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 facts about our nation’s past leaders.
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. On one 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.