Presidents’ Day marks the birthday of the first president of the United States, hero of the Revolutionary War and founding father, General George Washington. This Presidents’ Day, I encourage all of us to remember those commanders-in-chief who made extraordinary contributions to these United States, even if some have become neglected by our collective historical memory.
A war hero in the mold of Washington, America’s 18th president came to national fame for leading the Union Army to victory against the Confederacy during the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant would make his mark on the presidency as well, presiding over Reconstruction, a period our country began the long process of reconciling with the evils of slavery and the trauma of the Civil War. Grant was resolute in ensuring the rights of newly freed slaves were protected; his administration established the Department of Justice and used the Force Acts to aggressively prosecute members of the Klu Klux Klan and safeguard the rights of African Americans.
Westerners can be especially appreciative of President Grant’s legacy. On March 1, 1872, Grant established Yellowstone National Park, the very first national park. Over the next 149 years, the U.S. would go on to add 409 more natural treasures to that list, many which are familiar to Coloradans. Four years later, in 1876, Grant also signed Colorado’s proclamation of statehood, making our state the 38th in the Union.
Another friend of the American West, President Theodore Roosevelt is well-known for restoring equality and humanity to an increasingly industrialized America. During his presidency, “T.R.” committed to advancing labor rights, breaking up monopolies, and protecting the environment and natural wonders. He prided himself on delivering a “square deal for every man and every woman in the United States.”
Roosevelt was also an unrelenting advocate for American engagement with the world. He prioritized a strong military and building alliances with nations like Great Britain to advance common interests. T.R’s foreign policy motto was simple: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
After a period of scandals rocked the presidency in the early 1920s, Calvin Coolidge restored the country’s confidence in the institution. America’s 30th president was not only a competent statesman who oversaw a period of remarkable economic growth, he was also steadfastly committed to rectifying past injustices. Coolidge granted citizenship to Native Americans, pushed Congress to make lynching a federal crime, and made historic investments in Howard University, the Washington, D.C.-based historically black research university which has graduated countless doctors, educators, lawyers, and the sitting Vice president of the United States. Coolidge sincerely believed that access to education and free enterprise could improve the material condition of every American, and he worked diligently to ensure these opportunities were available to everyone.
America elected another war hero to the presidency in November of 1952. General Dwight Eisenhower distinguished himself as the architect of the Normandy invasion, which eventually propelled allied forces to victory in Europe during the Second World War. As our 34th president, Eisenhower drew on his foreign policy acumen to rally America’s allies against the spread of Communism, which threatened democracy in every corner of the world.
A son of Kansas, “Ike” made historic investments in the homeland, ensuring American ingenuity would endure long past his time in office. President Eisenhower signed both the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 and the Interstate Highway Act of 1957, prioritizing the modernization of our nation’s transportation infrastructure and leading to 41,000 miles of highways being paved. The Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 is appropriately named after him in honor of his efforts on this front.
Eisenhower also led the charge to create the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), throwing the U.S. into the “space race” against the Soviet Union. His administration championed historic investments in science, math, and foreign language education in addition to vocational training, providing the basis for a highly skilled and prosperous American workforce.
Eisenhower’s time in office coincided with the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement and as president he did much to support its objectives. In 1957, he signed the first civil rights act designed to secure the rights of African Americans into law since reconstruction amid fierce opposition from Southern Democrats who opposed desegregation. That same year, Eisenhower went so far as to order the 101st Airborne Division to escort nine African American students into racially segregated Little Rock Central High School; the message was clear: Under Ike, there would be no more segregation.
Some of these American heroes may be lost to memory because of their humility, or because of their seemingly unexciting focus on policy and competent leadership. Nonetheless, this Presidents’ Day, we’d be wise to ignore the sensationalist headlines and trending topics on social media, instead reflect on the contributions of these inspiring Republican leaders. They made every effort to make our country a more prosperous, safer, and more equitable place to live.
That’s something Coloradans of every political persuasion can appreciate.
Kevin Priola, a Republican from Henderson, represents District 25 in the Colorado Senate.