Words by Michael Alles
Illustration by Katie Herchenroeder
Presidents Day was established in 1879 by president Rutherford B. Hayes. It was originally only celebrated in Washington D.C., but was extended in 1885 to the entire country. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act was passed in an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers. Most of us look at Presidents Day as a day off, and nothing more. Instead of blindly celebrating all of our past presidents, let’s look at some of their policies a little closer.
Washington is often remembered as our first president, the man on the one-dollar bill, and the hero of the American Revolution. But, he is very rarely remembered as a cruel slave owner or an expansionist land-stealer.
At the age of eleven, Washington already owned ten slaves. Throughout his life, he continued to acquire slaves, either from the estates of family members or through direct purchase. At the time of the American revolution, he owned 150 slaves.
After becoming president of the newly-created United States in 1789, he relocated to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which posed a dilemma. Under the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, any slave who entered Pennsylvania for longer than six months would be set free automatically. To get around this law, Washington would bring all his slaves outside of Pennsylvania’s borders every six months, essentially resetting the clock, allowing him to keep his slaves, and preventing their freedom that was guaranteed by law.
In 1793, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Law, allowing escaped slaves to be captured and returned back to their owners. This law created a new work force of slave catchers and made escaped slaves into a commodity. At the time of his death, Washington owned over 100 slaves.
Washington also repeatedly used his armies to push Native Americans off their own land. In 1790 and 1791, he sent military forces to kill Native Americans who opposed the expansion of American citizens on their land. His forces were swiftly defeated. Instead of backing off, he got congressional approval to bring a 5,000-man army to slaughter the Native Americans that refused to concede to his demands. He attempted to sign many treaties with Native tribes, but rarely enforced them, allowing American citizens to build settlements on stolen land.
Jefferson, one writer of the Declaration of Independence, fell short of his quote that “all men are created equal.”
After the revolution, Jefferson argued that slavery was instrumental to the survival of the United States. He viewed slaves as a financial investment and encouraged “breeding” slaves for profit. In a quote from his farm book he wrote “children from 10 years old to serve as nurses. From 10 to 16 the boys make nails, the girls spin. At 16 go into the ground of learn trades.” Jefferson owned a nail factory, which was run by child slave labor. He saw his business as moral because “it would employ a parcel of boys who would otherwise be idle.”
Jefferson’s “relationship” with Sally Hemmings has often been romanticized throughout history, but it was no love story. Hemmings was an enslaved girl who was repeatedly raped by Jefferson. Historians have argued that their relationship was consensual, but she was Jefferson’s property. Jefferson was legally allowed to rape her, and she had no say in the matter. She first got pregnant at the age of 15 and gave birth when she was 16. Throughout the course of her life, she bore at least six of Jefferson’s children. Jefferson never legally emancipated her, even when he was on his deathbed.
Jefferson believed the only way to protect Native Americans was to remove them from their own land. He promoted policies that forcibly pushed thousands of indigenous people off their own land in an effort to build more settlements as early at 1776. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, where Jefferson purchased approximately 827,000 square miles of indigenous land from France for $15 million, he continued to encourage the forced removal of Native Americans out of their homelands, gradually pushing them farther and farther west.
The weird-looking man figure of the 20-dollar bill was particularly horrible.
Jackson owned hundreds of slaves, and was vehemently opposed to abolition movements, both in public and in private. Slavery allowed him to move up in society from a poor man to wealthy plantation owner. Historical records show that he was especially brutal to his slaves, publically whipping them and encouraging slave catchers to beat and whip his runaway slaves before returning them to him. In 1835, he worked with the postmaster general to censor anti-slavery messages from northern abolitionists.
Jackson loved slavery so much, he oversaw a genocide of Native Americans to make more room for slave plantations. He passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, and immediately stopped paying native chiefs their annuities to spend on tribal affairs in an effort to weaken them.
He sat by idly as southern states banned tribal assemblies, denied Native Americans the right to vote, testify in court, or mine gold on their own land. But stripping away rights from Native Americans was not enough for Jackson, he wanted them dead.
After bribing native leaders and excluding their white counselors from negotiations, Jackson secured several fraudulent treaties. Then began the removal process, which was deadly from the start. Thousands died from cholera, forced starvation, and the infamous “march” known as The Trail of Tears. Although specific figures are uncertain, experts believe more than 10,000 indigenous people were killed under Jackson’s watch. Over 50,000 others were displaced, opening up 25 million acres of Native American land that was settled by white Americans.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR is best known for being the first and only president to serve more than two terms, and the man who helped get the United States through the Great Depression and WWII. Despite this, many of his initiatives helped white people and left people of color behind, or even worse, in concentration camps.
The New Deal helped lift white Americans out of poverty but fell short when it came to people of color. The Agricultural Adjustment Administration offered white landowners cash for leaving their fields uncultivated but did not pay the people who actually worked the fields, most of whom were black. The Social Security Act did not provide assistance to domestic workers, most of whom were black women.
Mexican-Americans also worked on farms across the country. With farms going bankrupt because of the depression, thousands of workers quickly became unemployed. To combat this, FDR directed government forces to round up nearly 400,000 Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, many of them citizens, and send them to Mexico. Those who remained in the United States quickly realized that many of the New Deal initiatives did little to help agricultural workers and people of color.
Ten weeks after Pearl Harbor, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, which forcibly moved nearly 112,000 Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. Around 80,000 of them were citizens, and the rest were born in Japan, making them ineligible for U.S. citizenship at the time. For 2 ½ years, they were forced to live in overcrowded camps in poor conditions. After they were released, many returned to their homes to discover that they had been sold to white families. Ten Americans were convicted of spying for Japan in WWII. None of them were Japanese or of Japanese ancestry.
Reagan is known as the first celebrity president, appearing in numerous Hollywood films before being elected to office in 1981. After his presidency, his response to the AIDS epidemic and his “War on Drugs” have become the subject of Hollywood films.
The AIDS epidemic began in 1981, the first year of Reagan’s presidency. The CDC first reported the disease on June 5, 1981, calling it Pneumocystis Pneumonia. The president remained silent.
Reagan’s close allies used the AIDS epidemic to demonize gay people. Jerry Falwell, a reverend and supporter of Reagan, said “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Pat Buchanan, senior advisor to Reagan, is quoted saying “The poor homosexuals — they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.” All the while, Reagan stayed silent, and refused to condemn these homophobic attacks, let alone acknowledge the epidemic in the first place.
Reagan first publically mentioned AIDS on September 17, 1985. That year, 5,636 Americans died of AIDS. Most of the bills passed to address the AIDS epidemic were passed by congress, without the help of Reagan. When Congress allocated $190 million for AIDS research in 1985, Reagan wanted to cut that spending by $70 million. By the end of his presidency, nearly 17,000 Americans alone died from AIDS.
Reagan’s presidency is also marked by a dramatic increase in U.S. prison populations, thanks to his expansion of the “War on Drugs.” His administration launched an expensive public-relations campaign aimed at demonizing drug users and gaining public support for his “war.” His attacks on drug users were targeted towards African Americans and other people of color, tapping into the racist beliefs of white Americans across the country.
From 1980-1985, the national rate of imprisonment rose by nearly 45% percent. Despite being nearly 12% of the population by the end of the 80s, African Americans made up nearly 46% of the nation’s prison populations, a direct result of Reagan’s War on Drugs. This overcrowding led to unsafe living conditions, like the spread of violence and AIDS within prison populations across the country.
No president is perfect. Some are worse than others. But, it is important to be critical of our past leaders, and the effects they have had on the world we live in today. Therefore, this Presidents’ Day, do some research, and what you find may not be so comforting. Further, maybe we can move Presidents day to a month that is not Black History Month, so we are not “celebrating” bigoted, almost entirely white, men.