President’s Day is coming up! The third Monday in February we Americans celebrate the 44 men who have served as presidents of the United States over the past 234 years. Beginning in 1789 with George Washington, right through the 21st century and our current president Barrack Obama, it’s been a fascinating ride.
But wait a minute. Let’s back up. Our country was established in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence. Who was governing the colonies between then and George in1789? I had forgotten, so I looked it up.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Continental Congress (with elected presidents) was the body of delegates who spoke for the colony-states during the period of 1774-89. During the Revolution, under the Articles of Confederation, the presidents of that body played a large part in developing our colonies into a nation.
Therefore there was no United States of America until after the Revolutionary War was fought and independence from England was won. Depending on who’s counting, there were 7-14 pre-USA presidents beginning with Peyton Randolph, a Virginian revolutionary, Henry Middleton and John Hancock (signer of the Declaration of Independence).
George Washington was the first president under the Constitution of the United States. Setting aside his obvious reputation as a four-star general; commander-in-chief of the American Revolutionary Forces; founder and first president of our country, he was an interesting guy. Check out these bits of trivia about him:
*•He was born into a wealthy, well-connected plantation family.
•He was home-schooled and great things were expected of him.
•He began his career as a soldier fighting for the British.
•He delivered the shortest 2nd inaugural address ever — 135 words.
•He was the only founding father to free his slaves.
•He was the only president who did not live in Washington D.C.
•As a farmer he introduced mules to America.
•He grew marijuana on his farm but mainly for its industrial value.
•Cutting down a cherry tree was a myth to show his honesty.
•At the time of his inauguration he only had one tooth in his mouth.
•His ill-fitting dentures were ivory not wooden.
•His favorite six white horse’s teeth were brushed daily.
•He left no direct descendants.
Abraham Lincoln is perhaps one of our most beloved presidents. On Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009, there were many celebrations of his 200th birthday. Not many presidents are remembered on the bicentennial of their birth! But, as you know, Lincoln was special. His life and example continue to touch hearts today.
Lincoln was the polar opposite of Washington. From his humble beginnings, no one could have predicted the important place that he would have in history. He was born in a log cabin in extreme poverty; lost his mother at age nine, had a terrible home life and minimal education. He was highly ambitious and known as Honest Abe
Ultimately, Lincoln guided the U.S. through the Civil War, signed the Emancipation Proclamation and delivered his famous Gettysburg address. Before that, he had a checkered career. He was postmaster of the New Salem, Illinois post office. He worked as a surveyor and fought as a captain in the Blackhawk War. He became a lawyer in the manner of that era by reading law books, observing court procedures and taking an oath to support the government.
He ran for several political offices and lost. Finally he won and served eight years in the Illinois legislature. Later he earned a national reputation for his debates on slavery against Stephen A. Douglas, candidate for U.S. Senator. In 1860 he won the Republican nomination for president and then the presidency.
Lincoln’s assassination at the age of 56 made him the first American president to die in this manner. James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy would be killed in a similar manner. Two other presidents were injured in attempted assassinations: former President Theodore Roosevelt and then President Ronald Reagan.
Being president is serious business but there are many humorous stories about presidents and their opponents. Two of my favorite anecdotes supposedly revolve around the losing end of presidential elections: Lincoln’s famous stovepipe hat and a Nixon comment.
Abraham Lincoln arrived at his presidential inauguration rostrum holding, in addition to a copy of his speech, his trademark black stovepipe hat and cane. When, after laying down the cane, he was dismayed to find no room for his hat, Senator Stephen Douglas (his chief electoral opponent) dutifully came forward and took it from him. “If I can’t be president,” Douglas remarked as Lincoln sat down, “I can at least hold his hat.”
Shortly after JFK’s inaugural address, Richard Nixon (his Republican opponent) generously told Ted Sorenson (Kennedy’s aide) that there were certain things in the address that he himself would like to have said. “Do you mean the part about ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’…?” Sorenson asked. “No,” Nixon replied, “the part beginning ‘I do solemnly swear’…
And finally, this quip by President Ronald Reagan, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month, was heard by many of us.
Despite concern over Ronald Reagan’s age (69) when he ran for the presidency in 1980, he won by a wide margin, becoming the oldest president ever elected. Four years later, during a televised debate with Walter Mondale in the next election, Reagan was asked whether he was too old to serve another term. “I’m not going to inject the issue of age into this campaign,” he astutely replied. “I am not going to exploit, for political gain, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”