I have always been interested in presidential history, ever since I was a boy. It’s never really translated into a keen political interest during whatever contemporary administration is in office, nor upcoming campaigns. I have zero interest in elected office, myself. But for whatever reason, as soon as a presidency slips into the rear-view mirror, I’m strangely fascinated. I’ve recently been learning more about about the history of United States presidents who came from Ohio. Their quantity is impressive, even if their quality is not. But even at that, I wonder: Why do I consider this stuff so interesting?!?
I recognize that moving to Ohio a year ago also plays a role in my fascination. I’ve had an insatiable appetite for local and regional history. I desire to know and understand the place in which I’m rooting myself. What makes Ohio great (or not so great)? What makes Ohio — and Ohioans — tick? How does this area’s story reflect the world’s story? How has this area impressed itself upon the rest of the world?
I think it’s remarkable that the period of Ohio’s presidencies corresponds very clearly with a specific period in American (and world) history — when the United States of America moved from being a post-colonial, backwater, agricultural region to being a massively-expansive industrial power, coming of age in its own right and in the eyes of the world. Especially during the last quarter of the 19th Century and the first quarter of the 20th Century, Ohio and its presidents represented so much of what was happening all around: Westward expansion, Frontier idealism, industrialization, deep divisions between the North and the South, initiation of a new “Progressive Era” at the Turn of the 20th Century, arguments about Conservatism (all 8 of Ohio’s presidents came from right-of-center on the political spectrum), and the role of government. A simple look at their presidential profiles — including their deaths — is remarkably revealing.
The first Ohio president (William Henry Harrison) was a notorious Indian fighter who campaigned on a platform celebrating the common man sitting in his log cabin drinking hard cider. Just 32 days after taking office, however, he died from a simple case of pneumonia.
The “greatest” Ohio president (William McKinley) was the last president to have served in the Civil War but the first president to pick up the banner of “Progressivism” which would dominate American politics for the next 30 years. He worked to aggressively increase the size of the American Empire, establishing American territory all around the world. Just six months into his second term, he was taken out by an assassin’s bullet shot from close range, in the name of anarchy.
And then the last Ohio president (Warren G. Harding) was a slick media mogul and politician who was most renown for bringing his “Ohio Gang” to Washington and practicing the sort of corruption and cronyism that consistently places him dead-last in the historical rankings of presidents. He also died in office, but from the new American epidemic that rose hand-in-hand with its prosperity: heart disease.
What does it mean, though, that things ended so badly for Ohio presidents? What does it mean that it’s been nearly 100 years since the last one was elected? Is Ohio all washed up? Why should I have any reason to be excited and proud to make my home in the Land of Middling- to Poor-Presidents from the Bygone Era of Industrialization and all its associated injustices, pollutants, and politics?
I’m still working on the answers to these questions. But I don’t feel particularly put off by the potential implications. Honestly. One could easily disparage places like Amsterdam and the Netherlands in similar ways — except for the fact that it’s been in “decline” for closer to 450 years! Disparagement, however, is not the lens through which I’m inclined to see these things. There’s a certain level of humility and homeliness, belied by a deeper, more subtle pride, power and confidence that comes from being cultivated in a region such as this. There’s something really appealing — and really positioned for positive developments in the future — that comes from being in a place like this. We’ve got a strong, stable population with a highly-developed infrastructure. We’ve got a proven track record of mobilizing resources for great exploits. But we’re not too full of ourselves — susceptible to the hubris of those who are currently riding whatever waves of the “next big thing.” I feel like God still wants to do great things through Ohio and Ohioans. And I’m glad to be positioned for participation.