'Don't Know Much About the American Presidents': Kenneth C. Davis reveals strange facts about America's leaders

George Washington breaking the law? The president with the most corrupt presidential administration in American history? Writer Kenneth C. Davis discusses surprising facts about our past leaders.

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    Kenneth C. Davis's book, 'Don't Know Much About the American Presidents,' is a follow-up to 'Don't Know Much' titles that examine general history, the Bible, and the Civil War.
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Did you know that Americans didn’t start voting for president on the same day until 1845? Or that George Washington wasn’t our nation’s first president? Another Virginian, Peyton Randolph, a longtime member of the House of Burgesses, won an election as the first president of the Continental Congress in 1774, succeeded by a baker’s dozen of leaders before the ascension of Washington to the presidency as we know it.

What about the presidential origins of the word “okay”? Thank Martin Van Buren, whose birthplace of Old Kinderhook, N.Y., in initials, made way for okay. Or OK, if you prefer.

Did you know that Jimmy Carter was our first president born in a hospital? Or that, 225 years ago during the debates that led to the creation of the commander-in-chief, the job “was being invented by men who didn’t necessarily think that having a president was such a great idea?”

Recommended: Books

The latter quote comes from the pen of Kenneth C. Davis, a man known to millions of readers for posing endless questions and then answering them with detailed but snappy historical facts and anecdotes. This accidental historian, nudged by his wife into writing while working at a bookstore, burst on to bestseller lists in 1990 with “Don’t Know Much About History,” a pop history confection that spawned a series of similar titles on geography, the Bible, and the Civil War.

The latest entry, "Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents," follows the popular formula Davis established throughout the series. He offers the basic cornerstones – biographies of each president, important legislation and decisions, controversies and scandals – along with all manner of Oval Office bric-a-brac, starting with origins of the Oval Office itself, which was built during the administration of William Howard Taft (who weighed 300 pounds and still ranks as the heaviest president in history), but never described as the Oval Office until the days of FDR.

Beyond history and historical oddities, Davis weaves in memorable quotes from the presidents and supplies extensive lists of essential reading and websites for those wanting to learn more about various presidents and aspects of the presidency.

As the nation stands on the cusp of Election Day, following a 220-year tradition that formally began with Washington in 1789, Davis is happy to remind us of how we, and POTUS (that would be the President of the United States), got here. Following are excerpts from a recent conversation Davis had with the Monitor on mudslinging campaigns, overlooked presidencies and more.

In the introduction, you mention a school project from 1963 about the presidents and your admiration for JFK. Is he still your favorite president?

I would not say he’s my favorite president. The history behind that ... and I’m actually holding it in my hands as we speak, this piece of art, as I call it, from 1963, my third-grade school project. I did go to the Holmes School in Mount Vernon, New York, of course named for Washington’s famous plantation and, obviously, when I was nine years old, I was still thinking about this stuff. Of course, October 1963 was a month before the world changed for all of us in the loss of Kennedy.

When I look back at this [childhood] book, which I wrote 49 years ago, it’s funny because I did ask questions from the first page. So I was obviously interested in information about history from a young age. And I say this very, very seriously, I also have on my desk a toy wooden revolver that I was given as a souvenir from going to Gettysburg in the summer of 1963.

It’s very significant to me because I remember being a young boy standing in that field and having this palpable sense of something extraordinary having happened in that battlefield – not really understanding the issue of war, of course, but having a sense that history happened here. That sense that history is something that happened to real people in real places is a fundamental sense I had largely because my parents took us to places like Gettysburg and Valley Forge and Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York on campaign trips. It can’t just be a recitation of dates and battles and legislation and court decisions.

What surprised you most as you researched this book on the presidents?

Obviously, I know the history pretty well, having written about American history for more than 20 years, starting with "Don’t Know Much About History." A lot of the basics were familiar to me and certainly, some of the more notable presidents I had done a great deal of research on over my career writing about history.

But I am always constantly amazed at the new discoveries I make. Little surprises I learn almost every day. I tell people, if I don’t learn something every day, it’s kind of a disappointment. You can take the most fundamental story – we all think we know the Washington story pretty well, but I’m constantly amazed at the things I learned about him. With Washington, my surprising discovery was the revelation about what he did with his slaves when he was president.

We all know Washington kept slaves and some of us may know he wanted to emancipate some of them in his will; he couldn’t emancipate all of the slaves because they didn’t all belong to him. But this curious connection between Washington and slavery has always fascinated me. What I did not know was that when he went to Philadelphia as president – it was the temporary capital of the United States – he brought slaves with him, but Pennsylvania then had a law under which slaves were emancipated if they were in the state for more than six months. Washington had to shuttle slaves back and forth every six months to keep them from being freed even though the state law in Pennsylvania specifically said that that was illegal. They figured someone was going to try and get around that loophole.

So Washington clearly broke a law in Pennsylvania. Several of (his slaves) did escape there. One of them was named Oney and he spent spent a good deal of time, money, and effort trying to recover her. And she was eventually found. They tried to talk her into coming back to Mount Vernon, which she refused to do. She had no interest in returning to a life of slavery.

One of the points you make is that campaigns and elections have been fraught with ugliness from the beginning. Why do Americans forget that each time another election comes around?

Because we do have short historical memories and most of us have no historical memory for this. Also, there’s a very important point about the early years of the republic and the early presidents. We tend to paint a picture of the past that is filled with pride and patriotism that leaves out the seamier side of the story.

This started before Washington left office. The two parties began to form. Washington warned against it before he left, most of the Founding Fathers, the framers of the Constitution, talked about how bad the party [system] was. Washington warned against the “baneful effects” of party. But it is, as Washington himself said, human nature, that we seek out those who are like-minded and form alliances. Just like on “Survivor,” [that’s] how I explain it to kids who want to know about [political] parties. We band together out of mutual self-interest and find those people who are going to achieve our ends. That is essentially what the parties are.

What you can see right away in 1796, the first contested election, is that as soon as parties form, the knives come out. And they were sharp and they were very deep in people’s backs. This notion that somehow the good old days were gentlemen who debated fine points and there was none of this mudslinging is simply a myth, one of the many myths that we have about American history.

In 1796, John Adams was being assailed in the newspaper as an overweight monarchist. He was publicly accused of sending a vice presidential candidate – although they weren’t specifically called vice presidential candidates at the time – his running mate was sent to procure four young mistresses for the two of them. Adams had the good humor to say he didn’t know what the general who had gone to do this had done with his two, but he never saw them. But you also had around this time Thomas Jefferson being called a deviant, a Jacobin – which at that time meant a left-wing terrorist – and, worse, a coward. This was the Swift-boating of its day.

From the scandalmonger days of Jefferson to Grover Cleveland enduring the jeers of “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?,” it seems clear that this kind of fighting comes with the territory. Would you agree?

It’s human nature to strike back, and sometimes you strike back in the most vicious, partisan [manner] and finding scandal is a way to do it. Jefferson’s relationship with a slave is revealed [during Jefferson’s presidential tenure] by a journalist who is angry because he didn’t get a job [as a postmaster through presidential appointment]. His revenge was as a muckraker [against Jefferson], but that is part of the political game in this country.

It does us no service to pretend that somehow it was so much better. The element of money in the campaign has always been an issue, as well. Certainly by the late 19th century, a tremendous amount of money [was being spent], and there were no federal election laws at the time. Money and politics have always gone hand in hand. Theodore Roosevelt was talking about how dangerous it was that men of great wealth were influencing and corrupting the political process. That’s 100 years ago.

It didn’t start with Citizens United [the 2010 Supreme Court decision that lifted independent spending restrictions on corporation and other interest groups in campaigns] and it certainly didn’t start with Richard Nixon and slush fund, which was the real reason for the Watergate crisis and the beginning of a Federal Election Commission and the beginning of controls on campaign spending, many of which have been thrown out by Citizens United.

It seems as through Presidents Grant and Eisenhower are enjoying favorable reassessments for their presidencies of late. Why do you think that is?

That’s a good question, because I certainly would probably have to classify myself in that category of giving slightly better marks to both men than they have had in the last 20 or 30 years.

Of course, Grant was roundly criticized, and rightfully so, for the corruption in his administration. It was not that he was personally dishonest in any respect. He was more naïve than dishonest. That in its own way is a problem. Grant is enjoying [more praise] because he was trying to bring a shattered nation back together, especially after the incompetence of Andrew Johnson. Grant also had a very progressive attitude toward African-Americans and bringing them into the political process.

With Eisenhower, there was a period when he was seen as the genial guy who did nothing for eight years. Part of the reassessment there is we see more of the documentation, more of the letters, more of the diaries, more of revelations of how involved he was. An era of relative peace and prosperity, but still troubled by things. While Grant was very good on racial issues, Eisenhower was not very progressive about bringing the country forward. He did bring the troops in to support the Little Rock Nine, but he really did that almost because he had to. That’s still a serious mark against Eisenhower by most modern historians.

Which of the lesser-known presidents do you find most interesting?

I would like to emphasize that each of these 43 men who became president, whether they were great or not-so-great, dim bulbs or bright lights, they were all extraordinary in their time in some respect. They didn’t get to be there just because they happened to be in the right place in the right time.

Andrew Johnson, for his very flawed presidency, is still an extraordinary personal story. The equal of Lincoln in many respects. He was born into extraordinary poverty, almost sold into indentured servitude, is illiterate well into his youth, becomes this self-educated person, eventually becomes a lawyer. And if he were a greater president, we would put him on a pedestal as an exemplar of the American dream.

Or maybe the lesser-regarded, such as Warren Harding?

Warren Harding is getting a reflected notoriety these days because of [HBO’s] “Boardwalk Empire," seeing this very elaborate drama play out against the era of Prohibition and the fact that Warren G. Harding briefly appeared in the series. But his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, is really a major-minor character, and he was a real person and did do those things that they talk about in the series. To me, that’s wonderful.

Warren G. Harding was very popular when he was elected, but a great disaster for the most part. He was surrounded by, without question, the most corrupt administration in history. He was not personally ever accused but, again, completely naïve. That’s a fascinating story.

On the brighter side, I think one of the most interesting is William McKinley, who also has an extraordinary young personal story. Born into poverty, loses his father. So many of the presidents did grow up without fathers, it’s interesting. They either didn’t have fathers or their fathers were not significant figures or even worse. Lincoln, for instance, had a very testy relationship with his father, George Washington’s father died when he was 11, Herbert Hoover’s parents both died by the time he was nine.

McKinley, to go back to his story, [was] raised in rural poverty in Ohio, pulls himself up by the bootstraps, enlists in the Civil War when’s very young, drives a wagon into the front lines at Antietam to deliver meals to the men who were under fire, rises up through the ranks and eventually becomes a politician and president. He takes the presidency at this turning point from the 19th century into the 20th century, sees America through this war with Spain and is bringing America into the global spotlight. He’s a transitional figure and he’s assassinated early into his second term and replaced by Theodore Roosevelt. That’s one of the reasons he is overshadowed.

Your prediction for Election Day: Obama or Romney?

I’m glad you asked me for a prediction and not a preference. My prediction would be, speaking as an historian, that the powers of incumbency are pretty large [favoring Obama].

Erik Spanberg is a Monitor contributor.

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