America’s highest office has been held by generals and lawyers – as well as a tailor and a newspaper publisher. They’ve ranged from 5’4” to 6’4”, and from 100 pounds to 330 pounds. One could simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other; another spoke six languages. Some were pianists; others played the saxophone, the violin and the cornet. One had a pet parrot; another had a mockingbird. Many were golfers, but only one (that we’re aware of) regularly skinny-dipped in the Potomac.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, let’s get to know each of our Commanders-in-Chief a little better.
1. George Washington (presidential term 1789-1797): Started losing his teeth in his 20s, but contrary to popular belief, his dentures were not wooden. One of his sets, for example, was carved out of hippopotamus ivory and used gold wire springs and brass screws to hold human teeth.
2. John Adams (1797-1801): Was the first president to live in the White House, which at the time was variously known as the “President’s Palace,” “Presidential Mansion” or “President’s House.” Whatever it was called, it wasn’t quite ready when Adams moved in, as it lacked permanent staircases and the paint was still wet.
3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809): Spoke six languages and founded the University of Virginia. He kept a mockingbird in the White House, which he let ride on his shoulder and taught to take food from between his lips. While in office, the residents of Cheshire, Mass., presented him with a 1235-pound wheel of cheese.
4. James Madison (1809-1817): Was the shortest president at 5’4”, and he weighed just 100 pounds. Also the first president to wear long pants; his predecessors wore breeches. Was known as the “Father of the Constitution,” but had no biological children.
5. James Monroe (1817-1825): Wounded during the Revolutionary War, he carried a bullet in his shoulder for the rest of his life. Along with Adams and Jefferson, he became the third of our first five presidents to pass away on July 4.
6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829): The son of John Adams, he dealt with the stress of being president by skinny dipping in the Potomac River at 5 a.m. every morning. Having been denied repeated interview requests, Anne Royall became the first woman to interview a president by interrupting his swim and sitting on his clothing until he agreed to speak with her.
7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837): Was the first president to be the target of an assassination attempt while in office. Richard Lawrence pulled out two pistols, but both misfired, possibly due to the humidity of the day. Legend has it that “Old Hickory” then attacked the would-be assassin with his cane.
8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841): Was the first president to be born a U.S. citizen (his predecessors were born in British colonies) and the first born after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. He grew up speaking Dutch at home, making him the only president whose first language wasn’t English.
9. William Henry Harrison (1841): His nearly two-hour inaugural address was delivered on a cold, windy day on which he refused to wear a coat or hat; he died of pneumonia in the White House just 30 days later.
10. John Tyler (1841-1845): The first vice president to assume the presidency due to the death of his predecessor. The succession plan was not well-established at the time, and when he arranged to have himself sworn in, his opponents dubbed him “His Accidency.” He was also the father of 15 children, the most of any president.
11. James Knox Polk (1845-1849): Was the first president to have his photo taken while in office. During his election campaign, he vowed to serve just one term, and he kept his word. During his administration, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution opened, ground was broken for the Washington Monument and the U.S. issued its first postage stamps.
12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850): Growing up on the Kentucky frontier, he had little formal education. Served in the Army for 40 years and allowed his Army horse “Whitey” to graze on the White House lawn. Before campaigning for the presidency, he had never voted in a presidential election nor joined a political party.
13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853): Was born in poverty but, while apprenticed to a cloth maker, taught himself to read. He then got a job clerking for a judge, which enabled him to learn the law and become a lawyer. Never attended college and refused to accept an honorary degree from Oxford University, saying that he had neither the “literary nor scientific attainment” to merit it. He also couldn’t read the Latin text of the diploma, and felt “no man should accept a degree he cannot read.”
14. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857): Memorized his entire inaugural address, which was more than 3300 words. Was arrested while in office for running over an elderly woman with his horse. The constable released him upon learning that the man he had arrested was the president, and charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.
15. James Buchanan (1857-1861): The only president who never married, he adopted his orphaned niece, who served as the White House hostess.
16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865): The only president to hold a patent; it’s for a device to lift ships that ran aground. He matches LBJ as the tallest president at 6’4”, was the first president born outside the original 13 colonies and the first president to wear a beard. Was regarded in his youth as a very good wrestler. He strongly disliked the nickname “Abe” (or “Honest Abe” or “Old Abe”), preferring instead to be called “Lincoln.” While in office, he made Thanksgiving a nationwide holiday.
17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869): Was the only tailor to become president, and made his own clothes for most of his life. While governor of Tennessee, he made a suit for the governor of Kentucky as a gift.
18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877): Was once fined $20 for driving his horse and buggy too fast in Washington, D.C., and was forced to walk back to the White House. His actual name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, but he was nominated to West Point as “Ulysses S. Grant” (his mother’s maiden name was Simpson; it was mistaken for his middle name). West Point wouldn’t accept him under any other name, so he stuck with it.
19. Rutherford Birchard Hayes (1877-1881): The first president to visit the west coast while in office. His wife banned dancing, smoking, alcohol and card playing from the White House, but they did start the Easter egg roll, which became an annual tradition. He had the first telephone installed in the White House, by none other than Alexander Graham Bell.
20. James Abram Garfield (1881): The first left-handed president, the first president whose mother saw his inauguration and the last to have been born in a log cabin. He could write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other simultaneously, and he liked to juggle bowling pin-shaped clubs to stay in shape.
21. Chester Alan Arthur (1881-1885): Nicknamed “Elegant Arthur,” he dressed well and had the White House remodeled before moving in. He’s perhaps most recognized today for his distinctive muttonchop facial hair.
22. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889): He vetoed 414 bills in his first term, more than twice the vetoes made by all previous presidents. He became just the second president to marry while in office, and the first to marry in the White House. He was 49 when he wed Frances Folsom – who, at 21, became our youngest First Lady. He called her “Frank.”
23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893): Grandson of William Henry Harrison. Was the first president to use electricity in the White House. He defeated Grover Cleveland in the 1888 election despite losing the popular vote – but lost to Cleveland in 1892, and remains the only president to be defeated by a former president.
24. Grover Cleveland (1893-1897): The only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Neither candidate actively campaigned in 1892. Harrison wanted to stay by the side of his wife, who was dying of tuberculosis, so Cleveland also declined to campaign.
25. William McKinley (1897-1901): Was the first president to ride in an automobile while in office, and the first to have his inauguration filmed. He had a pet parrot; it was named “Washington Post” and could whistle “Yankee Doodle.”
26. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909): Was the first American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He disliked being called “Teddy,” but the teddy bear was named after him after he famously refused to shoot a bear that had been tied to a willow tree for him. Though JFK is the youngest person to be elected president, Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest to actually take office, upon McKinley’s assassination.
27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913): At more than 330 pounds, he was the heaviest president. Also the first president to own a car and started the tradition of throwing out the first pitch to start baseball season. One of only two presidents (the other being Herbert Hoover) who neither held previous elected office nor attained high military rank.
28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): Likely had dyslexia and couldn’t read until he was 10, but remains the only president to receive a PhD and became president of Princeton, his alma mater. He was the first president to throw out a pitch at the World Series. Also liked automobiles, cycling and golf. He averaged nearly a round every two days while in office, and the Secret Service would paint golf balls black so that he could hit them in the snow on the White House lawn.
29. Warren Gamaliel Harding (1921-1923): Graduated from college at 17. Was an accomplished cornet player. Was a newspaper publisher before becoming president. Was the first president to visit Canada while in office.
30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929): Was born on 4th of July, was nicknamed “Silent Cal” for his quiet demeanor and remains the only president sworn into office by his father, who was a justice of the peace.
31. Herbert Clark Hoover (1929-1933): Made millions in mining and was the first president to donate his salary to charity; JFK later did the same. Was a member of the first class at Stanford University. While living in China during the early years of their marriage, he and his wife became fluent in Mandarin.
32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945): The only president to serve more than two terms; he passed away during his fourth term. Theodore Roosevelt was his fifth cousin. Was stricken with polio at 39 and became an avid swimmer as he sought to regain the use of his legs. Was the first president to appear on television.
33. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953): His middle initial “S” stood for nothing, as his parents could not agree on a middle name. There’s some debate about whether the “S” should be accompanied by a period, but he often used one in his signature. As a child, he would get up at 5 a.m. and practice the piano for two hours. He would later joke that he only became president because he wasn’t quite good enough to be a concert pianist.
34. Dwight David Eisenhower (1953-1961): The first president to be a licensed pilot, and the last president to have been born in the 19th century. As a child, he liked hunting, fishing, football and military history. He attended West Point, where he had a reputation as a prankster. Camp David is named after his grandson. He was an avid golfer, but when he asked that a tree on the 17th fairway of Augusta National be cut down, the chairman of the club adjourned the meeting so that he wouldn’t have to deny the request of a sitting president. The Eisenhower Tree, as it became known, still stands. (Update: We spoke too soon; the tree was just removed following an ice storm.)
35. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961-1963): Was the youngest person to be elected President, the first president born in the 20th century and is one of only two presidents (along with William Howard Taft) to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His presidential debates with Richard Nixon were the first ever shown on television.
36. Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969): Grew up without electricity or indoor plumbing, and attended a one-room school with one teacher and six students in his graduating class. He worked his way through college as a grape picker and auto mechanic, and married Lady Bird with a $2.50 wedding band purchased from Sears. He’s the only president who was both born and raised in Texas. At 6’4”, he ties Lincoln as the tallest president.
37. Richard Milhous Nixon (1969-1974): First president to visit mainland China while in office. An accomplished musician, he would often play the violin and piano for White House guests. He also enjoyed yogurt, which was flown in from California each day. A big sports fan, he once called in a play during a Washington Redskins game.
38. Gerald Rudolph Ford (1974-1977): First president not to be elected by the people, as he became vice president upon Spiro Agnew’s resignation, then succeeded Nixon. He played football at the University of Michigan and later had the chance to play for the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, but decided to coach football and boxing at Yale instead. Was the first president to have been adopted.
39. James Earl Carter, Jr. (1977-1981): First president born in a hospital and the first to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. Was the first president from the Deep South in more than 100 years, and the only president born in Georgia. On his mother’s side, he was related to Elvis Presley, and was a distant relative of June Carter Cash. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, and a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 2007. Is a speed-reader who has been measured at 2000 words per minute. Reported seeing a UFO over Leary, Ga. in 1969, but didn’t think that the unidentified object was an alien spacecraft; it might have been a military aircraft.
40. Ronald Wilson Reagan (1981-1989): Made more than 50 movies and twice served as president of the Screen Actors Guild before getting involved with politics. At age 77, was the oldest president to leave office – and was the first president elected in a year ending in “0” who didn’t die in office. He was portrayed by at least eight actors on “Saturday Night Live.” Won 49 of 50 states (and a record 525 of 538 electoral votes) in his 1984 re-election campaign.
41. George Herbert Walker Bush (1989-1993): In 1943, was the youngest pilot in the Navy. Distantly related to Franklin Pierce, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Dan Quayle and Gerald Ford. As captain of the Yale baseball team, he met Babe Ruth and played in the first College World Series. Is the longest-married president, the only president with four names and the only president to have worked for the CIA (he was the agency’s director).
42. William Jefferson Clinton (1993-2001): Played saxophone in high school jazz trio known as “3 Blind Mice,” as they all wore sunglasses. Was the third-youngest president, the first Rhodes Scholar to be elected president and the first president born after World War II. As a young man, he was photographed shaking hands with JFK. Won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in 2005.
43. George W. Bush (2001-2009): He and George H.W. Bush were just the second father and son to be elected president, following John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Was formerly the managing general partner of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers. Is the only president to have fathered twins, and was the first president to have an MBA. Has taken up painting as a hobby since leaving the White House.
44. Barack Obama (2009-present): His first name is derived for the Swahili word for “blessed.” Has lived in three countries, six states and six time zones. Was the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album in both 2006 and 2008; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were also nominated in 2008. His Secret Service name is “Renegade.”
- Judi Bauer