Friday, January 2, 2009

Presidents in the petting zoo

"The most influential lawyer on the ACLU executive committee at the time of the Scopes trial, Arthur Garfield Hays, personified the direct action approach to the fight for civil liberties. A left-wing Park Avenue attorney named by his Republican father after a string of conservative presidents, Hays grew rich and bored representing major corporations and famous entertainers. ACLU activities served as his major diversion for three decades." (Larson, Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion, 1997, p. 68.)

Larson's book is great and deserved the Pulitzer Prize it won, but I think it's a bit inaccurate to say the boy was named for a "string" of presidents. He was named for just two; a surname comes with birth, so it was just kind of a happy accident Arthur Garfield Hays wound up with three chief executives in his full name instead of simply a pair.

The other day at the petting zoo, a family walked in with a little girl named Reagan. I don't have to ask moms and dads, of course, "What is your child's name?" Since parents constantly address their kids by their given names, I need only keep my ears open to hear comments like "Reagan, come here and look at the pigs!"

Well they left, and then in walked a family with a little boy, who, through the ears open method, I learned was named Grant.

Shortly after, another family entered with a girl named Bill of Rights. I'm kidding; her name was that of the guy who wrote it.

"Wow," I said to the mother, "Your daughter is Madison, we just had a Grant, and before that a Reagan! That's three families in a row with kids that have the same name as U.S. Presidents."

I couldn't make up what she said next. Pointing to another kid, she said, "Well, my little boy there is named Cleveland, so that's four kids with the same name as presidents." I was so startled that it didn't dawn on me to ask if she really named them both for presidents or if she just had an unusual fondness for Midwestern cities. (I presume, by the way, Reagan's parents were more likely to have named her after the President than King Lear's daughter. Please don't put in the comments that they are spelled differently; I know that.)

It all got me to thinking how many of our presidents had last names that you could conceivably give your sons or daughters as a first name. Here is a list of the chief executives; pouring over it I'm surprised how many of them had surnames that wouldn't be preposterous given names. I don't think you'll find too many people named Eisenhower, Bush, Buchanan, or Van Buren, and I wouldn't count Adams or Johnson for all the men named Adam or John.

Nevertheless, a few of the potential "presidential names for your baby" are reasonably common: Tyler, Arthur, and the aforementioned Grant and Madison. Is there any name from that list besides Madison that works for a girl? No doubt there is some non-traditional couple out there that named their baby girl Wilson, or Carter, or Ford, right? On the other hand, even if Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution is amended so that the President does not have to be a natural born citizen, a succesful ride to the White House by the Governor of California is not likely to lead to many girls (or boys) named Schwarzenegger.

Of course, even if you were named Schwarzenegger, it could be worse. The quote above is from a book on the Scopes Trial; the city attorney of Dayton, Tennessee who served as the prosecutor in the case was named "Sue Hicks." Sue was a man, named for his mother (Larson, p. 89). I've found no indication that he later got into a fight in a bar with his dad over his given name, the way the boy named Sue in the Johnny Cash song did.

On the other hand, Sue's brother was named Herbert, a name which in the connotation of presidents immediatley calls to mind Herbert Hoover. You think Sue Hicks would have been teased any less if his name was Hoover Hicks?

1 comment:

Ted said...


When counting the electoral votes, either Congress finds by 1/8/09 that Obama, not being an Article II “natural born citizen”, fails to qualify as President whereupon Biden becomes the full fledged President under 3 USC 19 (free to pick his own VP such as Hillary) or thereafter defers to the Supreme Court to enjoin Obama’s inauguration with Biden becoming only Acting President under the 20th Amendment until a new President is duly determined.

The preferable choice, at least for the Democrats, should seem obvious.