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HOME > ARTICLES > DECEMBER 2002

DECEMBER PRESIDENTIAL
BIRTHDAYS


by Jeannine Coup
©

In December we celebrate the birthdays of the following President's of the United States. The first, Martin Van Buren on the 5th of the month. The second, Woodrow Wilson on the 28th and finally one of the most misunderstood Presidents, Andrew Johnson on the 29th of the month.

Three more diverse and different individuals would be hard to comprehend, with all of their differences, each of the three became a President of our Nation. Our 8th President, Martin Van Buren was born at Kinderhook, New York on December 5th, 1782. He was the son of the Dutch Reformed farming family. His father fought tirelessly in the Revolutionary War, particularly in the "Battle of Saratoga." After the War for Independence, the elder Van Buren expanded his farming but also opened a tavern and hotel in Kinderhook. Young Martin had his formal schooling in that city. However, at the age of 14, with parental permission, he travelled to New York City to apprentice in the law. As his expertise grew, he became a prot‚g‚ of the then popular Political Activist Aaron Burr. He was admitted to the bar, practiced in New York and became "Surrogate Judge of Columbia County," then a State Senator, then Attorney General of New York, then the State's United States Senator, then Governor of New York, then Secretary of State to Andrew Jackson in General Jackson's first term and later Vice-President in the second Jackson Administration.

Van Buren was very small in stature, not quite 5' - 6". He was a fastidious dresser, impeccable in appearance and of most amicable disposition. Van Buren was often referred to as "the Little Magician" for his political skills and also as the "Red Fox of Kinderhook" for his often crafty and wily ways of political intrigue, coupled with his red hair and sideburns.

Van Buren served Jackson well and was elected to the Presidency with "Old Hickory's" strong support in 1836, keeping the presidency in Democratic hands.

His years in office were unfortunately, lack luster at best due to the many mistakes and misjudgments of the Jackson, eight year reign and the problems brought about by the controversy during that period of the Bank of the United States, a private corporation that controlled most U.S. Government deposits. The panic of 1837 destroyed any hope for a second term. Van Buren could not overcome the inflation and the wild cat land speculation of the era. In addition, there arose the problem of the Surplus Distribution Act which legislated the distribution of excess federal revenues to the states, which led to the use of that money to create a destructive tidal wave of both borrowing and spending.

President Van Buren also suffered as the result of the outright theft of millions of tax dollars by his appointee, Samuel Swartout, who was the prominent Custom Collector for the Port of New York. Additionally, there were minor thefts from the United States Treasury which blackened the President's name , although he was not personally involved. In 1840, the Whig candidate that Van Buren had defeated in 1836 turned the tables when William Henry Harrison defeated Van Buren in that election. Van Buren retired to his estate Lyndenwald in Kinderhook about 40 miles south of Albany. He was not comfortable in retirement and he re-entered politics running for the Presidential Candidacy of the Democratic Party in 1844 but was unsuccessful. He made his final political appearance in 1848 when he ran for President on the "Free Soil Ticket", again, he lost. These defeats brought him to the realization that his political career was indeed over. He felt he had done his best for his country but he resolved never to seek office again and returned to Kinderhook. He died there on July 24, 1862, just as the Civil War was going into a real war.' He is perhaps one of our least known Presidents.

Andrew Johnson, who was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on December 29, 1808, was probably our least educated but most "common man" President. He never had a day of formal schooling in his life. His father died when Andy was a child of three. His mother, Mary, was solely responsible for his upbringing. She was a part time wash woman and seamstress but she must have done something right, because she taught young Andrew not only to sew but also to read and he educated himself. Johnson became a tailor's apprentice at age 10 in Greenville, Tennessee. By 1821 he had his own tailor shop. He then entered politics at the urging of his friends due in part to his easy going friendliness and his record of hard work and earnestness. He always felt that America was built literally and figuratively by the working man.

His political career began with his election as Alderman and later Mayor. Then, he became a member of the Tennessee Legislature, and then went on to represent the district in the House of Representatives in Washington. He returned to Tennessee and was elected governor. Johnson then returned to Washington as that State's Senator and finally was elected as Vice-President of the United States as a Democrat partnered with Abraham Lincoln, a Republican in the election of 1864 on the National Union ticket. Lincoln was assassinated on April 14 and Johnson became President on April 15, 1865.

Johnson is recorded in our history as the first President of the United States to be impeached by the House of Representatives. He was later acquitted by a margin of a single vote by the U.S. Senate and finished out his term of office as President Lincoln's replacement. The impeachment however, forced him to give up any hope of running for reelection. The impeachment was the result of President Johnson's veto of the "Tenure of Office Act," which he considered unconstitutional. He was right! But it took until 1926, some 58 years later when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Act unconstitutional and vindicated Johnson and made a mockery of his impeachment once and for all. Johnson, although a staunch union supporter, returned to his home in Tennessee. He wished to prove his veto was correct and he wanted to return to Washington to make that known. Consequently, he ran for Congress in 1870 and in 1872 losing both elections for the House seat. Finally, in 1874, the Legislature of Tennessee elected him to his old seat in the Senate. Unfortunately he was not to serve very long. Andrew Johnson died of a stroke in Carter, Tennessee on July 31, 1875.

His most famous words were in a message to Congress as President in 1868. "It is our sacred duty to transmit unimpaired to our prosperity the blessings of liberty, which were bequeathed to us by the founders of our Republic." Johnson was always a Southerner, who was unafraid to voice his pro-union, anti-slavery and freedom for all in his life's work - - politics! He was our 17th Chief Executive. Unlike the two men we just reviewed, Andrew Johnson and Martin Van Buren - - one with no education and the other with little formal learning. Our next Presidential vignette concerns perhaps the most educated President in history, Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President who guided America through World War I.

Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia on December 28th, 1856, the eve of the start of the Civil War. He was the son of a highly educated Presbyterian Minister and very well read English born mother. The boy was christened, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, but never used his first name after childhood. Wilson's education was awesome. He attended Davidson College, Princeton University, The University of Virginia Law School and earned a Doctorate at John Hopkins University. Not only was he well educated but he was chosen as President of Princeton University in 1902 and served until 1910 when he was elected Governor of New Jersey. Wilson was chiefly known as an educator, not as a politician.

The austere and righteous Wilson followed the jolly Taft into the White House due to the intervention in the 1912 campaign of former President Teddy Roosevelt. The two Republicans cost each other the election and left the electoral votes to Wilson, who became the first Democrat elected President in this century.

Wilson stated that "No one but the President seems to be expected to look out for the general interest of the County." With that idea in mind, he developed a program of progressive reform and asserted international leadership. On a personal note, early on in his administration, his beloved first wife Ellen died in the White House on August 6th, 1914 after a long illness. The religious and ethical bound President was highly criticized for marrying a second time within a year and a half of his wife's death to the attractive widow Edith Galt.

In 1917 Wilson proclaimed America's entrance into World War I to the Congress as a "crusade to make the world safe for democracy." Unfortunately, the war to end all wars did not accomplish that goal. President Wilson conceived his famous "fourteen points" program for the Treaty of Versailles - its principle tenet was the establishment of a league of nations including large and small countries. The treaty caused great consternation in America and was not ratified by the United States Senate due in part to Wilson's staunch refusal to compromise on any of those points with those offered by his opponents, the controlling Republican Senators led by the first Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Woodrow Wilson was known for his pompous attitude, his dogmatic pronouncements and his righteous Christian outlook on all things. This attitude was responsible for the loss of the Treaty more than anything else.

His persona during the meetings in Paris for the Treaty of Versailles were summed up by Britain's representative, Prime Minister Lloyd George, who was seated daily between President Wilson representing America and the representative of France, Premier Georges Clemenceau. When the Prime Minister was asked how the conference succeeded he replied, "Well, we did our best but it was very difficult for me personally seated as I was between Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte." Wilson kept his righteous attitude about the peace plan until his death from a stroke in Washington, DC on February 3rd, 1924.

As we look at these three very different personalities, we realize that our country has succeeded because of and sometimes in spite of what our President's did or did not do. To quote President Harry Truman, "The office makes the man- -The man does his best to fill the office and protect the United States of America."

REFERENCES

1. The Presidents, by Rachel Kochman, Publisher: Haas Publishing Company.

2. Every Four Years, Smithsonian Books, Publisher: Editorial Board.

3. The American Presidents, Raymond and Robin Whitney, Publisher: A.S. Barnes and Company.

4. Pictorial History of American Presidents, by John and Alice Durant Publisher: A.S. Barnes and Company.

5. Executive Privilege, by Jack Mitchell, Publisher: Hippocrene Books.

6. Icons of Democracy by Bruce Miroff, Publisher: Basic Books/Harper Collins.

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