Today is Presidents Day, a holiday originally created to celebrate George Washington’s Birthday (which isn’t actually until February 22, so don’t freak out if you haven’t gotten him anything yet). However, the day has since been rebranded to honor all 44 U.S. Presidents.
And, to honor all 44 U.S. Presidents, most Americans either spend the holiday watching crappy daytime television in their boxers or venturing out to buy crap they don’t need in “Presidents Day sales events.” I seriously doubt too many people are swinging by Mount Rushmore with cards or dropping a bag of peanuts on Jimmy Carter’s doorstep this afternoon to pay tribute to the men who have served in the highest office in this country.
What’s more depressing is how little most of us actually know about our Presidents. Sure, there are political science majors, nerds and foreigners studying for citizenship tests that could probably tell you all about all of our former Commanders-in-chief, but I’m guessing if you started a game show where you asked average Americans to name all 44 Presidents or to recite facts about them, it would probably be a while before you’d have to give away the trip to Fiji. Hell, I’m sure there are quite a few Americans out there who would be stumped if you simply asked them how many Presidents we’ve had.
Sure, we can all name the easy ones. We know the guys on the money – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant (and possibly William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, James Madison and Woodrow Wilson if you are doing much better financially than I am). Chances are you know our second President, John Adams, or at the very least his second cousin Sam Adams, who knew how to make a tasty beverage. You could probably name Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover as well. And maybe you remember Taft because he was fat and looked a bit like Wilford Brimley or James Garfield because, well, his last name was Garfield (and he really hated Mondays).
Somewhere between F.D.R. and JFK, most of us can pick up steam and start rattling them off in order. If nothing else, I think the average American at least know the Presidents that he or she was alive for. Even the really oblivious among us should at least be able to name everyone from the first George Bush on.
I have a few Presidents which I only know for the silly reasons. For example, I will always remember that Chester A. Arthur was our 21st President because I’ve seen Die Hard With A Vengeance too many times. I will also always remember Calvin Coolidge simply because I think he has an awesome name and because there is a psychological phenomenon named after him called The Coolidge Effect (which gets its name from a pretty awkward trip Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge took to a poultry farm).
But then there are the Presidents that aren’t even vaguely familiar to the average American. There have only been 44 of these dudes, but seriously, some of them just sound made up. For example, how many of you could actually name our 12th President, Zachary Taylor? How about our 23rd President, Benjamin Harrison? Could you tell me anything about them (besides the fact that they both sound like they could be members of a boy band)?
It really is a shame to me that we all don’t know more about these men who helped to shape our nation. Most of us can do a better job naming former American Idol winners or Super Bowl champions than Presidents. Perhaps if Harrison could throw a perfect spiral or Taylor had a golden set of pipes, we would remember their names. I don’t want to get too preachy, but considering how divided this country has become politically, we could probably all stand to brush up on our nation’s history.
[Editor’s Note – This column originally ran on the site on February 15, 2010.]
So what’s the solution? I think it’s simple. I think the government should use President’s Day to start promoting some of these lesser known Presidents. They should start an annual “Know Your POTUS” campaign where they spotlighted the really obscure guys. This year they could focus on “Old Rough and Ready” himself, Zachary Taylor. Sure, he was only in office 16 months, but his 40-year military career and the work he did urging New Mexico and California into statehood (which paved the way for the Compromise of 1850) make him a worthy candidate. If nothing else, his bizarre death attributed to acute gastroenteritis could serve as an important reminder to us all not to eat food given to us by strangers.
Over time, we’d learn more Presidents’ names and would gain some insight into who these men were. We’d all be a little better informed, which is always a good thing. A wise 80s cartoon once told me that knowing is half the battle, which I believe is true. So with a little effort, we could ensure that the children growing up today dreaming of one day becoming President are well-informed about the men who came before them.
And, if nothing else, we’d all at least have a much better shot at winning that trip to Fiji.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.