February 16, 2014 in Features

Gem State comes up short in namesake department

By The Spokesman-Review
 

What really is the cause of occasional friction between Washington and Idaho?

Though some would deny it, the answer seems pretty clear.

It’s name envy – presidential name envy, to be precise.

The Evergreen state is named after a titan of American history. The Gem State? Well, let’s face it. “Idaho,” some say, is a phony word that was supposed to sound Native American. A mining lobbyist made it up.

So you couldn’t blame residents of Famous Potatoes country if they had a bit of a complex about a next-door neighbor named after the Father of Our Country.

But what if Idaho had been named after a president, too? It’s worth considering.

So here, on Presidents Day weekend, let’s weigh the what-if pros and cons of Idaho having been named after one of the presidents who served after George Washington and before statehood in 1890.

Just imagine.

If Idaho had been named after prickly Harvard-educated lawyer John Adams, the state would be linked to a key figure in this nation’s fight for independence. But, like all presidents of his era, Adams was from “back East.” Still, there’s something to be said for having places that would be known as, say, “Athol, Adams” or “Ada County, Adams.”

Being named after Thomas Jefferson would make sense, if for no other reason than the fact he sent Lewis and Clark out here to take a look around. He was an advocate of the rights of states, but believed in the value of book learnin’. So some current Idahoans would have to sort out their feelings about the freckled wordsmith.

James Madison believed in a strong federal government, which would make him an object of enduring suspicion in the eyes of some Idahoans. But his wife was said to be a lot of fun. So perhaps the state could have been named after her. How do you like the sound of “Sandpoint, Dolley”?

James Monroe told the European powers to stay out of our backyard, so he might have been a good fit for a state where more than a few residents take an especially dim view of trespassers. Plus, “Moscow, Monroe” sounds like a secret agent or something.

Naming Idaho after John Quincy Adams would have been confusing. Besides, using the name of a son of a previous president might strike some Americans as almost royalist.

Andrew Jackson was certainly a colorful character, and Idahoans might enjoy having their state named after a two-fisted politician who got in brawls and duels. How do you like the sound of “Bonners Ferry, Jackson”?

Images of Martin Van Buren often show a gentleman with wild and crazy hair. That might resonate with a fair number of free-spirited Idahoans. Still, the aristocratic-sounding moniker might not be the perfect fit for a rugged Western state. “Wallace, Van Buren”? “Kellogg, Van Buren”?

William Henry Harrison was an Indian fighter involved in battles in what was then considered “the Northwest.” However, his dying in office just a few weeks after assuming the presidency is what many know about him. Still, being named after him could have paved the way for a town being called “Harrison, Harrison.”

John Tyler had a role in the annexation of Texas and later served in the Confederate Congress. He was no George Washington. If the idea is to come up with a state name that will make Evergreen State residents not act all snooty, this probably isn’t the way to go. Still, “Tensed, Tyler” has a ring to it.

Say what you will about James K. Polk, he at least kept his campaign promise and did not seek reelection. He also had a hand in formalizing the border with Canada, so there’s a Northwest link. But some Idahoans might have mixed feelings about him acquiring California. In any event, his last name might not work with every city or town. Still, “Post Falls, Polk” sounds OK.

Did you know that Idaho’s motto, Esto perpetua, actually means “Old Rough and Ready,” which was Zachary Taylor’s nickname? No, that’s not true.

One word often used to describe Millard Fillmore is “uninspiring.” That’s not good enough for gorgeous Idaho.

And let’s just skip Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan.

Which brings us to President Abraham Lincoln. Where do you live? “Coeur d’Alene, Lincoln.” What would you think of that?

Many regard Andrew Johnson as among the worst presidents, so perhaps there’s no need to contemplate Idaho being saddled with that name. Besides, fans of low humor would have a field day with the slang possibilities.

But what if Idaho had been named after Ulysses S. Grant? “We’ll be going up to our lake place in North Grant.” And instead of Vandals, we might have the University of Grant Imbibers. “Send a case of whatever he’s drinking to all the coaches.” The teams would, of course, demand unconditional surrender.

One problem with naming Idaho after Rutherford B. Hayes would be people all the time asking “Who was Rutherford B. Hayes?”

Idaho could have done worse than to be named after James Garfield, who was assassinated. Like Hayes, he had a respectable beard. But the name sounds like a town, not a state.

If Idaho was not going to be named after Jefferson or Lincoln, what case could be made for naming the state after Chester A. Arthur? Well, the Vermont-born Arthur has been called the most handsome man to serve as president. How many states are more handsome than Idaho? Just a thought.

The relative merits of his first term as president aside, naming the Gem State after Grover Cleveland would have invited confusion with the Rust Belt city in Ohio. “Coeur d’Alene, Cleveland.” What? Huh?

Which brings us back to Harrison. Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, was president when Idaho became a state. So there would be a certain logic about borrowing that name. Still, that’s not apt to make anyone in neighboring Washington bow down. “Your state is named after Little Ben Harrison? That’s nice. Mine is named after the towering figure who kicked the British back across the Atlantic.”

Really, though, what’s in a name?

Being named after a president would not make a state’s mountain peaks higher or lake water cleaner.

It is, of course, people who bring honor to a place.

Besides, the legacy of our greatest presidents is something we can all share. Even if you live in a beautiful state named after a con man’s flight of fancy.


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