CONTENT WARNING: the following may contain some mild language, crude humor, alcohol, and commentary on American politics.
23 – BENJAMIN HARRISON
Presidential Years: 1889-1893
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Levi P. Morton
Ran Against: President Grover Cleveland
First Lady: Caroline Scott Harrison / Mary Dimmick Harrison
Quote: “I pity the man who wants a coat so cheap that the man or woman who produces the cloth will starve in the process.”
Best known for: Being the last president with a beard.
Random Fact: Was the grandson of President William Henry Harrison
Bio: Benjamin Harrison (technically Benjamin Harrison the 8th) was born into a political dynasty, as the great-grandson of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, grandson of a former President and son of a Congressman. Harrison became an attorney in Indianapolis and joined the Republican party. He was a deeply religious man, and once taught Sunday school in a Presbyterian church. During the Civil War he became a colonel in the Union and marched under General Sherman during the Siege of Atlanta, Georgia.
After the war, he advocated for railroad regulation in the Senate.
Then in 1888, Harrison ran against President Grover Cleveland. To everyone’s surprise, Benjamin Harrison became President after losing the popular vote by 100,000 votes. It turns out that this was most likely due to the New York party bosses who swung the vote in his favor, because they were pissed at Grover for his whole anti-corruption thing. At the inauguration, when Harrison thanked God for electing him, it is said that Matthew Quay (one of the party bosses who pulled the strings to really get him elected) muttered, “Well let God reelect you” before storming out.
Once President, Benjamin Harrison appointed Senator James G. Blaine (Grover’s rival) as Secretary of State and got to work on passing reform acts left and right. While the Dependent Pension Act helped out American veterans in need, the Sherman Silver Bill caused an economic crisis with the Panic of 1893 (which Grover had to deal with). The Sherman Act basically shifted away from gold to silver for the basis of America’s economic currency and caused uncertainty and turmoil.
In 1892, President Harrison’s wife, Caroline, fell ill with tuberculosis (during a time before an effective treatment existed) and passed away. Harrison’s daughter, Mary McKee, stepped in and helped out around the White House. Then in 1896, Harrison married Mary Scott Lord, his former secretary and his wife’s niece! (she was a good 25 years younger than him)
Even though he wasn’t able to make much headway with civil rights, Harrison was very outspoken in favor of equality for African Americans, “The colored people did not intrude themselves upon us; they were brought here in chains and held in communities where they are now chiefly bound by a cruel slave code…when and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot?”
When it came to foreign affairs, President Harrison could really care less. He had Canadian fishermen arrested for violating our waters, overthrew the Queen of Hawaii and once nearly started a war with Chili, because of the accidental death of two sailors who got in a bar fight! When the leader of Italy asked for an apology for the lynching of several Italian immigrants, Harrison essentially gave him the middle finger and told him to stop overreacting.
This one time, an angry drunk guy broke into the White House and somehow got past a couple of secret service agents before Harrison decked him and then helped his bodyguards tie the guy up!
If nothing else, President Harrison was a man of the future: six new states were admitted to the union under his administration and in 1889, Harrison appointed the first African American to a leadership position in the government when he chose former slave, Frederick Douglass as the new Minister to Haiti. He was also the first President to have his voice recorded, the first President to approve a one-billion-dollar budget and the first President to have electricity (although he was allegedly scared about using the light switch).
Harrison ultimately lost the 1892 election to former President Grover Cleveland because of his extremely unpopular tariff hikes.
25 – WILLIAM MCKINLEY
Presidential Years: 1897-1901
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: Garret Hobbart, Teddy Roosevelt (2nd term)
Ran Against: William J. Bryan
First Lady: Ida Saxton
Quote: “War should never be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed.”
Best known for: Being the third President assassinated…
Random Fact: Was the inspiration for the wizard in the Wizard of Oz!
Bio: William McKinley was a complicated guy. He was a very loving husband to a wife who suffered epileptic seizures, and was also the cause of untold suffering due to his imperialist pursuits across the world. At 18, McKinley enlisted in the Union as a private during the Civil War. His commanding officer, Rutherford B. Hayes, became his mentor and lifelong friend. He eventually worked his way up to Major.
After the war, like many a President before him, McKinley practiced law in Ohio. In 1889, he ran for Speaker of the House, but failed. He was then appointed the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. From there he helped to draft the McKinley tariff. Although his tariff bill was intended to help American businesses, the tariff hike on imports actually hurt the economy.
In 1892, William McKinley became the Governor of Ohio. He then ran for President in 1896. McKinley’s campaign was funded by a rich industrialist / Senator, “Dollar” Mark Hanna, which of course indebted him to big business interests, creating a huge conflict of interest (a problem more pronounced than ever before in today’s political climate). The Spoils system may have become a thing of the past, but corruption was alive and well at the dawn of corporate America thanks to a fair amount of legal loop holes. The smear campaign against his opponent, William J. Bryan, insisted that the Democratic nominee wanted to shift from the Gold standard to silver. It was untrue, but it was good enough to scare voters into voting for McKinley.
As bad as McKinley’s corporate sponsor scandal looked, it was nothing compared to what came next… American tensions with Spain were already at an all time high in 1898, when an American battleship, the USS Maine, was sunk off the coast of Havana, Cuba!
It turns out that the explosion was an accident, but that didn’t stop President McKinley from declaring war on Spain. The Spanish-American War waged for 113 days and is considered one of the most one-sided conflicts in recent history. Not only was the war fought over false pretenses, McKinley and his cabinet used the Cuba incident to expand the United States as a global power by becoming an empire. The US took the opportunity to conquer Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. The Spanish-American War cost the lives of 4,000 American soldiers, but that was nothing compared to the lives lost on the opposing side.
The Philippines in particular suffered the most, with over a million casualties, many of which were innocent bystanders. US forces used machine guns and terror tactics against native Filipino guerrilla warriors with spears and bows. American soldiers captured, tortured and killed anyone remotely suspected of being a part of the insurgency. General Jacob Smith ordered his men to “Kill anyone over ten.” The entire occupation is without a doubt one of the most evil acts ever committed in the name of America.
As horror stories began to make their way home, McKinley deflected all criticism to his Secretary of War, Russel A. Alger, giving the American public a scapegoat. All the while, not-so-coincidentally, Mark Hanna (the man who handed McKinley the presidency), immediately started raking in profit from numerous overseas deals. Many spoke out against McKinley’s colonial ambitions and especially his “benevolent assimilation” of the Philippines.
William Jennings Bryan declared, “We said we are going to bring prosperity and democracy to the Filipinos. But we had better not educate them, because they might learn to read the Declaration of Independence.” Mark Twain was also very vocal about how un-American it all was, saying that the American flag should switch out it’s white stripes for black stripes and it’s stars for skulls and cross bones. Eventually America did make good on it’s promise – after establishing an American-styled government, in 1935, the Philippines became a self-governing commonwealth and became fully independent in 1945.
During McKinley’s reelection campaign, he found himself without a running mate, when his VP (Garret Hobart) died unexpectedly in 1899. When the 1900 election came around, McKinley left the decision to the Republican Convention. The Republicans chose New York Governor, Theodore Roosevelt as McKinley’s new Vice President. Roosevelt first gained national recognition as a war hero during the campaigns in Cuba, during the Spanish-American War.
On September 6th, 1901, President McKinley was shot by a deranged anarchist (Leon Colgosz), while shaking hands with supporters at the international Pan-American Exposition, in Buffalo, New York. Immediately after being shot, his first concern was for his wife and then for his own assassin. When he was rushed to the hospital, the only doctor available was a gynecologist, who wasn’t able to find the bullet. He died 8 days later due to a gangrene infection in the bullet wound…
Side note: A somewhat tragic coincidence – Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln (also assassinated), was actually present at the assassinations of both James Garfield and William McKinley! When later invited to yet another presidential event, he straight up refused, saying, “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me, because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”
26 – THEODORE (TEDDY) ROOSEVELT
Presidential Years: 1901-1909
Political Party: Republican / Progressive “Bull Moose”
Vice President: Vacant (first term) / Charles W. Fairbanks (2nd term)
Ran Against: Alton B. Parker (2nd term)
First Lady: Edith Carow
Quote: “The only man who never make mistakes is the man who never does anything.”
Best known for: Walking softly and carrying a big stick.
Random Fact: Was the first President to leave the country, while President.
Bio: Teddy Roosevelt may very well have been the most badass man to ever live. This guy was a soldier, author, cowboy, father, farmer, Sheriff, police commissioner, Harvard graduate, boxer, football player, mountain climber, big game hunter, taxidermist, nature conservationist, survivalist, Governor, working class hero, trust buster, Noble Peace Prize recipient and President! (Seriously, try and top that resume!) When a British writer visited the White House in 1903, he came away saying, “Roosevelt is not an American, you know. He IS America.”
Considering his reputation, it may surprise you to hear that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was very sickly as a child. He had a laundry list of medical conditions, most notably asthma, back when there wasn’t a treatment for it. That didn’t stop him from growing up to be one of the toughest dudes of the 20th century, this side of the equator. To combat his health issues, Teddy literally beat his body into submission by taking up the leisurely sport of boxing!
After graduating from Harvard (Phi Beta Kappa), he then decided to go to Columbia Law School just for the hell of it. Roosevelt wrote 38 books in his lifetime starting with “The Naval War of 1812” at 23. He once climbed the 15,000 foot peak of Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps (during his honey moon). TR also had a penchant for skinny-dipping in the Potomac River, was left blind in his left eye after a boxing injury, and was both a big game hunter and a nature conservationist who deeply cared about preserving the environment.
In 1882, he was elected to the New York State Assembly where he served two terms. Tragedy struck in 1884 however, when he lost both his mother and his first wife, Alice, on the same day: Valentine’s Day. “The light has gone out of my life,” Roosevelt wrote in his diary. Immediately after he packed up and left civilization for the wilderness of the Dakota territories where he became a farmhand at a ranch in the Badlands and eventually became the local Deputy Sheriff.
When he returned to New York, he married his childhood sweetheart, Edith. The two raised six children (including his daughter from his first marriage). After serving under President Harrison as a civil service commissioner for 6 years, Teddy Roosevelt became a New York police commissioner in 1895, where he made such an impression that he received two gift-wrapped bombs in the mail!
Then in 1897, President McKinley chose him to be the Assistant Secretary of the US Navy. The following year, in 1898, the Spanish-American War broke out. Without missing a beat, Roosevelt dropped what he was doing and assembled an elite squad of ridiculously tough cavalrymen known as “The Rough Riders”.
The Rough Riders were the first volunteer cavalry regiment in United States history. Under Colonel Roosevelt, the Rough Riders faced off against Spanish forces in Cuba. Roosevelt and his cavalry led the iconic uphill charge during the Battle of San Juan Hill. TR returned home a hero. Then we decided to make that guy Vice President, which (after the aforementioned assassination of McKinley) led to him becoming the nation’s youngest President at just 42 years old.
Roosevelt accomplished more as President than most during his two terms. He set aside 150 million acres of forest to preserve, roughly doubling the number of national parks. He took on corruption in both government and big business. He signed the Pure Food and Drug Act, established the Department of Commerce and Labor and became a working-class hero with his expert handling of the 1902 Anthracite Coal Strike in Pennsylvania.
It’s also worth noting that the teddy bear itself is actually named after Teddy Roosevelt, because of a story from a hunting trip in which Roosevelt took mercy on a wounded bear… (and had it shot in the face to put it out of his misery?) Well, somehow this story got around and became a political cartoon that inspired a candy shop owner in Brooklyn to name his stuffed animal in the President’s honor.
Oh TR also created modern American football! Specifically by reforming the sport to make it less deadly. (18 people died in the 1905 season!) Roosevelt implemented new rules, along with yardage penalties for unsportsmanlike behavior and even invented the forward pass!
One of his biggest accomplishments (and his most controversial) was the creation of the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal was a massive undertaking: a 48-mile long waterway that cuts through Panama, connecting the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic – a huge shortcut for international shipping. The canal project was first started in 1881 by the French, but they gave up on it due to numerous problems, including a high mortality rate. So in 1904, the US swept in and took up the challenge.
In one of America’s not-so-proudest moments, President Roosevelt used his military power to help overthrow Colombian control of the region and installed a new government – with some built in conditions that just so happened to be in America’s best interest, but not necessarily those of the Panama government. Ultimately the Panama Canal project went way over budget, costing roughly $375,000,000!, but was finally completed in 1914. Roosevelt stated, “I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”
Roosevelt is also criticized for his part in the American Banana Republic – specifically the Banana Wars. The term Banana Republic refers to independent Latin American countries that were being taken advantage of by large American corporations. Corporations like the United Fruit Company (aka Chiquita Brands International) took control of large swaths of agriculture in poor countries like Jamaica, Honduras and Guatemala, employed extremely low-wage workers to grow and harvest metric ton shipments of bananas, and then sell them in the US for a 1,000% markup!
Many of these countries in Central America and the Caribbean started to get fed up with getting a raw deal and began protesting against their treatment at the hands of “Big Banana”. To protect its commercial interests in the tropical fruit trade, the United States sent in the Marines to put a stop to the labor movements by any means necessary. During Roosevelt’s administration, police action and military occupations were conducted in Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras. The Banana Republic lasted well into the 1930’s.
Meanwhile the Russo-Japanese War was being fought over the fate of the Korean peninsula. Both sides were evenly matched with no end in sight. Teddy Roosevelt offered to step in and mediate a cease fire. The negotiations between the Russian and Japanese ambassadors took place in the neutral location of New Hampshire where the two mutually negotiated an end to the conflict. Roosevelt would later win a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in bringing an end to the war. (While starting a dozen wars over in South America)
In 1908, TR decided not to seek a third term and chose William Howard Taft to continue his legacy. Roosevelt spent the next few years traveling around the world and hunting lions, rhinos and elephants on an African safari. In 1910, he became the first President to ride in an airplane – one of the Wright Bros’ early models! (Read “Epic Fails: The Wright Brothers – Nose-Diving Into History”!)
After returning to the states, Teddy noticed that Taft decided to do his own thing and brush aside all of his progressive reforms. So in 1912, TR put together his own (progressive) political party: the Bull-moose Party – literally just to ensure that Taft wouldn’t win reelection. During his time campaigning for a third term against Taft and Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt was shot! – but that didn’t stop him from getting on stage and giving a 90-MINUTE SPEECH!
After taking a bullet to the freaking chest from a colt revolver at point blank range, Roosevelt casually asked his attacker, “What did you do it for? – Oh, what’s the use? Turn him over to the police.” The would-be-assassin was a disgruntled unemployed saloon keeper, who couldn’t answer because he was too busy being tackled / disarmed. Instead of being rushed off to the hospital (like a normal human), TR dragged himself to the podium and began with, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible… I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot…”
He then proceeded to open up his jacket to show a slowly growing red stain from the wound and showing off his bullet riddled 50-page manuscript that he was planning to read from. “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,” he continued, “The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” Teddy Roosevelt then spent the next hour and a half giving one of the most hardcore speeches of his entire political career!
Later on, at 58 years old, when World War I broke out, Roosevelt was ready to ship out and fight alongside American soldiers, but was advised against it. That’s just how American this guy was. Teddy was far from perfect, but there’s no doubt that he was a man who lived life to the fullest and gave 110% in everything he put his mind to.
Roosevelt was such a good President that I honestly feel kinda bad for Taft, because who could follow that up?!
27 – WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT
Presidential Years: 1909-1913
Political Party: Republican
Vice President: James S. Sherman
Ran Against: William J. Bryan (at it again)
First Lady: Helen Herron “Nellie” Taft
Quote: “The trouble with me is that I like to talk too much.”
Best known for: Getting stuck in the White House bathtub and having a larger one installed.
Random Fact: After serving as President, became the Chief Justice of the United States
Bio: Mister Personality himself, William Howard Taft was a big guy in every respect. Not only was he a big deal in his time, he also weighed a good 300 pounds. As the son of Alfonso Taft, former Secretary of War and US Attorney General, William was destined to serve in government. He studied law at Yale and became a member of the Skull and Bones secret society. After graduating at Yale (second in his class), he was offered a “chair of Law” at the university, to which he jokingly asked if they could make it a “sofa of Law”.
He returned to Cincinnati, Ohio where he became a lawyer and later a judge. In 1887, Taft was appointed a Superior Court Judge. Under McKinley, he became a diplomat to the Philippines, where he helped form a new civil government. In 1904, he became Roosevelt’s Secretary of War.
In the election cycle of 1908, Teddy Roosevelt passed the baton to Taft, but despite Roosevelt’s confidence, the rest of the Republican party was slightly less enthusiastic. Taft went up against Democratic nominee William Jennings Bryan, who figured the third time’s a charm (gotta give him credit for perseverance!). Taft won: 321 – 162.
Taft’s presidency was … mostly forgettable. Not terrible, but not great either.
He made headway against government and corporate corruption, but he also did a lot of back peddling in regards to Civil Rights. President Taft initiated 80 anti-trust suits, while passing legislation that discriminated against the hiring of African Americans in government positions. He also had a bad habit of falling asleep during important meetings.
In 1909, the Secretary of the Interior, Richard Ballinger was accused of defrauding the public domain of the Alaskan coal fields by Gifford Pichot, the head of the forestry in the Department of Agriculture. What Ballinger was doing went against everything the progressive conservationists in the Republican party stood for. Instead of supporting Pichot, Taft took Ballinger’s side and fired Pichot. This move split the Republicans in to two factions: conservatives and progressives.
Between the passing of the unpopular Payne-Aldrich Act and the Alaskan land speculation scandal, it was clear that Taft put business concerns above the environment and a rift began to form between Roosevelt and Taft. Roosevelt got so fed up with Taft in fact that when the Election of 1912 came about, he decided to start up his own political party and run against him!
Roosevelt ran for a third term as the Progressive (Bull-moose) Party, while Taft ran for reelection as a Republican, Woodrow Wilson ran as a Democrat and Eugene V. Debs ran as a socialist. Ultimately Wilson won out with 435 electoral votes (more on that next time), but Roosevelt had 88 while Taft only got 8! (Roosevelt earned more votes than any other Third Party candidate to date!)
If anything, Taft was relieved to be out of the White House, calling it “the most lonesome place in the world”. But being President wasn’t actually the end of his career in politics, it was just the beginning. After teaching constitutional law at Yale, in 1921 President Harding appointed him as a Supreme Court Justice, a life-long goal. Taft served in the position for the rest of his life where he made numerous improvements to the judicial branch over the next decade before his passing in 1930.
Despite everything else, Taft will always be fondly remembered as our heaviest President thanks to his hilarious struggle with the White House bathtub. According to Ike Hoover’s book, “42 Years in the White House”, Taft got stuck in the White House bathtub for hours. It allegedly took multiple White House staffers to hoist the President out of the bath and some claim that they needed to use butter to slide him out! Needless to say, a larger bath tub was soon installed.
It is worth noting however that a year after leaving office, Taft lost a whopping 70 pounds after going on a diet and cutting out carbs and fatty meats.
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)