Happy President’s Day. It’s one of those holidays I don’t complain about because I’m sitting here drinking coffee knowing in a half hour I’ll still drinking coffee instead of going to work. I love work, mind you–teaching obscure things to teens is a cool job. They never know when they might need a fact about a dead guy to impress people at a cocktail party later in life.
Today, instead of teaching teens, I’ll share with the nation. It’s President’s Day. It seems America does not know its leaders. Buzzfeed’s Adam Davis proved this by subjecting a roomful of coworkers to ridicule when they couldn’t correctly name ten dead presidents from official portraits. Only Ford and Adams fared well. After all, Ford fell down the stairs so much he ended up honorary co-founder of Comedy Central, and Adams was a Founding Father–he gave us things like the Alien and Sedition Acts, where criticizing the government could–and did–get you locked up. Good for me he’s not around to read this.
This President’s Day–which America knows is the best time of year to buy a car and go shopping at the mall–we must do something more. Let’s remember the presidents that make you say, “Who?” They did something to make this nation great, too. Or at least avoid getting it wiped off the map. It’s their holiday, too.
Give a shout out to the eighth president, Martin Van Buren–the first President who spoke English as a second language. I bet someone’d try to deport him today or demand his birth certificate. He presided over the Panic of 1837, a pretty big depression caused by unregulated banks going crazy with lending at the same time as unemployment rose and monopolies formed. Déjà vous? The nation was indignant as the price of cotton fell and cost of slaves increased. Businesses folded, and there wasn’t a thing President “Van Ruin,” could do.
William Henry Harrison took over for Van Ruin. He didn’t wear a coat at his inauguration, being a native of Virginia where coats aren’t necessary. He died of pneumonia about a month later. In the days before internet, that’s not even time enough for a political cartoon to travel the nation. #firstworldproblems. The primary lesson here–“Your mom was right! Wear a coat. And your face really will freeze like that!”
John Tyler, #10, tried to shore up the banking crisis by demanding a national bank. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had fought this fight when the nation formed. Tyler’s dad, incidentally, was Jefferson’s college roommate. A national bank? To regulate fiscal policies? Speak no more! John Tyler became the first sitting president to be impeached–not over a girl, but over his use of the veto. His party wouldn’t nominate him for a second term. He went back to Virginia, serving on the Confederate Congress and overseeing his plantation. Tyler was one of twelve US presidents who owned slaves, and one of eight who owned them while in office.
Millard Fillmore tried to solve the growing slave-free conflict in the United States with the Compromise of 1850, giving us the Fugitive Slave Act and keeping the balance of free and slave states equal. This was important, because without an equal number of votes on either side, no one could impede progress, which is in the Congressional job description.
James Buchanan took sides, however, secretly supporting South Carolina’s succession and the Dred Scott case where the enslaved Scott sued for his freedom, stating that he’d been taken into a free state, therefore, was free. The Court said it was a moot point. Scott couldn’t sue because slaves were property, not people. Tensions rising, Buchanan never took a stand, leaving that to Abraham Lincoln, making Lincoln’s job really, really difficult.
Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote but became President in an election worse than Bush-Gore. Mark Twain supported Hayes, who was an upright, moral guy who started the White House Easter egg hunt. Hayes stated he’d appoint people to jobs based on merit, not political connections, making everyone mad. But everyone was bound to be mad anyway–the Civil War just ended. Hayes tried to be fair and balanced even though FOX news wasn’t invented yet. He tried to heal the nation’s wounds by removing federal troops from the South, redirecting a couple to squash Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in Virginia and Maryland, where workers demanding to be paid a living wage took a few bullets for the team.
And finally, who can forget Chester Arthur, #21, who rose through the New York political machine to become a reformer. Arthur surprised the nation by signing the Pendleton Act which legally required jobs to be given according to merit not patronage. I wonder if he’d known the Chinese civil service exam had done this centuries earlier. With one stroke of his pen, Arthur guaranteed he’d never be invited to a DC dinner party again.
These are just a few of the presidents we don’t fully appreciate. They don’t have a used car sale in their honor. Think of them. Think of Harding, who had a sex-scandal while in office, or Hoover, who tried his best during the Depression, and all he got was a vacuum named after him.
Give these men–yes, no women–homage. Do something in their honor, today.
Me, I think I’ll vacuum like a good woman who won’t be president. Hoover has inspired me, and the house needs cleaning. Enjoy your President’s Day, America!
[credits: inspiration today goes to Buzzfeed and to this Time article “Fail to the Chief” which inspired my reflection on these great men buried in history books no one reads.]