Every year, on the third Monday in February, many workers across the country are given the day off in recognition of Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday originally established to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, but later expanded in the 20th century to recognize presidents more broadly. With the exception of school children, whose lessons may take a special focus on famous figures like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln or the many retail stores that offer “huge Presidents’ Day blow-out sales,” it is easy for most to let this holiday slip by unnoticed. But, it is important to recognize this holiday for what it is: a celebration of a position, and the men who have held it, mired in a history of slavery, racism, genocide, and imperialism. U.S. presidents are responsible for some of the worst brutality in modern history. This Presidents’ Day it is worthwhile to pause and examine some of the worst presidents and their most heinous acts throughout history. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
Slavery and Slave-Owning Presidents
The institution of slavery loomed large over nearly the first 100 years of American presidential history. Almost all of the earliest presidents were strong supporters of slavery and actively took part in the owning and trading of Black people, despite their often lofty ideas of liberty, freedom, and equality. In the hands of the founding fathers and early presidents, these ideals come wrapped up in the brutality of slavery and the massive profits it brought about. In fact, more than a quarter of all presidents have owned slaves.
George Washington kept approximately 300 slaves at his Mount Vernon plantation. He owned slaves before, during, and after his presidency. In fact, George Washington may have made his own dentures out of the teeth of enslaved people. Thomas Jefferson owned at least 175 enslaved workers at one time and over 600 total in his lifetime. Jefferson is well known to have had many enslaved children with one of the enslaved women that he raped, Sally Hemings.
Yes, Thomas Jefferson is well known to be a rapist. Although history and popular culture have reconstituted the narrative of the relationship between Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who bore him six enslaved children, to be a forbidden love affair, Hemings was not Jefferson’s mistress, in law, she was considered his property. Female slaves had no legal right to refuse unwanted sexual advances. There is nothing romantic about Hemings and Jefferson’s so-called relationship, a “relationship” in which consent is impossible and dissent carried with it the most violent and brutal consequences.
James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, James Polk, and Zachary Taylor each owned and enslaved workers during their stints in office, ranging from a few dozen to approximately 200. Martin Van Buren owned one during his early career. Andrew Johnson owned a few slaves before his presidency as well, and while he was governor of Tennessee, convinced Abraham Lincoln to exempt that state from the Emancipation Proclamation. Ulysses S. Grant was the last president to have owned a slave before taking office.
Although Fillmore never owned slaves, during his presidency he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled the federal government to return fugitive slaves to their masters. Enslaved people who had found freedom in the north were subjected to yet another form of terror.
Abraham Lincoln is often praised as one of the greatest presidents in American history. As popular history goes, he led the country to emancipate all enslaved people, after all! However, that presents a selective memory of Lincoln’s history regarding slavery. In August 1862, Lincoln stated: “If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.” Emancipation was merely a military strategy for Lincoln. In fact, the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom only to slaves in rebelling states, not to slaves who were in states that were members of the Union. Additionally, for many years Lincoln was an active member of the American Colonization Society and advocated for colonization as a means to tackle the problem of slavery so as to resettle former slaves in the Caribbean and Central America. Lincoln believed this was necessary having thought it was absolutely impossible to create a country in which Black people and white people could live together, believing white people to be superior to all races, and underscoring his deep-seated racism.
Native American Genocide
The United States was founded upon the removal and genocide of Native Americans under the belief that this was Manifest Destiny, meaning there would never be enough room for Native Americans and white settlers in the United States. In effect, colonizers attempted to wipe out indigenous people through the most brutal policies of violent genocide. Andrew Jackson was perhaps the most brutal of them all. He signed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the president to remove native tribes in the southeast United States to federal land west of the Mississippi so that white settlers could farm the territory and make a fortune growing cotton. These tribes were eventually forcibly removed by the United States government in a march to the west that later became known as the Trail of Tears. Ultimately, over 4,000 Native Americans died from exposure, starvation, and disease.
Truman’s presidency marked the beginning of Indian Termination Policy, a series of policies that sought—once again—to forcibly assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American society under the belief that indigenous people should abandon their traditional lives. These aggressive policies continued under Eisenhower and Kennedy. As a result, many tribes lost their native lands and many tribal members were stripped of their tribal status. These brutal and genocidal policies have displaced indigenous people and taken away their lands, leaving them only small corners of the vast expanse that is the United States.
And they are still under attack even to this day. The Dakota Access Pipeline, built with the permission of Obama’s federal government, is just one example of the ongoing oppression and exploitation of Native lands. Due to the heroic activism of the Standing Rock Sioux, as well as the thousands of people who mobilized in solidarity, the Dakota Access Pipeline was halted by the Obama administration only to be restarted by the Trump administration.
Colonialism and Imperialism
During his presidency, Monroe put forward the Monroe Doctrine, an act of U.S. foreign policy written in 1823 stating that any interference or attempt to recolonize any part of the Americas by Europe would be viewed by the United States as an act of aggression and would, therefore, obligate the U.S. to intervene. Monroe set the stage for the United States to violently inculcate itself and its politics into the affairs of Latin America. It was not an anti-colonial policy: it was a policy that claimed Latin America as the exclusive colonies of the United States—and indeed, the United States has treated Latin America like it’s colony ever since. In fact, Puerto Rico is officially a U.S. colony, and the rest of Latin America has been subject to U.S. violence in the form of sanctions and coups if they do not go along with the interests of U.S. corporations. More recently, John Bolton, former National Security Advisor under Trump, said “Today, we proudly proclaim for all to hear: the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well” when announcing sanctions against Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua.
U.S. presidents also have a long history of supporting and spearheading coups abroad to topple leftist governments and institute Right-wing leaders. Nixon led a coup in Cambodia and Chile, Eisenhower in Iran and Guatemala, Carter in El Salvador, Reagan provided arms support to Right-wing rebels in Nicaragua, and the list goes on.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, like Lincoln, is often hailed as one of the greatest presidents in American history, having led the United States to its victory in World War II. However, this great president created internment camps of Japanese Americans and his acts have set the precedent for presidents like Trump who likewise has created concentration camps of migrants seeking asylum at the border, who are similarly subjected to conditions of squalor and malnutrition.
Nor should it be forgotten that troops were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan under the Obama administration, who earned the nickname “King of Drones” for implementing drone bombings.
And perhaps most importantly, the United States is the only country to have used an atomic bomb, not once, but twice. Harry Truman dropped two atomic bombs at the end of World War II. As some historians argue, Truman didn’t drop the bombs to end the war, as Japan was already near surrender, but as a show of power to the Soviet Union. The death toll was well over 200,000 people, although the count is unclear because the effects were felt for decades.
Grover Cleveland ran his campaigns as the “stand up” candidate, even earning the nickname of “Grover the Good.” However, Cleveland was one of the more despicable presidents having committed a violent assault on a woman named Maria Halpin, which would later result in the birth of his illegitimate son. News of his illegitimate son spread when he had been nominated to the ballot for the presidency and as a result, he ran a malicious smear campaign against Halpin, maligning her as a sexual deviant and leaving her and the child destitute and subjects of national mockery. Cleveland also married his adopted daughter, Frances Folsom. Although he did not legally adopt her, Cleveland was appointed administrator of her estate after her father’s death. He was present at her birth and took over her care at age 11, and would later marry her when she was 21 and he was 49.
Bill Clinton was accused of raping Juanita Broaddrick in 1978 while he was attorney general of Arkansas. Similarly, a woman named Margie Schoedinger accused former President George W. Bush of raping her in October 2000. More than a dozen women have come forward to accuse current president, Donald Trump, of sexual harassment.
While these men and their careers have been sanitized by history, the women they assaulted have lived in infamy for having come forward.
Down With the Presidency
U.S. presidents have been the primary enforcers of racism and imperialism both in the U.S. and around the world, and have perpetrated unspeakable horrors including genocide, rape, and deadly wars. There is nothing to celebrate today about U.S. presidential history, only to mourn the violence perpetrated against so many.
Despite learning in school that American revolutionists rebelled against the monarchy to institute their own new form government, it is important to point out that the position of president is nonetheless a relic of that system. The president is a king-like autocrat who acts with impunity and who can decide via executive order what to do and undo. After all, it was Nixon who said in his now-infamous interview, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
That’s why Presidents’ Day should not be a celebration, but a day of anger and mourning for those lost to the violence of U.S. presidents. It is a day to question the institution of the presidency, an anachronistic position that shouldn’t exist at all, and a day to renew our commitment to fight American capital and imperialism led by U.S. presidents.