11 Quirky Things You Never Knew About America's Presidents
It's easy to recite well-known presidential trivia — Washington was our first president, Cleveland was the only president to serve nonconsecutive terms, etc. — but do you know the quirkier facts?
As an American history aficionado, it was hard for me to pick favorites from among the countless "quirky" presidential factoids. But ...
1. Only one president had to learn English as a second language.
Martin Van Buren's first language was Dutch. Along with being America's first New Yorker president, Van Buren was raised in Kinderhook, a small town in Columbia County whose residents were descended from New York's original Dutch colonizers.
2. Presidents have been rewriting history since 1866.
While many of our early presidents wrote memoirs and/or kept detailed diaries about various parts of their lives, the first one to publish a memoir concentrating specifically on his presidency was James Buchanan (pictured above). His book, Mr. Buchanan's Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, was intended as a defense of his policies responding to the disintegration of the Union and the start of the Civil War.
3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of "The Scarlet Letter," wrote a president's biography.
Franklin Pierce became close friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne (above) while they both attended Bowdoin College. Hawthorne penned his campaign biography, The Life of Franklin Pierce, which Horace Mann sarcastically referred to as "the greatest work of fiction he ever wrote."
The bromance between the two men was so close that when Hawthorne died while staying over at Pierce's house, the loss sent the former president spiraling into a deep depression, which had already started with the loss of his young son shortly before taking office. He never recovered.
4. Abraham Lincoln grew his beard at the suggestion of an 11-year-old girl.
Less than a month before he was elected, Lincoln received a letter from Grace Bedell, a little girl from Westfield, NY.
Among other things, it suggested that he grow a beard, observing, "You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President."
Four days later, Lincoln replied by writing "As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?" He apparently changed his mind, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in its retelling of a Lincoln visit to Westfield in February 1861:
"Addressing the ladies, [Lincoln] said ... 'Some three months ago, I received a letter from a young lady here; it was a very pretty letter, and she advised me to let my whiskers grow, as it would improve my personal appearance; acting partly upon her suggestion, I have done so; and now, if she is here, I would like to see her; I think her name was Miss Barlly.' A small boy, mounted on a post, with his mouth and eyes both wide open, cried out, 'There she is, Mr. Lincoln,' pointing to a beautiful girl [Grace Bedell], with black eyes, who was blushing all over her fair face. The President left the car, and the crowd making way for him, he reached her, and gave her several hearty kisses, and amid the yells of delight from the excited crowd, he bade her good-bye, and on we rushed."
5. Abraham Lincoln tortured pigs.
I'll let this account from Lincoln's 1860 campaign autobiography speak for itself:
"It was in connection with this boat that occurred the ludicrous incident of sewing up the hogs eyes. Offutt bought thirty odd large fat live hogs, but found difficulty in driving them from where [he] purchased them to the boat, and thereupon conceived the whim that he could sew up their eyes and drive them where he pleased. No sooner thought of than decided, he put his hands, including A. at the job...."
6. The Teddy Bear was named after Theodore Roosevelt — but the story is embellished.
An avid sportsman, Roosevelt captured the hearts of millions when the Washington Post ran a cartoon in 1902 depicting him sparing the life of a bear cub because shooting it would be unsportsmanlike. When a Brooklyn candy shop owner named Morris Michtom heard about this, he asked for Roosevelt's permission to sell his wife's new ursine stuffed animals as "Teddy's Bears." The rest, as they say, is history -- except for the part where the famous account of Roosevelt's bear hunt is grossly exaggerated.
In reality, the bear that Roosevelt refused to kill was an adult, it was rendered helpless only because it had been significantly wounded in a fight with another member of Roosevelt's hunting party and, instead of sparing its life, he simply ordered someone else to put it down.
7. A presidential candidate once created a stuffed Teddy Bear in his likeness to try and win votes.
After serving for nearly eight years, Theodore Roosevelt made it clear that he wanted William Taft — who had served distinguished stints as Governor-General of the Phillippines and Secretary of War during his administration — to succeed him.
Taft attempted to capitalize on the popularity of the Teddy Bear, which as discussed above was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt, by creating a stuffed animal based on his likeness dubbed the "Billy Possum." Although Taft's presidential campaign in 1908 was a rousing success, the Billy Possum never took off as a popular stuffed animal.
8. America had a Native American vice president in 1928.
Herbert Hoover's vice president, Charles Curtis, was three-eighths Kaw Indian, and spent much of his childhood as a member of the Kaw reservation. Unfortunately, Curtis — who had also been the first Native American elected to the United States Senate — had no real power or pull in the Hoover administration (much like most of the vice presidents who preceded him). Even worse, he had a reputation for pettiness, with legendary columnist William Allen White once writing, "His politics were always purely personal. Issues never bothered him."
9. Almost one-third of presidents have lost their bids for re-election.
The ten presidents who have lost their bids for re-election were John Adams in 1800, John Q. Adams in 1828, Martin Van Buren in 1840, Grover Cleveland in 1888 (although he won the popular vote), Benjamin Harrison in 1892, William Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 and George H. W. Bush in 1992.
By comparison, there have been 21 presidents who have won their bids for re-election, including George Washington in 1792, Thomas Jefferson in 1804, James Madison in 1812, James Monroe in 1820, Andrew Jackson in 1832, Abraham Lincoln in 1864, Ulysses Grant in 1872, Grover Cleveland in 1892, William McKinley in 1900, Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, Woodrow Wilson in 1916, Calvin Coolidge in 1924, Franklin Roosevelt in 1936, 1940, and 1944, Harry Truman in 1948, Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012.
Five presidents died before they could run for re-election (William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, James Garfield, Warren Harding, and John Kennedy), five attempted to seek reelection but failed to be nominated by a political party (John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur), and three chose to only serve one term (James Polk, James Buchanan, Rutherford Hayes).
This list obviously defines "re-elected" as any incumbent or former president who sought an additional term on a major party ticket, regardless of whether he initially took office due to the death or resignation of his predecessor. Similarly, it does not include the presidents who refrained from serving for more than eight years before the passage of the 22nd Amendment (or Lyndon Johnson's renunciation in 1968).
10. Third-parties were a bigger deal back in 1912.
There are actually three presidents who've run on third-party tickets after leaving office: Martin Van Buren, who ran for the anti-slavery "Free Soil" Party in 1848; Millard Fillmore, who ran for the anti-immigration and anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" Party in 1856; and Theodore Roosevelt, who ran for the progressive "Bull Moose" Party in 1912. Indeed, Fillmore and Roosevelt actually performed better in the popular vote than any other third-party candidates, picking up 22% and 27% respectively.
11. Four presidents have been elected without winning the popular vote.
There have been four presidents elected without winning the popular vote, including John Q. Adams, who lost the popular vote to Andrew Jackson in 1824; Rutherford Hayes, who lost the popular vote to Samuel Tilden in 1876; Benjamin Harrison, who lost the popular vote to Grover Cleveland in 1888; and George W. Bush, who lost the popular vote to Al Gore in 2000.