Aaron R. Davis
Today as I write this — yesterday as you read this — was Presidents’ Day, an annual celebration of leadership, heritage and low, low mattress prices. Presidents’ Day actually began in 1880 as the observation of George Washington’s birthday on February 22. Ironically, since the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 (a typically self-serving act of Congress designed to take various fixed date holidays and move their observations to Mondays to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal employees), Washington’s Birthday is never actually observed on Washington’s actual birthday, but simply on the third Monday in February. So mail carriers get an extra day off, ABC Family shows a marathon of whatever cheesy show it’s pushing and the rest of us go to work and carry on like we do every day. But what is Presidents’ Day really about? What are we really celebrating every third Monday in February?
Well, the easiest answer is, of course, a day or so before the birth of George Washington. The term “Presidents’ Day” actually didn’t gain much hold until the mid-80s, when advertisers began using it as an excuse to discount mattresses, try to get rid of last year’s cars, offer two for one grocery deals and whatever other excuses there are for local business owners to get some guy dressed up in Colonial gear and try not to weep the tears of the undignified as they entice you to save money on canned tomatoes. The holiday is actually only called “Presidents’ Day” in about a dozen states. Though the idea of a holiday celebrating the office of the presidency was first proposed in 1951 (and was targeted for March 4, the original inauguration day), the US is not yet legally required to spend a day honoring the mere existence of someone being in power.
And, frankly, we shouldn’t. Because we certainly have had presidents worth honoring, and we’ve had presidents we barely even remember because they were just too awful to bother with. So while there are many websites, TV shows and speechmakers who spent the third Monday in February extolling the heritage of the privileged leading a corporate-owned government who spent a century hemming and hawing over whether it was morally correct to own other people, I offer a few historical reminders as to why cynicism about such things can be a pretty healthy viewpoint.
(And for those of you groaning, I could’ve made worse choices. I was flipping channels yesterday and saw that the Presidents’ Day topic on The Talk — a show which seems only to exist for people who feel that The View is too intellectual and nowhere near shrill enough — was which presidents were the hottest.)
George Washington hated the idea of political parties — he warned that America was simply trading the monarchy for rule by parties with their own selfish geographical and economic interests — but favored government control by the banking and merchant classes and likened true democracy to uninformed mob rule.
John Adams made it illegal to publish writings against the government and its officials, and legal to deport resident aliens if their countries were at war against the US.
Thomas Jefferson outlawed the slave trade, but after tying in the election with Aaron Burr he was only elected when he promised Federalists he wouldn’t shake up the status quo (or outlaw slavery).
James Madison started the War of 1812, a war whose only major American victory came after the war was already over.
James Monroe announced that no European influence would be brooked in the Americas, but only so the US could be the ones pushing Latin America around, instead.
John Quincy Adams… seriously, he didn’t do anything important. He was so inept that the campaign for the next election started three years early.
Andrew Jackson made Indian “removal” official federal policy because he had already found, in a series of illegal wars, that doing so was an easy way to make a fortune off of cheap land.
Martin Van Buren oversaw America’s first major economic depression.
William Henry Harrison died within his first month as president; he got there by being the first aristocratic scion of a wealthy family to claim he was of humble origins.
John Tyler was a major proponent of Manifest Destiny and tried to start a war with Mexico over land.
James K. Polk actually did start a war with Mexico over land, partially by provoking them with a border expansion, and partly by annexing the independent Texas before he was even inaugurated.
Zachary Taylor was just kind of an idiot who didn’t know what to do with all of the new land, gold rush money or anything else.
Millard Fillmore, who was not a duck, made it a law that black people — even free citizens — had no right to defend themselves from accusation in court, meaning that anyone could be forced back into slavery at any time.
Franklin Pierce tried so hard to appease both the pro- and anti-slavery factions that he ended up causing a bloodbath in Kansas that killed 200 people.
James Buchanan engaged in a behind-the-scenes deal with the Supreme Court to extend slavery, resulting in the Dred Scott Decision, which ruled that all black people were property.
Abraham Lincoln… sorry, but you just can’t speak ill of this guy. What can you say? That the Conscription Act led to riots? He only had to conscript soldiers because so many white guys in the supposedly abolitionist North were pissy about the Emancipation Proclamation making their war about “preserving the economic power of the Union” into something about freeing slaves.
Andrew Johnson vetoed civil rights for blacks.
Ulysses S. Grant presided over the most corrupt cabinet up to that point in US history and let the corporations take over the country for business interests.
Rutherford B. Hayes authorized military troops to fire on striking workers.
James A. Garfield… well, he didn’t do anything, he was assassinated too quickly. Thomas Edison had to invent the metal detector to find all of the bullets in his body.
Chester A. Arthur signed acts excluding the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and the Chinese from entering the country.
Grover Cleveland had to let JP Morgan bail out the government and was in bed with Standard Oil.
Benjamin Harrison oversaw the perversion of laws, claiming that the Fourteenth Amendment was meant to protect corporations as though they were people, and that antitrust laws were meant to protect corporations from “unlawful restraints” such as unions and striking workers.
William McKinley bought his way to the presidency and oversaw a Supreme Court that made segregation legal in an era when lynchings were so common that some newspapers carried promotional ads for them. McKinley also annexed Hawaii at gunpoint at the behest of American sugar companies.
Theodore Roosevelt did a lot of good for American workers, but also turned Latin America into a collection of vassal states and started a war of “independence” in Panama simply to gain control of land to build a canal and turn the Panamanians into serfs.
William Howard Taft just sort of threw in the towel when it came to getting reelected.
Woodrow Wilson made Jim Crow laws federal policy, actively fought against women’s suffrage, and was pushed into World War I by powerful banking and business interests who didn’t want to be left out of Europe’s war over control of the colonial resources of Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Warren G. Harding was just a crook, siphoning off millions and selling government land to private oil interests.
Calvin Coolidge sat back and let the businesses make policy.
Herbert Hoover rejected public relief programs during the Great Depression as “socialism,” had the military chase away veterans who were peacefully gathering to demand their bonuses and lived regally with servants in the belief that the appearance of presidential prosperity was good for American morale.
Franklin D. Roosevelt … well, he upheld segregation in the armed forces, but that sure does pale in comparison to all the ways he made this country better. Like Lincoln, I can’t say anything bad about him.
Harry S. Truman enforced integration, which is good, but he also turned any global conflict he could into an ideological proxy war against the USSR.
Dwight D. Eisenhower oversaw the creation of the CIA, which he then used to interfere in other nations for the benefit of US companies.
John F. Kennedy escalated US involvement in a Vietnamese civil war which became a small-level substitute for a third World War.
Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, but he also promised not to escalate the war in Vietnam, and then did, helping to fabricate the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.
Richard M. Nixon … do I even need to give an example?
Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.
Jimmy Carter failed at most of what he tried to do.
Ronald Reagan began the wholesale dismantling of FDR’s social programs in order to increase defense spending and interfere in other nations, sometimes seemingly just for the fun of mobilizing infantry.
George HW Bush only put troops in the Middle East when Iraq invaded Kuwait to defend Saudi Arabia against Saddam Hussein, sent America in a downsize-crazy recession and bailed out the savings and loan industry.
Bill Clinton apparently has no accountability for anything ever.
George W. Bush was a true piece of shit. His one major accomplishment is taking more vacation time than any other president.
And that last one is the real achievement we should celebrate on this day of presidents, isn’t it? So, now that you’ve had your cynical history lesson, next year why not take the day off, buy a cheap mattress and lay back and crack open a beer in true presidential fashion?
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.