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Remembering America's Forgotten Presidents

Updated on May 14, 2017
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Cyril is interested in everything ranging from the cute to the interesting with a focus on history and the politics that divided it.

#5 James Monroe (1817-1825)

James Monroe's official White House portrait
James Monroe's official White House portrait

Monroe, commonly considered the last of the Founding Fathers, served under then General Washington during the American Revolution (depicted as holding the flag in Emanuel Leutze's "Washington Crossing the Delaware") and studied law under fellow Virginia native Thomas Jefferson before entering politics.

Presidency:

  • His term in office was described as the "Era of Good Feeling" as it was a time of relative peace and unity after the War of 1812 and the one-party system following the death of the Federalist Party. This mood of prosperity was tied into his almost unanimous reelection for a second term with only one elector refusing to vote for him.
  • Although written by his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, the Monroe Doctrine declared that the Americas would be free from European colonization in the future.
  • The Missouri Compromise allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state as Main entered as a free state. This, for the time, quelled both sides of the slave debated as the number of slave and free states were even and declared the 36-30 parallel as the dividing line between slave and free states.

Fun Facts:

  • Monroe as the 3rd president to die on the 4th of July (after Thomas Jefferson and James Adams who died on the same day, July 4th 1826)
  • He was the first president to travel by steamboat.
  • Liberia's capital, Monrovia, was named after him.
  • He served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War (now Secretary of Defense) at the same time during the War of 1812.

#8 Martin Van Buren(1837-1841)

Martin Van Buren's official White House portrait
Martin Van Buren's official White House portrait

Elected primarily due to the support of previous president Andrew Jackson, the Little Magician's greatest trick was the rapid decline of his favorability. The nickname was a reference to his small stature, one commonly referred to as feminine particularly in relation to Jackson, and his skill with debating. He served as secretary of state under Jackson's first term and Buren's support of Secretary of War John Eaton through the Petticoat Affair lead to his role as vice president in Jackson's second term.

Presidency:

  • Although the Indian Removal Act had been put forward by the Jackson administration, Buren was the one to sign the bill and most of the movement happened under his presidency.
  • He blocked the annexation of Texas into the union due to its status as a slave state.
  • Although he was against slavery in the case of Texas, Buren supported the Spanish government's claim to the Africans who had rebelled against the owners of La Amistad (The Amistad). When the federal court ruled against him, Buren had the case appealed to the Supreme Court who also supported the Africans' freedom.
  • The country underwent a massive panic, called the Panic of 1837, primarily due to the economic policies his predecessor. The panic lasted five years and lead to his eventual defeat to William Henry Harrison. This lead to him being referred to as 'Martin Van Ruin.'

Fun Facts:

  • Buren was the first 'American' president as previous ones had been born under the British controlled colonies.
  • His term as governor of New York lasted 3 months.
  • One of his many nicknames was 'Old Kinderhook' and lead to the popularization of the term 'ok.'
  • He was of Dutch ancestry and spoke English as a second langue. Buren was able to receive a coat of arms from the Dutch king.
  • His autobiography made no mention of his late wife Hanna Hoes or his presidency.

#9 William Henry Harrison (1841)

William Henry Harrison's official White House portrait
William Henry Harrison's official White House portrait

Harrison gained fame from leading US forces agains Native Americans in the Battle of Tippecanoe. This lead him to be being called 'Old Tippecanoe' although he also famously defeated Tecumseh at the Battle of Thames.

Presidency:

  • His inaugural address was the longest of record, lasting over 2 hours, despite the fact that Daniel Webster, a close friend of his, had shortened it. The combination of rain, cold weather, and his lack of coat lead to him acquiring pneumonia.
  • Harrison's term in office only last 3 months as he acquired pneumonia from his inauguration a month into his presidency.

Fun Fact:

  • Benjamin Harrison, his grandson, became the 23rd president.
  • Although he campaigned as if he were from the middle class, a log cabin family, he was an aristocrat with a well established Virginian family.
  • He is the only president to have studied medicine although it only for a short time and he hated the subject.

#10 John Tyler (1841-1845)

John Tyler's official White House portrait
John Tyler's official White House portrait

John Tyler's presidency was the first to follow the death of the president he served under. This lead to a defined succession although it also meant Tyler was incredibly unpopular due to his alienation of his party. In the end Tyler died one of the most reviled people of his time.

Presidency:

  • John Tyler was the first president to undergo impeachment proceedings although they were eventually unsuccessful. The attempt at impeachment was mostly caused by his misuse of his veto powers.
  • He was abandoned by his party, the Whigs, due to his continued veto of Henry Clay's national banking bill.
  • His entire cabinet except for Secretary of State Daniel Webster resigned in protest.
  • He was the first president to have his veto be overridden by Congress.
  • Tyler successfully annexed Texas as a slave state.

Fun Facts:

  • He as the first president to get married while in office although it was his second marriage and his wife was younger than some of his children with his first.
  • Tyler was referred to as 'His Accidency' by his opponents and many formal letters were addressed to 'acting president' or 'vice president.'
  • His death was the only of a president to not be recognized by the government. This was due to his association with the Confederacy and his role as in the Confederate House of Representatives lead to him being considered a traitor at the time of his death. The New York Times even declared him "the most unpopular public man that had ever held any office in the United States."

#11 Jame Polk (1845-1849)

James Polk official White House portrait
James Polk official White House portrait

One of the few presidents to live up to most of his campaign promises, James Polk defined what he wanted to accomplish as his four point plan and did his best to see them through. This also lead to him not campaigning for a second term as he had already accomplished all that he had wanted to as president.

Presidency:

  • He greatly believed in Manifest Destiny and was able to expand the country from coast to coast.
  • Polk promised and saw through to the reestablishment of an independent treasury, reduced tariffs, the end to the dispute over the Oregon Territory and it's border with Canada (although it wasn't the 54-40 he had campaigned on), and the acquisition of California and New Mexico.
  • The Mexican-American War was controversial (Abraham Lincoln and Henry Thoreau famously against it) as many saw it as having false pretenses. The Americans eventually won the war and gained new territory from Mexico as a result.

Fun Facts:

  • He was the first and only Speaker of the House to become president.
  • His wife, Sarah Childress, placed a blame on alcohol and dancing in the white house.
  • Polk died only 3 months after leaving office, something many explain as having been caused do to the stress of his term.

#12 Zachary Tyler (1849-1850)

Zachary Taylor official White House portrait
Zachary Taylor official White House portrait

Unlike even William Henry Harrison who served as governor over the Indiana Territory, Zachary Taylor held no political office before his presidency. He was so uninvolved in politics that his own election was the first one in which he voted. His call to fame were his many victories in the Mexican-American War.

Presidency:

  • Although he was a slave owner himself, Taylor did not support the expansion of slavery into new states or the succession of southerners states from the union. This angered many of the southerns who had voted for him believing he'd support them.
  • The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty between the UK and America established a canal in Nicaragua which connected the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The parties also agreed to not establish any territories in Central America or fortify the area surrounding the canal.

Fun Facts:

  • His nickname, 'Old Rough and Ready,' was a reference to his willing to fight in any situation.
  • He got sick from eating cherries and drinking milk during a 4th of July celebration that gave him cholera and lead to his death.

#13 Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Millard Fillmore's official White House portrait
Millard Fillmore's official White House portrait

Following the death of President Taylor, it became Fillmore's responsibly to face the heated topic of slavery. Although he was personally against slavery, he valued the unity of the union above all else and the legislation he signed reflects this.

Presidency:

  • The Fugitive Slave Act forced Northerners to turn in runaway slaves to their Southerner owners.
  • The Compromise of 1850 admitted California into the union as a free state while leaving New Mexico and Utah to determine their classification among themselves. The bill also ended slave trade in Washington DC and gave federal officers the ability to capture and turn in runaway slaves. Although Taylor had been against the legislation, Fillmore thought it would be the end to the debate over slavery. Taylor's cabinet, which Fillmore had inherited when he took over, resigned in protest to the signing of the bill.
  • Commodore Perry made his trek to Japan and forcefully opened the country to trade with America.

Fun Facts:

  • Fillmore grew up with 3 books: the bible, a hymnbook, and an almanac. This inspired him to highly value books and learning and lead to his establishment of the first permanent White House library. When he learned that there was a fire in the Library of Congress he personally ran to put it out,
  • His wife, Abigail Powers, had been his teacher in school.

#14 Franklin Pearce (1853-1857)

Franklin Pearce's official White House portrait
Franklin Pearce's official White House portrait

A dark horse candidate who was considered for his lack of firm stance on slavery, Pierce's term as president started tragically with a train accident that killed his son. This was his third and last child to die at a young age and lead to a strained relationship with his wife, one that never recovered, as she blamed their son's death on Pierce.

Presidency:

  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act ended the Missouri Compromise and allowed the newly admired states named in the bill to determine their position as free states or slaves states. A number of fights broke out between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces and lead to the violence being called 'Bleeding Kansas.'
  • The Ostend Manifesto declared that the United States could purchase Cuba from Spain.
  • Thorough the Gadsden Purchase the US purchased the land that makes up part of current day New Mexico and Arizona for $10 million.

Fun Facts:

  • For religious reasons Pierce refused to 'swear' his inaugural speech and instead 'promised.'
  • Jefferson Davis, his Secretary of War, later became the president of the Confederacy.
  • Jane Pierce, his wife, stayed out of the public eye and continued to write letters to their dead son.
  • The premature death of his children and strained relationship with his wife lead to him becoming an alcoholic.

#15 James Buchanan (1857-1861)

James Buchanan's official White House portrait
James Buchanan's official White House portrait

Buchanan is often said to have had an impossible task, to prevent the Civil War from ripping the country apart, but he did fail to do much of value. A northerner sympathetic to southern slave owners, Buchanan was despised by most everyone in the country for his ineptitude to do much of value. This was due mostly to the fact that Republicans in Congress held the plurality and were able to prevent Buchanan's legislation from passing Congress and in return Buchanan vetoed Republican legislation.

Presidency:

  • The Dred Scott decision angered northerners as the court ruled that the federal government did not have the ability to regulate slavery in American territories and denied African Americans, slaves or otherwise, the rights of other Americans.
  • Multiple states, South Carolina first, secede after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Although Buchanan did not think the states had the right to succeed, he didn't think he had the right to stop them from succeeding.

Fun Facts:

  • Only president to be a life long bachelor as his marriage to Ann Coleman was called off and she died soon after. It is thought that she committed suicide.
  • Buchanan's sexuality has been up for debate as he lived with William Rufus King, a senator from Alabama, for a decade even when both had the resources to live independently.
  • When the prince of Wales visited the White House he brought so many people that all of the rooms were filled and Buchanan had to sleep in the hallway.

#20 James Garfield (1881)

James Garfield's official White House portrait
James Garfield's official White House portrait

A major general in the Civil War, Garfield spent most of his term recovering from an assassination attempt and dealing with a split party. Republicans being divided among Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, Garfield had to make sure to appease both particularly in terms of cabinet appointments.

Presidency:

  • An investigation into corruption in the Post Office Department lead to Garfield demanding the resignation of Second Assistant Postmaster-General Thomas Brady. When it was discovered that many high up Republicans would be implication, Garfield directed investigators to root out corruption no matter the cost.
  • Garfield was a supporter of civil rights and appointed many former slaves to positions in the government.
  • A Pan-American conference was organized between Latin American countries to facilitate more trade.
  • Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in a train station for not receiving a position in the administration. Garfield spent 11 weeks in intensive care although his condition did improve for some time. As the doctors weren't aware of modern medical practices that could have prevented infection, particularly the need to wash hands before probing a wound, the president died months after having been shot. Guiteau was found guilty of murder and hanged not long after.

Fun Facts:

  • Garfield spoke and wrote both Greek and Latin. Being ambidextrous he could write in either language in different hands at the same time.
  • He is the only person in American history to be a Representative, Senator-elect, and President-elect at the same time.

#21 Chester Arthur (1881-1885)

Chester Arthur's official White House portrait
Chester Arthur's official White House portrait

Although Chester Arthur hadn't expected to become president, he was able to dismantle the same spoils system that had lead to him getting a such powerful position in the first place.

Presidency:

  • The Pendleton Civil Service Act gave federal appointment based on the merit of the candidate rather than patronage. It also created to Civil Service Commission to ensure it was being enforced.
  • As the US Navy had been in decline for years, Arthur provided more funding and was able to modernize it.
  • Although Arthur vetoed the Chinese Exclusion Act, Congress overrode his veto and and suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years.

Fun Facts;

  • While Arthur was considered to be corrupt in his time in the New York Customs House, his term as president found him supporting the middle class and farmers. This angered Republican party elite who were hoping that he'd be as corrupt as he had been in New York.
  • Because he had contracted Bright's disease, a condition which he kept private, Arthur did not seek a second term in office.
  • Noted for being an elegant dresser, Arthur was reported to have 80 pairs of pants.

#22 & 24 Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97)

Grover Cleveland's official White House portrait
Grover Cleveland's official White House portrait

The only president to have been elected to two non-consecutive terms, Grover Cleveland a pro business Democrat in an era of Republican presidents. He was considered to be incredibly honest, even admitting that an illegitimate child might have been his, but his second administration saw an economic disaster that paved the way for a Republican landslide.

Presidency:

  • The Pullman's Strike, the first national strike in America, was successfully put down when Cleveland sent federal troops.
  • The Panic of 1893 lead to a decrease in the gold reserve, bank failures, and the crippling of the railroads. As Cleveland was unable to limit the damage, the Republicans successfully retook the White House in the next election.

Fun Facts:

  • When he was drafted in the Civil War, Cleveland paid an immigrant to fight in his place. This was legal at the time, and a common occurrence among those with the money, but political rivals used it to question his loyalty to the state.
  • Cleveland is the only president to have his wedding ceremony take place in the White House.

#25 William McKinley (1897-1901)

William McKinley's official White House portrait
William McKinley's official White House portrait

Remembered primarily for the formerly named Mt. McKinley, William McKinley lead the country through the Spanish-American War and was the first president to ride in automobile, although it was the ambulance that drove him to the hospital when he was assassinated.

Presidency:

  • With already heightened animosity against the Spanish, Americans were ready to go to war when the USS Maine mysteriously sank. The easy victory saw the US gain Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines as territories.
  • The Dingley Tariff raised tariffs in the United States and strengthen McKinley's standing with laborers.
  • Hawaii was annexed as a territory.

Fun Facts:

  • His wife wasn't fond of the color yellow and had the color removed from everything in the White House including the colors in the gardens.
  • McKinley was the last president to have fought in the Civil War.
  • When he was shot by an anarchist hiding his gun with an injured hand, McKinley told the crowd, "Boys, don't let them hurt him." He died a week later, the third president in 36 years to be assassinated. This spurred the Secret Service starting to protect the president when their original task was to deal with counterfeit money.

#27 William Taft (1909-1913)

William Taft's official White House portrait
William Taft's official White House portrait

Although he had been personally groomed by Theodore Roosevelt to be the next president, Taft's dream was to become a judge on the Supreme Court. The stress of the presidency lead the already large man to gain even more weight as he used food to deal with the anxiety.

Presidency:

  • The 16th Amendment created federal income tax.
  • Taft became the fist president to rule over the 48 mainland states when New Mexico and Arizona joined the union.
  • He signed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff which was ineffective and not favored by many in the Republican Party, including Roosevelt.

Fun Facts:

  • An avid fan of baseball, Taft was the first president to throw the first pitch of the baseball season.
  • After he was named as the Republican candidate, Taft's wife went to the Democratic National Convention as the speakers were unlikely to speak ill of her husband in her presence.
  • He managed to get stuck in a bathtub and needed 6 aides to help him out. This spurred them to install a new tub in the White House, one capable of fitting 4 grown men. Taft is probably best remembered for this incident.
  • Taft is the only president to also serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, something he considered the high point of his career.
  • Unsatisfied with Taft's time in the White House, Roosevelt reentered political and ran against him with a newly formed political party. This split the Republicans and paved way for Woodrow Wilson's presidency.

#29 Warren Harding (1921-1923)

Warren Harding's official White House portrait
Warren Harding's official White House portrait

The sixth president to die in office, any good from Warren G. Harding's presidency presidency was overshadowed by the high level of criminal activity in his cabinet and administration.

Presidency:

  • The Teapot Dome Scandal shed light on the fact that Albert Fall, secretary of the interior, had been renting out public land to oil companies in exchange for gifts and personal favors. Although this only came to light after Harding's death and did not implicate him as having known about it, the scandal defamed the name of the Harding White House. Fall was later convicted of bribery, but fit not spend more than a year in prison.
  • Harding nominated and appointed William Taft to the Supreme Court as Chief Justice.
  • The Washington Naval Armament Conference produced a treaty between the major naval powers limiting ship tonnage. The conference also resulted in America's Open Door Policy in reference to China being seen as international policy by many European countries.

Fun Facts:

  • His wife, known as the Duchess, kept a little red of everyone she perceived to be an enemy of her husband.
  • He had many affairs that came to light after his death, one that was proven to have resulted in an illegitimate child.
  • An avid gambler and drunk, Harding gambled away many sets of priceless White House china while violating the 18th Amendment that made alcohol illegal.

#30 Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

Calvin Coolidge's official White House portrait
Calvin Coolidge's official White House portrait

Mostly remembered for his quiet demeanor and quick wit, Calvin Coolidge saw the United States through the 'Roaring Twenties.' Free from the carnage of WWI and unaware that the economy would collapse within a decade, the country celebrated an era of social revolution.

Presidency:

  • The Indian Citizenship Act granted full citizenship to Amerindians.
  • An investigation into corruption in the Harding administration lead to the dismissal of the attorney general as it was a priority of Coolidge's to restore trust in the American government.
  • The Kellogg-Briand Pact, which Coolidge signed in Paris, was a treaty in which present countries agreed to not use war as a tool to resolve conflict.

Fun Facts:

  • One of Calvin Coolidge's sons got a splinter injury during a tennis match and died not long after from an infection.
  • He went by the nickname 'Silent Cal' and was known to be a man of few words. His announcement that he would not be running for another term in office was simply, "I do not choose to run for President in 1928," and his final will and testaments consisted of 23 words.
  • Miles from Washington when he got word that President Harding was dead, Coolidge was immediately sworn in by his father who was a notary public.

Which of these presidents did you already know about?

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Sources

  • Elizabeth Jewell: U.S. Presidents Factbook
  • William Degregorio: Complete Book of U.S. Presidents

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