This morning I woke up and realized that it is President’s Day—one of the most underrated holidays of the year.
As I rolled out of bed and made myself a cup of coffee, a groggy thought occurred to me: Why do we celebrate Presidents Day? Despite having lived in the U.S. for 19 years and having working for the State government I did not know.
As I got into my car and drove to work, the thought persisted. —And why do some people get work off but others don’t? The road was unusually empty. The wind whistled and the rain pattered against the windows. My thirty minute commute to work took fifteen.
I wanted to understand this unusual holiday. I have a degree in Political Science, damnit. I should know this! It was driving me crazy. It ate away at me. I felt like Tyrion Lannister obsessing over his cousin Orson and his beetles. (If you don’t understand this reference you need to start watching Game of Thrones ASAP…)
So I started doing some research. I wanted to learn about President’s Day. I wanted to understand this mysterious holiday.
And you wouldn’t believe how much interesting information there is out there about the U.S. Presidency.
It is astounding and amazing how much time scholars (and everyday people) have dedicated to scrupulously studying each and every President—and seemingly everything they ever did in their lives.
For a politics geek like me, this was a literary feast. I binged. I read like a madman. I pored over the origin stories of these men with the fervent intensity of a seven-year-old reading the Justice League.
Here are some of the interesting facts I learned about the U.S. Presidents. (The sources are in the links in the title.) I promise I’ll get back to the origin of President’s Day:
Just under half of the Commanders-in-Chief were also in command of at least one other foreign language. Thirteen Presidents in the 18th and 19th centuries, six in the 20th century, and two in the 21st century. (Although that is being very generous with President Bush’s ‘mastery’ of the Spanish language.)
Our first six Presidents especially were smart as shit. (Minus George Washington, who despite being amazing at everything was actually less than stellar at languages and education.) (Almost) all of them knew Latin and Greek, but some also knew Hebrew, German, and French.
Thomas Jefferson was fully fluent in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Latin, and Greek. But his library at Monticello also indicates that he studied Arabic, Welsh, and Gaelic.
And you thought the language requirements at UT were hard.
Evidently it’s not too difficult to get yourself on the money. A whopping 86% of Presidents are—or have been—on some sort of U.S. currency.
I don’t know about y’all, but this was a little surprising to me. So I did a little bit more research.
Thanks to a 2005 Act called The Presidential $1 Coin Program, every U.S. President will eventually be printed on money of some kind. This Act ensures that the U.S. Mint produces $1 coins with reliefs of the Presidents—all of them. (Even the obscure ones like James Buchanan or John Tyler.)
Carter through Obama have yet to be printed or circulated officially.
When I studied politics I was taught at length that four U.S. Presidents had been assassinated while in office: Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy.
That number always stuck in my head. Four. I don’t know why, but the number always seemed small to me. So I did a little more research. And the results were quite revealing.
The real statistic should read: “Four U.S. Presidents have been successfully assassinated while in office.”
There have been countless assassination attempts on the lives of the President (and President-elect). And every President since John F. Kennedy has been threatened with at least one assassination.
In two instances, the President was successfully shot by his would-be assassin, but survived.
President Reagan was shot in 1981 as he was leaving a speaking engagement at the Hilton in Washington D.C. The bullet penetrated his chest and he suffered a puncture in his lung, but—despite being over 70 years old—President Reagan went on to make a full recovery.
Teddy Roosevelt is the other, arguably more famous instance of a survived assassination by an incumbent President. On October 14, 1912 Teddy Roosevelt was campaigning in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when John Schrank tried to assassinate him. (Who claims he was told by the ghost of William McKinley to assassinate Roosevelt.)
Schrank shot Roosevelt in the chest. But the bullet only hit the President after hitting his steel eyeglass case, and a 50-page copy of the speech he was about to deliver (which was in his jacket).
When he did not cough up blood, Teddy decided his lung was not punctured and went ahead with the speech. His opening comments to the audience were:
Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet – there is where the bullet went through – and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.
— Theodore Roosevelt, Address at Milwaukee, Wis., October 14, 1912
And don’t even get me started on Andrew Jackson’s colorful history. (Another day.)
I found a hilarious list of Presidential nicknames.
Many people—especially politics geeks—might know that George Washington was nicknamed Cincinnatus. Or that Ronald Reagan was known as The Gipper. But did you know that almost all of our Presidents had memorable nicknames? MMA and Boxing could learn a thing or two from our Commanders-in-Chief.
Here are some of my favorites:
- John Adams – His Rotundity
- Martin Van Buren – The Little Magician
- John Tyler – His Accidency
- Rutherford B. Hayes – Rutherfraud
- Grover Cleveland – His Obstinacy
- Benjamin Harrison – The Human Iceberg
- Harry S. Truman – Give ’em hell Harry
And there are so many more gems…
The President takes home $400,000 per year in salary. But that is chump change compared to the true wealth of the man who holds the office.
Historically, the wealth of the President has varied dramatically. Some Presidents—Harry Truman and Calvin Coolidge come to mind—were not millionaires, whereas others had considerable wealth.
According to TIME, John F. Kennedy may have even been a billionaire by today’s standards. And George Washington—through marriage and a very successful real estate career—earned a net worth over $500 million.
President Obama falls mid-way through the list as the 21st wealthiest President. President George W. Bush is just four slots ahead of him. Had Mitt Romney won the election in 2012, he would be third on the list with his (supposed) net worth of $250 million.
I could go on and on about interesting trivia about the men who have held the highest office in the United States. (But for your sake, I won’t.)
This President’s Day, I encourage you to take some time to think about the men who have led our nation. For good or bad—whether you agree with their policies or not—you could never say that our Presidents are uninteresting. Many of them had incredible stories leading up to—or even following—their tenure as President.
And if you made it this far and still want to know what Presidents Day is about…
It’s actually a pretty lame explanation. Presidents Day used to be celebrated as George Washington’s Birthday (on February 22nd) from 1885-1971. It was changed to “the third Monday in February” as part of the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act—a law passed by Congress to create more three day weekends for federal employees.
Happy Presidents Day, y’all! Go hug a Political Science major today—we’re people too.