Ten fascinating facts about historic American Presidents

Ten fascinating facts about historic American Presidents
George Washington. Image courtesy of Whitehouse.gov

1. What two presidents died on the same day?

Our second and third presidents–the only two presidential signers of the Declaration of Independence–John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, political rivals, then friends, both died on July 4, 1826, exactly fifty years after the Declaration became official.

Thomas Jefferson. Image courtesy Whitehouse.gov.

As Jefferson lay weak and dying in his home in Monticello on the evening of July 3, he whispered, “Is this the Fourth?” To quiet the former president, his secretary, Nicholas Trist, who was also his grandson-in-law, answered, “Yes.” Jefferson fell asleep with a smile. His heart continued to beat until the next day, when bells rang out and fireworks exploded for the Fourth.

At dawn of that same day, Adams was dying in his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. A servant asked the fading Adams, “Do you know what day it is?” “Oh yes,” responded the lion in winter. “It is the glorious Fourth of July.” He then lapsed into a stupor but awakened in the afternoon and sighed feebly, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He ceased to breathe around sunset, about six hours after Jefferson.

2. Who was the youngest man ever to have served as President of the United States?

If your answer is John Fitzgerald Kennedy, you’re slightly off the mark. When he took office, Kennedy was, at the age of forty-three years and seven months, the youngest man ever to have been elected president; but Theodore Roosevelt became president at forty-two years and ten months, in the wake of the assassination of President William McKinley. When TR’s second term was over, he was still only fifty years old, making him the youngest ex-president.

John F. Kennedy. Image courtesy Whitehouse.gov.

Bill Clinton was our third youngest president (forty-six years and one month), followed, surprisingly, by Ulysses S. Grant (forty-six years and eleven months) and Barack Obama (forty-seven years and one month).

3. Now that you know the identity of our youngest president, who was our oldest president?

The average age at which America’s presidents have taken office is fifty-four. Ronald Reagan became president one month shy of his seventieth birthday, older than any other president, and left office one month shy of his seventy-eighth. Before Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower had been the only president to reach the age of seventy while in office.

When Ronald Reagan passed away in 2004 at the age of 93 years and 120 days, he was our longest-lived president. In 2006, Gerald Ford surpassed that record for presidential longevity and lived another month and a half. Amazingly, our third longest-lived president is John Adams, who was born in 1735 and who lived for ninety years and eight months, followed by Herbert Hoover, who lived for ninety years and two months.

4. Who were our tallest, heftiest, and most compact presidents?

Abraham Lincoln. Image courtesy Whitehouse.gov.

Abraham Lincoln, at six feet, four inches, was our most elevated president, but at six feet and 300-340 pounds, William Howard Taft was our bulkiest president. After he became stuck in the White House bathtub, Taft ordered a new one installed that would accommodate four men of average stature. Although Taft was our most portly president, he was considered a good dancer and a decent tennis player and golfer.

At five feet, four inches and weighing about a hundred pounds (less than a third of Taft), James Madison was our most compact president. The author Washington Irving described Madison as “but a withered little apple-John,” but another observer marveled that he had “never seen so much mind in so little matter.” In fact, Madison is probably our only president who weighed less than his IQ.

5. Have any of our presidents not been born citizens of the United States?

Yes, eight of them. Martin Van Buren, our eighth president, entered the earthly stage on Dec. 5, 1782, making him the first president born after the Declaration of Independence was signed and thus a citizen by birth. Eight presidents were born before 1776 as British subjects–George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and, after Van Buren, William Henry Harrison.

6. Has any President run as the candidate of a major party in a presidential election and come out third?

In 1912, President William Howard Taft ran as a Republican for re-election against the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Former president Theodore Roosevelt said of his successor, “Taft meant well, but he meant well feebly,” so Roosevelt also entered the fray, as a candidate for the Bull Moose Party.

Roosevelt and Taft split the Republican vote, and Wilson won handily. Taft placed third with an abysmal 23 percent of the popular vote, the lowest ever for an incumbent president. Unremittingly good-humored, Taft sighed, “I have one consolation. No one candidate was ever elected ex-president by such a large majority.”

When William Taft was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court eight years after his presidency, he became the only man ever to have headed both the executive and judicial branches of our government. At their inaugurations, Taft swore in both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.

7. Have we ever had a president who was never elected to national office?

Richard Nixon resigned from the White House on Aug. 9, 1974, the only president to do so. Spiro Agnew, his vice president, had resigned earlier. As a result of these actions, Gerald Ford was, for two years, the only man who served as both vice president (replacing Agnew) and president (replacing Nixon) without having been elected to either office. The only elected office Ford ever held was a Western Michigan congressional seat. Ford’s vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, who had previously served as governor of New York, was also never elected to national office.

8. Has any president been an only child?

No American president has remained an only child. All have had at least one full sibling, except for Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, who have or had half siblings. Twenty-four of our presidents have been first-born males, while six have been the youngest child in their family.

9. Has any president never been married?

James Buchanan was known as the Bachelor President. During his term of office, his niece, Harriet Lane, played the role of First Lady. In 1819, Buchanan had been engaged to Anne Coleman, daughter of the richest man in Pennsylvania. Through a misunderstanding their engagement was broken off. When Anne died mysteriously a short time later, Buchanan vowed he would never marry. Grover Cleveland also entered the White House as a bachelor but married while he was president.

10. What is “Tecumseh’s Curse”?

Seven presidents elected in years that end with a zero (intervals of twenty years) died in office–William Henry Harrison (elected in 1840), Abraham Lincoln (1860), James A. Garfield (1880), William McKinley (1900), Warren G. Harding (1920), Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940), and John F. Kennedy (1960).

First noted in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not book published in 1934, this string of untimely presidential deaths is variously known as the Curse of Tippecanoe, the Zero-Year Curse, the Twenty-Year Curse, or Tecumseh’s Curse. Tecumseh was the Shawnee chief defeated by William Henry Harrison at the battle of Tippecanoe, Indiana Territory, in 1811. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980 and shot by John Hinckley, Jr., almost continued the deadly sequence but he survived and broke the “curse.” Despite being our oldest chief executive, Reagan was the only sitting president to survive a bullet wound.

Richard Lederer is the co-author with Caroline McCullagh of the new book, “American Trivia: What We All Should Know About U.S. History, Culture & Geography.”

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  1. JLW says:

    Calvin Coolidge is one of our most underrated presidents. He deserves to be remembered and remembered well. Assuming office upon the death of President Warren Harding, he served from Aug. 2, 1923 to Mar. 4, 1929. Here is an overview of his presidency.

    Coming into office after the Great War and the chaos that followed it, President Coolidge sought to return the country to a peacetime basis—“normalcy,” as Warren Harding, his predecessor, called it. He refocused the government on executing its core responsibilities and made it function efficiently, effectively, and economically. If there was one thing Coolidge knew how to do, it was to make each taxpayer’s dollar sweat. In doing so, he made maximum use of the newly created Bureau of the Budget. On his watch, the massive war debt was paid down and taxes cut or eliminated for most Americans….He presided over an exciting and vital decade—marked by individual freedom and bursts of creativity—that ushered in the modern age. It is worth noting that Coolidge was our first radio president, welcoming the new medium and making full use of it. Most Americans had never known a period of such prosperity and well being….Internationally, Coolidge, who was never an isolationist, saw the role of the United States as a democratic model for other nations. While minding its own business, as Coolidge would put it, the United States offered a helping hand to nations in need, as in the case of the 1923 Japanese earthquake and in providing expert technical assistance to governments on financial affairs. He worked for peace though naval reductions, while seeking to bring about the reign of international law in his support for World Court membership and the Kellogg-Briand Treaty. The Coolidge Administration also sought to revive international trade by helping to restore the international gold standard…. Coolidge was a man for his time. His popularity steadily increased throughout his presidency. Re-election would have come easily for him in 1928 if he had chosen to run. At the end of his term in March of 1929, his work done, Calvin Coolidge packed his grip and returned to his home in Northampton, Massachusetts, there to live out his remaining days among his friends and neighbors.

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