VIRGINIA: THE MOTHER OF PRESIDENTS (for Mother’s Day)
How did I get roped into doing a blog on this subject? The idea that Virginia is the mother of presidents is a sham—three of her eight children (Harrison, Taylor, and Wilson) ran away from home almost at birth. How can we claim them? Ohio mothered seven presidents (Grant, Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley, Taft, and Harding) and only two of them ran away (Grant to Illinois and Benjamin Harrison to Ohio). So, Ohio earns a tie with Virginia—each produced five legitimate native-son presidents.
To their credit, Virginia’s runaways always claimed their Virginia bloodlines. (Like children today, they obsessed about themselves and their identity, and the Virginia birthright added prestige.) When Virginians nominated Louisianan Zachary Taylor for president at the Whig convention of 1848, Taylor wrote (in a letter in the VHS collections, Mss1 P9267 d 661), “The way in which my name was brought forward, & claims advocated in said convention by so many of the distinguished sons of Virginia, the state of my birth of which I am not a little proud, as a suitable candidate for the Presidency had created feelings of both pride & pleasure far beyond, I am satisfied, I shall experience at any time should it be my good or bad fortune to be elevated to that high station.” Woa.
Of course, our stay-at-home native-son presidents were better Americans than Ohio’s. George Washington was the best president ever. Thomas Jefferson gave us the American dream: “all men are created equal”—the most famous passage in American history (although not written when he was president; the presidency was not his strength). James Madison conceived the Constitution (although not when he was president; the presidency was not his strength either). James Monroe, who was a Revolutionary War hero, a War of 1812 hero, and who as president brought the nation peace and prosperity and opened up the West, was almost as popular as Washington.
I think I am on the right track now as to why Virginia was given the title “Mother of Presidents.” To be certain, I turn to the web site of Mrs. Hammersley’s fourth grade class in Culpeper County. It says, “Answer: four of the first five presidents of the United States were Virginians.” Good point—those four were not only the best Americans, they were the first. I knew that. The Virginia Historical Society was founded in 1831 because Virginia stopped its near monopoly on presidents and had to start celebrating its past. It started valuing itself as “Old Virginia.”
Just to double check that I have gotten all of this right, I turn to the uvatoday blog. Surely, Thomas Jefferson’s university is to be trusted on this subject. It says, “The Commonwealth of Virginia holds the distinction of producing the most presidents of any state in the Union, narrowly beating out Ohio as the ‘Mother of Presidents.’” UVa also adds something that even the Culpeper fourth graders don’t know: “a plethora of presidential gastronomy.” Wedding cake was a favorite of George Washington, macaroni and cheese of Jefferson, Virginia ham (not just ham) of James Madison, spoon bread with honey and butter of James Monroe, roasted duck of John Tyler, creole-roasted okra of Zachary Taylor, and peach cobbler of Woodrow Wilson. Taylor also liked cherries and milk, but not the contaminated serving that on an intensely hot July 4, 1850, poisoned him and took his life, at the site of the under-construction Washington Monument. He was celebrating the legacy of a Virginia-son president.
William M. S. Rasmussen is Lead Curator and Lora M. Robins Curator at the Virginia Historical Society.