Can you name the commanding figure in this image? If you can't, don't feel too bad. Few people can. It is our beloved (more likely forgotten) 11th president; James Polk, popularizing the mullet long before Patrick Swayze. This is what happens when you forget your history; bad hairstyles make a comeback. The muttonchops have already returned, thanks to superhero Wolverine. What's next, the handle-bar mustache? But I digress. We are talking about forgotten presidents. Sure, we all know about Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln (it helps when your face is on our money) and we recognize the latest presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama) but what about the rest? What about all those mediocre presidents who's name you recognize but can't recall any facts about? This week our LIFE class was joined by Professor Alex Smith, who gave us all the dirt about some of our less-than-memorable presidents.
First up; John Quincy Adams, our 6th president. J.Q.A. was a cold, austere and aloof man; definitely not a people person and could not get elected in today's world of 24 hour news and soundbites. Think the 2000 election between Gore and Bush was the first election where we had no clear winner? Wrong! The election of 1824 had 5 candidates, and although Andrew Jackson had the largest percentage of votes (43%), it wasn't a simple majority, so the vote went to the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, Speaker of the House and one of the 5 candidates who got the smallest percentage of votes, did not like Andrew Jackson and politically agreed most with Adams. Clay and Adams came to an agreement that Clay would use his influence as Speaker of the House to get Adams elected President if Adams made Clay Secretary of State, a position seen as a stepping stone to the presidency back then. The deal started off Adams' presidency with the whiff of corruption that he could never shake.
Next; Martin Van Buren, our 8th president. Van Buren was "the greatest suck-up of all time" according to Professor Smith. Very politically adroit, he was able to schmooze and flatter his way to the highest government positions without taking an official position on much at all. One man tried to force him to take a stand on the idea that the sun rises in the east. Ever a politician, Van Buren replied "As I never get up 'till after dawn, I really can't say." Van Buren inherited a weak economy after his predecessor, President Jackson, killed the national bank. Van Buren liked luxury and strove to live the upper-class lifestyle. The combination of a bad economy and his reputation as an elitist turned much of the country against him, and lies that he ate his food with golden spoons at the White House dogged his presidency.
John Tyler, our 10th president, was the first Vice President to assume the presidency through the death of the President, setting a precedent for future VPs. President William Henry Harrison died 30 days into his term, and Tyler took over the Presidency. Much of the country thought there should be an election, since technically he was not voted into that position, but he kept the office. Tyler had been a Democrat, but joined the Whigs over the Force Bill, a bill to send troops to South Carolina to force them to pay their tariffs, turning Democrats against him. But when he became president, his Democratic nature reappeared and he twice vetoed legislation to bring back the national bank, making him deeply unpopular with his adopted Whig party. So he had no party and no support for any interests during his presidency. He left the Presidency broke; he couldn't even pay a $1.25 grocery bill. He then became a traitor as he urged Virginia, his home state, to secede from the union, and was elected to the Confederate Congress. He died during the Civil War and was buried in Richmond, Virginia. His grave went unmarked and unhonored until the mid 20th century.
Millard Filmore, lucky 13, is known as the president who didn't do "squat". However, during his presidency he signed a trade treaty with Peru to import bird excrement as fertilizer, so now we know that he did indeed do "squat". But aside from that and opening trade with Japan, he pretty much didn't do squat. He also couldn't read. Perhaps that is why he was so inactive....
Franklin Pierce, our 14th President, had to have the most tragic presidency. His wife, Jane, was very puritanical, and believed they would be punished for her husband's biggest sin: ambition. So she was naturally upset when he ran and won the presidency. The train she and their son 11 year old son Benny were riding on the way to the inauguration crashed, and Benny was the only fatality. Their two other sons had died young. At his inauguration, Pierce said, "you have summoned me in my weakness, and you must sustain me with your strength." This proof of his sins doomed their marriage. Jane never left the top floor of the White House and Pierce drowned his sorrow in drink. Unfortunately, American needed a strong leader during this time; slavery and other issues were dividing the country. Interesting fact: Pierce is the only president known for getting a DWWI, driving a wagon while intoxicated. He ran over a man while driving drunk around D.C. The police let him go.
Lastly (for today, there are many more mediocre presidents) James Buchanan, our 15th president. Although privately an abolitionist (he would purchase slaves in the south and free them in the north) he drew great ire by constantly compromising with the southern states, which eventually seceded during his term anyway. For allowing the Union to fall apart under his watch, Buchanan has earned last place in many Presidential rankings. Buchanan was our only president from Pennsylvania, and also our only bachelor president (so far). Historians speculate that he may have been gay, but we have little evidence of that as his family burned most of his letters to his (alleged) lover.
Whew! What a mouthful, and we are only up to number 15 out of 44. Although we feel passionately about our current presidents, odds are they will likely end up in the mediocre pile of history, with someone blogging about their stories far in the future. As they said on the Simpsons, "We... are... the... adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!"
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