Not all Leaders Of The Free World are created equal. For every Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, or Roosevelt, there are at least five no-names who became President basically by default. To many of us, they were seat-warming figureheads who did next-to-nothing with their time, who only got to keep the job for four years because they didn’t openly kill any prostitutes, or kick puppies, or anything else worthy of being impeached and fired. No wonder children never portray them in poorly-acted elementary school pageants.
Thing is, that’s not always the case. In fact, a good chunk of these forgotten nobody Presidents did more than just sit on their ample tushes, waiting for a better person to show up and be President. In fact many of them introduced ideas and policies that were so far-reaching and innovative, we’re still feeling their effects today. Not bad for a group of people who only get mentioned in textbooks because having 150 years of US history being led by “Eh, Nobody In Particular. Just Some Bearded Schmuck,” wouldn’t be particularly scholarly.
10. Martin Van Buren Strengthened Paper Money And Saved Us From Depression
Yes, him. The 8th President, the guy with the wildest muttonchops in history, and not much else to speak of. He, like everyone else in this article, came and went in one term or less, and are generally considered to have done very little. Well, in Van Buren’s case, this certainly wasn’t true. He was the first President to save the country from Depression, way before that FDR guy made it cool.
Basically, Andrew Jackson, one of the “cool” Presidents, screwed up everything by telling state banks, who all issued their own paper money, that said money was now useless, because all banks could only accept gold and silver as payment going forward. And, just like that, nobody had any money. Van Buren’s response to this was to establish an Independent Treasury, which would remove federal funds from poorly-run state banks, and attach all out-going funds to a hard money standard. So if people had been relegated to using their paper bills as toilet paper, since they couldn’t afford the real stuff, they would have had to get out of that habit fast, lest they catch themselves wiping with the rent money.
Getting this thing approved took literally his entire term, thanks to that lovely thing called “party politics”; it passed into law four months before the voters fired him, presumably for doing nothing to help fill their wallets. Either that or they were all just scared of those muttonchops. It’s too bad, really; the man basically saved the concept of paper money, so next time you go to the bank and exchange a hundred of those annoying little Golden Dollar coins for a crisp batch of $20 bills, drop to your knees and loudly praise the name of Van Buren. Don’t worry; nobody’ll judge you, except for the angry guard dogs security will probably sic on you. Dogs are so judgmental.
9. Warren G. Harding Saved The Country After World War 1
Ask anybody who the worst President ever was, and remember to threaten slow and painful dismemberment if they say “Dubya” or “Obama”. They will probably respond with Warren G. Harding, a guy with enough corruption in his Cabinet to make Nixon think he kept bad company. He almost certainly would’ve been impeached for his Administration’s many, many scandals, except he had to go and die before anyone got to that point. Dumb ol’ death.
It’s a shame, really, because he was pretty much responsible for saving the US after World War I, and jump-starting the Roaring 20’s. A slew of countries banded together to form the League of Nations, which was basically the United Nations, only run by lobotomy patients. It failed miserably, and Harding was smart enough to keep the US out of it. He wanted a return to normalcy, a focus on his own country and not every other one, and an end to the “extravagant” wartime spending that kept the US drowning in mortar shells and battleships for a whole year of combat. This leadership sparked a decade of prosperity and jitterbugging, one that only ended when everybody woke up in 1929 and realized what a credit card balance was, how large theirs was, and how utterly screwed they all were.
8. James K. Polk Brought Us Half a Country
Polk is probably the most popular overlooked President, which is a lot like getting a C+ in Remedial English. He’s gotten some schools named after him, most notably Al Bundy’s. But as far as what he did as President? Not a whole lot, except gift-wrap us damn near half of today’s United States.
Yes, Jefferson gets most of the credit for that Louisiana Purchase thing, but Polk saw his Purchase and raised him, well, the rest of the nation. Some of the biggest, most important states in the Union, such as Texas and California, were acquired by Polk as part of “Manifest Destiny”. Polk, and his supporters, claimed that the expansion was God’s Will, but it was basically just a cool-sounding way to say, “nice land; we’ll take it!” He had to fight a brief war with Mexico in order for them to give up California, New Mexico, and Texas, and he averted yet another war with England over the Canadian border of Oregon, but he nevertheless managed to secure basically the entire western US in one measly term.
For all he brought his country, he gets forgotten by basically everybody, save for They Might Be Giants. If Polk were alive today, he would be honored. He would also be 217 years old, allotting him a second career as a freakin’ scientific miracle.
7. John Tyler Drew The Line Between America and Canada
Tyler is famous for being both the first human-buzzard hybrid ever to assume high office, as well as for being the Vice-President to become President because his boss died. He rode out his term, and then passed on the reigns to James Polk, eager for four years down the line, when he and Polk could debate over who was more irrelevant to the average Joe Schmo.
So what did Tyler actually do, other than possess one of the most boring names in Presidential history? Mostly foreign policy stuff, most notably the Webster-Ashburton Treaty, which set up the official Canadian/US border from coast-to-almost coast (they’d deal with everything west of the Rocky Mountains later), and allowed shared use of the Great Lakes. Thank God, because if we were in Northern Michigan on a hot-n-humid 50-degree day, and really wanted to take a refreshing dip in Lake Superior, the last thing we’d need is some Canuck wading around and taking it all for himself.
Glorious snark aside, this border issue, particularly the part around Maine, damn near caused yet ANOTHER war with England on several occasions. We just couldn’t stop bickering with those guys back in the day, could we? Like two grumpy old men, we were. So if you ever want to thank somebody for literally drawing out the borders of our nation, and for making sure we didn’t have to deal with Brit Wars Part III, Tyler is a good guy to start with. If you can actually remember his name.
6. Benjamin Harrison Removed Tariffs On Sugar And Other Fun Vices
Benjamin Harrison dealt with one of the strangest issues any President has ever had to overcome: too much freakin’ money. The previous administration had left behind a $100 million surplus, mainly due to insanely high tariff (tax) rates on everything under the sun. Harrison’s solution was to…well…tax even MORE. This idea did not work, as you might have surmised, and Harrison and his gigantic mole were trounced from office after one term.
However, his attempts to keep at least some people happy resulted in a few tariffs being dropped completely. Suddenly, sugar, alcohol, and tobacco had vastly reduced taxes, and sugar growers even received a bounty of two cents per pound of sugar produced. So, in short, if you’re into coffee with extra-extra-extra sugar, booze, or smokes, thank Harrison. And to those who might complain his low-to-zero vice tariffs killed the surplus, and damn near bankrupted the country, keep in mind: if you want to make an (extremely sugary) omelet, you first have to break 100 million eggs.
5. James Garfield Fought Senate Corruption (And Won)
James Garfield is best known for having a fat orange cat named after him. Other than that, almost nothing. He got assassinated, but Lincoln’s assassination was far more famous. His term was extremely short, but one guy managed to die even faster. And his beard was awesome, but other Presidents had way cooler ones. Garfield was, quite simply, overshadowed in every aspect.
Except for one. Garfield set the precedent for telling politicians to go screw if they tried to bully him into appointing their friends to high positions. “Senatorial Courtesy”, a Presidential obligation to consult with the Senate before appointing anybody to a federal position, was the unofficial law of the land. And, naturally, if a nominee wasn’t friendly with a particular Senator, the President was expected to respect the Senator’s wishes, and reject the nominee.
Garfield was having none of that, and set out appointing anybody he damn well pleased, believing the President was more than just a “registering clerk” for the Senate. And, since senatorial courtesy was strictly a wink-wink thing, and not legal in any way, shape, or form, it was easily defeated. This vastly strengthened the Executive Branch, and Garfield got exactly what he wanted. Well, except for the part where his assassin was a supporter of the Senators who expected the President to cater to their every whim. He probably didn’t want that very much.
4. Chester A. Arthur Reformed Civil Service/Government Jobs
Garfield’s Vice-President, Chester Arthur, hated his boss. He had no problem with senatorial courtesy and shady appointments; since he never was actually elected to anything, merely appointed, we can see why he was so cool with other people getting work the same way.
Then he became President and, much like a jerk in a Disney film discovers he has a son and quickly learns to love kids and everything about them, he did a complete 180 on the whole friends-appointing-friends thing. Arthur managed to completely overhaul Civil Service, and the way people got government jobs. Before his accidental rise to the top job in the land, most government jobs were given to friends, family, and political allies, regardless of skill, ethics, or lack of either. Crazy Uncle Roy made it a whole day without downing several bottles of ash liquor? Deputy Sheriff!
Arthur passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883, establishing a Civil Service Commission, which oversaw appointments for government jobs, and set up a merit system where these jobs were given based on ability, rather than connections. Thanks to Arthur, no longer can you blatantly give out jobs to cronies just because it beats having to pay them back those $20 you owe them. You’ll just have to give the out subtly and discreetly, which is much harder to pull off.
3. William Howard Taft’s War On Monopolies
Poor Taft. His legacy is for being the Fat President, who may or may not have gotten stuck in a bathtub. It’s a wonder the fat orange cat wasn’t named after him. But, beyond being fat, Taft’s greatest problem was coming right after Teddy Roosevelt, one of the best and most badass Presidents ever. That guy was a hard act to follow, especially if you didn’t actually like being President, which described Taft to a tee. The guy was a lawyer who despised playing politics, which did not endear him to the common man, who largely prefer their slimy lawyer Presidents to also be slimy politicians. Remember, Clinton got eight years.
Even Taft’s biggest accomplishment, trust-busting, is largely credited to Roosevelt. Teddy is famous for going after monopolies and trusts, but Taft did it far, far more often, and more successfully. Over his one term, Taft filed close to a hundred antitrust suits, including the two biggest, US Steel and Standard Oil, the latter being successfully broken up due to Taft’s efforts. Going forward, if a company became too big for its britches, it could legally be broken apart. This is why Burger King and McDonald’s haven’t combined to form an ultra-greaseball-burger-chain conglomerate, opting instead to sit on opposite sides of the road, imploring gluttons everywhere to chow down in one place, then rush across the busy freeway to try the other place.
Besides, the boxing world would frown on a mega-restaurant called McDonald King, and you do not want to piss them off. They’ll eat your children.
2. Rutherford B. Hayes Ended Reconstruction and United The Country
Remember earlier, when we said Garfield’s beard was overshadowed by another President’s? Well, Rutherford Hayes would be that President. His beard was beyond epic, bushy to the point where it looked like he didn’t have a mouth. Just as well, because most people are probably convinced his term as President consisted of him sitting in a chair, not saying a word, and only getting up when somebody told him he wasn’t President anymore.
Obviously, this was not the case; as it turns out, Hayes was the guy who ended Reconstruction and united the country after the Civil War. And all he had to do was lose the election!…kind of. Hayes lost the popular vote, but neither he nor his opponent had enough electoral votes to win the election. Hayes was given the win via Congressional Action, which is about as sexy a victory as it sounds.
Southerners, however, were angry (shocking, we know), and threatened endless filibusters if Hayes were appointed; apparently, the Civil War taught them that, if they couldn’t beat the Yankees on the battlefield, they could at least talk them to death. To avoid this, an informal deal called the Compromise of 1877 was proposed. In it, Southern Democrats would accept a Hayes Presidency and respect the rights of Southern blacks, in exchange for Hayes removing all troops from the South, appointing at least one Southern Democrat to the cabinet, creating another transcontinental railroad, and helping to modernize and industrialize the South. This compromise worked, Hayes entered a unified country as its President, and it was all rainbows and lollipops going forward.
1. William Henry Harrison Invented Modern Campaign Tactics
Yes, him. The guy known for exactly one thing: dying. He lasted a mere 30 days in office before succumbing to pneumonia; that’s barely enough time to sneeze (which he did often, having been sick his entire Presidential career). How could he have been expected to do anything Presidential in that time, too?
Simple; he changed politics before entering office. While campaigning against Martin Van Buren in 1841, Harrison invented an entirely new system of applying for the job, one based on shameless marketing, cheesy self-promotion, and utter bullcrap lies. Just like now!
Harrison held endless parades, was the subject of upbeat songs extolling him as the greatest leader you’ll ever see, and stuck his aging puss on everything. Buttons, shirts, posters, even a damned cream jug; if they could fit his face on it, they stuck his face on it.
Even his campaign slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”, was revolutionary, due to making no sense whatsoever, and being generally stupid and useless. But it rhymed, so it stuck in the voters’ craws, and Harrison won via landslide.
He also invented the ever-important political tactic of playing a fictional character. Despite being a wealthy son of one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence, Harrison portrayed himself as a down-to-Earth, blue-collar, folksy everyman who was very much a political outsider. By successfully hammering the I’m-Just-Like-All-Of-You message into voters’ heads, Harrison provided a template for electioneering that has become the preferred method for every politician ever.
Jason Iannone is an editor at TopTenz, and is considering growing a Rutherford Hayes-style beard. No Ben Harrison mole though, blech. Like him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, and you can tumble his Tumblr anytime. Stop giggling, pervs.