A 2021 Look At Presidents’ Day

It’s Presidents’ Day, 2021. Originally designated a federal holiday to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, and later expanded to cover both Washington and Abraham Lincoln, who also was born in February, the holiday is now supposed to be a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents. Still, people mostly use it to celebrate George and Abe and the other great Presidents of American history.

But we’ve just come out of one of the worst years we’ve had in a while, and 2021 hasn’t exactly been gangbusters, either. So let’s acknowledge the current sour mood and use this Presidents’ Day to recognize one of the worst U.S. Presidents ever: James J. Buchanan. Historians may disagree somewhat about precisely who is the best U.S. President, or the absolute worst, but there is surprising unanimity about Buchanan. Everyone thinks this guy was a disaster.

Buchanan had an impressive resume when he was elected in 1856, having served in Congress, as Secretary of State, and as U.S. minister to Great Britain. But the 1850s were deeply troubled times in America, as the country was being pulled apart by slavery. Buchanan immediately provided evidence that he wasn’t up to the task of dealing with the issue in his inaugural address, when he amazingly stated that the issue of slavery in the territories was “happily, a matter of but little practical importance.” With constant bloody fighting between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and western Missouri, Buchanan managed to stake out a position that absolutely no one on either side agreed with.

Buchanan is reputed to have influenced the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which was issued shortly after his inauguration, and he thought it would put the slavery issue to rest — when instead it served only to further inflame abolitionist forces and spur people like Abraham Lincoln to reengage with national politics. But Buchanan didn’t stop there. He rarely spoke or appeared in public, and did nothing to try to bring the country together as it was spinning apart. Even worse, when Abraham Lincoln’s election caused southern states to begin seceding from the Union, the Buchanan Administration — which was heavily populated with pro-slavery Southerners — allowed the seceding states to seize federal forts and stockpiles that helped the Confederacy arm itself for the coming Civil War. Buchanan threw up his hands at the action of the southern states, and stated: “As sovereign States, they, and they alone, are responsible before God and the world for the slavery existing among them. For this the people of the North are not more responsible and have no more fight to interfere than with similar institutions in Russia or in Brazil.”

Even more bizarrely, Buchanan thought the President had no real role to play in the great issue of the day. He said: “It is beyond the power of any president, no matter what may be his own political proclivities, to restore peace and harmony among the states. Wisely limited and restrained as is his power under our Constitution and laws, he alone can accomplish but little for good or for evil on such a momentous question.” When Abraham Lincoln finally took office, states had seceded, treasonous activities had gone unpunished, and James J. Buchanan had done nothing about any of it. Having brought the country to the brink of disaster and disunion while refusing to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to address the moral scourge of slavery, Buchanan sought to excuse his inaction. Fortunately, Lincoln was no Buchanan. If he had been, the world would be a much different place.

It’s hard to imagine that we could ever have a worse President than James Buchanan — one more inept or ill-equipped to deal with the compelling issues of the day. Let’s hope we never find out.

Presidents And Pocket Change

Today is President’s Day. I celebrated by looking at the the change in my pocket — and wondering about the history of placement of Presidents on our nation’s coinage.

Of course, now there are Presidents on every coin we use regularly. (I’m not counting the Sacajawea dollar, the Susan B. Anthony dollar, or some of the other oddball coins that have come into being recently.) Abraham Lincoln is on the penny, Thomas Jefferson on the nickel, Franklin Roosevelt on the dime, George Washington on the quarter, and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. That’s been the roster on U.S. coins since the 1960s, when President Kennedy replaced Ben Franklin on the 50-cent piece.

Although Presidents have been on all of the American coins in common circulation for most of my adult lifetime, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, no American President appeared on a circulating coin for the first 140 years of our history. Most American coins featured depictions of Liberty, or native Americans, or native animals, or a combination of the same.

The first President to appear on a coin was Lincoln, who knocked a native American off the penny in 1909. He was joined by the Father of our Country in 1932, when George Washington replaced a Liberty figure on the quarter, by Thomas Jefferson in 1938, when the Sage of Monticello took his place on the five-cent piece and the classic buffalo nickel was discontinued, and then by Franklin Roosevelt, whose visage replaced the Mercury dime in 1945.

I’m not opposed to honoring Presidents, but I’d like to see American coins go back to recognizing themes rather than individuals. Coins like the liberty penny, the buffalo nickel, and the walking Liberty half dollar were beautiful, and aspirational. Our current coins are pretty boring by comparison.

It’s Time To Get Rid Of “Presidents’ Day”

Today — February 22 — is the birthday of George Washington.  Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is February 12.  Do we have a federal holiday on the actual birth date of either of those two colossal historical figures, who generally rank as the two greatest Presidents in American history?  No, we don’t.

James Buchanan doesn't deserve a holiday!

Instead, we have a holiday called “Presidents’ Day” that is easily the lamest holiday of the year.  There apparently were two steps in its creation.  First, Congress — no doubt after heavy lobbying by the travel industry — decided to give people as many three-day weekends as possible.  So, in the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, Congress dictated that Washington’s Birthday would be celebrated on the third Monday in February, and not on Washington’s actual birthday.  Then, the holiday somehow got broadened to include not just Washington, or even just Washington and Lincoln, but all Presidents through “Presidents’ Day.”  It is such a phony, meaningless holiday that it isn’t even recognized by most businesses.  What does it say about a holiday if most people don’t even get the day off?

George Washington deserves a holiday, and so does Lincoln.  In reality, however, most Presidents don’t.  There have been far more crappy Presidents than good Presidents.  James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore were disastrous Presidents.  They don’t deserve a holiday, they deserve to be forgotten.  The same goes for Andrew Johnson, Herbert Hoover, and Richard Nixon, among many others.

“Presidents’ Day” is like the modern practice of giving a trophy to every kid on a sports team, no matter whether his team wins or loses or whether the kid is talented or the most uncoordinated soccer player ever to stumble onto a field.  (My God, James Buchanan even looks like the kind of hapless kid whose domineering mother insists that he get some kind of recognition regardless of his complete ineptitude.)  It’s like we are trying to not hurt the self-esteem of the crummy Presidents, so we give them an embarrassing holiday that most of the country ignores.  It’s time to get rid of Presidents’ Day.  Let’s go back to recognizing a President who did make a difference, and actually celebrate his birthday on his real birth date.