In an earlier time, we used to celebrate the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in February. Now, we have combined them into one day to honor all presidents of the United States.
Quite frankly, I think the celebration mostly centers on mattress sales. It seems every store that sells mattresses has a big sale on Presidents Day.
I have a theory about that.
George Washington, our first president and father of our country, never appeared overly happy in any of the paintings of him. I think he probably didn’t have a very good mattress. Considering the technology of the day, it was probably stuffed with feathers and wasn’t that great. Now, you can part with a few hundred pictures of dear old George and get yourself a dandy mattress.
But we don’t know much about other presidents.
Take Martin Van Buren, for example. Old Marty was the first U.S. president who was actually born in the USA. Interestingly, he spoke English as a second language. He came from a Dutch family and Dutch was spoken in his boyhood home. For that we say, “God Zegen Amerika.”
Van Buren was from Kinderhook, N.Y., and his political enemies called him “the sly fox of Kinderhook.” He served one four-year term as president as a Democrat. He ran unsuccessfully a few years later as the candidate of the Free Soil Party. I don’t know many guys who made it on the Free Soil ticket.
He was a short guy, just 5-foot-6, but was known as a snappy dresser.
The man who defeated him, William Henry Harrison, was the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe. He and his running mate, John Tyler, ran using the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too.”
Harrison was, at the time, the oldest man elected as president. He apparently felt he needed to show he was strong and healthy. He rode on horseback to his inauguration without a topcoat or hat. He then delivered a two-hour inaugural address of 8,445 words.
Harrison needed someone to tell him standing out in the cold without a coat and hat while making a two-hour speech is not a good idea. He died a month later from a bout with pneumonia. He was the first president to die in office.
Vice President Tyler then became president.
William Howard Taft served as president from 1909 to 1913. When he left office, he obviously was not through with public life. President Warren Harding nominated him to be chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served from 1921 to 1930. He is the only person to hold both offices.
Taft was a close friend and political ally of Theodore Roosevelt. It was Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party who divided the Republican vote and cleared the way for the election of Woodrow Wilson. The election resulted in a bitter feud between Taft and Roosevelt that was not resolved until shortly before Roosevelt’s death in 1919.
Some interesting stories surround the 44 men who have been president. Maybe this year you can take a little time from your mattress search and learn more about them.
As Van Buren might say, “Zie je later.”
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.