Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dead Presidents: Leap Day

February 29 comes along only once in four years, which might account for the fact that no Presidents or Vice Presidents of the United States were ever born or died on that day, though President John Tyler came within a few feet of death on February 28, 1844, when a 12-inch gun on the warship USS Princeton accidently exploded, killing two members of his cabinet, among others.

There have been a few bits of presidential history associated with Leap Day, however. On February 29, 1796, for example, President Washington announced that the Jay Treaty was in effect -- officially, the Treaty of Amity Commerce and Navigation, between His Britannic Majesty; and The United States of America. (John Jay was the chief negotiator on the American side.) Among other things, the treaty provided for the end of the lingering British occupation of forts in the Northwest Territory; the settlement of compensation to U.S. ship owners whose vessels by the British during the Revolution; and the establishment of a commission to delineate part of the boundary with British North American (that is, the Canadas).

On February 29, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt formally appointed a seven-man commission -- the Isthmian Canal Commission, which reported at first to Secretary of War William Howard Taft -- to get on with the task of building the Panama Canal, one of the signal achievements of his presidency. The move came immediately after the brand-new Panamanian government, which had been helped into existence by the U.S.S. Nashville in late 1903, ceded control of the Canal Zone to the United States on February 23.

On February 29, 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the second Neutrality Act, which renewed a previous act that banned trading in arms or war materials with all parties in a war, and clarified the status of Americans traveling on ships of belligerent powers -- at their own risk (everyone still recalled the Lusitania in those days). The '36 act also banned loans or credits to belligerents. Other neutrality acts were passed in the late '30s, for all the good they did in the early '40s in keeping the United States out of war.

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