Surprising Facts About Every U.S. President
Between 1789 and today, 45 people have served as President of the United States. During their time in office, as well as throughout their lives before and after the presidency, these leaders saw accomplishments and setbacks that shaped the nation in ways both big and small. Some of these stories have gone down in history, while others — such as George Washington’s time as a whiskey distiller, or Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pioneering foray into television — are less well known. Here are some surprising and fascinating facts about every U.S. President in history.
George Washington Distilled Whiskey After His Presidency
In 1797, mere months after leaving office, George Washington opened a whiskey distillery on his vast Mount Vernon estate. The venture proved to be wildly successful, as the distillery produced nearly 10,000 gallons of the liquor in 1799 — far more than the average of 650 gallons produced by other Virginia-based distilleries at the time.
John Adams Was the First President to Live in the White House
When John Adams’ predecessor, George Washington, took office, the White House was just an idea. Irish American architect James Hoban was tapped to design the building, which was finally completed in 1800 during the Adams administration, allowing America’s second President to become the first White House resident.
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Thomas Jefferson Helped Popularize Macaroni and Cheese
Around the time he served as U.S. minister to France (1785 to 1789), future President Thomas Jefferson wrote,“The best maccaroni in Italy is made with a particular sort of flour called Semola, in Naples.” Jefferson tasked his private secretary, diplomat William Short, with tracking down a machine for making this dish, which he eventually had shipped to the U.S. The founding father was known for serving “maccaroni” — a term he used to describe all pastas — both with and without cheese to his guests. Jefferson even had his own written recipe for an early form of mac and cheese that was influenced by similar Italian recipes. The spoken and written accounts of those meals led to the dish’s increased popularity throughout the United States.
James Madison Was the Shortest President
Standing at just 5 feet, 4 inches, James Madison — who also weighed only around 100 pounds — was exactly a foot shorter than the tallest U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln (who stood at 6 feet, 4 inches). Madison’s closest presidential rivals in height were Benjamin Harrison and Martin Van Buren, both of whom were a wee bit taller at 5 feet, 6 inches.
James Monroe Was the Third President to Die on the Fourth of July
In an eerie coincidence, three of the first five U.S. Presidents passed away on the anniversary of America’s birth. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, while James Monroe passed away on Independence Day in 1831. On the flip side, Calvin Coolidge was the only President born on the Fourth of July, in the year 1872.
John Quincy Adams Served in Congress Before and After Being President
Only one U.S. President — John Quincy Adams — served in the House of Representatives after being elected commander in chief. Adams served as a senator from Massachusetts from 1803 to 1808, then as President of the United States from 1825 to 1829. He was elected to the House of Representatives shortly after his presidential term, serving from 1831 until his death in 1848.
Andrew Jackson Kept a Giant Wheel of Cheese in the White House
In 1836, President Andrew Jackson received a 1,400-pound block of cheese as a gift from a dairy farmer in New York, which he displayed in the White House for more than a year. Before leaving office, Jackson invited the public to the White House to come take some cheese. A firsthand account recalls men, women, and children hacking away at it until "the carpet was slippery with cheese."
Martin Van Buren Was the First President Born a U.S. Citizen
Unlike the seven Presidents who preceded him, Martin Van Buren wasn’t born under the authority of the British crown. Van Buren was born in 1782, several years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and was thus a U.S. citizen for his entire life. While his successor, William Henry Harrison, was also born under British rule, every POTUS since Harrison has been an American citizen from birth.
William Henry Harrison Delivered the Longest Inaugural Address
On a cold, wet day in March 1841, William Henry Harrison refused an overcoat as he delivered his lengthy 8,445-word inaugural address. Harrison died 31 days into his term as President, and while some initially attributed his death to the long, chilly speech, researchers now believe unclean drinking water was the cause of Harrison’s fatal illness.
John Tyler Was the First Vice President to Succeed to the Presidency
John Tyler — notoriously dubbed “His Accidency” — became President upon the death of William Henry Harrison, and served as commander in chief from 1841 until 1845. Tyler was the first Vice President elevated to the highest office in the land due to such an event, though he served only the one abbreviated term before being succeeded by James K. Polk.
James K. Polk Oversaw the Greatest Territorial Expansion of Any President
Between 1845 and 1849, America’s 11th President oversaw the largest U.S. territorial expansion of any POTUS. The United States added upwards of 1 million square miles of land during Polk’s time in office, including land that now makes up modern-day Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado.
Zachary Taylor Was Nominated for President Without His Knowledge
At the 1848 Whig Party convention, delegates nominated former military general Zachary Taylor as their candidate for President — and he was eventually elected to the position. However, Taylor wasn’t present at the convention and was nominated without his prior knowledge. He didn’t find out about his own nomination for several weeks, as he initially refused to pay postage on a letter sent his way alerting him of the news.
Millard Fillmore Was the Last President Who Was Not a Democrat or Republican
Since 1853, the American presidency has been dominated by politicians who belonged to either the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. That trend began after Millard Fillmore, who was a member of the Whig Party during his presidency from 1850 until 1853. The Whig Party dismantled shortly after his term, and the two-party system has dominated ever since.
Franklin Pierce Defeated His Former General to Become President
The presidential election of 1852 was a race between Franklin Pierce and Winfield Scott, two men who served in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. Pierce served as brigadier general during the conflict, whereas Scott was commanding general of the entire U.S. Army. Despite Scott’s greater military rank, Pierce emerged victorious during the presidential election.
James Buchanan Was the Only President to Remain a Lifelong Bachelor
James Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor, the only U.S. President who never married. He was engaged at one point, but his fiancée called off the engagement, after which Buchanan was reportedly brokenhearted and vowed not to marry. During his time in office, the President’s niece Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston took on the hostess role usually filled by a First Lady.
Abraham Lincoln Was the First President to Appear on a Coin
In 1909, in honor of his 100th birthday, Abraham Lincoln became the first President to appear on a U.S. coin. The famous side profile bust design, created by engraver Victor David Brenner, is still in use today. Though some have called for the penny to be discontinued thanks to inflation cratering its value, there are still billions in circulation.
Andrew Johnson Was the First President to Be Impeached
After Abraham Lincoln’s death, his Vice President Andrew Johnson took over the highest office in the land. A few years into his presidency, Johnson tested the newly passed Tenure of Office Act of 1867 by illegally firing Lincoln’s former secretary of war, Edwin Stanton. The House impeached Johnson for it, but the President survived removal from office by just one vote in the Senate.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Middle Initial Didn’t Stand for Anything
America’s 18th President was born Hiram Ulysses Grant. His now-famous middle initial “S” was the product of a clerical mistake. Grant was nominated to West Point by Ohio Congressman Thomas Hamer, who accidentally wrote Grant’s name in the application as “Ulysses S. Grant.” The confusion stemmed from the fact that Grant often went by Ulysses, rather than Hiram. The application called for a middle initial, so the confused Hamer added an “S” for Grant’s mother’s surname, Simpson. Despite Grant’s efforts to change the name, the middle initial stuck.
Rutherford B. Hayes Had the First White House Telephone Installed
On May 10, 1877, during Rutherford B. Hayes’ administration, the White House’s first telephone was installed in the telegraph room. Hayes was supportive of this new technology, though rarely received phone calls. However, it was pretty easy to remember how to dial the White House, as its phone number was simply “1” at the time.
James A. Garfield Was the First Left-Handed President
In 1881, James A. Garfield was elected as the 20th President of the United States. The 19 who came before him were all right-handed, making Garfield the first lefty ever to hold the office. Garfield could also be said to be ambidextrous, as he was known to have the ability to write in Greek and Latin with different hands at the same time. Since his tenure, there have been many other left-handers in the Oval Office, including Gerald Ford and Barack Obama.
Chester A. Arthur Owned Approximately 80 Pairs of Pants
Chester A. Arthur was a fashionable President, dubbed “Elegant Arthur” and the “Dude of all the White House residents” by political commentators and cartoonists of the time. He was said to own around 80 pairs of pants, which was considered an extravagance at the time (and even today). Arthur was known for changing his pants multiple times a day, and often wore a tuxedo to dinner.
Grover Cleveland Served Two Nonconsecutive Terms
Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States. When Cleveland ran for reelection after his first term in 1888, his opponent Benjamin Harrison won the electoral count despite Cleveland winning the popular vote. Four years later, Cleveland was successful in denying Harrison’s reelection and reclaiming his former role as President.
Benjamin Harrison Introduced Electricity at the White House
Electricity was first installed at the White House in 1891 during Benjamin Harrison’s time in office. Initially, the Harrison family was afraid of flipping any light switches, as they feared being electrocuted. Instead, they tasked electrician Irwin “Ike” Hoover with turning the lights off and on, sometimes resulting in lights burning overnight until Hoover returned the next morning to switch them off.
William McKinley Was the First President to Ride in a Car
After taking a reportedly unenjoyable ride in an early automobile called the Stanley Steamer in 1899, President William McKinley is said to have remarked, “Stanley’s overoptimistic, I think, when he says those things will someday replace horses.” Though McKinley was wrong about the future of cars, he left a lasting mark on their history, as his Steamer ride was the first time a sitting President ever rode in an automobile.
Theodore Roosevelt Witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Procession
When he was just 6 years old, young Theodore Roosevelt witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession in New York City. On April 25, 1865, the future POTUS gazed down from a second-story window as the late President passed the Roosevelt family mansion on Broadway. A perfectly timed photograph captured the image of two young boys — Teddy and his brother Elliott — looking out from the window that day.
William Howard Taft Also Served as Chief Justice
President Theodore Roosevelt supported William Howard Taft as his successor in 1908, but their relationship soured, and Roosevelt challenged President Taft for reelection during the 1912 campaign. (Both candidates lost the election to Woodrow Wilson.) Later, in 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft as chief justice of the United States. Taft preferred the role, once saying, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.”
Woodrow Wilson Was the Only President Buried in Washington, D.C.
Of all the former Presidents who have since passed away, only one is buried within the nation’s capital. That former leader is Woodrow Wilson, a native of Virginia, who died in 1924 and was interred at the Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia.
Warren G. Harding’s Dog Sat in on Cabinet Meetings
The first White House animal to really achieve celebrity status was President Warren G. Harding’s pup, an Airedale terrier named Laddie Boy, who lived in Washington, D.C., during the Harding administration from 1921 to 1923. On March 5, 1921, one day after taking office, Harding interrupted his first official Cabinet meeting to introduce the dog, who had just arrived from Ohio. After that, Laddie Boy became a regular at Cabinet meetings, and even had his own chair at the table.
Calvin Coolidge Had at Least 29 Pets Living in the White House
Calvin Coolidge practically ran a petting zoo out of the White House. The 30th President kept no fewer than 29 pets during his tenure on Pennsylvania Avenue. There were normal pets in large numbers, but there were some strange ones, too. Among them: a goose named Enoch, a mockingbird, Rebecca and Reuben the raccoons, Ebenezer the donkey, and Smoky the bobcat.
Herbert Hoover Was the First President Born West of the Mississippi River
Herbert Hoover was born on August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa. Fifty-four years later, he was elected President, becoming the first POTUS born west of the Mississippi River. Hoover remains the only President born in Iowa, though there have been several other Presidents born west of the Mississippi, including Harry Truman (in Missouri), Gerald Ford (in Nebraska), and Richard Nixon (in California).
Franklin D. Roosevelt Was the First President to Appear on Television
In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first President to appear on television when he attended the New York World’s Fair in Queens. The technology was fairly new at the time, so not many people actually tuned in. Less than a decade later, in October 1947, FDR’s successor, Harry S. Truman, delivered the first televised presidential address, asking Americans to cut back on grain and meat consumption to help a struggling Europe.
Harry S. Truman Signed a Bill Creating the Air Force
Back in 1907, just four years after the Wright brothers took their first successful flight, a small division of the U.S. Army was established to focus on aeronautics. The Army’s aviation segment grew over the years, serving an important role in both world wars. After World War II ended, President Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947, formally establishing the U.S. Air Force.
Dwight D. Eisenhower Was Responsible for America’s System of Highways
In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed one of the most ambitious public works projects in U.S. history into law, the Federal-Aid Highway Act. This feat of engineering added more than 41,000 miles of roadway across the United States. The interstate system provided both ease of travel for American citizens as well as strategic military benefits.
John F. Kennedy Helped Popularize James Bond
President John F. Kennedy was a fervent early supporter of the James Bond franchise, as he was gifted a copy of the novel Casino Royale while recovering from back surgery in 1954, long before Bond became widely popular. Kennedy was such a fan that during the 1960 presidential campaign, he even invited author Ian Fleming to his house, where the pair discussed foreign affairs. In 1961, shortly after JFK’s inauguration, the new President told reporters that Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love was among his favorite books, causing the James Bond series to spike in popularity.
Lyndon B. Johnson Held Meetings on the Toilet
LBJ had an unorthodox style of conducting meetings. In fact, sometimes he dragged aides into the bathroom, where he discussed official government business while on the toilet. The President even had phones installed in White House bathrooms so he could take calls while using the facilities.
Richard Nixon Participated in the First Televised Presidential Debate
On September 26, 1960, Richard Nixon went up against John F. Kennedy in the first-ever televised presidential debate. Kennedy was widely deemed the winner due to his charismatic presence on camera compared to Nixon, who refused to wear makeup and appeared visibly sweaty. Though Nixon fared better in future debates, this moment in TV history turned the early tides in favor of Kennedy, who went on to win the election.
Gerald Ford Was a Collegiate Football Star
Gerald Ford was an MVP football player at the University of Michigan, and played with the 1935 Collegiate All-Star football team. Ford turned down offers to play for the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, instead choosing to pursue his law degree at Yale University, though he did serve as the Yale football team’s assistant coach during his time there.
Jimmy Carter Was the First President Born in a Hospital
Jimmy Carter, born in 1924, was the first U.S. President born in a hospital. All of Carter’s presidential predecessors were born in their parents’ homes, and it wasn’t until the early 20th century that hospital births became common nationwide. However, when baby Carter went home to the family farm, his house lacked plumbing and electricity, so the future President’s upbringing wasn’t quite so modern.
Ronald Reagan Loved Jelly Beans
More than three tons of Jelly Belly jelly beans were brought in for Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on January 20, 1981. The flavors were Very Cherry (red), Coconut (white), and Blueberry (blue), the last of which was made specifically for the event to complete the American flag colors. Why jelly beans? Reagan used them to quit smoking and was known to carry around a jar of the colorful candy.
George H.W. Bush Formalized the Tradition of Pardoning a Thanksgiving Turkey
The tradition of Presidents pardoning turkeys has unofficial roots dating as far back as Abraham Lincoln, who’s said to have granted clemency to a Thanksgiving turkey in 1863. While JFK “unofficially” pardoned a turkey in 1963, the tradition was formalized in 1989 under George H.W. Bush, who officially granted a bird a presidential pardon that year.
Bill Clinton Was the Only President Who Was a Rhodes Scholar
Bill Clinton experienced a thorough education, attending the prestigious Georgetown University beginning in 1964. Four years later, just prior to his college graduation, Clinton earned the esteemed Rhodes Scholarship, allowing him the opportunity to study at England’s Oxford University. Upon returning to the states, the future President earned a law degree at Yale Law School.
George W. Bush Once Owned the Texas Rangers Baseball Team
Before his full-time transition into politics, George W. Bush was part of the ownership group of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1998. He gave up his leadership role in 1994 upon being elected governor of Texas, but remained invested in the team until it was sold in 1998. Bush ran for President two years later, and was elected in 2000.
Barack Obama Won an Emmy and Two Grammys
Barack Obama not only won a Nobel Peace Prize for his international diplomacy, but he also earned himself an Emmy Award and two Grammys. Obama won his Emmy for narrating the Netflix documentary series Our Great National Parks, and his two Grammys for audiobook recordings of his personal memoirs, The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father.
Donald Trump Appeared in the Movie Home Alone 2
Before taking office, Donald Trump was a celebrity who made regular appearances in television and film, including a small role in the 1992 film Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. In the scene, a young Kevin McCallister — portrayed by Macaulay Culkin — encounters Trump in the lobby of the Plaza Hotel and asks him for directions.
Joe Biden First Sought the Presidency in 1987
America’s current President, Joe Biden, first ran for the nation’s highest office a whole 33 years before he actually proved victorious. Biden was elected to the Senate in 1972 and later ran for President in 1987 at age 44. He ended his campaign after a mere three months, opting to run again in 2008 (albeit unsuccessfully) and 2020, when he was finally elected.