DARKE COUNTY — Presidents’ Day was not always just a day to find a great deal on a sofa or mattress.
For those of us old enough to remember, the February calendar was once marked by two days honoring U.S. Presidents — Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12) and Washington’s Birthday (February 22). And in schools, these days used to be a big deal, with cut-out construction-paper silhouettes of the two, or a reciting of the Gettysburg Address, or learning how a young George chopped down a cherry tree, then fessed up to it (a fable).
While Honest Abe’s birthday was commemorated as an official holiday in some states, such as Illinois, it was never a federal holiday. Washington’s birthday, however, was an established federal holiday, once celebrated on the actual day of his birth, until the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971, which moved the commemoration of Washington’s birthday to the third Monday in February. Politicians, sheesh!
As Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays are in close proximity, the two days have blended together into this thing popularly termed “Presidents’ Day.” Now, instead of simply honoring the two most well-known U.S. Chief Executives, we are forced to lump in lesser-known personages, or as the case may be, “completely unknown personages,” merely because they once had the title “U.S. President” in front of their name.
Since we’re now compelled to honor the “other” presidents in some bizarre attempt save money on home furnishings, this provides a good opportunity to learn interesting trivia about some of the lesser-known ones.
Silent Cal: “Crime Stopper”
When Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as 30th U.S. President upon the death of Warren Harding, he briefly stayed at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. before moving into the White House. Early one morning, he was awakened in his room by the sound of a man searching through his clothes for valuables. In her biography of Calvin Coolidge, author Amity Shlaes writes:
“In the morning light, Coolidge could see that the burglar had taken a wallet, a chain, and a charm. ‘I wish you wouldn’t take that,’ Coolidge said. ‘I don’t mean the watch and the chain, only the charm. Read what is engraved on the back of it.’ The burglar read the back: ‘Presented to Calvin Coolidge … by the Massachusetts General Court’ — and stopped dead in shock. He was robbing the president. It emerged that the burglar was a hotel guest who had found himself short of cash to return home. Coolidge gave the burglar $32, what he called a ‘loan,’ and helped him to navigate around the Secret Service as he departed.”
The prolific John Tyler
Tenth U.S. President John Tyler died in 1862, at the age of 71. At the time of his death, the Virginian had become the object of scorn among many northerners, having been elected to serve in the Confederate States House of Representatives in Richmond. Twenty years prior, having become president following the death of William Henry Harrison, he had been shunned by the Whig Party for his abandonment of the party platform.
Regardless of the feelings of his contemporaries, no one could deny John Tyler this — he was a busy, busy man. So busy, in fact, he fathered a total of 15 children with his first and second wives. This represents the most offspring of any U.S. president.
Furthermore, two of Tyler’s grandsons are still alive today. Read that again. Two GRANDSONS of John Tyler, who died before the Civil War ended, are still alive today — Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Jr. (born in 1924) and Harrison Ruffin Tyler (born in 1928), the sons of Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853-1935), President John Tyler’s son.
We hardly knew ya, Bill
Speaking of William Henry Harrison, the time you’ve spent reading this article is about the length of time Harrison was president. An exaggeration? Yes, but the 9th U.S. President was only in office for a month before succumbing to pneumonia.
It was a tenure long enough to become a trivia question, but not quite long enough to establish anything resembling a legacy, unless you count his inauguration speech, the longest in presidential history — almost two hours — which probably felt like a month to those listening in the audience.
Millard Fillmore, who became the 13th U.S. President following the death of Zachary Taylor, is one of those names long associated with presidential obscurity.
A study conducted at Washington University in St. Louis found only 8 percent of college students recognized Fillmore as a U.S. president — less than Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton, who were NOT presidents. Despite his obscurity, however, it isn’t fair to call Fillmore a total dud.
If nothing else, bibliophiles should appreciate Fillmore’s love of books. Fillmore and his wife, Abigail, are responsible for the establishment of the first White House library. Not only that, Fillmore himself reportedly assisted in fighting a fire that had broken out at the Library of Congress in 1851, a conflagration which destroyed approximately two-thirds of its books. Further, Fillmore signed legislation into law appropriating money to replenish the collection.
Becoming POTUS isn’t bad for a guy born in a log cabin who had little formal schooling and started out working in a sawmill. As the patron saint of all less-than-memorable presidents, we salute you Millard Fillmore!
The writer may be reached at 937-569-4314. Join the conversation and get updates on Facebook search Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com