In Part 1, I covered the lesser-known presidents through the Civil War. Most of the presidents from Reconstruction until the turn of the 20th century are not exactly household words. They kept us in business, but very few ended up on coins and postage stamps. Let’s find out why.
After Abe Lincoln made his ill-fated visit to Ford’s Theater, it was up to Vice President Andrew Johnson to take the oath and reunite a war-torn nation. Unfortunately, the man from Greeneville, Tennessee was not qualified for the job. Stubborn, racist, and an alcoholic, Johnson made every effort to dismantle what Lincoln had rebuilt. For more than a hundred years, Johnson’s main claim to fame was being the only president to be impeached. I’m not saying it’s his fault, but Tennessee hasn’t fielded a successful presidential candidate ever since.
The next president, Ulysses S. Grant had one thing in common with his disgraced predecessor. They both drank way too much. Johnson was reportedly drunk when he was sworn in to replace Lincoln, and Grant was known to drink while commanding Union troops in the Civil War, and throughout his two terms in the White House. We’ll give him credit for a couple things. He ratified the 15th Amendment, giving every man, regardless of race, the right to vote (sorry, ladies, your turn wouldn’t arrive for another fifty years). Grant also established the national parks we still enjoy today. Still, he hated being president, and couldn’t wait to get out of the White House. If someone had told him his face would later be on the fifty-dollar bill, it might have cheered him up.
We should be able to zip through the next few commanders-in-chief, because they are basically lost to history. Fifteen years before becoming president, Rutherford B. Hayes volunteered to join the Union forces in the Civil War, and didn’t shy away from action. He was wounded five times, and once was given up for dead. He’s the first president (but not the last) to take office despite losing the popular vote. Hayes’ opponent got 250,000 more votes, but there were accusations of voter fraud (sound familiar?). The votes from several states were voided, and Hayes ended up winning the electoral college by one vote. From then on, his opponents referred to him as “Ruther-fraud Hayes.”
In 1881, James A. Garfield became the 20th president, but not for long. Four months into his presidency, he was shot by a crazed man, who was angry because Garfield had not appointed him Ambassador to France. You would think a seriously wounded president would have the best medical care in the world, but Garfield, who should have survived, was not so fortunate. He was butchered by incompetent doctors who tore open his liver and infected the wound while trying to get to the bullet. He suffered in excruciating pain for eleven weeks before his heart gave out. By all accounts, he had big plans, but never got to see them through.
His vice president, Chester Arthur, was widely believed to have bought his way onto the ticket. Ironically, after assuming the top job, he reformed civil service laws, forbidding people from obtaining government jobs and promotions through anything but merit. One of his critics said Arthur was one of the few politicians “who left office more honest than when he went in.”
Ever seen a $1,000 bill? Neither have I. But when and if we do, it will be Grover Cleveland’s face on the front. If he’s famous at all these days, it’s for being the only president to run for, and win two non-consecutive terms. He’s our 22nd and 24th president. But if Twitter and Facebook had been around in the 1880s, he would have made our current politicians seem tame. He had reportedly raped a woman a few years earlier, while he was a sheriff. When the woman had his child, Cleveland seized the infant, and had her committed to an insane asylum. Cleveland’s opponents heckled him by yelling, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” When Cleveland won the election anyway, his supporters answered, “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!”
One of Cleveland’s first achievements after taking office was getting married. He was 48, and his bride was 21. What would Fox News and CNN have to say about THAT?
Cleveland lost his re-election bid after his first term to Benjamin Harrison, our last bearded president. During Harrison’s one term, six states in the northwest, including Idaho, were admitted to the union. So the next time you enjoy a potato, think of Ben.
We’ll pick up at the turn of the 20th Century in Part 3.