On Watch by Marcus Fisk

On Watch

It’s Presidents’ Day for a Good Reason

Washington (the original George “W”) was the first President to have ‘saved the country’ and ‘preserved the union.’  According to historians, his presidency served as a precedent for others: Jackson (preserved the union), Lincoln (Ditto/Civil War), FDR (the Great Depression & WWII), Kennedy (nuclear annihilation), and Ford (healing after Watergate) to name a few. Back in 1800 the country celebrated ‘Washington’s Birthday’ on February 22nd as a day of national remembrance.  And for good reason. 

George Washington had just died two months earlier in December 1799 and we were still reeling in grief and confusion over the vacuum following his earthly departure. Like FDR would be to Americans a century and a half later, most people were left sitting around the tavern table dumbfounded, not knowing what to gossip about now that Washington was gone.  He had been around for so long, they simply didn’t know what to do now that the former Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, President of the Congress, and President of the U.S. had succumbed to a nasty case of Quinsy[1] while riding his horse around his Mount Vernon estate early one morning.  Washington was so beloved in this country that his picture was on the walls in every home, office, schoolroom, and church – so unlike John Lennon – he may well have been more popular than Jesus.

In any event Washington had it bad enough with Quinsy when wouldn’t you know it, who turned-up at his front door at Mount Vernon, but his old Army buddy and local Alexandria surgeon, Dr. James Craik.  Craik bled the former President three times that morning and then had him gargle with vinegar. Later, to make matters worse, Dr. Elisha Dick (also of Alexandria) arrived at 3 PM and after discussing the prognosis with Craik, they agreed that although the former President was weak and barely hanging on – you guessed it – they bled him again anyway.  By evening Washington was a quart low on blood and delirious so he quietly slipped into a peaceful sleep and took the big dirt nap.

William Henry Harrison was also a February baby born on February 9th 1773 out in Charles City County, VA.  He was one of the Harrisons of Berkley Plantation, the Downton Abbey of the Old Dominion in its time, the site of the First Thanksgiving in the English-speaking colonies and later where the now-famous bugle piece ‘Taps’ was composed in 1862 (so there, take that Massachusetts).

Until Ronald Reagan (also a February baby boy – February 6th, 1911) Harrison was the oldest man ever to occupy the office of President.  He also had the shortest presidency on record – 30 days.  Considered to be a tough Army General in the War of 1812 (’13, ’14 & little bit of ’15)  and a skillful Indian Fighter back in the days when it was still politically correct to fight Indians, nonetheless old “Tippcanoe” Harrison decided to deliver a whopping 2-hour inaugural address on a cold, rainy, miserable March day in DC. without a hat and coat.  By the time he finished the crowd had thinned out to next-to-nothing and even the crickets were too drenched and cold to chirp. Harrison caught pneumonia and on April 4th 1841 permanently checked into the Horizontal Hotel.  Everyone was frantic wondering who was in charge until someone sent a rider looking for Vice President John Tyler somewhere in New Kent County. Virginia, to have him come to DC and move his belongings into the White House.

Virginia holds the title for having the most Presidents hailing from the Commonwealth – a total of eight.  In addition to Washington, Harrison, and Tyler, we can’t overlook a distinguished group of other laudable Virginians; Thomas Jefferson (Albermarle Co.), James Monroe (Westmoreland Co.), Zachary “Old Rough ‘n Ready” Taylor (Orange Co.), and Thomas (Thomas? Who knew??) Woodrow Wilson (Staunton, VA).

Another Virginian on the list of movers-and-shakers was James Madison (AKA ‘Little Jemmy’ Madison).  He holds the distinction of being our smallest President weighing-in at a cool 100 lbs and standing a strapping 5’4” tall.   He was Thomas Jefferson’s political ally, friend, sounding-board, confidant, and was known as the ‘Father of the Constitution’ and ‘Author of the Bill of Rights.’[2]

Jemmy and Tom were next-door neighbors[3] in Albermarle County so, surprise-surprise-surprise, Jemmy became Secretary of State and was the go-to guy negotiating the Louisiana Purchase.  Louisiana hadn’t really been on anyone’s radar but Jemmy knew Jefferson liked land and lots of it[4], so he bought it at a steal from the French who laughed all the way to the bank.  Jazz musicians and Zydeco dancers went absolutely gaga over the ‘Purchase’ but most Americans couldn’t get their arms around a place that was 60% underwater with mosquitoes the size of Buicks.  Alligators and irate Seminoles aside, Florida had way more curb appeal, but Jefferson and Madison knew Real Estate when they saw it.

Jefferson left office to return to Monticello and his Bohemian/Renaissance lifestyle, so Jemmy became President just in time for the War of 1812-15 .  Trained a lawyer he wasn’t in his element on a battlefield but he left Washington DC anyway to go to Bladensburg, MD to be in charge, meet the British, and defend our capital.  Things went poorly; lets just say that at 5’4” Madison had a tough time keeping up with his troops desperately fleeing in all directions from the Metro DC area.  Fortunately for him he had married well and Dolley Madison, the party girl of DC, became a national heroine as the British burned the White House.  Dolley had a big soiree’ planned that August 24th evening, but when things went South, she grabbed the Declaration of Independence, a draft of the Constitution, the classic Stuart painting of George Washington and beat feet out of town with many other DC A-listers.

Years passed and by the time President Lincoln died there was concern that February was becoming really crowded with Presidential birthdays to be recognized.  It was such a short month anyway with a number of holidays filling up February,  so Congress figured that unless something was done, the entire Federal Government might not even bother showing up for the entire month. Sure that would help rush hour in the Metro DC area but the rest of the country might notice how quiet it was.

So in 1968 Congress did what many would consider an impossible feat in today’s climate – they passed a bill. In 1971 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act took effect and from then on all federal holidays would henceforth fall on a Monday and give workers a three-day weekend.  Retailers absolutely loved it.  Government workers thought it was a good deal.  Even labor unions supported it.

Today, we celebrate what has become known as “Presidents’ Day” — a day in which we recognize and pay tribute to all our Presidents.  Ironically, Congress was created by the Constitution to act as a check-and-balance against a potentially totalitarian President.  Well, the Constitution got it right – Presidents now have less power and virtually no ability to affect any change whatsoever today than at any time in our history.   Seeing the current crop of candidates in this election year, that’s probably a saving grace, huh?

But on ‘Presidents’ Day’ weekend, as they have done every year since 1971, car dealerships and shopping malls will dress up their employees as Washington or Lincoln and really do it up right, adding just the right touch of reverence and aplomb to our cherished national holiday.  It’ll be “Yooouuuuge.”

Happy Presidents’ Day.

[1]The disease is an aggressive form of tonsillitis and not to be confused with President John Quincy Adams. Both were very troubling and some politicians even claiming the latter was more deadly than the former.

[2]  Jefferson was the ‘Father of the Declaration of Independence’ so he was really into anyone who was also a ‘Father’ and ‘Author’ like he was.

[3] The two of them standing side-by-side would probably have been a sight, Jefferson at 6’3” and weighing-in at 180 lbs.

[4]Check out the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Jefferson thought it was a terrific expedition and they kept sending neat stuff back to Jefferson like bones, skulls, and other goodies that he proudly displayed at his home, Monticello.

Marcus Fisk is a retired Navy Captain, Naval Academy graduate, sometime actor, sculptor, pick-up soccer player, playwright.  He and his wife Pamela are former residents of Alexandria and currently live in Connecticut where they own a B&B.

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