For the past few years, Presidents’ Day Weekend has motivated me to write about past presidents with whom most Americans lack familiarity. Many people aren’t even aware that this holiday weekend morphed from combining Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12 and Washington’s on Feb. 22.
Considering past presidents’ history reminds us that while officeholders change, conflicts and dissension remain. This seems even more salient today as the impeachment trial of President Trump concluded with the anticipated result. The good news is that our republic has survived. The bad news is that even without social media, American politics have often been ugly and divisive.
A few years ago, one of my columns highlighted our first seven presidents, ending with Democratic-Republican Andrew Jackson (1829-1837). He was best known for advocating more individual freedoms, vetoing much legislation, forcibly removing Native Americans from the Southeast via the “Trail of Tears” and being in office during the Dred Scott decision when the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans were not citizens even in free states. Jackson, known for stubbornness, was called a “jackass” by his opponents. He liked the term so much that he used a donkey to represent himself and his Democratic Party. His legacy remains.
Martin Van Buren, the eighth president (1837-1841) and Jackson’s vice president, was elected as an anti-slavery Democrat and became even more opposed to slavery. He established the U.S. Treasury and worked to prevent Texas from joining the union, fearing it could add another slave territory and might provoke war with Mexico.
William Harrison, the first Whig Party president inaugurated in 1841, died from pneumonia one month after being sworn in. The Whig Party existed from the 1830s through the 1850s and came about because of opposition to ideas and actions of President Jackson. Harrison came from a prominent Virginia family but was presented to the public as a battle hero against Native Americans at Tippecanoe. His famous campaign slogan was “Tippecanoe and Tyler (vice presidential candidate), too.” Harrison advocated more decision making from Congress and limited roles of the president and his veto power.
It made sense that Harrison’s vice president and Whig running mate, John Tyler, held the same political philosophy as President Harrison. So, when Tyler assumed the presidency (1841-1845) just 31 days after Harrison’s inauguration, the Whigs were shocked when Tyler completely changed the party’s direction. Tyler supported the southern Whig philosophy of strong states’ rights and a powerful presidency. The Whig Party quickly expelled him and some Northern state Whig members defected to the Republican Party.
Democratic President James K. Polk (1845-1849), considered one of the most knowledgeable presidents in regard to Congress and law, declared war on Mexico a year after being elected and insisted on bringing Oregon into the union. The U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution were started under his administration.
Most Americans are unfamiliar with the views and actions of presidents Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler and Polk. Yet, they molded our nation for two decades. Their presidencies remind us that presidents change, problems persist, and thankfully that our republic endures.