Monday, October 15, 2012

Saint Edward the Confessor: the death of a tradition

Two days and 849 years ago, the incorrupt body of Edward, last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England [Update: penultimate if you count the brief reign of Harold Godwinson], was translated from its original tomb and re-interred at a special shrine in Westminster Abbey. The event was presided over by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of King Henry II. The occasion: earlier that year, Edward had been canonized in Rome as a saint, an act which (whether by coincidence or otherwise) strengthened Henry II's legitimacy to the throne by associating him with the Saxon monarchs, as well as greatly contributing to the Abbey's wealth and prestige.

On October 13, 1163, Edward was also officially granted the epithet of "the Confessor". He was given this title to distinguish him from his predecessor, King Edward the Martyr, while still recognizing his service and suffering on behalf of Christendom. He gave generously to the poor people of the realm and kept England out of war the entire length of his reign: no mean feat for the Middle Ages. Edward the Confessor's feast day also made me realize that we've lost the art of referring to our heads of state and other important figures by epithet. True, the first Norman king is known best as William "the Conqueror", or "the Bastard". A few English monarchs have since gained nicknames like "Edward Longshanks", "Bloody Mary", and "Good Queen Bess" for the sisters Mary I and Elizabeth I (though a second look at history might require a reversal of those monikers). But otherwise, the Norman Conquest imposed the ordinal system: an impersonal number beside a name.

The Saxon kings, to the contrary, all earned epithets based on their deeds, for good or ill. The Confessor's father was Aethelred the Unready, so-called for his stubborn refusal to heed his ministers' advice. Before him, there were Edward the Martyr, Edgar the Peaceful, Eadwig All-Fair, Eadred the Excellent, Edmund the Deed-doer, and Aethelstan the Glorious.

The shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, restored by Mary I during her brief reign

So today, I've decided to establish an epithet system for dead Presidents of the United States. Yes, I've come up with possibilities for all 38 of them; not counting Reagan, because his predecessor Carter isn't dead yet. [Update: since my first posting of this article, I was asked by several friends to finish the list, so I've come up with some epithets for the rest of them, too.]

1. George the Devourer. Washington is an obvious candidate for "the Great", "the Conqueror", "the Magnificent", but he already has a nickname given by history. Our first President was bestowed the title of Conotocaurious, or "Devourer of Villages", by the Iroquois Confederacy during the American Revolution. A Seneca religious figure by the name of Handsome Lake went so far as to declare that Washington was the only white man allowed to enter the Indians' heaven.

2. John the Fat. When Adams was Vice President under the Washington Administration, he was dubbed "His Rotundity" by his opponents, who mocked him for proposing that the President be addressed as "His Majesty" or even "His High Mightiness". Also known for his stubbornness, Adams could be called "the Unready" or "Redeless".

3. Thomas the Apostate, or perhaps Doubting Thomas, for his work on the Jefferson Bible, which attempts to excise the gospels of all miracles and "superstition". Also Thomas the Tinkerer for inventing the swivel chair and a cipher wheel, among many other devices.

4. James the Lawgiver. Madison is best-known for drafting the Constitution. Or, James the Short for being the shortest of all Presidents at 5 feet 4 inches.

5. James the Beloved; not for any of Monroe's actual deeds, but because he was lucky enough to be elected during the Era of Good Feelings. His rivals' party, the Federalists, completely disintegrated, making Monroe perhaps the last president to govern without a substantial opposition.

6. John the Abolitionist. Quincy Adams was as stubborn as his father and constantly brought up the subject of slavery on the floor of Congress, despite there being a gag rule against the topic. He's also famous for having defended the Africans of the Amistad case in the Supreme Court, notably after having served as President.

7. Andrew the Widowmaker. Known as Old Hickory in his own time for being so tough, Jackson fought as many as a dozen, or even more, duels in his life, killing at least one man. After surviving an attempt on his life, he beat the would-be assassin nearly to death with his cane. Then there's the whole Trail of Tears affair.

8. Martin the Wrymouth. Van Buren was remarkably courteous to his political opponents. He also engineered much of the New York political machine via power groups such as the Albany Regency and Tammany Hall. Still, considering he was a one-term president, it didn't seem to work out for him there. Martin Van Ruin, as his enemies called him, has the pleasantly contradictory distinction of being both the first President to have been born natively in the US (after the Declaration of Independence), yet also the only President whose native language was not English. His first tongue was Dutch.

9. William the Brief. W.H. Harrison had the shortest term of office of any President. He died of pneumonia 30 days after taking his oath. In attempting to treat him, Harrison's doctors applied leeches, showing that the practice lasted for centuries after the close of the Middle Ages.

10. John the Virile. Tyler had 15 children: 8 with his first wife, 7 with his second. His opponents had another nickname for him: "His Accidency" (a play on "His Excellency" which was used to address the President in that century), for being the first vice president to become president on account of the incumbent's death. What especially blows my mind is the fact that Tyler currently has two grandsons who are still alive.

11. James the Conqueror. Polk's lasting legacy is in annexing Texas to the Union, waging the Mexican-American War, and enlarging the country's landmass by a third. He was known to be even more zealous in the quest for manifest destiny than most. He achieved an incredible lot of work for only one term, promised to serve only one term, and actually abstained from seeking re-election when the time came. Alas, he died three months later of cholera, prompting Sam Houston to remark that he died "a victim of the use of water as a beverage".

12. Zachary the Bold. Taylor was a general of the Mexican-American War whose decisive victories against Santa Anna paved his way to become President. He never expressed political opinions until his presidential campaign, then died after 16 months in office, so he isn't remembered for much else.

13. Millard the..... hmm, I honestly can't think of an epithet for this guy. Last of the Whigs, maybe? Who names their son Millard? [Update: a reader suggested Milliard the Mediocre, which is as good an epithet as any.]

14. Franklin the Handsome. Pierce was actually called "Handsome Frank" during his term for his classical Roman face and dark, wavy hair.

15. James the Chaste. Buchanan was the only President to have never married. Before he moved to the White House, he shared his house with William Rufus King (Vice President under Pierce), for 15 years. Not an unusual arrangement for ordinary men today (including myself), but it does seem mighty bizarre for a grown man with a roommate to be elected to the highest office in the nation.... even today, not to mention the Victorian age.

16. Abraham the Martyr. Though I'm sure those of a more southern persuasion could think of alternate names for Lincoln, history is written by the victors. Lincoln, like King Charles I (also called "the Martyr" by some), has been effectively canonized by popular acclaim. But unlike Charles, people still care about Lincoln today.

17. Andrew the Tailor. Whatever Johnson's failures as President, I give him props for making it into the Oval Office from such humble origins. Johnson was raised in poverty, ran away from home at 16 to become a tailor, married at only 18, and was self-educated. His enemies called him "white trash" even back then.

18. Hiram the Drunkard. Who's Hiram, you say? The man we know as Ulysses S. Grant was born from a clerical error. When he was 17, Hiram Ulysses Grant was nominated by his Congressman to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point... but for whatever reason, his Congressman mistakenly entered his name as Ulysses S. Grant. Not to jeopardize this opportunity for advancement, Grant actually changed his name to match the mistake. The S. doesn't actually stand for anything! And here's another interesting fact: when Grant was born, his family couldn't decide on a name for him, so each member of the family wrote a name on a piece of paper and dropped it into a hat. The name drawn from said hat was Hiram Ulysses.

19. Rutherford the Usurper. The election of 1876 was perhaps the most contested in American history. Congress created an Electoral Commission to resolve it, and Hayes won by just one electoral vote. His enemies called him "His Fraudulency", and some simply refused to recognize his legitimacy.

20. James the Wise. Garfield was committed to battling illiteracy and providing education to the less fortunate, especially blacks. He had a 3,000-book library that would make any liberal arts major envious, and developed a trapezoid proof of the Pythagorean theorem. I've always thought his assassination at the hands of a complete madman was the most tragic of all Presidents'.

21. Chester the Walrus. "Walrus" was a nickname given by children for Arthur's peculiar choice of facial hair. His slick New York sense of fashion also earned him the nickname "Prince Arthur".

22 and 24. Stephen the Interrupted. Better known by his middle name, Grover Cleveland was the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms. He entered the presidency as a bachelor, and his sister served as First Lady for two years. Cleveland married a 21-year old girl by the name of Frances Folsom, becoming the only President to have ever married in the White House.

23. Benjamin the Frostbitten. Harrison, grandson of William Henry, was called a human iceberg for his chilly disposition when talking to individuals.

25. William the Merchant Prince. The McKinley Administration's policies on business, industry, and expansion can be credited for putting America on the track to becoming an economic and imperialist powerhouse.

26. Theodore the Lionheart. Teddy and King Richard I have a surprising lot in common. Both achieved lasting celebrity not so much for their political policies, but because, whether it's San Juan Hill or the Third Crusade, they lived larger-than-life in the eyes of their people.A hole in the wall of the Menger Bar in downtown San Antonio marks where Teddy fired his pistol while recruiting Rough Riders.

27. William the Merry. "Fat" is too mild a word for Taft, so let's use "Merry" as a euphemism for obese. Taft was so fat, he got stuck in the White House's bathtub and required his aides to use butter to dislodge him. He then famously ordered the current Presidential bathtub, which is large enough to fit four comfortably. It's said that Taft hated being President, but found fulfillment in his later career as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

28. Thomas the Professor. T. Woodrow Wilson was a professor and president of Princeton University prior to Washington. As President (of the US), he lectured visitors to the White House on history and other academic subjects. His academic background, unfortunately, displayed itself in a frightening commitment to "making the world safe for democracy" with no regard for the art of politics.

29. Warren the Unlucky. Harding kicked off the Roaring Twenties with a reputation for drinking, gambling, and adultery. I call him the Unlucky for having lost all the White House's china in one hand of poker, as well as dying suddenly in the middle of a conversation with his wife. I still think either his wife or one of the powerful mobs of the era poisoned him.

30. John the Silent. Dorothy Parker made a bet with J. Calvin Coolidge, saying: "Mr. Coolidge, I've made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you." Coolidge's response was, "You lose". Despite Coolidge's reputation for being a quiet man, he actually gave interviews with reporters more frequently than any other President in history, possibly including Obama.

31. Herbert the Builder. Hoover actually started quite a few building projects, including the famous Dam. Unfortunately, FDR would end up taking the credit for all the success Hoover started to recover from the Great Depression.

32. Franklin the Lame. If FDR were a medieval king, he'd inevitably be defined mainly by his inability to walk. In truth, he was extremely conscious of his disability and took care never to be seen in public while in a wheelchair.

33. Harry Four-eyes. Not Harold or Harrison; Truman's parents formally named him just Harry. Like Grant, his middle initial S. also doesn't stand for anything, but Truman's parents did so deliberately. Truman wasn't the first president to wear glasses, but I believe he was the first president to wear glasses every waking moment of the day, and from a young age. His childhood dream of going ot West Point was never realized on account of poor eyesight. He was only able to pass the eyesight exam and join the Missouri National Guard because he memorized the letters on the eye chart.

34. Dwight Martel. Martel, meaning "the hammer", for Eisenhower's role in planning the invasions of France and Germany during World War II. Though he was a warrior, I dare say Eisenhower could be called Dwight the Pacific. He ended the Korean War and kept America out of any other ears during his two terms.

35. John the Beloved. Kennedy's successful combination of charm, good looks, speeches, and his assassination have all ensured his place as most-loved president of the 20th century. Perhaps his enemies would have called him Jack the Papist or Johnny Foreigner on account of religion or Irishness.

36. Lyndon the Spacefarer. Of course LBJ didn't actually go to space; nor did Prince Henry the Navigator actually sail around the world. But for all Johnson's faults, he put a man on the moon, which is more than can be said of any of us in the 21st century, despite the fact that we all use computers that are far more advanced than the ones used on the Apollo missions.

37. Tricky Dick is the only presidential nickname I think really stands on par with the monikers of the medieval kings. I leave this one as is. It can't be topped.

38. Gerald the Affable. Pardoning Nixon really did a number on Ford's reputation, but he deserves the epithet "Affable" for maintaining a relatively nonpartisan image and even eventually overcoming the stigma of the Nixon years. Perhaps it was because he had the luxury of being the only President to not have to run for either President or Vice President. (Ford's birth name, by the way, was actually Leslie, but it was changed early on in his life.)

39. James the Farmer. Like "Farmer George" III, Carter was praised or mocked for his passion for agriculture. Alternately, James the Pious, as Carter was a Sunday school teacher and was known to pray multiple times a day even as President.

40. Ronald the Diviner. Reagan may be a favorite president of the so-called religious right in our times, but he also made frequent recourse to the advice of astrologers. Joan Quigley, who may perhaps be called our first Court Astrologer, said: "Not since the days of the Roman emperors—and never in the history of the United States Presidency—has an astrologer played such a significant role in the nation's affairs of State."

41. George the Spymaster. Bush the Elder, before becoming President, served for a short time as Director of the CIA. Espionage had never been so reviled as during the Middle Ages in Europe, so if Bush the Elder had ever been a medieval king, he would have forever been caricatured as a shifty, paranoid intriguer with a dagger hidden under his cloak.

42. William the Wanton. We remember Clinton's presidency mainly for his extramarital affairs, though they would've gone without notice, or even been accepted as normal, during medieval times. As we live in an age where even the highest members of society marry "for love" rather than political alliance, we are not so forgiving anymore.

43. George the Stutterer. Bush the Younger had no gift for oratory. In the past, kings and presidents could overcome this flaw by the use of heralds or the printing press to disseminate their ideas. In the era of radio, television, and the Internet, a poor public speaker is ripe for a media-induced beating.

44. Barack the Blackamoor. For an allegedly post-racial generation, our current president is still accounted, even or especially by his supporters, primarily for being black. With less than a month until the next election, time will tell how, or even if, he'll be remembered for anything else.