traditions that come from a time in which the country was extremely Protestant, so we must consider how a more plural nation ought to address the country’s Christian heritage.


Barka, M.B. (2011). The Christian Nation Debate and the U.S. Supreme Court. European journal of American studies, 6(2).

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Fea, J. Is America a Christian Nation? What Both Left and Right Get Wrong. History News Network.

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Goodstein, L. (1998, September 10). Fresh Debate on 1802 Jefferson Letter. The New York Times.

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Hall, M.D. (2011, June 7). Did America Have a Christian Founding? Heritage Foundation.

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Is America A Christian Nation? Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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Jefferson, T. (1802, January 1). Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists. Library of Congress.

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Voorhis, D.V. (2019, August 14). Is America A Christian Nation? 1517.

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