It may sound nutty, but everything I first learned about our presidents, I acquired from Mr. Peanut.
In the 1950’s, that dandy of a nut nattily dressed in a top hat and monocle had published a fun-filled coloring book about the history of the Presidents of the United States. Like most authentic American history, presidents were held up as unimpeachable in their goodness and rightness; history as amiable as Mr. Peanut himself. Filled with entertaining fun and facts, it was perfect for kids to spend hours coloring in.
Only decades later would I realize how much of the truth was really colored.
It was on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, that I procured this book from Mr. Peanut himself.
In the deep freeze of February of 1960 my family headed for a long weekend at that famous resort town in Southern Jersey. While other families might vacation in sunny Miami Beach taking advantage of new jet travel, Atlantic City was a far south as we got.
By the late 1950’s this once glittering grande dame of vacation spots was more like an aging dowager, fading, long past its Boardwalk Empire prime. The once majestic hotels like the Shelburne and Traymore that still lined the world-famous boardwalk now loomed like dinosaurs towering over the plethora of ticky tacky souvenir shops that dotted the former blue chip prize of Monopoly fame.
I had caught Atlantic City in a strange time period – after its glamorous heyday as the Worlds Playground, but before its casino incarnation that tried to rival Las Vegas. But my parents gambled that we would enjoy it, and they were right.
To a child, the boardwalk, that most valued property of a Monopoly board, a massive wooden expanse with its rolling wicker chairs, roaring sea views and confectioners shops at every turn, was a treat.
When we had had our fill of Steel’s fudge and Fralingers Salt Water Taffy, the intoxicating smell of freshly roasting peanuts mingling with the briny sea air lured us to The Planters Peanut Store. (This long time institution on Boardwalk at Virginia Avenue that closed its doors in 1978 , ironically became the site of Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino Hotel.)
Greeting us on the boardwalk was a six-foot tall dapper peanut decked out in white gloves, spats, a rakish top hat and monocle, silently waving his cane invitingly for you to enter his peanuts emporium.
Once inside there were nuts o’ plenty and of course dozens of Mr. Peanut souvenirs. There were Mr. Peanut plastic cups, candy dishes, salt and pepper shakers, and plastic piggy banks with removable hats that caught my fancy.
My mother meanwhile had her eye on another item for me. Though I longed for the mustard colored piggy bank, it was a coloring book that captured my educational-minded mother’s attention.
With the 1960 presidential election looming ahead, Mom thought it high time I get acquainted with our nations presidents. Who better than Mr. Peanut, a top hat wearing member of the 1% to extol the story of these remarkable men who were our leaders and explain the real life situations they had to face.
Hoping to engage my attention, Mom read aloud to me from the introduction:
“Every American boy and girl should know our presidents, and Mr. Peanut takes pleasure in introducing them to you with this entertaining and educational paint book.”
“You can color the pictures with crayons or water colors. It’s lots of fun and easy too – all you have to do is copy the color pictures. You’ll also enjoy reading about the presidents; and you should save this book even after you’ve colored all of the pictures, for it will help you later in your history classes at school.”
Mr. Peanut went on to explain the benefits of the book, as Mom continued reading: “It will also come in handy for radio and television programs too, because so many questions about presidents are asked on ‘quiz shows’ and it’s fun for you to know the answers in advance.”
Equipped with my Mr. Peanuts guide I would be ready for Jeopardy when it debuted, or at least jump to the head of my class on Romper Room.
Hours of Fun
Flipping through a few pages of the book I could see the appeal and it stoked my imagination.
Who wouldn’t have fun painting in pictures of a decent, give em’ Hell Harry Truman and the Atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima?
…or coloring in those fun pictures of antebellum slaves, along with the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson who made us so proud that it was our country that that first said loud and clear that all men are created equal.
And what mid century child wouldn’t delight making those drawing of President Garfield’s assassination come to life!
Happily clutching my purchase, Mr. Peanut winked at me knowingly as I left the store .
Once I returned to our hotel, I couldn’t wait to whip out my crayolas and cheerfully dig into the fun and facts. Before me lay a presidential parade of great Americans “who helped America grow, kept our national family one, and indivisible and served to make the US the great power of the free world,” Mr. Peanut enthused in the introduction
Color me excited!
I Cannot Tell A Lie
Naturally every child knew about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln who had their very own holidays and were at the top of everyone’s favorite presidents.
Mr. Peanut agreed.
“Washington was a man of great character his integrity was unimpeachable. A man of quality and substance, farmer and owner of plantations he directed the work of many men besides the hundreds of slaves on his self contained estates. Washington has gone down in the history as The Father of Our Country- first in war first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen”
“He signed the proclamation setting slaves free in the south. America has had its share of men who were great presidents. Some were great men. Among the latter, Lincoln occupies a supreme place.”
But there were many presidents I never heard of with no holidays of their own. I was anxious to learn of the rest of this golden honor roll of American presidents and “their deeds and achievements that marked their glory!”
A Few White Lies
What’s nuts, is that the lessons I learned from Mr. Peanut didn’t veer much from the ones I later learned in my schoolbooks. Textbooks were studded with exemplary, biographical vignettes of our heroic presidents. “From log cabins and mansions, from battlefronts and sheltered lives came these dedicated men who have won the highest honor the U.S. offers.”
Like Mr. Peanut, schoolbooks provided a thrilling narrative of presidents who were all men of principled character, champions of human rights, men of vision.
But there were a few rancid nuts in this enthusiastic roast to our presidents.
Despite the claim that all were champions of human rights, some of these praiseworthy presidents were pretty close to shredding the constitution and dismissing civil liberties in general.
Our current mix of political nuts (a tempting sampling of racists, xenophobes, and misogynists ) running for president would stand in good company.
Lets color in some facts Mr. Peanuts didn’t mention.
“Andrew Jackson,” Mr. Peanut tells us “was ‘the people choice’ president. The frame-work of American democracy is as strong as it is today because Jacksonian democracy became one of its vital elements.”
“The rapid expansion during his presidency brought many changes to America”
However beloved O’l Hickory may be the “Peoples Choice President” who graces our twenty dollar bill was not only the biggest slave owner in the southwestern U.S., Jackson was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny – what he and others believed were the God-given rights of whites to conquer North America from coast to coast. His “rapid expansion” caused The Trail of Tears.
“He signed the Fugitive Slave Law which ordered harsh punishment for those who helped runaway slaves. During his presidency California became a state.”
The praise for the Fugitive Slave Law is a bit premature. When the honorable Millard Fillmore took office in 1850 prickly slave owners had a pesky problem. When slaves escaped to free states, law enforcement agencies in those states refused to return them to their owners.
Our compassionate president passed a law to fix that. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1853 that not only required free states to return slaves to their “owners” but also made it a federal crime not to assist in doing so.
Frankly, Fillmore’s bigotry wasn’t limited to African-Americans. He was also noted for his prejudices against the growing number of Irish Catholic immigrants which made him mighty popular in nativist circles.
During his presidency we learn, “The north began an active fight against a nation half slave and half free. The bitterness of the slavery issue became more and more intense.”
This dedicated president passed the dreadful Dred Scot decision in 1857 which defined African-Americans as subhuman non citizens.
Buchanan who made pro slavery policy a central tenet of his administration, boasted in advance of the ruling that the issue of slavery expansion was about to be resolved “speedily and finally” by Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision.
“He had a difficult time trying to get the Union working properly after the Civil war. Congress did not like some of his actions and finally impeached him but he wasn’t convicted.”
This fair-minded president who bitterly fought the 14th Amendment, said in 1866:
“This is a country for white men and by God as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.”
“President during the first world war Wilson worked hard against much opposition to establish the League of nations an organization dedicated to the prevention of future wars. As president, Wilson seemed to agree with most white Americans that segregation was in the best interests of black as well as white Americans.”
This principled president, Mr. Peanut fails to point out, was not only anti-black but was far and away the most nativist president, giving Donald Trump a run for his money.
His contempt for those first generation immigrants he deemed “hyphenated Americans” and threatened to have “crushed out” played into the nativist and anti communist sentiments of his era. There also was the Sedition Act of 1918 which criminalized all radical criticism of the government.
Wilson used his powers as chief executive to segregate the federal government and his racial policies disgraced the office he held.
Today as we quake in our boots at the prospect of any of our recent crop of racist, xenophobic candidates possibly occupying the highest office in the land, it’s safe to say some have already occupied the White House.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.