Yesterday was President’s Day, a day usually associated with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. In the spirit of the holiday, I thought it’d be fun to highlight a short list of presidents who are unheralded and long forgotten. (Those who were assassinated or had an untimely death while serving as president are disqualified.) So, without further adieu:
5. Rutherford B. Hayes (presidential term: 1877-81). A Republican during an era of Republican domination of the presidency, Hayes lost the popular vote but won the office as a result of the electoral college. But just barely. Hayes was only allowed to enter office if he agreed to end Union occupation of the South, which he did. Hayes was not only responsible for ending Reconstruction, but also for reforming the civil service, which had been known for corruption since the Andrew Jackson era. Hayes had promised voters that he would run once and only once for president of the United States, and he kept that promise, stepping down in 1881 and retiring to his home in Ohio.
4. Chester A. Arthur (presidential term: 1881-85). Arthur didn’t quite succeed Hayes, but after James A. Garfield was assassinated six months into his presidency, Arthur took over and became one of the most respected presidents of the 19th century. Another Republican, Arthur continued to work on civil service reform and modernizing the Navy, as well as keeping an eye on the recently conquered South. A big, fat blotch on Arthur’s resume is his signing of the anti-immigrant Chinese Exclusion Act, but other than that Arthur was one of the finest presidents in the history of the republic. Like Hayes, Arthur stepped down after one term and retired to his New York City home.
3. Grover Cleveland (presidential terms: 1885-89 and 1893-97). That’s right, Cleveland was the guy who served two presidential terms that weren’t back-to-back. What’s even crazier than that is the fact that Cleveland was a Democrat, and the only one to hold the office of the presidency between 1869-1913. Throughout that time period, the presidency was dominated by Republicans and Cleveland’s honest persistence. Cleveland was such a good president that this short piece cannot hope to do him service, but I will throw this factoid out there for your next cocktail party: Grover Cleveland once did time as the Mayor of Buffalo (home of long-suffering Bills fans).
2. Martin van Buren (presidential term: 1837-41). Who? Exactly! Martin Van Buren was the guy elected to mop up after Andrew Jackson. Van Buren was actually a key advisor to Jackson during Old Hickory’s presidency, but his own tenure was obviously less confrontational. Without Van Buren’s stewardship, the United States could have easily descended into Civil War far sooner than it did. He continues to be the only president who spoke English as a second language (his childhood tongue was Dutch).
1. John Quincy Adams (presidential term: 1825-29). Perhaps Q is a little bit more famous than the other four men on this list, but his presidency in definitely unheralded. That’s probably because his diplomatic achievements were so great. Adams is largely credited for being the architect of the Monroe Doctrine, which sought to keep Europeans out of the New World. During his short tenure as president, Adams saw the formation of political parties happen right before his eyes. Thus the political party in the United States was born.
The office of the presidency was not designed to be sexy or powerful. It was designed to be a counterweight to the legislative and judicial branches of a federal government, and not much more. Somehow, though, all the glory seems to go to those presidents who did more than run a branch of the government.
For those of us who think good presidents run a government simply and effectively, the Roosevelts and Bushes and (of course) Woodrow Wilson were bad presidents. America was made great by men like Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge, and Martin Van Buren. If you prefer this line of thinking, check out Ivan Eland’s short book Recarving Rushmore. You’ll like it.