Naming Presidential Names

Naming Presidential Names


Today’s President’s Day.  Rather than playing favorites and celebrating a great president like, say George Washington, whose birthday is February, Congress passed legislation in 1968, to simplify yearly calendars and give federal employees some fixed 3-day weekends. The act started in 1971, shifting the observation of Washington’s Birthday to the third Monday in February instead of on the 22nd. And although this holiday is still officially known as Washington’s Birthday, it has become popularly known as Presidents’ Day.


Once, on a holiday trip in Amish Country while taking a tour in an Amish wagon, the farmer had a 10 year old boy sit up front next to him in the driver’s seat.  He asked the boy if he could name all the presidents (to that time).  The boy couldn’t get past Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and the current president, with a huge gap in between.  Whereupon the farmer, with his 8th grade education, proceeded to rattle off all their names.


“Don’t they teach you that in your public school?” the farmer asked the boy.  The boy shrugged; the adults in the back of the wagon cringed, admitting that they couldn’t name all of them, either.  Not many people beyond my mother are able to name them all, in proper order.


So here’s the trick my parents taught me about memorizing long lists:  it’s all about the grouping.  You link groups of presidents by what they have in common.


What our first five presidents have in common is that they were our first five presidents.  You can count them on one hand.


  1. 1.      George Washington – Our first, and best, president.
  2. 2.      John Adams – He became the nation’s first vice-president, taking office as the runner-up.  A defender of the British soldiers during the Boston Massacre, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was elected President in 1797, but signed the unpopular Aliens and Sedition Act.
  3. 3.      Thomas Jefferson – Author of the Declaration of Independence.  He was a proponent of westward expansion, was responsible for the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition.


Most people don’t get beyond the first three.  It just so happens the next two are named James and their last names start with “M” and those names are in alphabetical order:


  1. 4.      James Madison  – Author of the U.S. Constitution, and co-author with John Jay, of The Federalist Papers, which explained the Constitution.  He helped found the Democratic-Republican Party which eventually became the Democratic Party.  He oversaw the War of 1812 and demilitarized the U.S.-Canadian border
  2. 5.      James Monroe – Monroe opposed ratifying the U.S. Constitution because it did not contain a Bill of Rights.  He supported the anti-slavery position that led to the Missouri Compromise.  His most significant contribution was the Monroe Doctrine, which opposed European intervention in the Western Hempisphere and encouraged American colonization all the way to the West Coast.


The next grouping are presidents of “firsts” of one sort or another. 


  1. 6.      John Quincy Adams – he was the son of the second president; in other words, the first son of a president to become president
  2. 7.      Andrew Jackson – He was the first president to have a slogan:  “Let the people rule.”
  3. 8.      Martin Van Buren – Van Buren was the first president to be born in the United States of America (as opposed to being born in the English colonies).
  4. 9.      William Henry Harrison – Harrison had the misfortune to be the first president to die in office.  He was sworn in on a cold stormy day and gave a long inaugural address without wearing a hat.  He served precisely one month:  31 days.
  5. 10.  John Tyler – Tyler became the first president to succeed a deceased president, and without having been elected to office.  He was Harrison’s running mate but his name did not appear on the ballot.
  6. 11.  James Knox Polk – Knox was the first “dark horse” candidate for president when the Democratic National Convention became deadlocked and nominated him for president because he favored annexing Texas.  You could almost call him the X president.  And, while Fort Knox was named for him, in a prudent move, he fought Mexico for California, where gold was discovered in the 1850s.
  7. 12.  Zachary Taylor – To differentiate him from his predecessor, Tyler, just think of the Z in his first name.  Zachary was a “first” of sorts in that he was the next president to die in office.  He is remembered for, among other things, never having voted.
  8. 13.  Millard Fillmore – Taylor’s successor, Fillmore enjoys the notoriety of having been the first president to be forgotten.  He favored the Compromise of 1850 and signed the Fugitive Slave law.  Not particularly popular, he did not win a second term and was relegated to the ash heap of history.
  9. 14.  Franklin Pierce – Pierce enjoys the honor of being the next “forgettable” president.  He was most remember for the Gadsden purchase on what is now the southern border of Arizona and New Mexico.  The purchase was named for the American ambassador who signed the treaty, James Gadsden ( no relation to the Gadsden flag – the first flag the Marines carried into battle).  See?  We’ve already forgotten all about pierce.
  10. 15.  James Buchanan – Buchanan would be another forgettable except that he was last president before the Civil War.  Because he didn’t deal decisively with the issues of slavery and secessionism, it was left to his successor.


The next group contains our “Civil War” presidents:


  1. 16.  Abraham Lincoln – We all know about Honest Abe.  We even remember his presidential number.  One of the more trivial facts is that he has a distant relation to Paul Revere.  Many of Lincoln’s ancestors were lawyers and judges.  Turns out, it was in the genes, afterall.  Lincoln, of course, holds the distinction of being the first president to be assassinated.
  2. 17.  Andrew Johnson – The next of the Civil War presidents, Johnson granted amnesty to all the secessionist states as long as they ratified the 13th amendment.  Those states added anti-Negro provisions and Congress restored military control over the Southern states.  Johnson removed the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, without notifying, and he subsequently became the first president to be impeached.  He was acquitted by one vote.
  3. 18.  Ulysses S. Grant – Yes, the famous Civil War general was our 18th president.  The “S” actually stands for “Simpson” his mother’s maiden name, but his real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant.  When he entered West Point his name was written down as Ulysses S. Grant and he eventually adopted it.


The next group are our “city” presidents.  Well, New Jerseyans at least will recognize the citiies.


  1.  Rutherford Birchard Hayes – Garden Staters will remember Hayes by his first name, Rutherford.  East Rutherford is the better-known city because it’s the home of the New York Giants.  But take heart, Delaware and Ohio, because Hayes was born in Delaware, Ohio.
  2. James Abram Garfield – Garfield is another New Jersey city, although our 20th president was born in Orange, Ohio.  Garfield is just up the road from Rutherford.  Garfield is among the unfortunate group of presidents to be assassinated.
  3. Chester Alan Arthur – This Vermont-born president succeeded Garfield.  His name is a familiar town name not just in New Jersey but many East Coast states.
  4. Grover Cleveland – Ohio and New Jersey seemed to be in a competition for presidents.  Ohio produced them and New Jersey named towns after them.  However, Grover Cleveland was born Stephen Grover Cleveland in Caldwell, N.J.
  5. Benjamin Harrison – Yet another New Jersey-Ohio connection, Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio, and New Jersey has a city named Harrison, a suburb of Newark.  Harrison was the great-grandson of Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Harrison and grandson of President William Henry Harrison.
  6. Grover Cleveland – Again.  Cleveland was the only president to serve two, non-consecutive terms.


Next, come the “Mountain” presidents.


  1. William McKinley – McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 14, 1901.  After his death, the largest mountain in North America was named after him, although political correction returned the mountain’s name to its native roots.
  2. Theodore Roosevelt – Roosevelt was climbing a mountain in New York state, Mount Marcy (that state’s highest peak) when he learned he was president.  A courier was sent climbing up the mountain to give him the news.
  3. William Howard Taft – Our largest president, built like a mountain, had to have a special bathtub built for him.  Taft was the only citizen to serve both as President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.



The three of the next four presidents are easy to remember due to their alliterative names:


  1.  Woodrow Wilson – Wilson is remembered for his progressive reforms.  He created the Federal Reserve System (boo!), delivered the Fourteen Points speech to Congress (No. 4 Adequate guarantees given and taken that national armaments will be reduced to the lowest point consistent with domestic safety and No. 6 The evacuation of Russian territory and a welcome for its government to the society of nations.
  2. Warren Gamaliel Harding – Well, Harding’s name isn’t alliterative, but his first name begins with a “W” like Wilson’s. He’s the president the school in A Christmas Story is named after.   Harding was best known for the Teapot Dome Scandal, when his Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall accepted bribes in the leasing of government-owned oil reserves to private companies.  However this Teapot Dome President would otherwise have been popular with modern Tea Partiers because he voted for anti-strike legislation, women’s suffrage, and stressed the repeal of excess profits and high income taxes.  Harding was also another president to die in office. 
  3.  Calvin Coolidge – Silent Cal’s full name was John Calvin Coolidge.  He was known for his brevity, and that encompassed abbreviating the size of government.  As governor of Massachussetts he was celebrated for his anti-union stance, stating that public servants had no right to strike.  He was considered a rising star among Conservatives.  He gave no  notable speeches, but his brief replies were legendary.  One story has it that at a party a a guest seated next to him at a dinner said,  “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” His famous reply: “You lose.”
  4. Herbert Hoover – Herbert Clark Hoover is generally blamed for the Great Depression of the 1930s, but actually what he was held responsible for was the suffering when he refused to establish any federal bureaucracies to run federal assistance programs.  He didn’t oppose assistance programs; in fact, he created some.  Hoover was just unwilling to make them permanent.


We come to the more Modern presidents; that is to say, people are still alive who remember them.


  1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt – The cousin of Teddy, FDR, as he became known, served the longest term – 12 years.  He is famous (or infamous) for creating many government programs, particularly Social Security.  He increased the size of the government tremendously while negotiating America’s way through the Great Depression and World War II.  His programs, far from alleviating the Great Depression, prolonged it, and only the request by Great Britain for war products and America’s subsequent involvement in the war brought American industry back to health.  Roosevelt, who was paralyzed with polio, was yet another president to die in office.
  2. Harry S. Truman – Those too young to remember Roosevelt’s successor can think of Truman as a “True Man”, that is to say, he was a champion of the common man.  He brought the War with Japan to end by making the decision to drop the first atomic bomb.  Still he was a Liberal Democrat and increased the size of government.
  3. Dwight David Eisenhower – The commander of the European Forces in World War II and famous for the Normandy Invasion, Eisenhower’s slogan was “We Like Ike” (his nickname).  Americans liked Ike enough to re-elect him to office.  Although America went through a minor recession during his administration, America generally enjoyed a period of general peace (he negotiated the truce in the Korean War) and prosperity in the 1950s.
  4. John Fitzgerald Kennedy – Kennedy was young, handsome and wealthy, with a beautiful wife and children.  The second of nine children, he was destined (by his father) for the presidency when his older brother was killed in World War II.  The Bay of Pigs, a misguided and undermanned attempt to overthrow Castro in Cuba, marred his early administration, but was revived by his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Kennedy was a Democrat but a fiscal Conservative.  He was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in November 1963, joining the line of assassinated presidents.
  5. Lyndon Baines Johnson – Kennedy’s successor, Johnson, was responsible for the next step in Progressivism, outlining his plan for The Great Society, which included lowering the standards for immigration and creating a permanent welfare system.  Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but his build-up of the Vietnam War cost him the 1968 election.
  6. Richard Milhous Nixon – Nixon was by all accounts a popular president when he was first elected – and re-elected.  He championed the “Silent Majority” of decent Americans whose values were being trodden on by activists in the Sixties and brought the unpopular Vietnam War to an end.  He opened up trade with China and took America off the Gold Standard, both considered questionable moves but hailed by the Media.  Nixon became the first president to resign when he covered up a break-in of the Democrat National Headquarters by covert agents seeking proof of foreign contributions (which are illegal) to the Democrat Party.  He resigned in August, 1973.
  7. Gerald R. Ford – Ford succeeded Nixon in office.  He made the controversial move of pardoning the former president for any federal crimes he might have committed as president.  Ford, a former football star, was ridiculed by the media as a bumbling president, but he vetoed 48 Democrat bills in order to fight high inflation.
  8. James Earl Carter – A student of nuclear physics, Carter was a peanut farmer from Georgia.  He was weak on foreign policy and his mutability encouraged Iranian terrorists to hold American embassy members hostage until his defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980.
  9. Ronald Wilson Reagan – Reagan was to Conservatives what George Washington was to the founding country.  A former actor and former Democrat, Reagan advocated pride in America and supported the free market system.  He forged a bipartisan coalition in Congress that led to large-scale tax cuts, reduction in government, and a build-up in national defense.  In 1981, he was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt.  Reagan survived to go onto a second term and renown among Conservatives.
  10. George Herbert Walker Bush – More moderate than the man he served as Vice President, H.W. was blamed for a savings and loan crisis created by the Carter-era Community Reinvestment Act.  He knew Americans wanted a moratorium on taxes, and with a pledge from Democrats not to raise taxes, he made the promise only to be forced to break it.  Bush oversaw the Persian Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein tried to invade Kuwait and threatened to invade Saudi Arabia.
  11. William Jefferson Clinton – Clinton boasts of broadening his appeal to Americans as the reason for his election.  However, the GOP was divided by the entry of independent Ross Perot into the race, who took advantage of the widening gap between Moderates and Conservatives.  During his administration, for the first time in 40 years, Congress was governed by Republicans.  Clinton’s attempts to establish universal health care failed.  Despite numerous, salacious scandals, Clinton was re-elected to a second term.
  12. George Walker Bush – The son of George H.W. Bush, Bush, the son, will be known for his role in guiding America after the September 11th attacks in 2001.  He pursued an unpopular war in the Middle East and took a moderate approach to the economy.  He was narrowly elected to a second term.  His last act was to pass the unpopular TARP act, bailing out failed banks and businesses after the economic collapse of September 2008.
  13. Barack Hussein Obama – America’s first black President, Obama has promised to transform America.  He is recorded as being in favoring of dispatching the U.S. Constitution and redistributing America’s wealth.  He oversaw the passage of the health care act and various Stimulus Packages which helped create public-private companies.



Published in: on February 20, 2012 at 12:13 pm  Comments (1)  

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