CONTENT WARNING: the following may contain some mild language, crude humor, alcohol, and commentary on American politics.
8 – MARTIN VAN BUREN
Presidential Years: 1837-1841
Political Party: Democratic*
*As pointed out earlier, the Democratic party of today has very little resemblance to its previous incarnation.
Vice President: Richard Mentor Johnson
Ran Against: William Henry Harrison, Daniel Webster and Hugh Lawson White
First Lady: <vacant / deceased>
Quote: “It is easier to do a job right than to explain why you didn’t.”
Best known for: ?
Random Fact: He campaigned for reelection three different times, each time unsuccessfully
Bio: Yup, another crappy President.
Martin Van Buren was the first American President who was actually born an American citizen. Which means we technically had 7 Presidents who weren’t born on American soil… which of course means we should consider making an exception for Arnold Schwarzenegger, because you don’t want to tell that guy no. Anywho, where was I…?
Oh yeah, Martin Van Buren wasn’t a great President, but he was a good – wait, no, sorry I can’t actually say that he was a good person either, because… well he wasn’t. Regardless of his moral failings and hypocritical nature, Van Buren was a talented politician prior to getting himself elected.
Martin Van Buren was also a notorious binge-drinker. So much so that he earned the nickname “Blue Whiskey Van”. Most of his time in office (when he wasn’t drinking) was spent spending tax payer money on decorating the Oval Office with European luxuries… while an economic recession gripped the country. Speaking of, he was also nicknamed Martin Van ‘Ruin’, because of his crappy handling of said economic calamity.
Every step of the way he was on the wrong side of history. For starters, Van Buren was pro-slavery, well sort of. You see, he actually worked against the spread of slavery to the Northern states and refused to annex Texas in order to halt its growth, BUT he also vehemently defended the rights of slave owners in Southern states, choosing politics over his principles. So yeah, he was a bit of a hypocrite.
When John Quincy Adams supported the slaves aboard the Amistad, Martin Van Buren sided with the Spanish government and the return of their stolen ‘property’. He also oversaw the deplorable continuation of the ‘Trail of Tears’ that Andrew Jackson started.
Once he refused to help a Mormon colony in Missouri that was facing exile or extinction, because he was concerned about being reelected… “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you; if I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri”.
(He wasn’t reelected.)
Probably the worst thing Van Buren did however was to continue Jackson’s devastating economic policies which directly led to rampant unemployment, and the Panic of 1837. Meanwhile, he was living large and getting smashed in the White House.
The American people kicked him to the curb. Later in life, he joined the anti-slavery Free Soil party in an attempt to get reelected, with no such luck.
9 – WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON
Presidential Years: 1841-1841…
Political Party: Whig Party
Vice President: John Tyler
Ran Against: President Martin Van Buren
First Lady: Anna Harrison
Quote: “There is nothing more corrupting, nothing more destructive of the noblest and finest feelings of our nature, than the exercise of unlimited power.”
Best known for: Dying in office after only one month!
Random Fact: Gave a two-hour long inaugural speech during the middle of a blizzard (without his coat!), giving him pneumonia – which directly led to his death 32 days later.
Bio: There’s really not much more to say here. See above ^
10 – JOHN TYLER
Presidential Years: 1841-1845
Political Party: The Whig Party
Vice President: <Vacant>
Ran Against: N/A
First Lady: Letitia Christian / Julia Gardiner
Quote: “I can never consent to being dictated to.”
Best known for: Tippecanoe and Tyler too!
Random Fact: His entire cabinet resigned (except for the Secretary of State)
Bio: John Tyler was the first Vice President to ascend to the Presidency due to the unexpected death of the other dude on the ticket. Which was so unexpected that people were concerned he was even qualified for the job, something historians still can’t seem to agree on. During the election, as Harrison’s running mate, their slogan was Tippecanoe and Tyler too – while catchy, doesn’t exactly make Tyler out to be much more than a tacked on accessory. Whereas Harrison was considered a war hero (the Battle of Tippecanoe), Tyler didn’t quite have the same claim to fame.
John Tyler had previously abandoned the Jacksonian Democrats and jumped ship to the Whig party in defiance, but never really saw eye to eye with them. The Whigs figured that they’d put him on the ballot as VP in order to get the pro-slave votes, but never considered the possibility that he might actually become the Commander-in-Chief.
Tyler vetoed practically everything that came across his desk and became the first President to have a veto overwritten by Congress. He also annexed Texas as a slave-owning state, which was a !#%$ move. When Tyler ascended to the Presidency, he completely and totally threw the Whig agenda out the window to the point that they got fed up with his bull and expelled him from his party! What’s more, his entire cabinet (with the exception of Daniel Webster) resigned!
It wasn’t all controversy though, Tyler ended the Seminole War, expanded the Monroe Doctrine to Hawaii and orchestrated the first trade mission to China. During his last remaining days in office, Tyler decided to go out with a bang. He sent out about 2,000 invitations to a massive kegger at the White House and over 3,000 people showed up! Several barrels of whine and 8 dozen bottles of champagne later, the place was wrecked and Tyler peaced-out with, “They cannot say now that I’m a President without a party.”
Tyler might not have gone down in history as a terrible President, if it wasn’t for the fact that he later joined the Confederacy in seceding from the Union and was even elected to the Confederate Congress.
11 – JAMES K. POLK
Presidential Years: 1845-1849
Political Party: Democratic
Vice President: George M. Dallas
Ran Against: Henry Clay
First Lady: Sarah Childress Polk
Quote: “With me it is exceptionally true that the presidency is no bed of roses.”
Best known for: Expanding the United States territory westward.
Random Fact: First President to have his photo taken while he was in office.
Bio: James Knox Polk never intended to become the front runner for President. His goal was to maneuver his way into being Van Buren’s running mate, or even John C. Calhoun’s VP, but former President Andrew Jackson saw potential in Polk and decided to back him as the Presidential nominee, because of his pro-slavery stance regarding Tyler’s annexation of Texas. Polk was considered Jackson’s protege during his time as a legislator in the House of Representatives. He was even nicknamed “Young Hickory”, because he was basically Jackson’s Mini-Me.
Despite following in the footsteps of Jackson, Polk managed to completely outshine his mentor and became one of the most *effective* Presidents to ever serve. He laid out 4 goals and managed to hit them all. Not only that, but he did it all in one term! He was dedicated to the country, to the point of stubbornness. He lived, breathed and bled for the red, white and blue.
James K. Polk reestablished the Independent Treasury system, reduced tariffs, negotiated the Canadian border with England AND pushed western expansion to the California coast. Unfortunately in his quest for Manifest Destiny he also inadvertently got us tangled up in a war with Mexico, because he tried to buy Cali from them even though it wasn’t for sale. So yeah, he straight up stole it. (awkward)
He even started the war on false pretenses, claiming that Mexico had invaded US territory, which was all kinds of not true. Before anyone could actually look into his claim however, everyone was rolling out.
End of the day though, Polk gave it his all. So much so, that he didn’t even seek reelection, because he’d accomplished everything he’d set out to do.
Not something most Presidents can claim.
“I am heartily rejoiced that my term is so near its close. I will soon cease to be a servant and will become a sovereign.”
He died only 3 months after leaving office at the age of 53, from… chronic diarrhea… (yeeesh)
Thanks for reading! If you’re a fan of the blog, be sure to listen to the Epik Fails of History podcast and check out my all new “EPIC FAILS” book series – available now wherever books are sold! “EPIC FAILS: Not-So-Great Presidents” hits shelves on January 15th, 2019.
American Presidents: Life Portraits (C-SPAN)