Today we honor and remember our greatest presidents.
Presidents’ Day immediately conjures up images of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Pictures of one or both of these men are often used on this day to sell mattresses and offer “amazing savings” on pretty much anything you’d care to buy.
Originally called Washington’s Birthday, the holiday was meant to coincide with the birth of George Washington. Since Lincoln was also born in February, pretty soon the Lincoln PR machine kicked into high gear and the holiday is now called Presidents’ Day.
But Washington and Lincoln aren’t the only U.S. presidents with February birthdays. Ronald Reagan was born on February 6th and William Henry Harrison’s birthday is February 9th.
Everyone knows Reagan, but who, you ask, is William Henry Harrison?
He’s actually a distant relative of yours truly which unfortunately isn’t much to write home about because he also possesses the record for the shortest term in U.S. presidential history.
Seems Harrison wasn’t much on wearing a coat in chilly weather (now I know where my children get it—they’d wear shorts and t-shirts in a blizzard and insist they aren’t cold). Poor Harrison decided to underdress on a cold and blistery Washington day but to overdo the Inaugural Address speaking for nearly two hours. Small wonder he died a month later from pneumonia.
His grandson, thus also a relative of mine, Benjamin Harrison, managed to live through his entire term, but just because he survived all four years doesn’t mean he really accomplished anything. One of the few little factoids I remember about him is that he was the president who had electricity installed in the White House, but that he was extremely afraid of it. Serving as a Brigadier General in the Union army in the Civil War didn’t bother him, but evidently the fear of getting shocked by a switch on the wall was a bit too much for him. Occasionally, he and Mrs. Harrison would sleep with the lights on if they couldn’t find a servant to turn them off for them. He also had a serious problem with germs (hmm . . . I can relate), and he’d wear gloves at events where he’d be shaking hands. No wonder his nickname was the Human Iceberg.
Other presidents who I’m not related to also have interesting stories. Grover Cleveland acted as the legal guardian of the daughter of his former law partner when she was eleven-years-old and married her when she was twenty-one. Wonder what late night television would do with that little bit of family history today.
Warren G. Harding used to enjoy frequent trysts with his mistress, occasionally in a White House closet. He later fathered a daughter with the woman. Mrs. Harding didn’t trust him. Wonder why. This resulted in rampant speculation after his sudden death that his widow’s state was self-induced (i.e., that she poisoned him). Most historians don’t believe that today, but it makes a great (and sadly somewhat believable under the circumstances) story.
Tales of forgettable presidents are endless and in some cases just as interesting as stories about presidents whose names we know.
Thus, on this Presidents’ Day, I encourage you to take a few moments away from the Presidents’ Day Sales and pick up a good book on presidents.
You’ll be glad you did.