The Ballad of Amos Kendall
   An historically accurate biographical sketch in song of a man who was not the first Presidential press secretary

Researched and written as a sabbatical project in fall 2002
by Michael Turney, professor emeritus of communication
Northern Kentucky University
 

Selected verses from
The Ballad of
Amos Kendall

[opening - verse #1]
Up in New England when the nation was young
Amos was born as a farmer's son.
His pa said learning was a great tool
And insisted that Amos go to school.
Amos, Amos Kendall, what will he grow to be?

1838 drawing of Kendall

Drawing from The United States Democratic Review published in 1838 while Kendall was Postmaster General of the United States.

[verse #13]
`Bout this time Andy Jackson came along
Saying government was going wrong.
Amos agreed so he pitched right in,
And helped the General's White House win.
Amos, Amos Kendall, backing the president.

Matthew Brady photo of Kendall

Daguerrotype taken by Matthew Brady about 1844 while Kendall and Samuel Morse were building the telegraph network.

[verse #20]
Some say he was a press secretary.
I don't think he was that ordinary.
With his influence, power and say,
Government policy he could sway.
Amos, Amos Kendall, advising the president.

official engraving of Kendall

Undated engraving of Kendall produced by the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

[verse #31]
From humble beginnings he climbed the tower;
From print shop to the seat of power.
Sat in the cabinet, advised presidents,
Then laid out where the telegraph went.
Amos, Amos Kendall, lived the American dream.

1855 photo

An 1855 photo taken by an unknown photographer from the Library of Congress "Picture History" collection.

[closing - verse #32]
Amos passed away in eighteen-sixty-nine,
Finally at the end of the line.
Today most folks don't even know his name,
That is truly a terrible shame.
Amos, Amos Kendall, forgotten American.

 



 

the author playing banjo

The author, in 19th century attire for the 2006 Tall Stacks Music, Arts & Heritage Festival, strolling and strumming where riverboats dock on the Cincinnati Public Landing.

 
Writing in the style of a 19th century ballad may not be typical scholarly behavior for a communication professor, but it seemed very appropriate, albeit possibly a bit outside-the-box, when I crafted The Ballad of Amos Kendall in the fall of 2002. Doing so ...

  • captured the history of Amos Kendall, the primary focus of my sabbatical research, in a relatively compressed form;

  • uniquely reflected the tenor of the mid-19th century in which Kendall was so influential; and

  • challenged my developing prowess on the five-string banjo, one of the most popular musical instruments of the 19th century and one which I had only recently taken up as a past-time.

 
When I began my research on Amos Kendall, I thought I was investigating one of the key forgotten or, perhaps more accurately, overlooked public relations practitioners of the early 19th century. My basis for believing this is that Kendall is listed in dozens of introductory public relations textbooks as the first, unofficial press secretary to a U.S. President, specifically to President Andrew Jackson whose eight-year term spanned 1828-36. Beyond saying he can be thought of as the "first presidential press secretary," these texts offer no further information about Kendall's work or accomplishments largely because he lived and worked during a time before "public relations" was recognized as a distinct profession. They simply say he was an influential and highly partisan newspaper editor in Kentucky before assuming his new role as the prototypical press secretary during the Jackson administration.

Embarking on my research, I quickly discovered an historic Kendall home in Frankfort, Kentucky, some of Kendall's personal papers and the manuscript of an unpublished biography about him in the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, and additional personal papers from him and about him only a few hours away at Andrew Jackson's home (The Hermitage in Nashville). This most auspicious start led me to optimistically assume I had chosen an ideal and promising sabbatical project, one centered in one of my primary areas of academic interest (public relations) that also had nearby Kentucky roots and an apparent wealth of readily-available original documents to mine for information.

The latter, in fact, did prove to be one of the most remarkable and satisfying aspects of the entire project. Having an opportunity to handle and work with documents such as Kendall's letters and receipts, some of which had not yet been fully cataloged and may not even have been read for more than 150 years, was a fabulous experience. I had never done first-hand historical research with original documents so old, and it was a humbling and moving experience. I not only learned about Kendall and his times; I simultaneously learned about the care, preservation, and acceptable handling practices for such materials. It was also fascinating and moving to read the unpublished biography of Kendall that Edwin N. Hopson had so painstakingly researched and worked on, but never completed, between 1949 and 1955. Parts of his highly detailed biography were type-written in near-final form, albeit often marked by erasures and meticulously hand-written corrections. Other parts were written in long-hand with a fountain pen on what appeared to have been yellow legal pads, and still other sections existed only as hand-written notes on index cards.

Beyond the thrill of the documents, I had several delightful and very helpful conversations with curators, librarians, and docents at the Filson Society and at The Hermitage. The most notable being Marsha Mullin, the curator of collections at the Hermitage.

 
Amos Kendall did help publicize Andrew Jackson and Jacksonian political views. Make no mistake about that. Kendall even ghost-wrote some of Jackson's most important speeches and proclamations. However, Kendall really wasn't very "ghostly" or invisible in doing so. Countless people in Washington at the time, including Jackson and his other advisers, openly acknowledged that Kendall was the author of these documents. His authorship was even acknowledged in newspaper articles. There was nothing secret about it. What was even more significant is that Kendall did not do any of this writing as a support staffer hired to assist the President in communicating with the press and the public. He did it as a government official and a member of the President's Cabinet. He also did it as a political activist who was personally committed to the causes he was espousing and, to some extent, he also did it as a personal favor to his friend who happened to be the President of the United States. Kendall was a powerful, office-holding decision-maker and confidant of Presidents, not a communication adviser or media facilitator. Referring to him as a "press secretary" is a terrible injustice to his power, influence, and prestige. And, if anyone had dared say such a thing to his face, he most likely would have considered it a scurrilous insult both to him and to the President.

Sadly, the more research I did, the more fully I realized that the public relations texts which had initially inspired me were misleading, if not totally wrong about Kendall. He was no more a prototype for future presidential press secretaries than he was a precursor to Rush Limbaugh and today's partisan political broadcasters. To say he filled either of these roles would go well beyond gross overstatement and would be a distinct disservice to his memory and to his true contributions to history.

It's hard to even think of anyone involved in 20th or 21st century American politics who has had a comparable level of power and influence with a President. The closest possibility is Robert F. Kennedy (RFK), the former Attorney General and brother of President John F. Kennedy. As the U.S. Attorney General, RFK sat in his brother's Presidential Cabinet and officially served as the head of the Department of Justice, but this was obviously not the extent of his influence. As was known at the time and has been further revealed in the intervening years, he played a crucial role in some of the most world-shaping decisions of the early 1960s, including the U.S. decision to blockade Cuba. His influence reached far beyond the Justice Department and very clearly and publicly affected countless major decisions made by President. He also affected lower level decisions made in the Department of Defense, in what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and in the Departments of Labor and of Commerce. In all likelihood, the full extent of his influence within the government and on the President will never be known. The same can be said of Amos Kendall.

Kendall's first federal appointment was as an undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury (several administrative steps below Cabinet level), a position he was given shortly after President Jackson was elected. He later moved up into the position of Postmaster General of the United States (then a Cabinet-level office) where he served under two Presidents, Jackson and Martin Van Buren. What is far more significant is that throughout and even after his time in the federal government he was a confidante and personal advisor to these Presidents and his influence reached well beyond the two departments with which he was officially affiliated.

In 1856, almost two decades after the height of Kendall and Jackson's political power, a Washington insider named Colonel Clairborne, reflecting on Kendall's influence, said, "This little whippet of a man ... was the Atlas that bore on his shoulders the weight of Jackson's administration. He originated, or was consulted in advance, upon every great measure, and what the prompt decision and indomitable will of the illustrious chief resolved upon, the subtle and discriminating intellect of Kendall elaborated and upheld." And, no less an authority and a political foe than Former-President John Adams is reported to have said about Presidents Jackson and Van Buren: "Both ... have been for twelve years the tool of Amos Kendall, the ruling mind of their dominion."

The later stages of Kendall's life are equally fascinating, although less filled with political power and influence. After leaving government service, he became a business partner of Samuel Morse and helped develop the nation-spanning telegraph network and, in his old age as a philanthropist, he helped establish what became Gaulladet University, the first higher education institution for students who are deaf.

 
Alas, the research did not support the hypothesis of the PR textbooks that Amos Kendall was the first, unofficial presidential press secretary. I found no evidence to support this conclusion. There weren't even any articles or opinion pieces that made a substantive attempt to explain or justify this claim.

The more I investigated and the more I tried to back track through earlier editions, the more it appeared that several of the leading PR texts, each of which has gone through several editions and revisions over years, had basically fed and reinforced one another with the notion that Kendall had been the first presidential press secretary. The basic idea, and even the phrasing of the one or two sentence notation about Kendall, seems to have gradually spread from one to the other, having been added in subsequent editions, sometimes without any supporting bibliographic citations. In other instances, some of the texts almost incestuously cite or even quote one another, clearly relying on what they know is a secondary or tertiary source instead of seeking an original or definitive source.

The oldest published source describing Kendall as a "press secretary" or a "public relations" person I found was the 1952 first edition of Cutlip & Center's, landmark public relations text, Effective Public Relations. I also found published references to two older journalism history textbooks reportedly published in 1928 and 1932, but I never found an actual copy of either one.

When I reached this point, I felt my research had reached a dead-end, at least as far as traditional scholarship was concerned. While there may have been enough basis for a short paper or journal article debunking the myth of Kendall as the prototypical presidential press secretary, it would have been far less meaningful and less substantial than what I had initially envisioned. And, although there was a wealth of Kendall material available and he was a fascinating historical figure, there were other scholars in other disciplines whose credentials were more appropriate for writing his biography. In fact, I had corresponded with one of them: Don Cole who had previously published several works related to Jackson Era politics and was already hard at work on a biography of Kendall for which he had a contract with Louisiana State University Press. (That book has since come out and been well received.) I therefore saw no point in trying to beat him into print with my own biography of Kendall.

 
My decision to write The Ballad of Amos Kendall grew out of this frustration. Some might even describe it as my attempt to make lemonade once my research had uncovered nothing but lemons. Be that as it may, exactly how it evolved really isn't that important. Suffice it to say, there were several contributing factors, including my long-time love of irony.

  • One of Andrew Jackson and Amos Kendall's most bitter and well-known political rivals in the late 1820s and 1830s was Davy Crockett and, when I came across Davy Crockett's name in my research, my mind was engulfed in boyhood memories of Fess Parker portraying Davy Crockett on TV and in the movies during the 1950s. Suddenly, the almost-forgotten lyrics to the Ballad of Davy Crockett were back in my head in a way that just wouldn't go away.

  • Both Crockett and Jackson actually commissioned ballads about themselves and encouraged them to be sung during their political campaigns.

  • 19th century narrative ballads were, by today's standards, exceptionally long and detailed, often extending through dozens of verses and presenting a full biographical sketch of their subject.

  • And, I had a personal desire to creatively channel and show off my recently started banjo lessons.

As a result, The Ballad of Amos Kendall has liberally borrowed from the 1954 Ballad of Davy Crockett written by Tom Blackburn with music by George Bruns. The five verses that run down the left side of this page are only a small sample of the total song and don't offer the entire biography of Amos Kendall or his impact on 19th century American life.

Click on this link for the pdf file containing all 32 verses and musical chords. It's the only way to get the full flavor of The Ballad of Amos Kendall.

revised posting: 23 May 12