Presidents vs. Monsters and Legends

Martin Van Buren - the werewolf?President Martin Van Buren

Was President Martin Van Buren’s beard a symptom of a sinister secret? Photo courtesy Wikicommons

This past weekend’s release of the movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter raises the question of how other American presidents might have dealt with monsters and conspiracy theories. Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the National Museum of American History’s Division of Political History, fields questions posed by Smithsonian magazine editorial intern Kat J. McAlpine.

In the event that the United States was attacked by an army of zombies, which president would best direct a defensive military campaign?

I think if it was a small, local uprising, a young Andrew Jackson would lead the campaign. As a frontier fighter, he would do a good job. His frontier experience, battle-tested organization skills and abilities proven during his defense of New Orleans in the War of 1812 showed him to be a strong military leader with the ability to rally a band of people. However, it is young, pre-presidential Jackson that would do well against a zombie uprising; when he was the president, he would have been too old to lead a battle against zombies.

On the other hand, if it was a large, international-scale zombie uprising, the best for the job would be Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower had extensive military experience and was responsible for the organization of D-Day and other military campaigns of World War II, which would put him in good stead to defend Americans against a zombie invasion.

What personality traits, personal strengths or abilities did Abraham Lincoln possess that would have made him a skilled vampire hunter?

I don’t really think of Lincoln as a vampire hunter, to be honest. He grew up on the frontier, so he was used to operating in the wilderness and he possessed a sharp, cunning mind. But Lincoln was not a very militaristic kind of individual. He sought to avoid conflicts and personal fights. There were a number of cases when he got into wrestling matches to demonstrate his toughness and to impress people, but he didn’t go looking for that kind of conflict. In those respects, he’s not the vampire slayer I imagine.

Someone who would go out and seek that kind of adventure and defense, and the character that colleagues have suggested to me – that’s Teddy Roosevelt. When he was a cowboy out in Dakota he hunted outlaws; he carried a big stick so to speak. Roosevelt was adventure seeking, looking for conflict, a real rough and ready type of character. He would make a more predictable vampire hunter.

What about Roosevelt vs. Sasquatch? Would he put up the best presidential fight in a scuffle with bigfoot?

Roosevelt was a sportsman and a hunter, he went to Africa looking for game and he was a well-known hunter in this country. He was a member of the Harvard boxing club. I think in some ways, however, if it was just a conflict between a president and the abominable snowman, this might be where Lincoln would shine. Lincoln was known as such a tough wrestler, known for hand-to-hand combat, frontier style.

We’ve talked about presidents who could take on monsters, but have there been any presidents who were monsters themselves? Werewolves in the White House?

I’ve consulted some of my colleagues and they suggest that there seems to be a trend that’s developed since World War II – none of the presidents have had facial hair. I’m not making a claim that this might be a conspiracy, but it does raise a question of why they have all chosen to strike a hairless appearance. Going on facial hair alone, you have to look at Hayes, Carter, Harrison and Garfield. And Van Buren with those mutton chops – could something have been going on? But these are just observations, we have no evidence.

And what about the creation of monsters? Were any of the presidents smart enough to have built a Frankenstein-esque creature?

Thomas Jefferson was our inventor president, dabbling in the sciences. While he was busy making different kinds of simple chairs and desks, if he was challenged to create a new man – he was active in imagining a new nation – I think he would have been up for the task. And the other, although a little bit harder to imagine, is Jimmy Carter. He was somewhat of a scientist, although he was more of a reformer than interested in making things anew. The real Frankenstein builder in some ways may very well have been Jefferson.

So what about unearthly creatures? All these conspiracy theories fly around about the government concealing information about UFOs and extraterrestrials. Which president is most likely to have made contact with an alien from another world?

I have no discernible evidence that a president has ever made contact with aliens, but in terms of which president would seek it out or embrace it – there’s a number of them. Thomas Jefferson, a man of enlightenment, would embrace the idea of intelligence around the universe. He definitely sought out minds with different opinions and ideas, so I believe he would embrace wanting to have that contact. Many internationalists would feel the same way, but out of the early American presidents, Jefferson sticks out.

In more modern presidencies, I’d have to say that Bill Clinton has always tended to engage people from different backgrounds. He might find the whole idea of extraterrestrial contact very intriguing, while others might be fearful.

What about threats from those hidden among us? Have any U.S. presidents been members of secret, conspiratorial organizations?

I think there is a lot more evidence that, yes – could you say they are involved in large organizations with secret aspects to them, with agents around the country, conspiring together to obtain power and put themselves in a leadership position of the nation? I think you could say all of the presidents have done that.

That’s what political parties are all about. It’s people organizing for political power, or for their point of view. The idea that there is something more powerful than agents, who are actively spending time working on their political base, is both silly and just competitive. Wherever people are gathering together, they are organizing and building support for what they believe in – but there is a quality to all political parties that is secretive and national; you could treat it as a conspiracy. They are conspiring.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.