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From heroic George Washington to the dastardly Richard Nixon, the oval office has been occupied by larger-than-life personalities since 1789. The position comes with enormous power and responsibility, and every American president thus far has managed to achieve great things. However, the President of the United States is only humanand oftentimes far from perfect. While some men suffered through only minor mishaps during their time in office, others are famously remembered for leaving behind much bigger messes.
In the third installment of the Epic Fails series, authors Erik Slader and Ben Thompson, and artist Tim Foley, take readers on another hilarious ride, exploring the lives, legacies, and failures of some of America’s commanders in chief.
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About the Author
Erik Slader is the creator of “Epik Fails of History” a blog (and podcast) about the most epic fails… of history. With Ben Thompson, Erik is the coauthor of the Epic Fails book series, including The Wright Brothers: Nose-Diving Into History and Race to Space: Countdown to Liftoff.
Ben Thompson is the author of eleven books on various awesome historical subjects including the Guts & Glory series, and has appeared on television programs for the History Channel, Discovery, and the American Heroes Channel. He has written for Cracked, Fangoria, Soldier of Fortune, and The American Mustache Institute, currently owns four swords (if you count a letter opener shaped like Glamdring the Foe-Hammer), and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with a single quarter.
Read an Excerpt
"We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience."
— George Washington
The year was 1776, and the bloody fighting of the American Revolution was in full swing. American colonists had openly challenged the authority of King George III of England, and the first shots of the conflict rang out over Boston Harbor and echoed across the Atlantic. While many brave and poorly equipped American patriots stood their ground against the might of the British Empire, the members of the Second Continental Congress were frantically scrambling to try to figure out what the heck to do next.
You see, what had started as a slightly rowdy antitax demonstration of protesters cosplaying as Native Americans (the Boston Tea Party) now escalated into a shooting match between the largest military the world had ever seen and a ragtag group of untrained militiamen that was low on gunpowder. If this revolution was going to be a real war for independence, America was going to need a powerful, talented, and effective leader to take command and lead the country to freedom.
On July 4, 1776, members from all thirteen colonies had finally come to an agreement. It was a hot Thursday afternoon at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. And on that day, the members of the Continental Congress signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, which decreed America's separation from England. The fifty-six delegates who signed the document declaring their independence from Great Britain knew that if they lost the war, they would all be dead men walking — betraying the king of England was a crime punishable by death. Today we know these men as the Founding Fathers, but at the time, they were just rebels-with-a-cause in funny-looking wigs. They were labeled traitors to the Crown.
Founding Father and future president George Washington was not present at this historic signing, mostly because he was too busy getting shot at by redcoats on the battlefield. He ended up being the leader America was looking for, even though, for a famous war hero, General George Washington actually lost a lot of battles. Like, a ton. In fact, Washington lost way more battles than he won.
Contrary to urban legend, George Washington didn't have wooden dentures and never chopped down a cherry tree (it's all a lie!). What is true, though, is that Washington was born on February 22, 1732, to a super-rich colonial family in Virginia and that he inherited his family's entire fortune, like an eighteenth-century Tony Stark.
Regardless of his impressive losing streak as commander in chief of the Continental Army, George Washington was an inspiring leader who never gave up no matter how many times the British beat up his armies. After Washington endured years of tough battles and miserable combat conditions, his luck finally changed late at night on Christmas 1776, when he and his troops crossed the freezing Delaware River under the cover of darkness and led a successful surprise attack on the British garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. That battle dealt the redcoats one of their worst defeats yet. The American soldiers were still far from winning the war, but Washington gave them the hope they needed to persevere.
The war raged on for seven more years, from the bitter lows of Valley Forge to the climactic victory at Yorktown, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington. Finally, the American colonies managed to secure their freedom from England with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Eager to get their young country on the right track, the Founding Fathers came together in the Philadelphia convention and crafted the Constitution we know so well today, along with the Bill of Rights and the basic structure of the federal government.
The preamble read: "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
The US Constitution was ratified in 1788, and the new government began in 1789. The only thing left to do was to elect a leader ...
Not a King but a President
In 1789, the Electoral College unanimously voted in George Washington as the first president of the United States. John Adams, who had the second most votes, became his vice president, while Thomas Jefferson served as Washington's secretary of state. Unlike the presidents that followed, Washington actually operated in New York City rather than the current capital. (Washington, DC, hadn't even been built yet!) From the start, he was adamant about having a neutral foreign policy and not getting involved in the business of other countries, which is pretty funny considering how many of his successors have ignored his advice over the years.
Most of Washington's presidency was spent trying to maintain the peace, building a country, and establishing precedents for future presidents. When the Whiskey Rebellion rose up in Pennsylvania, protesting a new tax meant to pay for the debts incurred during the Revolutionary War, Washington personally led the military in to quell the insurgency. Luckily, the protesters disbanded before things got ugly, but to this day it remains the only time in American history when the sitting president led an army in the field.
By far the most impressive thing about Washington, though, is that instead of using the presidency to rule as a king-for-life, the man turned over the keys after his two terms were up. Washington thought it was important to set an example by leaving after eight years — America had just fought a war to overthrow a king, and he didn't want to simply replace one monarch with another. After leaving the presidency behind, he retired to his farm at Mount Vernon, where he focused on his real passion: brewing moonshine (no joke)!
In 1797, John Adams became our second president. Unlike Washington, who was loved by pretty much everyone, Adams wasn't as likable of a dude — he faced constant opposition from all angles, from his own vice president, Thomas Jefferson, to his own party, the Federalists.
After a contentious first term, the election of 1800 ended up being one of the wackiest in American history. When fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson threw his hat into the ring to oppose Adams, the president took it personally. The candidates were on opposing sides of a schism between the American people: Jefferson was a Democratic-Republican who sided with rural Americans, while Federalists, like Adams, were strong advocates of the constitutional authority of the federal government. Adams versus Jefferson was the no-holds-barred, winner-take-all match of the century!
Sometimes during elections, campaigns can get a little heated, and instead of focusing on the issues at hand, politicians start attacking their opponent — explaining why people shouldn't vote for the other guy, instead of why people should vote for them. This is called mudslinging, and it's nothing new. In fact, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were pioneers of this form of campaigning.
These two Founding Fathers didn't just throw shade at each other, they went above and beyond in trying to out-insult the other. Jefferson first called Adams weak, then Adams retorted by calling Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow." It was like a kindergarten playground faceoff between scholars.
Jefferson, claiming to be above such low tactics, instead hired James Callender to do his dirty work. Callender was so effective that he convinced voters that Adams wanted to start a war with France, despite that almost certainly being fake news. Callender was later charged with slander, and Jefferson washed his hands of the whole affair.
In response to the deluge of insults, Adams's campaign ramped up the anti-Jeffersonian rhetoric and claimed that if Jefferson won the election, murder and robbery would be openly taught and practiced, the ground would be soaked with blood, and America would become a nation of criminals. As it turns out, Thomas Jefferson did win the election, and none of Adams's predictions came true.
Thomas Jefferson, famed author of the Declaration of Independence, served two terms as America's third president, from 1801 to 1809. President Jefferson was a champion of education, science, and the pursuit of knowledge. He even sent some of his personal collection — 6,487 books! — to the Library of Congress. Dude loved to read, I guess.
During his time in office, Jefferson cut the country's debt in half, unleashed the US Navy on pirates, and was a champion of both religious freedom and the separation of church and state. In 1803, he also carried out the Louisiana Purchase for super cheap from a guy named Napoleon (perhaps you've heard of him?), approximately 828,000 square miles of territory for $15 million! The Louisiana territory would later make up all or part of fifteen states! This was a big deal, because if it wasn't for Jefferson swooping in on this deal, most of North America today would probably belong to France.
In their later years, after decades of heated debate and outright hatred on opposite ends of the political spectrum, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams began writing each other and became close friends, much like Batman and Superman after they stopped punching each other long enough to realize they were on the same side after all. The dynamic duo stayed in touch as the closest of pen pals regardless of their opposing viewpoints.
Both Adams and Jefferson, lifelong frenemies, died on the same day — July 4, 1826 — the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.CHAPTER 2
"The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable."
— James A. Garfield
Ever since George Washington set the standard and left office after his second term, thirteen presidents have followed his example by leaving after two terms. The only president to serve more than that was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who served three terms and was even elected to a fourth, but he passed away soon after. And then there's guys like William Henry Harrison ...
William Henry Harrison first gained national recognition as a war hero in 1811 during the Battle of Tippecanoe in the Indiana Territory. Governor Harrison led an army of one thousand men to take on Tecumseh's rebellion — a Native American tribe (the Shawnee) who were sick and tired of American immigrants moving in and taking all their land. During his campaign to disperse Tecumseh's encampment, as many as seven hundred Shawnee warriors ambushed Harrison's troops! Despite not having the home-field advantage, Harrison and his men held their ground against wave after wave of attack, managing to win the battle. His military success branded him a war hero in the eyes of many Americans, who admired Harrison for protecting lands they felt were rightfully theirs. Years later, during the 1840 presidential election, William Henry Harrison ran as the Whig Party candidate with John Tyler as his running mate. Together the two used the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!"
Today, the main two political parties are Democrats and Republicans, but before that, we had Democratic-Republicans, Federalists, and Whigs. In modern politics, Democrats tend to be liberal and progressive, while Republicans lean more toward the conservative and traditionalist point of view (even though they started out as the opposite — Republicans used to be liberal, and Democrats used to be conservative). The Whig Party of Harrison and Tyler was a nationalistic movement that opposed the Democratic-Republicans.
Harrison won the election in a landslide, beating out President Martin Van Buren, making William Henry Harrison the ninth president of the United States. On March 4, 1841, President Harrison gave the longest inauguration speech ever ... in the middle of a blizzard — without his coat! Exactly one month later, on April 4, 1841, Harrison died of pneumonia and enteric fever.
Harrison was the first president to die in office, so it was kind of a shock when everyone realized that his vice president, John Tyler, was now the guy in charge. After all, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too," while catchy, doesn't exactly make Tyler out to be much more than a tacked-on accessory. The Whig Party had added Tyler (a former Jacksonian Democrat) to the ticket only to appease the pro-slavery voters in the South. Soon after Tyler became president, Harrison's entire cabinet save one resigned!
But Tyler was a notoriously unpopular president — he vetoed nearly everything that came across his desk, annexed Texas as a slave-owning state, and got disowned by his own political party! During his last days in office, Tyler decided to go out with a bang. He sent out about two thousand invitations to a massive party at the White House and over three thousand people showed up. Several barrels of wine and eight dozen bottles of champagne later, the White house was wrecked, and Tyler peaced-out, saying, "They cannot say now that I'm a president without a party."
William Henry Harrison wasn't the only president to die unexpectedly in office, either. In 1850, our twelfth president, Zachary Taylor, also died under very unusual circumstances only one year into his term. On July 4, 1850, President Taylor was attending a ceremony at the construction of the Washington Monument on a particularly hot day — where he reportedly ate "copious amounts" of cherries and then practically downed gallons of cold milk and lemonade.
After Taylor stuffed his face, his stomach started to hurt. (Unfortunately, Pepto-Bismol wasn't created until 1901.) Five days later, Taylor officially died of cholera ... (and eating way too many cherries!) Leaving Millard Fillmore to fill his shoes.
The President, Not the Cat
Perhaps one of the most unfortunate and completely avoidable tragedies in the history of American presidents was the death of America's twentieth president, James A. Garfield. If there's one thing that defines President Garfield, it was that he was notoriously unlucky. He was so clumsy, in fact, that once during a six-week stint on a boat, he fell overboard a total of fourteen times! And then there's the assassination, though that one had a little less to do with Garfield's being clumsy ... On July 2, 1881, he was shot at a train station by Charles J. Guiteau, once in the back and once in the arm. Guiteau was convinced that he was the sole reason Garfield had been elected president and felt that he deserved to be chosen as the ambassador to France in return — despite never having been to France, not being able to speak French, and, oh yeah, not having ever spoken to President Garfield before. But here's the really unfortunate thing: Garfield probably would've survived the shooting if it wasn't for the careless surgeons who accidentally tore open his liver and infected the wound in an attempt to remove the bullet ...
Still, before President Garfield's four-year term was tragically cut to six months, he managed to improve education, reform foreign policy, and fight corruption in ... the Post Office (?!), where, it turns out, Garfield helped to root out a conspiracy of profiteering rings that stole millions of dollars.CHAPTER 3
"Washington, DC, is twelve square miles bordered by reality."
— Andrew Johnson
The office of the president has been known to attract a certain type of person. There's certainly a level of ego, ambition, and fortitude one requires to step into the spotlight — knowing that you will forever be remembered, but that you'll also become a very visible target for those who disagree with you. Ideally, that drive and courage are also coupled with humility and respect — knowing that it's an honor to serve one's country at the highest level. It takes an exceptional person to be the leader of the Free World, and sometimes that person is ... unique in more ways than one.
John Quincy Adams (the son of a former president, John Adams) was the first president to denounce slavery, reduced the national debt from $16 million to $5 million, and spoke fluent French, Italian, Russian, German, and Latin! (English, too.) Oh, and while he was secretary of state, he negotiated the purchase of Florida from Spain, so you can also thank him for that, I suppose. He was also a little ... um ... unorthodox.
John Quincy Adams was a very eccentric guy, even for nineteenth-century presidents. For starters, he enjoyed taking a long early-morning swim in the Potomac River — in the nude! If that's not weird enough for you, John Quincy Adams also once approved an expedition to the center of the Earth in search of ... mole people?! The voyage was scrapped, however, once Andrew Jackson took office — but not because a mission to the Earth's core was something that belonged in a cheesy 1950s science-fiction movie, but rather because some say Jackson believed the Earth was flat!(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Not-So-Great Presidents"
Copyright © 2019 Erik Slader and Ben Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction:"Who Is the President Anyway?" 1
Chapter 1 First Presidents 5
Chapter 2 Dead Presidents 19
Chapter 3 Eccentric Presidents 27
Chapter 4 Civil War Presidents 43
Chapter 5 Unlucky Presidents 63
Chapter 6 Corrupt Presidents 75
Chapter 7 World War Presidents 93
Chapter 8 Cold War Presidents 113
Chapter 9 The Modern Presidency 133