President’s Day has become one of my favorite holidays, because it has inspired me to look into the annals of our nation’s history and learn about the forgotten leaders that have gone before us. Yes, we could get all weepy-eyed about Lincoln and FDR, and like the reporters on NPR, argue over who Barack Obama will most be like (both?), but what fun is that? Don’t get me wrong. I am all for learning about the heroism of some of the greats, but the ones that capture my imagination are the unknowns of history. Here are some of my favorites:
Grant is often thought of as a failure. A scandal-riddled administration and indecisive economic policy has not earned him high scores with historians. Being a leader during the time of Reconstruction has usually meant a tarnished reputation in American memories, but few realize that Grant’s vision and actions were a much needed antidote to the poisonous leadership of his predecessor, Andrew Johnson. Grant did not suffer the antics of Ku Klux Klan and largely suppressed it with military action and a legal task force to prosecute its leaders. He helped pass the 15th Amendment that protected the voting rights of freedmen scoring a huge victory for African American civil rights. Grant was faithful to the ideal that the issues of the war effort should not be compromised, and that the victors owed nothing to the losers. In many ways he carried on the intentions of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Benjamin Harrison is another forgotten president, largely due to his poor handling of economic issues. His protectionist policies included a high tariff on imports that saddled American agriculture with high prices on farm equipment and caused sliding prices on crops. Having the opposite effect, it stifled competition and created resentment towards Harrison’s Republican Party. While his economic policy clearly helped cause a recession, Harrison should not be forgotten for his efforts to protect African American voting rights. Unfortunately, he could not muster enough support from within his own party to pass legislation that would have put election polls in the South under Federal control. African American citizens would be left to the mercies of the discriminating election judges that would disenfranchise their votes by intimidation or coercion.
Zachary Taylor was the nation’s 12th president. Born in Louisiana and a hero from the Mexican-American war, “Old Rough and Ready” was a celebrity. His fame made him appealing to both the North and the South, because we was a patriot and a slaveholder and had no obvious political agenda. But his policies would surprise everyone. He did not have any affinity for Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 that would admit California as a free state with some provisions to protect the rights of slaveholders. He threatened to veto the bill and thought that California should be free with no strings attached. Of course, this outraged the secessionists who threatened to incite rebellion by exiting the Union. Taylor’s solution: hang em! Starting with his son-in-law Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, he would have zero tolerance for secessionist threats and threatened counter-charges of treason. But the strong Unionist would die in office after consuming a bowl of cherries and a pitcher of milk on a hot 4th of July. Some believed foul play was involved, others think it was a food related gastro-intestinal problem. No one knows what would have become of the nation had Taylor lived, but there is reasonable case to be made that the Civil War may have been avoided.
In my opinion Andrew Jackson is one of the most over-rated presidents in American history. He brought about the Spoil System that rewarded political posts within the Federal Government to party loyalists, not to the qualified and competent. His opposition to the national bank and aversion of budget deficits helped to propel the nation into the Panic of 1837. His contempt for Native Americans was clearly evident in the signing of the Indian Removal Act that lead to egregious human rights abuses and the infamous “Trail of Tears.” Jackson is often remembered as a champion of democracy and the middle-class ethos, but his flawed notion of “popular sovereignty” was the stuff that Stephen A. Douglas would draw upon to in his debates with Lincoln. Thankfully, Lincoln successfully showed in those debates that while people have the right to govern themselves, they do not have the right to do what is morally wrong.
Good presidents are the type that have grand visions that the average citizen can understand and articulate, a character that is persistent yet adaptable, and a temperament that can overlook insults and offenses from opponents. Presidents are rightly judged by their competence in areas of economic policy and national defense, but in my estimation the most important criteria is the preservation and advancement of liberty. With that in mind Jackson should not be on the twenty dollar bill, but Grant’s is more deserved than you think.