Presidents’ Day, 1844

Today is Presidents’ Day, the descendant of the federal holiday originally created in 1879 to celebrate the birthday anniversary of George Washington, our first president and, arguably, the “indispensable man” in America’s fight for independence.

Presidents’ Day did not exist during the early days of Mequon settlement, but the Clarks, Turcks, Bonniwells and their neighbors—whether native-born Americans or recent immigrants—were generally patriotic folk and to one degree or another their politics were mostly free-soil, anti-slavery and pro-Union.

So in their patriotic spirit, here’s a colorful presidential salute for you from the Clarks’ era. It was published in New York in 1844 by Nathaniel Currier, whose prints were for sale, at affordable prices, even in remote locations such as the new Wisconsin Territory.

Currier, Nathaniel (American, 1813-1888). Presidents of the United States, 1844. Hand-colored lithograph on wove paper, 13 x 9in. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Harry Elbaum in honor of Daniel Brown, art critic. Color and exposure adjusted.

What happened to “Lincoln’s Birthday”?

I grew up in Illinois, the “Land of Lincoln,” where Old Abe’s birthday was, and remains, a state holiday. So we had holidays to honor the birthdays of both presidents: Lincoln on February 12, and Washington on February 22. How we got from those separate, specific commemorations to a generic federal holiday (and three day weekend) providing “an occasion to remember all U.S. presidents, to honor Abraham Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays together, or any single president of choice,” is a complicated story. Here’s the main info in a nutshell:

Washington’s Birthday was celebrated on February 22 from 1879 until 1970. To give federal employees a three-day weekend, in 1968 the Uniform Monday Holiday Act moved it to the third Monday in February, which can occur from February 15 to the 21st. The day soon became known as Presidents(‘) Day […] As many states and cities followed suit, some states that had been celebrating Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 combined the two into Presidents Day.

The quotes above are from the Wikipedia article for Presidents’ Day. If you need all the details regarding how the holiday came to be, and how it is currently observed in the various states—with lots of footnotes—do click the link.

Honoring all the presidents?

If I have one complaint about the modern Presidents’ Day holiday, is that it ostensibly honors all of our presidents. I’m not sure I’m on board with that. While politics can color our assessment of presidential achievement, it’s just logical that not all presidents have been great presidents. But no matter what your politics, I think we can agree that America’s first half-dozen chief executives were, on balance, remarkably intelligent, thoughtful and well-read men of Enlightenment principles and were capable—some even exceptional—statesmen. Our new nation was lucky to have their leadership.

And, of course, the legacy of many of our first presidents—whether the most celebrated or the least accomplished—is clouded by America’s “original sin” of slavery. Most of our earliest presidents were the owners of enslaved people, Washington, the “Father of our Country” and Jefferson, the man who declared “All men are created equal,” famously among them. The distance between these early presidents’ stated ideals of liberty and freedom and their practices as owners of so many men, women and children is something all history-minded and freedom-loving Americans continue to grapple with.

But the question of slavery and how it effects the reputation of individual presidents is important and complex, and deserves more substantial treatment at another time. For today, on balance, I think we can chose to honor the positive accomplishments of many of the presidents on our 1844 lithograph. But do they all deserve a tip of the hat on Presidents’ Day? Er…, maybe not.

What about…?

I think we can agree that Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and even J. Q. Adams deserve recognition for the best of their many contributions to the early American Republic. But do we need to honor the other presidents on our 1844 lithograph?

We can perhaps nod in the direction of Martin “Old Kinderhook” Van Buren as a former neighbor of Mary Clark’s father, Peter Turck, even though Van Buren’s presidency is seriously marred by, among other things, his handling of the Second Seminole War, continuation of Jackson-era Indian forced removals, and the disastrous financial Panic of 1837.

Andrew Jackson may have been a hero of the War of 1812, but he was a hot-tempered, violent man and a notably cruel slave owner. Van Buren’s Second Seminole War and Indian removals were a continuation of events begun by Jackson as part of his brutal anti-Indian policies. Most infamously, Jackson’s administration was responsible for the removal of Indians from the southeastern states, most notably via the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and its deadly culmination in the “Trail of Tears.” We may need to remember Jackson; he was a major force in 1830s national politics and policy. But I’m not sure we need to honor him.

William Henry “Tippicanoe” Harrison, our ninth president, spent much of his pre-presidential career on America’s western frontier. Some of those years were spent fighting the British and subsequently fighting the native peoples, forcing them westward to make room for white settlement. But his presidency was the shortest in American history, as Harrison died 31 days after his inauguration. He did not govern long enough to leave a presidential legacy, positive or negative.

Harrison was succeeded by his vice-president, Virginian slave-holder John Tyler (of “Tippicanoe and Tyler Too!” campaign slogan fame). Tyler’s time in office (1841-1845) was eventful, but not particularly successful. While some recent historians have had positive things to say about him, the general consensus is that the Tyler presidency was not among America’s best.

Tyler’s presidency has provoked highly divided responses among political commentators. It is generally held in low esteem by historians; Edward P. Crapol began his biography John Tyler, the Accidental President (2006) by noting: “Other biographers and historians have argued that John Tyler was a hapless and inept chief executive whose presidency was seriously flawed.” In The Republican Vision of John Tyler (2003), Dan Monroe observed that the Tyler presidency “is generally ranked as one of the least successful. Seager wrote that Tyler “was neither a great president nor a great intellectual”, adding that despite a few achievements, “his administration has been and must be counted an unsuccessful one by any modern measure of accomplishment.” A survey of historians conducted by C-SPAN in 2021 ranked Tyler as 39th of 44 men to hold the office.


Studying Tyler and Harrison may be less than exciting, but still quite useful. Their time in office coincides with some of the most important developments in early Wisconsin Territory history. Understanding Harrison, Tyler, and their predecessor Van Buren may be uninspiring when compared to the best parts of the legacy of the Founders, but their administrations had a direct and sometimes powerful effect on the lives of the Clarks and their neighbors.

So Happy Presidents’ Day, readers. Commemorate and celebrate as you like.

I’ll be back soon with more Clark House history.

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