20 US presidents who belonged to shadowy secret societies

Secret societies always get the ominous treatment in fiction.

Are there any movies with remotely benevolent secret orders? Most fictional secret societies are usually more bogged down with dressing in outdated robes, chanting ominously, doing sacrifices, or hatching nefarious global plots.

So, to the paranoid mind, it probably sounds somewhat startling that 20 out of 45 US presidents have been affiliated with some kind of secret group. Just keep in mind that many of these societies function a bit like social clubs, charitable organizations, and business networks. In many cases, beneath the secret handshakes and mysterious rituals, they’re kind of like adult frats (or actual frats, in the case of the college groups on this list).

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On This Presidents Day, Stop Worshiping the Imperial Presidency

Ah, Presidents Day: a much-needed moment to slow down and commemorate presidents past and present, because we definitely don’t have enough of that in this country.

I jest!

Walking around Los Angeles, you’d be hard-pressed not to pass someone sporting BIDEN-HARRIS merchandise—a shirt, a bumper sticker, a sweatshirt, a mask. Back where I grew up in Virginia, the same is true, though they have a different hero: For years, “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” adorned the lawns, cars, and hats of those who wanted you to know they stood, and perhaps still stand, with former President Donald Trump.

That’s not news. Public displays of affection for the U.S. president have become standard in everyday American life, extending well past election cycles and rock-concert-esque inaugurations, as if who you voted for is a personality trait. That’s the conventional wisdom, it seems. So, on this fair Presidents Day, a reminder: Presidents aren’t saints. They aren’t monarchs. They aren’t celebrities. And they aren’t your friends! The executive leader is an employee of the country—someone whose job was, and still should be, limited in size and scope.

It has become something decidedly different over the years, with each president becoming more powerful than the last. That maybe explains, to some degree, why the political fangirling has grown in tandem. Though I can’t step back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries, I would venture to say Americans weren’t donning shirts with presidents’ faces or branding horse-drawn carriages with the names of current and erstwhile U.S. leaders. Nor do I think former President George Washington, whose birthday serves as the inspiration for this holiday, would have wanted that sort of hero worship, when considering that the bedrock of America’s founding specifically sought to create a new order—one without a king or king-like figure.

“The founders of our republic did not want to put that much [power] in the hands of a single leader,” Mark Rozell, the founding dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, told The Christian Science Monitor. “America’s addiction to executive power has become dangerous for this country.”

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Stop Protecting Presidents from History

The media continues to treat former President Barack Obama as a champion of transparency, but his presidential library is looking like a huge bait-and-switch. Obama raised hundreds of millions for a grandiose library in south Chicago – except that it was revealed two years ago that it wouldn’t actually be a library. At the end of the Obama administration, 30 million pages of documents from his presidency were shipped to a former retail store near Chicago. Come to find out, the Obama Foundation, a private nonprofit organization, will control the official records of his time in office, rather than the National Archives and Records Administration, which administers all other presidential libraries. Rather than opening the files to the public and researchers, the Obama Foundation will eventually digitize the records. This could result in even worse delays than George W. Bush sought to finagle. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Garrow warned, “The absence of a true Obama presidential library will have the effect of discouraging serious and potentially critical research into the Obama presidency.”

There are plenty of reasons to expect excessive secrecy from both Trump and from Biden, who kept his Senate records locked up during his presidential run. In 2011, Biden was treated like a civic saint when he donated 1,875 boxes of documents from his U.S. Senate career to the University of Delaware. The National Endowment for Humanities gave a grant to help curate the collection, and the deal between Biden and the library was that the documents would remain sealed until “two years after Biden retires from public office.” Biden retired as Vice President in January 2017. Instead of releasing the information to the public, the library announced just before Biden launched his presidential campaign that secrecy would continue until two years after Biden “retires from public life.” Biden in 2019 justified keeping all his Senate records locked up during the campaign because “the idea that they would all be made public in the fact while I was running for public office, they could be really taken out of context.” It is unknown whether Biden’s Senate records contained any bombshells as explosive as his son Hunter’s laptop (which the media raced to defuse before Election Day).

Prerogatives for perpetual presidential secrecy are more akin to royalty than to a republic. Presidential libraries, which cost taxpayers $100 million a year, become lavish taxpayer-funded mausoleums where public records are mostly buried in perpetuity. As New York University history professor Jonathan Zimmerman wrote in 2015, “Why should each president get his own library? Multiple libraries are wasteful… And they’re undemocratic, because they allow our presidents – not the people who elected them – to define their legacies.” Zimmerman recommended putting all presidential records in a single library.

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Drugs In The White House

May 12-13: sowed hemp at muddy hole by swamp.
August 7: began to separate the male from the female hemp—rather too late.

While it is unlikely that George Washington, who penned these diary notes 200 years ago. smoked any of the scraggly rope-dope he was growing on his Mount Vernon plantation, he certainly dreamed of hemp as a cash crop. After all, it had a solid foreign market and was perfect for cottage industry, basket-making and such. He won over Thomas Jefferson, who began importing hemp seeds to Monticello, but failed to win the support of early American farmers, who favored tobacco cultivation. If, by some historical quirk, they had instead followed Washington’s advice, early U.S. history might have been considerably headier.

As it turned out not until the 19th century did Americans—including presidents—really turn on. The patent-medicine boom in the mid 1800s was largely responsible: Virtually everyone sampled various opium-, cannabis- and cocaine-based remedies and elixirs. If the president had the flu, a stomach ache, piles or a hangover, the prescribed remedy was tincture of opium: laudanum. Also prescribed for all manner of “female complaints,” laudanum found its way into first ladies’ medicine chests too. A century before Betty Ford got strung out on Valium and vodka, Mary Todd Lincoln was portrayed by presidential biographer William H. Herdon as a virtual patent-medicine junkie.

On the whole, however, records of bummers on these 19th-century elixirs are far outweighed by the good trips. Ulysses S. Grant, burned out by years of boozing, was miraculously revitalized near the end of his life by daily doses of Mariani tea, one of chemist Angelo Mariani’s delightful cocaine-based products. It so bolstered the aging ex-president that he was able to put in hours of work a day on his memoirs, valued as one of the finest accounts of the Civil War.

During the 1880s, coca wine, another Mariani tonic, enjoyed unsurpassed popularity on the patent-medicine market. The enterprising Mariani eventually rounded up glowing endorsements from the prince of Wales, the czar and czarina of Russia, the kings of Norway and Sweden, and Pope Leo XIII. In the United States, Pres. William McKinley’s secretary noted that a case of Vin Mariani had received an enthusiastic reception from the president.

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Federal Secrecy Protects the Crimes of Every President

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, Republicans and Democrats have conspired to keep Americans increasingly ignorant of what the federal government does. The number of secret federal documents skyrocketed, and any information that was classified supposedly cannot be exposed without dooming the nation.

Politicians and federal agencies recognize that “what people don’t know won’t hurt the government.” James Madison, the father of the Constitution, declared in 1798 that “the right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon … has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.” But this right has faded badly in recent decades. During the 2020 Senate impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer warned that if the Senate did not vote to hear witnesses, “this country is headed towards the greatest cover-up since Watergate.”

Actually, “conventional wisdom” in the nation’s capital is often the result of cover-ups, ignorance, and servility. Daniel Ellsberg, who risked life in prison to leak the Pentagon Papers, observed in 2002, “It is a commonplace that ‘you can’t keep secrets in Washington’ or ‘in a democracy.’ … These truisms are flatly false…. The overwhelming majority of secrets do not leak to the American public.”

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