Presidents Day started as a federal celebration of George Washington’s birthday, probably our country’s most revered president.
More recently, the day has become a celebration of all of America’s presidents to date, including such other famous men as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and others.
Yet several of our top leaders aren’t so well-known. They may not have led the American Revolution, but these relatively unknown presidents also managed to distinguish themselves in other ways.
• John Quincy Adams served as secretary to the American ambassador to Russia when he was just 14. In 1824, he was elected to the House of Representatives after a three-way tie between himself, William Crawford and Andrew Jackson. The son and namesake of John Adams, our nation’s second president, John Quincy was the first son of a president to become president in turn.
Even after the end of his term, this Adams served as a Congressman until age 80, when he collapsed on the House floor from a stroke.
• Martin Van Buren was the first president to have been born after the Revolutionary War. Since he was a widower when he entered office, his daughter-in-law performed the First Lady’s hostess duties. After being defeated for a second term by William Henry Harrison in 1840, Van Buren ran again for president as the anti-slavery Free Soil candidate in 1848. However, he failed to win any electoral votes that year.
• William Henry Harrison holds the distinction of both the longest inaugural address and the shortest term in office. After delivering his nearly two-hour-long speech in the rain in March of 1841, Harrison came down with pneumonia, spent much of the next month in bed, and died just 30 days into his presidency. His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, also became president in 1889 — the two are the only grandparent-grandchild pair of presidents.
• Franklin Pierce was a “dark horse” candidate, nominated on the 48th ballot at the Democratic Convention in 1852. He supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which led to the “Bleeding Kansas” skirmishes and was a major cause of the Civil War. Pierce became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne in college and Hawthorne later wrote a biography of Pierce in 1852, during his presidential campaign. So far, Pierce is the only president ever to come from New Hampshire.
• Rutherford B. Hayes was elected president in 1876, in one of the most hotly contested elections in history. Neither he nor any other candidate had won the majority in the Electoral College necessary; also, the votes of Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oregon were in doubt. As a result, Congress formed a special Electoral Commission to solve the dilemma.
As Inauguration Day neared, the commission formed a compromise: the Republicans could put Hayes, their candidate, in office, in exchange for the end of the Reconstruction Acts and the withdrawal of military forces from the South. Because of the controversy, Hayes was sworn in secretly in a private ceremony before taking a second, public oath. He also started the tradition of the annual Easter egg roll on the White House lawn.
• Chester Arthur became president when a disappointed office-seeker assassinated President James Garfield in 1881. Arthur was a champion of civil service reform; during his term, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which provided for government positions to be filled through competitive examinations rather than through patronage. He was the last president to have served in the Civil War.
Enjoy your Feb. 18 and remember the presidents who indirectly made it possible for today’s school children and federal employees to have this Monday off.
Angelica Previte is a junior at Weber High School and an inveterate bibliophile. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.