Let's be frank: not all presidents were created equal, and there are probably a lot of presidents that you're barely familiar with. You learned about them once upon a time, and probably had to memorize that annoying song with all the presidents and their vice presidents, but at some point after fifth grade, you probably lost all that information. It's OK — we've all done it. So, instead of viewing this as a list of new presidential facts, view it as a refresher of information that you once totally, definitely knew.
You've got to kind of feel bad about some of the presidents who were stuck in the middle of American History, because they're far more likely to be forgotten. We remember the early Founding Fathers, and obviously we know the more recent ones. But those guys before the Civil War and during the Gilded Age are kind of a mystery to us. They all blend together in a swirl of old white guys with questionable facial hair.
For better or for worse, the fact is that these guys didn't distinguish themselves very well. Some of them definitely deserve to be remembered more than they currently are, but some of them... well, some of them are just infinitely forgettable. So here's a refresher on some old dead guys that might help you out on Jeopardy! some day.
William Henry Harrison
Our ninth president, William Henry Harrison is only remembered as being the first president to die in office. I would say that it's an unfair legacy and that Harrison did so much more than just die... but he didn't. Harrison, who was inaugurated on March 4, 1841, delivered the longest ever inaugural speech — 8,445 words — and didn't wear a coat or gloves. Exactly one month later, Harrison passed away from pneumonia. Recently, Harrison has gotten a bit of a boost in popularity thanks to a Parks and Recreation episode that's all about him, which basically just highlights how boring the guy was.
John Tyler is one of those presidents who has so many interesting factoids about him. Tyler's main legacy is that he was the first vice president to assume the presidency. At the time, there was no constitutional precedent for what to do, so Tyler took matters into his own hands and just decided to be president. People called him "His Accidency." During the election, Tyler and Harrison had the best campaign slogan ever (Tippecanoe and Tyler too!), and after Harrison's death he spent most of his time battling with the Whig party. Tyler, who was president from 1841-1845, actually has a living grandson. And his plantation was named Sherwood Forest. Have fun pulling out those facts at your next party.
James K. Polk
While running for president in 1845, Henry Clay and the Whigs asked, "Who is James K. Polk?" And we're still asking. If you measure a presidency by the ability to keep campaign promises, then Polk was the most successful president ever. He ran on four simple promises and kept them all. He ended conflict with Great Britain, created a compromise over the Oregon treaty, and lowered tariffs. He also created an independent U.S. treasury and helped America thoroughly win a war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of California. Polk was big into Manifest Destiny and was a fan of Andrew Jackson, but he also helped establish the Smithsonian. Which makes him alright. His fifth promise was to not seek reelection, and he kept his word.
Johnson is one of those presidents whose name everyone remembers, because he became president after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. I've included him on this list just because people have possibly forgotten how horrible he was. Before the Civil War, Johnson had been a senator from Tennessee, and he stayed in the senate when the state seceded. He was only vice president for six weeks before becoming president, and basically went about trying to undo everything Lincoln had accomplished. In 1866, he vetoed two separate bills that would have established protection for freed African-Americans, including the initial Civil Rights Bill (Congress overruled him). He also encouraged southern states to not ratify the 14th amendment — you know, the one that granted citizenship to African-Americans. Congress tried to impeach him in 1868, but it didn't stick. Unsurprisingly, he only had one term.
Poor James Garfield. The nation's 20th president is often overshadowed by a fat, cartoon cat of the same name. In 1881 (the same year he was inaugurated), Garfield became the second president to be assassinated in office. Despite being elected, he didn't really want to be president, and although he was an outspoken activist for civil rights, his brief administration was spent attempting to staff his cabinet and administration. His staffing problems are actually what eventually led to his demise; he was shot by Charles Guiteau, because Guiteau had been denied a position in the administration. What's even worse is that no one could find the bullet, so Garfield lived with the bullet inside of him for approximately 80 days before he finally died. Poor Garfield.
William Howard Taft
Oh, William Howard Taft: the man who wanted to be a Supreme Court justice but ended up a president. Taft gets a lot of jokes aimed his way thanks to an (unsubstantiated) rumor that he got stuck in the White House bathtub, but he was actually a pretty good guy. While campaigning, he promised to continue Teddy Roosevelt's progressive efforts, but he didn't actually believe in expanding presidential powers. His one term lasted from 1909 to 1913, during which he helped push mandated federal income tax, allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to set railroad rates, and transferred the senatorial election process away from state legislators, and to direct election by the people. Eight years after leaving the White House, his dream finally came true — Warren G. Harding elected him to the Supreme Court, and he became the only person to serve both as president and Supreme Court justice.
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