Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2007 Issue

Seven Forgotten Presidents?

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Herbert Hoover, Warren Harding, "His Accidency" John Tyler, "Old Kinderhook" Martin Van Buren.


By Michael Stillman

CNN recently issued a list of seven American presidents nobody remembers. I remember them. So much for CNN being the voice I can trust. Perhaps forgettable rather than forgotten would have been a better title, except then we would have had to include some more recent names we wish we could no longer recall.

Atop the CNN list is Herbert Hoover. Huh? Hoover may not be beloved, but he certainly isn't unknown. His name is synonymous with the Great Depression, which he did not cause, but which fell on his watch. It is too bad, for Hoover was a great humanitarian during both of the great wars, providing food for countless displaced persons. However, when the Depression struck, he could never get past his laissez-faire economic principles, which led him to take few actions to reduce the misery surrounding him. People interpreted this as heartlessness.

Warren Harding makes the list, and he is fairly obscure. Harding, a decent gentleman but by his own admission over his head, trusted too many corrupt aides. His name is now synonymous with Teapot Dome and scandal, though Harding died in office before most of the bad news hit the fan. Harding pledged to return the country to "normalcy," and corruption being "normal" for Washington, he can be considered a success.

An easy choice for this list is "His Accidency," John Tyler. Tyler became president after William Henry Harrison died barely a month after taking office. Tyler served the remaining 47 months as one of the most despised presidents in history. His entire cabinet resigned on him, his political party, the Whigs, disowned him, but he found no support among the rival Democrats either. He was refused his party's nomination when his term expired in 1844. Tyler would return the disrespect he received from his nation in 1861 when he was the only U.S. President to support the rebellion that sought to dismantle it.

Martin Van Buren, "Old Kinderhook," was a wily politician. He survived Andrew Jackson's purge of his cabinet in 1831, and became Jackson's vice-presidential nominee when the President dumped his first V.P., secession-minded John Calhoun. Van Buren was Jackson's hand-picked successor and successful presidential candidate in 1836, but like Hoover, was the victim of brewing economic problems the following year. Naturally, he was held to blame. He lost his bid for reelection in 1840, and a bid for president as the nominee of the Free Soil Party in 1848.

Millard Fillmore has become so synonymous with obscurity that everyone knows his name, though little about him. Fillmore was another accidental president, succeeding Zachary Taylor when the latter died in 1850. Fillmore, like the two presidents who succeeded him, tried to compromise the nation out of civil war, ultimately to no avail. Fillmore was denied the nomination of his Whig Party in 1852, but it mattered little as the party was well on its way to total disintegration. He did run again in 1856, this time as the nominee of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic No Nothing Party, which promptly followed the Whigs into oblivion.

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