It's President's Day, and now that I am nearly 40, I started wondering why exactly we have a President's Day. What's it good for?
I got to thinking about our democracy, about the field that entranced me for fifteen years of my life while I studied courts, governments, and the will of the people. I taught poli sci for a number of years as well at the university level, and still, in all that time, I never really thought much about President's Day, other than as a it being great day off.
But this morning, the day got me to thinking. We honor our President's, past and present on this day, for a job well done. Sure, they all have their downsides, but one thing is for sure, they are there in the service of their nation. That's no small feat. And one huge sacrifice of personal life and freedom.
The day also got me to thinking about all of the people who ran for president, but lost. Without them, we'd have no democracy. They are, in many ways, as important as the candidates who won.
So my shout out today is to the presidential contenders who lost, and I found one in specific that I thought I'd highlight, Samuel J. Tilden.
Tilden ran for president in 1876, which turned out to be the most contested presidential election of that century. He ran against Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, who won...sort of. Three states in the south were contested - Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. The south was pretty tired of Republican reconstruction following the Civil War. In each of these three states, one set of Electorial votes was cast for the Republican candidate, and one for the Democratic candidate. No one knew how exactly to count the votes.
The result? Stalemate. Without the states, neither of the candidates had a majority of the Electoral votes needed to become president.
The issue went to Congress, where an Electoral Commission was set up to decide who would be the next president. It was originally evenly divided along party lines with one sole independent, one of the Supreme Court justices. However that member, David Davis, resigned, and a Republican was chosen to replace him. The members all voted along party lines and Hayes was chosen as the next president.
Tilden bowed out gracefully saying (I love this part): "I can retire to public life with the consciousness that I shall receive from posterity the credit of having been elected to the highest position in the gift of the people, without any of the cares and responsibilities of the office."
He retired thereafter to his home state of New York, where he died as a bachelor. His service to his country and fellow Americans didn't end there. He left more than 50% of his amassed fortune ($7,000,000) - about $4,000,000 - to the city of New York to found a library (see why I love this guy??).
Despite a crushing loss of the highest office in our nation, Tilden carried no grudge. To show his deep faith in the American system, he had the following carved into his tombstone: "I Still Trust in The People."
So here's a heartfelt shout out and thanks to all of the presidential contenders who put themselves out there for their country and went on to leave lasting, perhaps not as showy, but very lasting, mark on our shared history.