Presidents Day always gives me a chance to revisit one of my first lifelong obsessions, studying U.S. Presidents. I first became interested in our Chief Executives in the third grade, and soon I was annoying people with my ability to name all of the presidents, in order, in less than 30 seconds (I could do it sooner if I didn’t have to name Grover Cleveland twice). I happy to say that my passion for the subject remains strong to this day, probably because a month does not go by where a new book or documentary is released, containing fresh presidential stories and facts not available to me before.
Lately, I’ve become curious about how our Chief Executives felt about each other. Since becoming president places one into a very exclusive club, you would think that a mutual admiration society would have developed. Although would expect that a certain amount of animosity would exist among those presidents that ran against each other ,careful research proves that there was often more rancor built between individuals who were never rivals for the office. One only needs to start with George Washington to learn of some examples.
Washington and Thomas Jefferson had what might be called a complicated relationship. Although Washington had appointed Jefferson as the country’s first Secretary of State, the two had major differences regarding the size and role of the federal government. During Washington’s second term, Jefferson’s frustration with Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s influence over Washington prompted him to join forces with James Madison in founding the Democratic-Republican Party. Washington, who feared the development of political parties would eventually tear the country apart, was appalled at Jefferson’s actions. Jefferson resigned in December of 1793, and never spoke directly to Washington again. Assessing George Washington, Thomas Jefferson felt that the Father of Our Country lived a charmed life, taking credit for every success and letting others take the blame for any misfortunes. Jefferson also felt that Washington left the presidency at the perfect time, feeling that an economic bubble was ready to burst just as Washington’s second term was coming to an end. The break between Jefferson and Washington did collateral damage to Washington’s relationships with future presidents James Madison and James Monroe, as both men were protégés of Jefferson. Open criticism of Washington did not end with his fellow Virginians. During his final address to Congress in 1796, Washington may have noticed that the lone congressman from Tennessee, still angry over the Jay Treaty of 1794, was not applauding at the end of the speech. The congressman was, of course, Andrew Jackson.
Abraham Lincoln is, almost without argument, one of our greatest presidents, and has received praise from every U.S. President that has followed him. But what about the presidents came before him? At the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency, there were five living former U.S. Presidents. In the 1860 election, won by Lincoln, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and John Tyler all supported John C. Breckinridge, while Millard Fillmore and Martin Van Buren cast their votes for Stephen Douglas. Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan were still around for the 1864 election, and all three voted for Lincoln’s opponent, George McClellan. Not only did Lincoln never receive the vote of an ex-president, but was also a constant target of their criticism throughout the Civil War, particularly from Pierce, who’s Secretary of War and good friend Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy.
We are constantly reminded of the current harsh tone in Washington D.C., but I keep coming across quotes by Theodore Roosevelt saying that William McKinley had the backbone of a “chocolate éclair”, Harry Truman calling Richard Nixon a “no good lying bastard” and Woodrow Wilson referring to Teddy Roosevelt as a “self-appointed divinity.” In 1994, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, spoke eloquently at the funeral of a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Compare that to what ex-president Andrew Jackson had to say in 1841, when William Henry Harrison became the first president to die in office…”A kind and overruling providence has interfered to prolong our glorious Union and happy republican system, which General Harrison and his Cabinet were preparing to destroy under the dictation of the profligate demagogue, Henry Clay. Fortunately, Harrison’s death put a halt to such dire possibilities.” Ouch! At least when Theodore Roosevelt died, Woodrow Wilson kept his glee private.
Note: Since President’s Day usually calls to mind our nation’s great presidents, it’s only fair to recall the lyrics to the song, “Mediocre Presidents,” introduced on “The Simpsons.”
All: We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
Harrison: I died in thirty days!
All: We… are… the…
Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!