Today is Presidents Day. Or President’s Day. Or Presidents’ Day. Take your pick. Or don’t. As others far more industrious than I can attest, not everyone celebrates a holiday today. When I was growing up, we actually had dual celebrations for Presidents in February: February 12th was reserved to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and the 22nd was to celebrate George Washington (respective of their actual birthdays).
When the 90th Congress opted to pass an act “to provide for uniform annual observances,” suddenly we had one holiday instead of two. A holiday that rarely coincided with either of these two esteemed Presidents actual birthday (but which may explain why there’s no consensus if the day is named after one President’s birthday—aka Washington’s—or two Presidents’ birthdays, or if it’s just a bunch of random Presidents not deserving of an apostrophe).
Speaking of random Presidents…
My daughter set out to memorize all the Presidents in order. As a challenge, I tried to name them. Although I knew I’d never get them all in order, I thought I could name at least half of the 44 Presidents who have served this great nation.
I began easily enough, with the Presidents I actually knew (because I was alive during their tenures): Obama, W., Clinton, H.W., Reagan, Carter, Ford, Nixon, Johnson. Those were an easy 9 off the top. Twenty percent, done!
Of course I knew the big “four”: Kennedy, Lincoln, Washington and FDR. I also had a vague sense of our early Presidents: Jefferson, John Adams and John Quincy Adams. James Madison and James Monroe (my daughter quickly pointed out that if you’re not sure of a President’s first name, opt for John or James and you’ll probably be right). Eighteen presidents of the 44. I was starting to sweat. Surely it couldn’t be this hard to recall the history lessons of my youth.
I remembered the strange tale of William Henry Harrison, who slaughtered a bunch of Native Americans whose tribesmen cursed him and launched the infamous 20-year “death to the white leader elected in a year ending 0,” a trend that wasn’t broken until Reagan (shot, not killed). In fact, Harrison caught a cold on inauguration day and died hours later. That started me thinking about Presidents who dueled: Andrew Jackson. Teddy Roosevelt. Grant. I was half way home.
There were universally bad Presidents: Taft, Hoover… probably that McKinley guy. For no particular reason whatsoever, I remembered Zachary Taylor. Twenty-six down, 18 to go.
My daughter offered to give me a hint: One of the guys was both the 22nd and 24th President, so he counted twice. I was like, WTF? She told me: “Grover Cleveland.” Of course, I recognized the name, but I shouted, “Why wasn’t your clue, ‘Not Pittsburgh!’?” Okay, so maybe I could come up with the remaining 16.
Money! Presidents always end up on money… but I’d named most of them. “Alexander Hamilton!” I shouted. Nope. Never a President, he was Treasury Secretary.
Woodrow Wilson! Not on money, but I remembered him. Harry S. Truman. I eked out a handful more. In all, I managed 32 of the 44 (well, 43) Presidents. In reviewing my omissions, some were just forgotten names: Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce. I was deeply ashamed I forgot Dwight Eisenhower, although in my mind, he and Truman are an amalgam of the same guy. But I should’ve remembered the silver dollar.
Then I came across John Tyler. Who? John Tyler. The tenth President of the United States, who only got the job because William Henry Harrison got a cold on inauguration day 1841. His claim to fame was his own party dubbed him His Accidency. In fact, his only real legacy seems to be that after he came to power, Presidential succession was codified and added to the Constitution as the 25th Amendment.
We ought to have a holiday celebrating that.