Happy Presidents Day! Even though it’s not exactly Presidents Day. According to the federal government, the name of this holiday is merely Washington’s Birthday. The Office of Personnel Management insists that while “other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law.”
The OPM is grumpy about this because a majority of U.S. states do call this Presidents Day. It’s popularly become about all U.S. presidents, not just Washington. Even the U.S. Mint says, “It’s a great day to celebrate everything that our past presidents, including Washington and Lincoln, have done for our nation.”
So let’s take a look at all of America’s presidents. We don’t need to celebrate them, but it’s important to rescue them from the drab, sepia-tinted version of U.S. history. There’s a conscious effort to drain all human interest out of our past. But in fact it was shockingly vicious, ghastly, and fascinatingly bizarre, and if you don’t understand it, you will never comprehend our present.
Here’s an assortment of some of my favorite facts about every U.S. president:
George Washington (1789-1797) appears to have had dentures that used the teeth of some of the people enslaved on his plantation. This is not 100 percent proven, but the evidence is, let’s say, highly suggestive. The good news is the teeth weren’t stolen, although the suppliers only received one-third of the market rate.
John Adams (1797-1801) endorsed, in 1776, the concept of what Friedrich Engels would 117 years later call “false consciousness.” According to Adams, “very few men who have no property, have any judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by some man of property, who has attached their minds to his interest.” The solution, said Adams, was massive property redistribution.
Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) was an intelligent man torn between his desire to see himself as moral and his desire to own lots of other people. To resolve this conflict, he needed to believe that Africans were a different type of being from Europeans. It didn’t matter how and it didn’t need to make sense. Therefore, in his book “Notes on Virginia,” he revealed that Africans need less sleep than normal, white people. Then six sentences later, he said that Africans sleep more.
James Madison (1809-1817) was America’s shortest president, at just 5 foot 4, perhaps due to bad nutrition.
James Monroe (1817-1825) promulgated the Monroe Doctrine, which, as Dave Barry says, states that:
1. Other nations are not allowed to mess around with the internal affairs of nations in this hemisphere.
2. But we are.
John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) frequently went skinny dipping as president in the Potomac River. There’s an excellent story about an investigative reporter named Anne Royall sitting on his clothes while he was swimming and refusing to get up until he agreed to an interview, although it is marred by the fact that it is not true.
Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was famously in command at the 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend, in what’s now Alabama. After they won, some of his troops cut strips of skin off dead members of the Red Stick tribe and used the skin for bridles for their horses. You can read about this and much more in an 1895 book that recounts the testimony of some of the soldiers.
Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) was perhaps our schmanciest president, wearing outfits that make you regret he came along before color film. An observer of an early Van Buren campaign stop at a church remembered him like this: “He wore an elegant snuff-colored broadcloth coat, with velvet collar to match; his cravat was orange tinted silk with modest lace tips; his vest was of pearl hue; his trousers were white duck. … His nicely fitting gloves were yellow kid.”
William Henry Harrison (1841-1841) was the first president to die in office, after just a month. Only recently have we realized that he was probably killed by Washington, D.C.’s lack of a sewage system: There was a giant field of human excrement a few blocks upstream of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and bacteria likely got into the White House’s water supply.
James K. Polk (1845-1849) was almost picked off by the same crap-filled swamp that got Harrison. However, he survived to leave the White House and then immediately die of cholera.
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) was not as lucky as Polk and became the second president to be felled by the neighborhood’s huge feculent pond. This era was not a high point of U.S. science.
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) is today best-remembered as the inspiration for the name of Mallard Fillmore, the worst comic strip in human history.
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) completed the Gadsen Purchase of territory from Mexico, buying a chunk of territory in what’s now southern New Mexico and Arizona. Mexico was likely willing to sell because we’d simply stolen Texas a few years before and they figured they might as well get some bucks this time around.
James Buchanan (1857-1861) often comes in last in historians’ rankings of all U.S. presidents, thanks to his dithering as America drifted toward civil war. On the upside, he’s the basis for the most historically sophisticated masturbation joke ever made (here starting around 1:55).
Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) does not get enough credit for kicking off the Golden Age of Presidential Facial Hair, a period of 52 years during which nine of the 11 presidents had a beard, mustache, or miscellaneous.
Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) had strong feelings such as, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” Also, during a speech purportedly celebrating Washington’s Birthday — i.e., this holiday — Johnson mentioned himself over 200 times. It’s difficult today not to wonder if there’s a correlation between believing in white supremacy and constantly talking about yourself.
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) won the 1868 election, the first in which African-American men could participate, by 300,000 votes. About 500,000 black men voted, providing Grant with his margin of victory. This was immediately noticed by white Americans, who have gone on noticing such things ever since.
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881) took office thanks to the grievously evil Hayes-Tilden Compromise. It was difficult to say who’d actually won the 1876 election, so the Republican Party agreed to withdraw all remaining federal troops from the South in return for Democrats accepting Hayes as president. Every promise of Reconstruction was betrayed. The white Southern plantation class took the opportunity and ran with it, essentially reinstituting slavery for the next 90 years.
James Garfield (1881-1881) was nominated by the GOP as a compromise candidate on the 36th ballot after an exhausting fight between the party’s delightfully named “Half-Breed” and “Stalwart” factions. Chester A. Arthur was added to the ticket to keep his obstreperous fellow Stalwarts happy. Then a Stalwart assassin shot Garfield soon after he took office so that Arthur would become president. This should put today’s intra-party Twitter spats in perspective.
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) came up in the staggeringly corrupt New York State Republican machine. The Nation (it’s been around since 1865) called his origins “a mess of filth.” Frederick Douglass later said Arthur “allowed the country to drift … towards the howling chasm of the slaveholding Democracy.” On the other hand: Check out his mutton-chop whiskers.
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897) is the only president elected to nonconsecutive terms. He also appears to have been a rapist who brutally smeared his victim.
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) had policies that were no great shakes, but he said some remarkable stuff that’s been totally forgotten, along with Harrison himself:
“We Americans have no commission from God to police the world.”
“Things may be too cheap. They are too cheap when the man or woman who produces them upon the farm or the man or woman who produces them in the factory does not get out of them living wages with a margin for old age.”
“When and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot? When is he in fact to have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law? … This generation should courageously face these grave questions, and not leave them as a heritage of woe to the next.”
William McKinley (1897-1901) started America’s extremely brutal colonization of the Philippines. One Kansas soldier told a reporter that “the country won’t be pacified until the niggers [i.e., Filipinos] are killed off like the Indians,” impressively squeezing all of America’s ugliest racial ideology into one sentence.
Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) was an appropriate choice for the U.S. at the dawn of the 20th century with its incipient industrialized genocides. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indian is the dead Indian,” Roosevelt said pre-presidency, “but I believe nine out of every 10 are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the 10th.”
William Taft (1909-1913) didn’t want to be president and wasn’t good at it. But he was renominated in 1912 by GOP mandarins even though they knew he’d lose, in order to block a rebellion from progressive rank and file Republicans. “When we get back in four years,” explained Sen. James Watson of Indiana, “instead of the damned insurgents, we will have the machine.” Once you understand this kind of maneuver, politics makes much more sense.
Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) is a great lesson in never believing what politicians say about foreign policy. In 1916 he campaigned on the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” Then he led the U.S. into World War I one month after his second inauguration.
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) would be more exciting if he had, in fact, as malicious rumors had it, been poisoned by his wife. Instead he almost certainly died of a heart attack.
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) believed “The chief business of the American people is business,” which gets more profound the more you think about it. Moreover, he said it in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, as part of an argument about why it wasn’t a problem that the press was, as Coolidge put it, “controlled by men of wealth.”
Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) is scorned for his dreadful response to the beginning of the Great Depression. But he was in many ways an incredible, exemplary person and just a prisoner of the time’s awful conventional wisdom on economics. The relief effort he led in the early 1920s before becoming president rescued untold numbers of Soviet citizens from starvation. Maxim Gorky told Hoover: “Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) was president for 12 years, yet not nearly long enough. In 1944, he called for the U.S. to have a “Second Bill of Rights,” including the right to a job and the right to medical care.
Harry Truman (1945-1953) was encouraged by his advisers to increase tensions with the Soviet Union while running for president in 1948 because it would help him win: “There is considerable political advantage to the administration in its battle with the Kremlin. … In times of crisis the American citizen tends to back up his president.” To the detriment of everyone on earth, Truman took this advice.
Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) did 9/11. Let me explain.
Eisenhower approved America’s covert support for the 1953 coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minster and replaced him with the dictatorial Shah. The Shah allowed the U.S. to use Iran as a base for American power in the mideast. We now know that when the Shah was finally overthrown in 1979 and the U.S. was kicked out of Iran, the Soviets were worried that America would try to take Afghanistan, or that there would be a similar Islamist revolution there, or both. The Soviets invaded, the U.S. funded the mujahideen, and Osama bin Laden rose to prominence and got the idea it was easy to defeat superpowers. Hence 9/11.
Funnily enough, American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon on 9/11, took off from Dulles Airport in Virginia. Dulles Airport is named after John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s secretary of state and one of the main forces behind the 1953 Iranian coup.
John F. Kennedy (1961-1963) is the subject of one of the best videos on the entire internet.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) opined, in a 1948 speech in Congress, that “without superior air power America is a bound and throttled giant; impotent and easy prey to any yellow dwarf with a pocket knife.” He then vigorously put these views into action during the Vietnam War.
Richard Nixon (1969-1974) was likely the most cruel and cynical human being ever to hold the U.S. presidency. And not because of Watergate.
Gerald Ford (1974-1977) was the first modern president to use his status to cash in after he left office, setting an example for everyone (except Jimmy Carter) who followed. You can see pictures of one of Ford’s homes, his huge mansion in Vail, Colorado, here. Note the seal of the president of the United States inlaid in the marble floor.
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) was, in the popular made-up version of American history, a namby-pamby, weak-kneed, capital-L liberal. In fact, he commenced the turn to the right in U.S. politics that would accelerate under Ronald Reagan. Of course, he’s changed a great deal since then and now calls the U.S. “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery.”
Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) was the prototype for the final product that is Donald Trump.
George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) privately told Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 that “Reagan is a conservative. An extreme conservative. All the blockheads and dummies are for him.” Bush also said to Gorbachev that he would have to use harshly anti-Soviet rhetoric while running for president in 1988, but that Gorbachev shouldn’t take it seriously.
Bill Clinton (1993-2001), according to his Secretary of Defense William Perry, helped lay the groundwork for the today’s terrible present-day relations between Russia and the U.S. While “the problems today I think are mostly … Russian actions,” Perry recently said, “it’s as much our fault as it is the fault of the Russians, at least originally.” Perry specifically cited the expansion of NATO and Clinton’s decision to send U.S.-led NATO troops to Bosnia in 1996.
George W. Bush (2001-2009) told a Bush family friend in 1999 that if he was elected, he wanted to attack Iraq because it would help him politically. According to the friend, Bush said, “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief. … If I have a chance to invade … if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”
Barack Obama (2009-2017) lived in Indonesia for several years just after a 1965 U.S.-supported coup and subsequent mass slaughter there. In his book “Dreams From My Father,” Obama wrote, “We had arrived in Djakarta less than a year after one of the more brutal and swift campaigns of suppression in modern times. … Rivers of blood [had] once coursed through the streets.” You can listen to Obama reading this section for the audio version of his book here.
Donald Trump (2017-present) has never said or done anything worth noting, but perhaps one day he shall.
Of course, this barely scratches the surface of our presidents’ freakish lives and American’s vagarious history. So if you have your own favorite facts not mentioned here, please leave them in the comments — maybe we can do this every year.