The president of the United States is both hated and revered, and oftentimes people forget that he is human, too. On this President’s Day, an occasion of celebration for the country’s commanders in chief, we take a look at some of the odd, interesting, and shocking fun facts and anecdotes about our nation’s past leaders – while giving the current president a brief moment of media peace.
Thomas Jefferson: During the War of 1812, the British burned down the Library of Congress. Jefferson stepped in and sold the institution his own collection of 6,487 books. He and John Adams were good friends and both died on July 4, 1826. With his dying words, Adams said “Thomas Jefferson survives,” thinking he had beat his buddy to the grave – unaware Jefferson had passed hours earlier.
James Madison and George Washington are the only presidents who signed the Constitution. Madison has the distinction of being the shortest president at five feet four inches. He was also the first graduate student of Princeton University.
John Quincy Adams must not have been too shy. As part of his morning exercise routine, he liked to go skinny-dipping in the Potomac River.
Andrew Jackson was no stranger to fighting and duels. In fact, he fought about 100 duels, mostly to defend his wife’s honor. In 1813, during a bar fight, he was shot in the arm by Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton. On another occasion, he was shot in the chest during a duel but still was able to remain on his feet to win the fight. The bullet could not be removed and remained in his chest for 40 years. His fighting skills may have helped him during an assassination attempt on Jan. 30, 1835 (he was the first president to experience one). The assailant shot at the president but the gun misfired. Jackson was so irate over it he clubbed the would-be assassin several times with his walking cane. Not a fan of banks, he managed to defund the Second Bank of the United States. How ironic is it, then, that his image is on the $20 bill?
Martin Van Buren was the first president born a citizen of the United States and the only one for whom English was a second language. His native language was Dutch. He carried the nickname “Old Kinderhook” because he was from Kinderhook, NY, and some theorize that the term “O.K.” comes from the O.K. clubs used to support his campaign.
James Polk or “Young Hickory” was the first dark horse presidential candidate after Martin Van Buren did not get the party’s nomination. At the young age of 17, he had to have surgery to remove kidney stones – without anesthesia since it hadn’t been invented yet. He suffered the procedure with brandy and was awake the whole time.
Franklin Pierce, while in office, was arrested for running over a woman with his horse. Due to a lack of evidence, the charges were dropped. While he may have enjoyed his “Handsome Frank” nickname, he was not too fond of the other, “Fainting Frank.” He received that less than flattering moniker during the Mexican-America War. A brigadier general, he received a groin and knee injury from being thrown against his horse’s pommel. Although the length of time he was passed out from the pain was brief, the nickname stuck.
Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson were the tallest presidents at six feet four inches. Lincoln liked to wrestle and, during his youth, he was defeated only once out of about 300 matches. He got into the Wrestling Hall of Fame with the honor of “Outstanding American.” He liked to store papers and other goodies beneath his tall hat.
Ulysses S. Grant was born Hiram Ulysses Grant but a clerical error at the military academy, West Point, had him nervous that they would reject him – so he immediately changed his name. Ironically, he hated being in the military even though his victories during the Civil War are what gave him sufficient popularity to become president. He is rumored to have smoked at least 20 cigars a day and had the reputation of being a drunkard. After resigning from the military he tried many business ventures that all failed. He had to resort to selling firewood on the street to support his family. Just before he died of throat cancer in 1885, Grant’s good friend Mark Twain published his memoirs which sold about 300,000 copies.
Rutherford B. Hayes fought in the Civil War and was the only president to be wounded in the conflict – four different times. He had four horses shot out from under him.
James Garfield was ambidextrous and could write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other – at the same time.
Benjamin Harrison was the first to experience electricity in the White House. However, the unfamiliar technology frightened him and he would never turn on the light switches himself for fear of being electrocuted.
Grover Cleveland was called “Uncle Jumbo” by his relatives because he was six feet tall and weighed about 270 pounds. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was five years old, Cleveland told him “I am making a wish for you. It is that you may never become president of the United States.” He earned the unfortunate nickname of “Buffalo Hangman” while he was an Erie County, NY sheriff because he had to spring the trap at two different hangings.
William McKinley had an Amazon parrot named Washington Post whose job was the White House greeter. McKinley would whistle the first few notes of Yankee Doodle Dandy and Post would finish the rest. The president was a bit superstitious and always wore a red carnation on his lapel for good luck. In 1901, he gave the flower to a little girl and seconds later he was shot by an assassin. He died eight days later.
Theodore Roosevelt: During a speech in Milwaukee, Teddy was shot in the chest by an assassin. He continued on, saying to the crowd “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot. I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.” He finished the 90-minute speech with the bullet still in his chest.
William H. Taft or “Big Bill” has the distinction of being the largest president so far. Once, he became wedged in the White House bathtub and had to call his advisors to help get him out.
Calvin Coolidge liked to play practical jokes. Sometimes he would press all the service buttons in the Oval office which sent ringing bells through the White House to alert staff that he needed assistance. He would then hide and watch everyone run around trying to figure out what they were supposed to do.
Gerald Ford turned down offers to play with the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions because he wanted to attend Yale University’s law school; he took a job coaching there instead. During college, he worked as a fashion model and appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan.
Ronald Reagan was gifted with the “Most Nearly Perfect Male Figure Award” in 1940 by the University of California. As a prize, he posed nearly nude for an art sculpting class. In 1981 after an assassination attempt, he joked “I forgot to duck.”
George H.W. Bush was flying over Japan when he was shot down. He and another crewman were able to bail out but another man was not as fortunate and went down with the aircraft. Bush was rescued off the coast of Chichi-Jima.
George W. Bush was captain of the cheerleading team at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, during his senior year of high school.
Read more from Kelli Ballard.