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Remembering our Presidents

Guest Column

By Don White
Contributing Columnist

During February, as we celebrate President's day, I felt it was important to remember something about a few of those 43 men who have served as president. Most of us know something about Washington and Lincoln, but did you know that two others were born in February?

George Washington: born Feb. 22, 1732 - died Dec. 14, 1799. Our first President served from 1789 to 1797 and gave the shortest inauguration speech.

William H. Harrison: born Feb. 9, 1773 - died April 4, 1842. Our ninth President served only one month as he had contracted pneumonia late in March and died on April 4. He gave the longest inauguration speech. His grandson, Benjamin Harrison, was our 23rd president from 1889 to 1893.

Abraham Lincoln: born Feb. 12, 1809 - died April 15, 1865. Our 16th President had just begun his second term when on the night of April 14, 1865, he was shot by John Wilkes Booth and died the next morning.

Ronald W. Regan: born Feb. 6, 1911 - died June 5, 2004. Our 40th President is the only one to be born in Illinois and the oldest man ever to be elected to the office.

While growing up in Peoria it was easy for school kids to learn the first five presidents in order. The downtown streets were named, starting from the Illinois River:

Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe. Then, of course, the sixth president was John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams. So we have had two families with father and son presidents.

Did you know that Martin Van Buren was the first person born in the United States to become president? Did you know the Roosevelts were distant cousins?

About half of the 43 men were lawyers and more than half served in the military including Lincoln who served for a time as a captain in the Illinois Milita during the Black Hawk Indian War. The men who are most remembered for their military service are Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

As I said, Reagan was the only man born in Illinois to become president. Others who lived in Illinois and either ran for president or vice president were Lincoln, Grant, Steven A. Douglas, Adlai Stevenson I (VP), William J. Bryan (1896, 1900 and 1908), Charles Dawes (VP), and Adlai Stevenson II (1952 and 1956).

So you think politics is wild now? How about the presidential election of 1800 where John Adams ran against Thomas Jefferson? Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr, tied in the electoral college vote as each member was allowed two votes. Jefferson finally won on the 36th ballot of the House of Representatives. (This early flaw in the Constitution was soon corrected.)

While sitting as vice president, Burr fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton. The duel was fought on July 11, 1804 on the Island of Weehawken, N.J. Hamilton was killed and Burr was not charged with murder. Did you know that Lincoln was once challenged to a duel by James Shields? It was never fought.

We have had nine "accidental" presidents - vice presidents, many of whom would have never attained the office of president on their own. There were eight deaths, of which four were by assassination and one by resignation. Two others were almost impeached, Andrew Johnson and William Clinton, so we could have had 11 accidental presidents. Some of them did well while others did not. A list of presidential ratings that I saw had two of the nine rated as near greats. They were Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

During the Civil War there were seven men who served in the military and later became president. Two of these were accidental presidents, but they never saw action in the field. Andrew Johnson was appointed military governor of Tennessee by Lincoln. Chester Arthur served the state of New York as inspector general and quartermaster. The other five were Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley.

Some other presidential facts:

Herbert Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi River.

Ronald Reagan was the only president to be divorced. He appointed the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O'Connor.

Woodrow Wilson became blind in his right eye in 1895. He is the only president buried in Washington, D.C., at the Washington National Cathedral.

John Calvin Coolidge is the only president to be born on the Fourth of July. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826.

William Taft was the largest president - over 300 pounds.

James Madison was the smallest president - about 100 pounds.

Chester Arthur, one of the accidental presidents, sold wagon loads of furniture from the White House for $8,000 - not realizing that they were priceless.

Garfield was the last of seven presidents to be born in a log cabin.

Ulysses S. Grant's real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant. His name was changed when the application to West Point submitted by his congressman listed him as Ulysses S. Grant.

As many of you know, my interests are of Lincoln and the Civil War, so I will close with a few thoughts about our 16th president. Did you know that Abraham and Mary Lincoln never had their picture taken together? Likewise, there was never one of the Lincoln family until after Lincoln's assassination when many engravers and lithographers created composites. None of these were very well done. Artist Francis B. Carpenter had spent six months at the White House painting the family and members of the cabinet. He was commissioned to do a composite family picture and it stands as the definitive portrait of the Lincoln family that we have.

The latest information that I saw was that there were over 16,000 books written about Lincoln. Carl Sandburg, Winston Churchill, former Sen. Paul Simon, William Herndon (Lincoln's last law partner), and John Nicolay and John Hay (Lincoln's two main secretaries) are a few of the more well-known men who have written about Lincoln.

I ask myself this question over and over as I continue to study Mr. Lincoln: How could someone from those humble beginnings in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana, with little formal education, wind up being elected to the highest office in the nation?

Lincoln became a man during his years spent in New Salem from 1831 to 1837. He tried many jobs just trying to keep himself fed and clothed. He also began to study for the law. These were his college days, so to speak. The people elected him to his first of four terms to the Illinois House of Representatives.

In 1836 he passed the bar exam and was issued his law license. Then in 1837 he moved to Springfield and began to practice law with his first partner, John Stuart. So at the age of 28 Lincoln made the most exciting move of his young life. The most ironic thing was the timing of the move; it was that he had already lived half of his life. He was 56 years old when he died. Those last 28 years of his life are amazing to behold. He married Mary Todd and they had four boys. Only Robert would live a full adult life. Edward died at age 3, William died at age 11 and Thomas was 18. The Lincolns lived in Springfield until they moved to Washington, D.C., in 1861. They did spend some parts of two years in Washington when Lincoln served his one term as U.S. representative from 1847 to 1849.

During those Springfield years, Mr. Lincoln became a successful lawyer and the family was content in their house on Eight Street. As we all know, Lincoln could not stay away from politics and by 1858 he was back in action running for senator against Stephen A. Douglas. Even though Lincoln won the peoples vote, he was defeated in the Illinois House and Douglas retained his position as senator from Illinois.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates pushed Lincoln into the forefront of national politics as a Republican candidate for president in 1860. At the time no one would have given him any chance of being nominated, but the rest of the country did not have a clue how politics were played in Illinois. (Not much different than today.)

The Republican Party of Illinois chose Lincoln the "Rail Splitter" as their man and then set about getting the national convention held in Chicago - and the rest is history. He was nominated for president and when the Democratic party split - North and South - and a fourth party joined in. Lincoln's election was assured.

In April 1865, as the war was winding down, the Lincolns planned a night out at the theatre. The Grants and the Stantons were invited to attend, but neither Mrs. Grant nor Mrs. Stanton could tolerate Mrs. Lincoln, so they both declined the invitation.

On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theater. He died the next morning at 7:22 a.m. Stanton said, "Now he belongs to the ages." And I think he does.

Don White lives in Palos Hills.