We used to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as holidays.
However, when Congress decided to make the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a holiday, it elected to combine the presidential holidays into one combined day honoring all presidents.
No one living today actually knew George Washington, but we studied him in school. We were told how he cut down that cherry tree and never told a lie. Most historians don’t believe either of those is true. It is also not true that he had wooden teeth and did not toss a silver dollar across the Potomac River.
But we still love the man we call the “Father of our Country” and mark his birthday by having a mattress sale.
But what about the presidents we now honor, but don’t really know?
Take James A. Garfield, for instance. He was shot by a crazy man and managed to live for another two months.
Alexander Graham Bell devised a metal detector to find the bullet lodged in Garfield’s body. But the doctor, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (he was a medical doctor, but his given name was Doctor), would not allow Bell to use the device on Garfield’s left side.
To the best of our knowledge, there is no connection between Dr. Doctor and the Robert Palmer song, “Bad Case of Loving You,” which is often incorrectly referred to as “Doctor, Doctor.”
Garfield, a Union general during the unpleasantness between the North and South, played a pivotal role in the Battle of Chickamauga. He wired Washington and arranged for 20,000 reinforcements to be sent to Chattanooga and save the Union from defeat.
He was ordered back to Washington and commissioned as a major general. He eventually resigned the commission and was elected to Congress from Ohio.
When he died, more than 150,000 people paid their respects when his body was returned to his home state.
What about Harry Truman? He was a no-nonsense kind of guy.
He was known for taking brisk walks around Washington. In his first days as president, he walked over and took his paycheck to a bank around the corner from The White House and waited his turn in line.
When Eisenhower was inaugurated, Harry and Bess Truman drove themselves back to Missouri. No Secret Service, plane or helicopter.
Then, there was William Henry Harrison. He served the shortest time as president at just more than a month.
Harrison, a Whig, defeated incumbent President Martin Van Buren in a rematch of a race four years earlier.
Harrison played up his military prowess as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. His vice presidential running mate was John Tyler. Their campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” is a memorable one among historians.
Harrison rode a horse to his own inauguration and made an 8,445-word address lasting more than two hours in a frigid Washington winter. He developed a bad cold (although most agree it was not from his inauguration) and died of pneumonia on April 4, 1841. His doctors tried everything to save him, including opium, castor oil, leeches and Virginia snakeweed, all to no avail. He became the first president to die in office.
Maybe we’re better off with the legend of a truth-telling, cherry-tree cutter who never told a lie. It made for a better story than a few others who have served.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.