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5 Other Americans Who Were Kinda, Sorta President

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Here are four men and a woman who weren't really president, but were really close. 

1. John Hanson - 1781-1782

You may not know that America was not originally a constitutional democracy, but a confederation (which meant the states were sovereign entities) from 1776 until the Constitution was ratified in 1789. And while the individual states were free to run things however they chose within their own borders, they still decided that there would be a national one-house ruling body (with very limited power) called the Congress of the Confederation.

During the eight years that the Congress existed, eight men (one each year) held the title of President of the Continental Congress, essentially the highest seat in the land. It wasn’t anywhere near the same thing as the current Presidential office, as is frequently alleged (it was far less powerful and had far different duties), but it was the closest thing they had to such an office. Thus, the first official “president” of the United States was John Hanson, a delegate from Maryland (who was not black, as a modern urban legend alleges).

Further Presidents of the Continental Congress from 1782 onward were Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock (yes, that John Hancock), Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair, and Cyrus Griffin.

2. David Rice Atchison - 1849-1849


David Rice Atchison was only ever officially one kind of president: President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. But, for one day in 1849, he may have been something more. Zachary Taylor, taking the reins from President James Polk, was to be inaugurated on March 4, 1849. Taylor, however, refused to be inaugurated on a Sunday and asked to delay until Monday, the 5th. Millard Fillmore, his vice president, was also not able to be inaugurated that day.

Thus, under the rules of succession at that time (which were not the same as the ones we have today), David Rice Atchison would have been president for that single day, though no one took that particularly seriously. Atchison was known to make jokes about it from time to time.

Or maybe something even weirder happened: Officially, Atchison’s job as President pro tempore had actually expired when the final session of Congress under Polk was adjourned (although Atchison was once again nominated to the position when Congress resumed). So it’s also very possible that, technically speaking, no one at all was president for that one day in March-- the first and only time since 1789.

3. Benjamin Franklin Wade - 1868-1868

After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson stepped into the role of president, which meant it was up to him to decide how to handle Reconstruction. Johnson opted to take the moderate approach that Lincoln had started, providing amnesty for southern states so as not to deepen the already-existing wounds between the north and the south.

This raised the ire of a group known as the “Radical Republicans,” who wanted ex-Confederate states to be punished and freed slaves to be given more protections under law. So, when Johnson made moves to remove Radical Republican and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton from office, the Radical Republicans in Congress passed a law preventing the president from removing a cabinet member from office without senate approval. When Johnson did it anyway (replacing Stanton with Lorenzo Thomas), the Radical Republicans seized on it and impeached Johnson.

During Johnson’s trial, some legal scholars argued that he should be removed from duty until the trial was completed. Since Johnson had no vice president, this would have made Benjamin Franklin Wade-- a Radical Republican, one of the judges of Johnson’s trial, and President pro tempore of the Senate—the acting president, though Johnson was never officially relieved of his duty, so it ended up being merely legal speculation.

In fact, had Johnson been found guilty, Wade would have instantly become president. Some writers at the time actually suggested that the strong dislike that fellow politicians and other powerful people had for Wade was one of the many reasons that Johnson was eventually acquitted.

4. Edith Wilson - 1919-1921

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In 1919, during Woodrow Wilson’s second term, he came down with a severe case of the flu which, combined with his existing hypertension and unwillingness to rest and recover, eventually led to him having a massive stroke in October of that year. It left him paralyzed and blind on the left side of his body, heavily incapacitating him.

Yet, instead of resigning, his wife and doctors started a cover-up of his condition that went on for over a year. President Wilson was never to be in the same room with his cabinet members, vice president, or any visitors. Instead, Edith, his wife, acted as his steward, bringing important items directly to him and assigning the rest to various department heads and other cabinet members. Although President Wilson was back to making occasional appearances and remarks within a few months, his health status was still closely guarded.

While Edith claimed that her husband made the final decision on all the matters she brought to his attention, many presidential scholars have since asserted that this was likely not true and that Edith probably consulted the president little due to his poor health. So, it seems quite likely that, for about a year and a half, Edith Wilson was, essentially, the unofficial President of the United States.

5. Dick Cheney - 2002-2002, 2007-2007

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In 1967, Congress passed the twenty-fifth amendment to the United States Constitution, which finally set down specific, official presidential succession laws in the event that the president is not dead, but unable to perform his duty. (Woodrow Wilson’s case was specifically mentioned.)

Since that time, this power has only been used by two presidents, and only one of the two vice presidents never went on to be elected to the office himself: Dick Cheney. (The other was George H. W. Bush, who was briefly made acting president under Ronald Reagan.)

On June 29, 2002, President George W. Bush underwent a regularly scheduled colonoscopy and had to be anaesthetized for the procedure. So, from 7:09 am to 9:24 am EDT, Dick Cheney was officially Acting President of the United States of America. Five years later, on July 21, 2007, during President Bush’s five-year checkup, the twenty-fifth amendment was again invoked from 7:16 am to 9:21 am EDT.

Since Dick Cheney didn’t run for the presidency (and doesn’t seem likely to do so), he is, to date, the only man to have ever officially acted as president (for four hours and twenty minutes) without later holding the office himself.

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
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Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
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Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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