What does it take to be a great president? Leadership, charisma, timing, luck? Perhaps the right balance of all of those. Most people are familiar with the names like Washington, Lincoln and Roosevelt. Great men who lead the United States through perilous times. So what does it take to not be remembered? To have spent four years in the ‘most powerful office in the land’ and not make a lasting impression. Is that even really that bad of a thing? Perhaps the saying ‘no news is good news’ rings true for the lesser known presidents. Maybe they guided the country with silver tongued diplomacy, or placed their strength appropriately and picked their battles with quiet discernment, or perhaps they were just lucky to have no calamity befall the American people while they were in office. The following Presidents may not ring too many bells, but maybe it’s possible to see why that is.
John Tyler was elected as Vice President to William Henry Harrison (the grandfather to a later president in this post.) Harrison contracted pneumonia during a very cold inaugural address and a month later would die. He was the first President to die in office, and there wasn’t any protocol for how to replace him. John Tyler made arrangements to have himself sworn in and declared that he had full presidential powers. In doing so he became the 10th President of the U.S. and set a precedent that would be followed several times before it was legally ratified by the 25th amendment in 1967. Though his power grab was successful, he was ill received by the Congress. He became known as ‘the Accidencey.’ After vetoing several bills, his Cabinet resigned in protest and he became the first president to have impeachment proceedings taking up against him. He was found to have overused his veto powers, but wasn’t impeached. Despite the difficult relationship shared by the President and his Congress, they were able to work together to pass some legislation. They passed the bill that would allow settlers to make claims of up to 160 acres of land in the West, which they could later pay for. The price they paid for the land was just $1.25 an acre. They also settled some border disputes with Canada and at the very end of his term annexed Texas. Tyler’s legacy as a President may have faded into history, however his grandchildren are still alive today. He fathered his last child when he was 70 years old. In turn that son had his last child in 1928 when he was 75.
Another Vice President who would become President was Millard Fillmore. He was the running mate of Zachary Taylor, who died of a stomach virus about a year and a half into his presidency. Fillmore would be the last member of the Whig Party to hold the office of President. The party was approaching the end of its lifespan and would fail to back him for re-election. Fillmore would make his bid, unsuccessfully as a third party candidate with the backing on the Know-Nothing Party. The Know-Nothing Party also known as the American Party was a populist party comprised primarily of middle class white Protestants. They earned their moniker because of the secrecy with which the members kept the party’s doctrines. When pressed for what the party stood for the answer would be ‘I know nothing.’
President Fillmore fought against the schism that was forming between the Northern and Southern states. In an attempt to balance the desires of both sides he would support the Compromise of 1850 a bill that included the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to return runaway slaves that were captured. In addition to trying to hold together a fractured country, Fillmore would look to the West, admitting California as a state and preventing the French from attempts to annex the Hawaiian islands. He also sent envoys to Japan to open trade relations, though their mission would not be successfully completed until after he had left office. Fillmore was a bibliophile, he is said to have always carried a dictionary around with him. In 1951 he would help to fight a fire that broke out in the Library of Congress, later passing an order to replace all the lost and damaged books.
Benjamin Harrison was elected as the 23rd President of the United States. Elected in an era of change in American History, he was the first President to have his voice recorded and would be the last to don a full beard. He was the grandson of our 9th president, William Henry Harrison, but despite that he would lose his reelection campaign to Grover Cleveland and become the first incumbent president to lose to another former president. As president he signed four new states into existence (North & South Dakota, Montana and Washington.) He was a proponent for several civil rights bills all of which were shut down on their way through congress. He enacted legislation that gave protection to 22 million acres of forest. The toughest issue he had to face was a situation where the tariff that the government was enforcing had lead to a surplus in the U.S. Treasury. The tariff was removed and the excess was depleted. He was the first president to have electricity in the White House, it is rumored that he and his wife were afraid of being electrocuted and would leave the lights on all the time.
History often singles out the Presidents who had extreme situations unfold during their terms. They are remembered for their ability to rise to the occasion and lead through diplomacy or military strength. Sometimes the opposite is true, and their mistakes are what elevate them to prominence. The lesser known Presidents often lack any dramatic events that occurred during their tenure. The Presidents that fade away didn’t whittle away their time in office without accomplishment. Whether they found themselves unprepared or unsupported, they were still able to make progress in areas ranging from economics to environmentalism. Little building blocks that would eventually shape the nation we know today.
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