I have a lifetime love affair with the Presidents of the United States.
I love these guys, every one of them. The best of them are among the most skilled and courageous leaders in world history; the least of them took more risks and sacrificed more for their country than any of us ever can or will, including me. Every one of our Presidents, whatever their blunders, flaws and bad choices, was a remarkable and an accomplished human being, and exemplified the people he led in important ways. Every one of them accepted not only the burden of leadership, but the almost unbearable burden of leading the most dynamic, ambitious, confusing, cantankerous and often unappreciative nation that has ever existed. I respect that and honor it.
I have been a President junkie since I was eight years old. It’s Robert Ripley’s fault. My father bought an old, dog-eared paperback in the “Believe it or Not!” series and gave it to me. It was published in 1948. One of Ripley’s entries was about the “Presidents Curse”: every U.S. President elected in a year ending with a zero since 1840 (William Henry Harrison) had died in office, and only one President who had dies in office, Zachary Taylor, hadn’t been elected in such a year. The cartoon featured a creep chart—I still have it—listing the names of the dead Presidents, the years they were elected, and the year 1960 with ???? next to it. When Jack Kennedy, the youngest President ever elected, won the office in 1960, my Dad, who by that time was sick of me reminding him of the uncanny pattern, said, “Well, son, so much for Ripley’s curse!”
You know what happened. (John Hinckley almost kept the curse going, but Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, finally broke it.) That year I became obsessed with Presidential history, devising a lecture that gave an overview of the men and their significance in order. My teacher allowed me to inflict it on my classmates. Much later, Presidential leadership and character was the topic of my honors thesis in college. When I finally got a chance to go to Disneyland, the first place I went was the Hall of Presidents. When the recorded announcer said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States!” and the red curtain parted to show the audio-animatrons of all of them together, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
Today I will honor our past Presidents with some of my favorite facts about each of them, trying hard not to get carried away. Is it ethics? It’s leadership, which has always been the dominant sub-topic here, but yes, it’s ethics. I know I’m hard on our Presidents, as I think we all should be: supportive, loyal, but demanding and critical. I am also, however, cognizant of how much they give to the country and their shared determination to do what they think, rightly or wrongly, is in the country’s best long-term interests. File this post under respect, fairness, gratitude, and especially citizenship. And now…
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Presidents of the United States!“
I live within 15 minutes of Mount Vernon, so this is George Central. The most intriguing George Washington story to me is his miraculous survival at the Battle of the Monongahela, a fierce skirmish with the Indians during the French and Indian War, when he was a young British officer. There were eighty-six British and American officers involved in the battle; sixty-three of them died. The Native American warriors fighting them later acknowledged that they were targeting all officers, and particularly Washington, who then as later and always had immense presence, especially since he was uncommonly tall for the era. Yet Colonel Washington was the only officer on horseback who was not killed. The Indians reported that they aimed and shot at him repeatedly with no apparent effect, and believed he was protected by a supernatural power and that no bullet, bayonet, arrow or tomahawk could harm him.
Washington later wrote to his brother John:
“By the all-powerful dispensations of Providence, I have been protected beyond all human probability or expectation; for I had four bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, yet escaped unhurt, although death was leveling my companions on every side of me!”
I’ve seen the coat. Those sure look like bullet holes…right in the chest. Did this fluke explain Washington’s much remarked-upon practice of leading his ragtag Revolutionary War soldiers into battle in fill regalia, on his white stallion, despite the fact that he presented an irresistible target, and one lucky shot could have ended the American dream of independence? Several Presidents had what they considered to be remarkable escapes from death, and the experience led them to regard themselves as either chosen by Fate for great deeds, or simply different from normal men—a common state of mind for leaders.
The best of John Adams can be seen in his letters to his wife, mentor and soul mate Abigail. (She would have made a better President than her husband. Unfortunately, she couldn’t even vote.) He was the first occupant of the (unfinished) White House, and in November of 1800, was sitting in the space that is now the State Dining Room when he wrote her, “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt, directed that those be carved into the fireplace mantle of the room, and there they remain.
My favorite fact about Jefferson is what a slob he was, often appearing in public looking disheveled and wearing soiled or mismatched clothes. He really was like a stereotype of the mad philosopher, with his mind so occupied with higher thoughts that the mundane matters of going through the day escaped his attention. Jefferson’s presidency was also distinguished by his development of a collaborative approach to Congress, unlike Washington and Adams. Jefferson was a gourmand, and loved to entertain, so he combined business with pleasure, regularly inviting members of Congress, who were mostly forced to live in gloomy boarding houses, to the White House for dinner, where he debated, cajoled, charmed and persuaded them. It worked, too.
And it would work today. That’s all I’m going to say about it.
Madison’s term was marred by a foolish war against Britain that could have ended the country, had it not been for live oak, some luck, and a failure of British will. His perky wife Dolley, 16 years his junior, was more popular than he was. I am fascinated that we had a President who weighted less than 100 pounds soaking wet, especially since the office has been dominated by big and physically attractive men. (See here.)
Monroe was probably our least appreciated great President. He was also the first truly poor President, though Jefferson’s high standard of living put him in debt as well. Monroe was never wealthy at any time in his life, and died in poverty,
John Quincy Adams
John Adams’ clone of a son was the main player in one of the best Presidential stories of all. Partial to skinny-dipping in the Potomac, John Quincy Adams was once surprised mid swim by a female newspaper reporter, who sat on his clothes while forcing him to consent to a naked interview. It would make a great play.
The attempted assassination of Old Hickory (the first such attempt on any President) might be my favorite Presidential story, though. On January 30, 1835, President Jackson came to the U.S. Capitol to attend the funeral of a member of Congress. As he left the building, a rejected office seeker named Richard Lawrence stepped out from behind a pillar and fired a flintlock pistol point blank at Andy’s chest. The gun misfired, and Lawrence had flunked the famous requirement that if you strike at the king, you better kill him. Instead, he was face to face with one of the most ill-tempered, tough, dangerous men in America. And that man was furious.
Eyewitnesses saw the now terrified Lawrence pull out another pistol and fire again, and this pistol also misfired. Jackson then (it is unrecorded whether Lawrence had time to scream, “Oh NOOOOO!!!”) began methodically attempting to beat Lawrence to death with his silver-topped cane. He would have killed him, except that several men restrained the President. Reportedly one of them was Rep. David Crockett (D-Tenn.). Why this incident has never been filmed, I don’t know.
Lawrence’s guns were tested after Jackson’s brush with death, and they worked perfectly. It was later estimated that the odds of both guns misfiring during the assassination attempt were 1 in 125,000.
Martin Van Buren
No, he wasn’t Aaron Burr’s illegitimate son. Still, he was unique: He was the first president born in the U.S., and the first born after the Declaration of Independence in 1776. More significantly, he was the first President with no English background and the only President to this day who did not have English-speaking native parents. Van Buren spoke Dutch growing up, and English was his second language.
He was also the first of the ill-starred “designated successors.” Jackson was so popular and had so much power in his party that he essentially picked the next President, his friend and protegé Van Buren. Van Buren was no Andy, and later Taft would prove to be no Teddy, and George H.W. Bush would be no Ronnie. They all were one-term Presidents. You can’t inherit leadership skills.
William Henry Harrison
The demise of our briefest tenured President is a lesson in hubris. Harrison was 68, the equivalent today of being over 90, and much had been made of his advanced age during the campaign, despite the fact that he won in the greatest popular vote landslide ever. To prove that he was still hardy and vital, Harrison insisted on delivering his inaugural address on a cold, wet day without wearing a top coat. Just to make sure the point was made, Harrison spoke for an hour and fifteen minutes, a record that still stands. Naturally, he caught a cold, and it killed him a month later.
But you and Robert Ripley know what really killed him, right?
The Constitution is ambiguous about what happens when a President dies: the language could be interpreted to mean that a special election is held to elect a successor, with the Vice President serving in the interim. Nope, said John Tyler, Harrison’s veep: it means that the Vice President serves out the entire term. This was a wise and fortuitous, if self-serving, call. We have Tyler to thank for Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and LBJ.
Incredibly, John Tyler’s grandsons are still alive ( Tyler was born in 1790), and one of them, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, born in 1928, still lives at John Tyler’s plantation in Virginia. I saw him one, from a distance.
Six Degrees of William Henry Harrison!
Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here.
Part 4 is here
11 thoughts on “A Presidents Day Celebration (PART 1): I Love These Guys, I Really Do. Yes, Every One Of Them.”
I think that “Presidents Day” was a bad idea to begin with. Why should Presidents like Warren Harding, James Buchanan, and Barack Obama be honored for their incompetent leadership and making horribly wrong decisions. Considering the great Presidents that our nation has been blessed with, such as Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt if there is a need for new holidays lets get rid of Halloween. Then we could have Jefferson’s birthday or Teddy Roosevelt’s.
I’ll have an answer to that presently, in Part 2.
Thank you. This is great to read on President’s Day.
A very gracious and thoughtful piece, Jack. And timely as wyogranny notes. Thank you.
Washington had another close call, too. During either the Battle of Brandywine or Germantown, Washington rode across the battlefield to a unit that he thought was misplaced… only to find himself alone and face to face with a British regiment. A British officer recorded how, upon that realization, Washington merely tipped his hat to his opponents and casually rode away. The spell of the encounter held and not a shot was fired!
I read about John Tyler’s grandsons. I could only speculate about the virility of his family line! Tyler was the only former president to serve in the Confederate congress. He was a senator.
Richard Lawrence probably loaded his pistols from the same (and bad) batch of black powder. If you’re going to try and kill someone, you’d best make sure of the quality of your ammunition. That was Hinckley’s failure, too. Those .22 caliber “Devastator” rounds he used were supposed to be explosive, but none worked. The pistols of Andrew Jackson’s day were so unreliable that they were more dangerous as clubs than as firearms. That’s why so few men were killed in duels! Jackson damn near killed that poor idiot, too.
James Monroe owned a modest home in Virginia with a little property which is called Ashlawn. It’s now an historical site. I visited it once. The guide was quick to point out that it’s located just down the hill from Monticello, which dominates the view! Monroe had to look up to his predecessor in more ways than one. Monroe was the first president not to wear powdered hair and knickerbockers! He was also the last president of the Revolution generation.
“But you and Robert Ripley know what really killed him, right?”
Heck yeah! He was cursed. Cursing scholars believe that the cursing culprit may have been Tecumseh.
Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!
Harrison Tyler is such a great name. It’s a shame no one was named Tippecanoe Tyler, though.
Not a fan of Andrew Jackson.
See the Trail of Tears for why.
George Washington – a great man if only for the order of the Cincinnati.That, even more than the successful revolt, founded the USA.
Flawed though. See Ona Judge
John Adams – my favourite, from his writings. Agree that Abigail would have been better, but them both together would have been better still.
The contradictory Jefferson – like Washington, personally flawed, professionally great.
Please bear in mind that I was born in the UK, and emigrated to Australia in 1968 at age 10. This is foreign history to me.
“Foreign”, indeed! I’ll agree with you about Jackson, though.
Such complex men and lives: it’s a mistake to judge any of them on the basis of any one flaw or bad choice.
Jackson’s anti-Indian hate, and that’s what it was, is obvious the ugly scar on his character and legacy. (This was the basis of Davy Crockett’s split with him, and how Davy ended up at the Alamo.) I can’t excuse genocide, but its also important to remember that to Jackson this was personal: members of his family had been murdered by Indians. He was biased, and hated them. I can’t say I wouldn’t have too.
He also was a transformative political figure, stood firm for a national government, remade the Presidency, proved that it would not be an aristocratic post, eliminated the national debt, and was undeniably a frighteningly strong and effective leader, as well as a unique. visionary and courageous man. Current day sensitivities make the Trail of Tears too much of a distraction in judging Any, just as it was given too little weight before. He’s a close second to Teddy on my list just as a personality and force of nature.
I don’t think slavery can be held against Washington. He truly evolved on the issue, and that’s to his credit. From where he was born and his culture and class, it would have been miraculous if he hadn’t been a slaveholder. Ona was his wife’s slave too, and Washington did not cross Martha. All in all, he’s probably the most important single figure in US history, and as much of a freak as Lincoln. Lucky again.