When Benjamin Harrison was born in 1833, he entered a world that already included 17 other former or future presidents. According to my research, this is the largest number of presidents alive at the same time in our country’s history. When you hear that EIGHTEEN presidents were alive at the same point in history, you might imagine 18 stately dudes sipping bourbon during a game of poker in a hazy parlor. However, these 18 presidents were at varying stages in 1833, ranging in age from newborn to 82. Their paths all led them to the White House, but every path was at its own unique point on the day of Harrison’s birth, August 20, 1833.
James Madison, the eldest of the bunch, was 82. The last of the Founding Fathers, Madison had his hands full with financial troubles and mental anguish.
Sitting president Andrew Jackson had just been sucker punched on a steamboat in May of 1833 by a former Navy lieutenant.
Benjamin Harrison’s grandfather, William Henry Harrison, was a former whiskey distiller at the time of his grandson’s birth.
Twenty-four-year-old Abraham Lincoln was an unsuccessful general store owner in New Salem, Illinois.
And just three days before Andrew Jackson’s sucker punch, one-year-old James Garfield and his three siblings were socked with the loss of their father.
If you think about it, it’s entirely possible that 18 presidents might be alive right now, at this very moment. But we don’t know yet, since some of them are just infants learning to walk, or middle schoolers popping zits. The first female president may be out there right now. Or the first Hispanic president. Or the first president conceived at a Motley Crue concert. The possibilities are endless and unknown. But one thing is certain: just like those 18 presidents in 1833, all of the current living presidents, just like all of us, are on a journey, often at different points, but always in connection with one another.
If you’ve read my previous posts, you’re familiar with my obsession of overlapping journeys, especially ones involving my family (for example, this or this or this or this). So it should come as no surprise that when I talk about interconnecting journeys, I’m gonna link up heads of state with grandpas who are “great.”
As Benjamin Harrison’s presidency pushed forward with the Sherman Antitrust Act and the admission of six new states into the Union, two baby boys came into this world three months apart in 1891: one via Thompsonville, Ontario, and the other via rural Mechanicsville, Iowa. Known initially as John and James, they became more well-known by the distinctive names of Oscar and Otis, respectively. They were each born to a farmer, just like Harrison.
Oscar and Otis both found wedded bliss in the 1910’s, and both settled down in rural Jones County to raise their families. With a county population under 20,000, it’s probable that Oscar and Otis crossed paths in their younger days. Who knows, maybe it was just a mutual nod as they passed each other on a muddy back road. Their paths intertwined permanently on July 8, 1941, when Oscar’s daughter Jackie married Otis’s son Floyd. From there on out, they often found themselves at the same events together, and many of their life milestones would involve each other one way or another. Many moons later, it became virtually impossible for one of their great-grandsons to remember one without also remembering the other.
Oscar and Otis were my great-grandfathers, and I only knew them as “old men.” I knew Oscar as the guy who hiked his britches up to his armpits. Otis was the guy who hauled Shetland ponies in his car. When you’re a little kid, high pants and horses tend to be more memorable than legitimate, redeeming personality traits. I learned later that Oscar had been a skilled carpenter and Otis was one of the kindest, most generous souls you could ever meet.
These two men both outlived their wives by a considerable margin and hung around long enough to become nonagenarians. Oscar lived to be 94 and Otis reached 95. Their lifetimes encompassed two world wars, the sinking of the Titanic, the Great Depression, the first flight, the first man on the moon, the Civil Rights movement, Mickey Mantle’s entire career, and Babe Ruth’s entire life. In a coincidental nod to 1833, they lived through 18 presidents.
Life is all about perspective, and a lot of it pertains to age. You can imagine Lincoln as a legendary statesman or a 24-year-old failure. I knew my great-grandpas as elderly men, while their parents knew them as little John and James, their wives knew them as young bucks, and their children knew them as ever-present authority figures. As our journeys overlap with one another, it’s crucial to remember that even though we’re all at different points in our journeys, there is much to be learned from those who are on different legs of their trek. Just as presidents study the works of their predecessors, I love to learn about my great-grandfathers – to draw from their experiences, to see their shortcomings, and to understand how they found happiness and success in their lives.
Benjamin Harrison once quoted, “Great lives never go out; they go on.” The lives of presidents, great-grandfathers, and others of importance will always go on, as long as we never allow them to go out.