The history, the legends, the myths of Presidents’ Day

Photo of Main Building on UK's Campus
Mark Cornelison | UK Photo

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 19, 2024) — Today we honor U.S. presidents, past and present.

From those who served as war heroes to those who resigned in disgrace, behind every textbook page is a real person who did all sorts of fascinating — and sometimes odd — things on the way to becoming leader of the free world.

We’re going to unpack a treasure trove of those interesting facts soon.

But first, some tidbits about the holiday itself.

Did you know, Presidents’ Day started out as a day of remembrance for only one president, George Washington?

Following Washington’s death in 1799, Americans began honoring his birthday, Feb. 22. At first, the celebration was not federally observed, but it became a national holiday after passage of a law that President Rutherford B. Hayes signed in the late 1870s.

It took another century for the day of celebration to change. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act, passed in 1971, officially moved the holiday to the third Monday in February as part of an effort to prevent midweek shutdowns. 

Shifting the date of the holiday, so that it fell between the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, allowed one president’s day instead to take on the popular name of Presidents’ Day, according to the National Archives.

It also added a long weekend to the federal calendar, making Presidents’ Day an opportunity for Americans to indulge in holiday deals!

Stephen Voss, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science in the University of Kentucky College of Arts and Sciences, has been teaching PS101: Introduction to American Government for more than 25 years.

Throughout the course, he often shares unique pieces of presidential trivia — introducing generations of students to the stories behind the U.S. presidents.

“Teaching students about political science mostly means teaching science. But it can get pretty dry if all we do is explore data, theory and methods,” Voss said. “As I prepare lessons, I’m always keeping an eye out for examples that will make political-science concepts come to life. Having real-life illustrations is especially important for my introductory course, because younger college students are still learning how to comprehend abstractions, whereas they’re pretty good at processing stories.”

The list below pulls together a dozen trivia items about past presidents that American government students might have encountered in Voss’ classroom. In a sense, having heard these presidential legends unites hundreds — if not thousands — of past UK grads.

“Some of these stories are nice. Some not so much,” Voss said. “But maybe the most important lesson to appreciate on Presidents’ Day is that American political history has seldom been some kind of grand clash between good and evil, like a superhero movie. Past presidents weren’t heroes or supervillains, just politicians — with feet made not of gold, as they say, but of clay.”

  1. Bill Clinton – Clinton’s reputation has suffered lately, so students are surprised to learn he left office with a higher approval rating than any president since World War II. They also can be dismayed to discover that Clinton’s second term was the last time the federal budget was in the black!
  2. George H.W. Bush – Bush was the last major-party candidate who waited until the middle of his national party convention to introduce a running mate. Bush’s vice-presidential pick, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana, was such a closely guarded secret that journalists attending the 1988 Republican National Convention erupted in surprise when the announcement came over the loudspeaker, then scrambled to gather information about the unexpected choice.
  3. Ronald Reagan – Speaking of that 1988 RNC gathering, few students know about Reagan’s gaffe during his Win One for the Gipper speech, when he accidentally said, “Facts are stupid things.” Almost no one remembers what caused the error: A loud crack from the convention floor shattered Reagan’s concentration, causing a visible jolt in a man who’d already survived one assassination attempt. When I describe that shooting, students appreciate the joke Reagan told the medical team charged with saving his life afterward: “Please tell me you’re Republicans.” The famous response from his Democratic surgeon can be touching: “Today, Mr. President, we’re all Republicans.”
  4. Jimmy Carter – A former peanut farmer from Georgia, Carter embodies how Iowa’s Democratic Caucus (until this year) used to give longshot presidential candidates the potential to rise from obscurity by selling themselves retail to voters in that first-in-the-nation nomination contest. Carter’s surprise Iowa win launched his successful bid for the White House.
  5. Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy Jr. – Conventional wisdom holds that Kennedy beat Nixon in their famous 1960 televised debate because he looked good while Nixon looked sick. In short, JFK became president because of his youth and appearance — whereas those who heard the radio version thought Nixon had won because of his knowledge and experience. But that’s a myth! The claim that TV and radio audiences reacted differently to the debate cannot be verified scientifically.
  6. Calvin Coolidge – Forget about puppies and kittens. “Silent Cal” Coolidge and his party-loving wife Grace kept a raccoon named Rebecca as a pet, letting her loose in the White House to cause all sorts of mischief.
  7. Theodore Roosevelt – Many Americans know lore about the first “progressive” president, such as that the teddy bear was a fad set off by Roosevelt’s refusal to shoot a bear cub. But my favorite TR story comes from his 1912 third-party presidential bid: Just before giving a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin. Fortunately for the former president, he’d prepared a long-winded address, because after penetrating the speech (as well as a case for his glasses), the bullet lacked enough force to do more than lodge itself in his chest. The “Bull Moose” refused medical attention, speaking for well more than an hour as blood saturated his shirt.
  8. Grover Cleveland – With his thick mustache and dour look, Cleveland seems to fit every stereotype of the Victorian Age. Students are surprised to learn that he was accused of fathering an illegitimate child and that his Republican opponent’s supporters would chant, “Ma, ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House…hah, hah, hah!”
  9. Martin Van Buren – Van Buren was not President Andrew Jackson’s first vice president. That was John Calhoun of South Carolina. But a scandal surrounding one Cabinet wife, Margaret Eaton, tore apart Jackson’s administration. And Calhoun’s wife was one of the ringleaders, so he was sent packing. As a bachelor, Van Buren felt no need to shun Mrs. Eaton, so soon enough he was vice president — helping Jackson build the Democratic party that later launched Van Buren into the presidency.
  10. James Madison – Madison was architect of the Constitution and arguably the first American political scientist. Late in life, Madison and Alexander Hamilton both claimed to have written some of the Federalist Papers, a dispute that couldn’t be explored scientifically until recent developments in quantitative analysis — at which point, it became fairly clear that former President Madison was the one telling the truth.
  11. Thomas Jefferson – Think negative campaigning or conspiracy theories are new? Nope. In the 1800 presidential election, supporters of President John Adams shut down Jeffersonian newspapers and threw presidential critics in jail. Meanwhile, Jefferson was accused, by highly respectable people, of being part of an international conspiracy known as the Illuminati.
  12. George Washington – Students often have been mystified to learn the “Father of the Country” engaged in the same sort of maneuvering and image building that we see from politicians today. But it blows their minds to find out that some of Washington’s teeth may have been extracted from the mouths of slaves, or that Congress admonished General Washington for the severe beatings meted out to soldiers under his command.

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