For­got­ten pres­i­dents, part 2

The Catoosa County News - - COMMENTARY - David Carroll

As noted last week, many of to­day’s teens can only name a hand­ful of our 45 pres­i­dents. Ev­ery third-grader is fa­mil­iar with Wash­ing­ton and Lin­coln, but who are those other guys? In part 1 of this se­ries, I cov­ered the lesser­known 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 with Part 3 in two weeks. Next week: Thanks­giv­ing!

David Carroll, a Chat­tanooga news an­chor, is the au­thor of “Chat­tanooga Ra­dio and Tele­vi­sion” and “Vol­un­teer Bama Dawg,” a col­lec­tion of his best sto­ries. Au­to­graphed books are avail­able at Chat­tanoogaRa­, or by send­ing $23 each to David Carroll Book, 900 White­hall Road, Chat­tanooga, TN 37405. You may con­tact David at

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