10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country

Larry Holzwarth - March 5, 2018

The President of the United States has a fleet of transportation vehicles at his disposal. He lives in a residence provided by the people. The staff which operates and maintains the White House and cares for his family is enormous. So is the staff which runs his administration. He has a government-run and secure rest and recreation facility which has been called by different names in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland, currently known as Camp David. The President and his family have around-the-clock security protection from the Secret Service, and additional layers of security from the military. All of these perquisites have caused many recent presidents to comment on their separation from the people.

It wasn’t always this way. Washington began the Presidency in a rented New York House, the only security being his personal staff. In Lincoln’s day, the public could and often did enter the White House by simply knocking on the door. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was President he frequently went on fishing trips aboard US Navy cruisers; several US warships received modifications to accommodate FDR’s wheelchair. He also had a specially built railcar, the Ferdinand Magellan, for his land-bound trips across the country.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
Theodore Roosevelt is often cited as the first President to ride in an airplane, but he was a former President when he made his flight in 1910. Missouri History Museum

Here are some presidential firsts which led to the current state of the modern Presidency.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
The Sacred Cow was used once by FDR and subsequently by Truman, is seen here near Key West while Truman was President. National Archives

The President’s Air Fleet

Teddy Roosevelt is often described as the first president to fly but it is important to note that when he rode in a Wright Flyer over a Missouri County Fair he was no longer in office. The first President to fly while in office was his distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The US Navy modified an existing flying boat to include a sleeping compartment and luxury accommodations for up to four passengers and placed the aircraft at the President’s disposal, but there are no records of the President ever using the airplane. Roosevelt preferred to travel by rail or sea, using a private railcar, the presidential yacht USS Potomac, or US Naval warships.

In 1943 he needed to travel to Casablanca in French Morocco for a conference with Stalin, Churchill and DeGaulle. Because of the still serious threat of German U-Boats in the Atlantic, it was decided that he would fly to the conference, and he did so in a Pan American Airways flying boat named the Dixie Clipper, stopping en route twice to refuel. This was the first flight by a President of the United States. The Army Air Force didn’t like the idea of the President flying in a commercial aircraft and they liked the idea of the Navy being responsible for flying the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces even less.

The Air Force proposed supplying a modified B-24 bomber for the President to use and even provided one, but the Secret Service refused to allow the President to use the aircraft because of its less-than-stellar safety record. The Air Force next offered a modified cargo airplane which they named the Sacred Cow. It included an elevator to accommodate the President’s wheelchair and other amenities for his use. Roosevelt flew in the Sacred Cow once, to Yalta in 1945. Truman used the aircraft early in his presidency but didn’t like it, and he had it replaced with a larger airplane, an Air Force C-118 Liftmaster which he named the Independence, after his hometown in Missouri.

Air Force One isn’t the name of an airplane but rather a call sign. It was introduced when President Eisenhower was on an Air Force plane which had a call sign which shared the number 8610 with an Eastern Air Lines flight, causing confusion when the two airplanes entered the same airspace in 1953. The Air Force designated any US Air Force airplane which was carrying the President henceforth would be given the call sign Air Force One. Thus Eisenhower was the first President to fly on Air Force One. When the US Marines began the practice of flying the President by helicopter the flights were designated Marine One.

Presidents have a wide variety of aircraft at their disposal, besides the 747s which have become known by the public as Air Force One. Smaller Air Force aircraft have been used when the President’s itinerary requires the use of smaller ground facilities. Among these are Gulfstream III executive jets and Boeing C-32’s modified for executive travel and operated by the Air Force. The Navy maintains similar aircraft for the use of senior staff and civilian officials, and for the President’s use if he so chooses, but the last time the call sign Navy One was used, indicating the President was onboard the aircraft, was when George W. Bush was flown to the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train included the first private railcar built for a President. It was the first time it carried him. Metropolitan Museum of Art

The President and the Railroads

The first President of the United States to ride on a railroad was Andrew Jackson, when he traveled from Washington DC to Baltimore, Maryland in June 1833. For the next one hundred years, the primary means of Presidential travel was by the railroads, and the railroads were pleased to try to accommodate the men who occupied the Executive Mansion. Those hoping to acquire the office began to use the railroads to campaign, recognizing the ability to reach more voters and deliver their message to them in a shorter time. The first to campaign for office using the railroad was William Henry Harrison in 1836. He lost that election but when he won in 1840 he used the railroad to travel to his inauguration, another first.

By the time of the Lincoln Administration, Presidential rail travel was becoming more common. Lincoln was both a political supporter of the railroads and a former railroad attorney. He traveled by train several times while in office, including to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to deliver a speech in 1863. Some believe he wrote the speech on the train. Certainly, he worked on it. During Lincoln’s Presidency, a private car was ordered and built for him, named the United States. Lincoln was concerned that the private car, an affectation associated with the wealthy, was the wrong signal to send to the American public while the nation was embroiled in the Civil War. He only rode in it once, when it took him home to Springfield after his assassination in 1865, the first American President to be assassinated in office.

Several succeeding presidents used this and succeeding private cars, some of them provided by railroads eager to develop stronger business ties with the United States government. James Garfield was entering the waiting room of Washington’s Sixth Street Station to board a train when he was shot by Charles Guiteau. Ironically, one of the President’s companions was Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln. Garfield had been planning to travel by train to a vacation in New Jersey. He would eventually get the train ride, after months of inept doctoring in Washington he traveled to Elberon, on the Jersey Shore, where he died in September 1881, the first President to die before reaching the age of fifty.

FDR was the first President to have his private railcar designated, by the Secret Service, with the numeral 1 in the later manner of Air Force One, or Marine One. Officially designated Car 1, it was more commonly referred to by the name given by the Pullman Company when it was built, the Ferdinand Magellan. After the government bought the car and sent it to Pullman for modifications to accommodate the President it made extensive security modifications and when they were finished Ferdinand Magellan was the heaviest railcar ever built in the United States.

FDR loved Car 1 for many reasons, one of which being that when the train pulled into a station for a planned appearance – a whistle-stop – he could step onto the back platform of Ferdinand Magellan supported by an aide, and his wheelchair never made an appearance. Roosevelt would remain standing as the train pulled out of the station, supporting himself on the platform rail with one hand and waving with the other, a bit of Presidential subterfuge concealing the fact that he was in fact largely confined to a wheelchair, the first President to suffer from such a disability. Roosevelt, as had been Lincoln, was carried to his grave in his private railcar.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
Thomas Jefferson used the power of the Presidency as Commander in Chief to initiate the First Barbary War to protect American commerce. Smithsonian Libraries

Expanding the Powers of the Presidency

Before the Treaty of Paris was signed ending the American Revolution American merchant shipping had enjoyed the protection of first the British and later French navies. With that protection gone, American ships were soon prey to the pirates of North Africa, collectively known as the Barbary pirates. For nearly two decades these pirates were held at bay by the payment of tribute to the rulers of the Barbary States, which frequently changed and many often simply took the money and blithely continued to seize American ships and hostages. During his time as an ambassador and as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson argued against paying tribute.

When he became President, Jefferson dispatched squadrons from the recently reformed US Navy to defend American ships, ordering them to act in a defensive manner only and asked Congress for a declaration of war against the Barbary States, the first president to do either. Congress did not declare war, but gave Jefferson the authority to act as he saw fit, making Thomas Jefferson the first war president. The Barbary War, an American victory, did not altogether end the acts of piracy from some of the North African states, but it established US military projection and the reputation of the United States Navy and Marines as professional fighting forces.

Jefferson also expanded the powers of the Presidency by purchasing Louisiana from Napoleon, an action not specified as authorized to the Executive Branch by the Constitution. Jefferson chose to interpret the lack of a denied power broadly, in that since it wasn’t specifically denied to the office he had the power to do it. He acted accordingly, the first President to expand the territory of the United States beyond that specified in the Treaty of Paris. He expanded the power of the office of the Presidency in both the prosecution of war overseas and the purchase of lands in North America. But Jefferson continued to argue that the Constitution specified the duties of the Executive Branch and should be strictly followed.

Prior to Jefferson winning the Presidency his predecessors, Washington and Adams, had struggled with several issues, some weighty, some mundane. One of the earliest had been how to address the President. John Adams had suggested the President be styled as His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of Their Liberties when presiding over the Senate as Vice President. Washington was long used to being addressed as Your Excellency but had no objection when that was changed to Mr. President. The long-standing custom of bowing when being presented remained in place, however, particularly in receiving lines.

Jefferson altered this in yet another Presidential first. He established the custom that when being presented to the President of the United States rather than bowing and speaking the honorific, Mr. President, the proper etiquette was to step forward and shake hands. Jefferson added to the less formal air by appearing at levees and receptions in long pants, rather than knee breeches still in favor of formal dress. These presidential firsts removed some of the appearance of the European courts from the White House and soon functions all over Washington. By late in his administration, Jefferson often turned up to receive dignitaries while wearing house slippers.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
The White House South Portico and facade as it appeared at the time of the Mexican War. Wikimedia

White House Firsts

John Adams was the first President to reside in the White House, and unsurprisingly the first to complain about living in the White House. When Adams arrived in Washington the house was unfinished, unfurnished, and its landscaping was the remnants of construction surrounded by weeds. Adams relied on his wife Abigail to purchase the necessary furnishings to make the house presentable, and Congress provided the princely sum of $800.00 to help defray expenses. Shopping wasn’t easy. There were few craftsmen or carpenters available in Washington or nearby Georgetown, and furnishings had to be ordered and shipped from New York or Philadelphia.

Since Adams’ day, nearly every President has had something done to the mansion to make it, in their view, more habitable. Some of these changes have been minor, some temporary, and some permanent, or at least they remain in the house today. When FDR entered office he had a swimming pool installed in the White House between the residence and the West Wing, funded with money raised by a campaign led by the New York Daily News. Roosevelt valued swimming as his main source of exercise, and often used the pool. Harry Truman used it almost daily until the White House interior was rebuilt during his administration. After Truman’s Presidency, it was largely unused until the Kennedy administration.

Richard Nixon closed the pool and had a new press room built above it, the pool itself serving as a basement and cluttered with communications equipment and wiring. When Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, entered the White House he briefly considered closing the press room and reopening the pool. After he realized the inadvisability of irritating the White House press corps he instead had an outdoor pool installed, the first for the White House, which remains in place, supplemented by a cabana and a spa installed by the Clintons.

The first President to bowl in the White House was Harry Truman in 1947, and a bowling alley was installed that year as a birthday gift. Truman didn’t care for bowling all that much, but the lanes, located in what is now the White House Situation Room, were used by his staff. In 1955 they were moved to the Blair House. When Richard Nixon, who did care for bowling, moved into the White House he had a single lane installed for his use. This bowling lane was built under the White House driveway in an underground storage room.

Although cold water had been piped into the White House since the days of Andrew Jackson the first President to enjoy hot and cold running water in the Executive Mansion was Franklin Pierce in 1853. Considered a luxury at the time, the installation allowed the President and his family the pleasure of bathing privately, without the intrusion of servants to add hot water to their bath, which had to be carried upstairs in kettles. With the hot and cold water, the first permanent bathtub was installed, Presidents until then had relied on portable tubs.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
Andrew Jackson’s official White House portrait. He was the only President to completely pay off the national debt. The White House

The Presidents and Money

The first and to date only President to completely pay off the entire national debt was Andrew Jackson in 1835. The United States managed to remain debt free for an entire year. Jackson considered indebtedness to be exhibitive of immorality. The federal government-owned huge tracts of acreage in the west, and Jackson sold the land to speculators and developers to acquire sufficient cash to reduce the national debt to zero. At the same time, projects which required the spending of federal dollars, such as building what was then modern roads, were blocked when the bills authorizing them reached his desk.

Jackson’s policies paid off the $58 million dollar national debt he inherited and created a real estate bubble, which the banks funded by printing more and more paper money. When Jackson demanded that real estate transactions must be paid for with hard money, that is in silver or gold, the bubble burst and the economy collapsed into the Panic of 1837 (depressions were known as panics then), the longest economic downturn in the nation’s history. Within a year the government had to borrow money to operate, and the national debt returned, and has never left since.

The first president to enter office with a net worth exceeding $1 million (in today’s money) was Warren G. Harding of Ohio. Every president since has held a fortune exceeding that amount with the exception of Harry Truman. Harding made his fortune after purchasing a failing newspaper, The Marion Star, and turning it into a success. Profits from the newspaper were then invested in local businesses and projects while the newspaper’s editorial page urged for their success. It was the newspaper’s power that involved Harding in first local and later state-wide politics, and Harding was a success at both.

Although several presidents dealt with severe debt and bankruptcy before or after being in office, only one, Thomas Jefferson, used bankruptcy protection while in office as President of the United States. Jefferson fought with debt his entire adult life, having been saddled with debts incurred by his father and added to by Jefferson throughout his life. Jefferson was paid a salary of $25,000 as President, out of which he had to maintain the expenses of the White House staff and his secretaries, one of whom was Meriwether Lewis. He found annual expenses to exceed $34,000. Land prices in Virginia were depressed, in large part because of the expansion into the western states.

It was not possible to file for bankruptcy protection in the early United States except for a brief period between 1801 and 1804, when Congress passed a law allowing for it in certain circumstances and the President availed himself of its protection. Many of Jefferson’s creditors were loath to foreclose on him during his lifetime anyway, in part because of his reputation and in part because the steadily depreciating land values in Virginia would make it difficult for them to recover their money. After Jefferson died his estate at Monticello was sold to raise money to pay off his debts.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
FDR often delivered remarks from the backseat of one of the White House’s fleet of cars. Doing so allowed him to remain seated, concealing his disability. Florida Keys Public Libraries

The President and the Automobile

The first President to ride in an automobile while serving in office was William McKinley in 1901. The car was the famous Stanley Steamer and McKinley rode in it for only a short distance. One would expect that his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, would have embraced the automobile but he did not, believing that his riding in one would detract from his image. Roosevelt rode around Washington in a horse-drawn carriage with his Secret Service detail following on foot until they obtained a steam-powered car of their own in 1907. Thus the Secret Service had a car before the President did. The Secret Service used a White Steamer.

The White House Stables were closed by William Howard Taft and he became the first President to use automobiles as his main form of local transportation. Taft purchased a pair of Pierce-Arrow cars, which in their day were known for their luxurious appointments. He also added to his fleet a White Steam Car and a Baker Electric car. The Baker was seldom used other than by Mrs. Taft, and Taft gradually grew to prefer the White Steam Car, despite it being less luxurious than the Pierce-Arrows. A nudge from Taft to his driver would lead to the driver releasing a burst of steam which Taft found useful when he wanted to avoid being photographed or hounded by the press.

Woodrow Wilson rode to his inauguration in a horse-drawn carriage but once in office he developed a taste for the Pierce Arrow’s and bought three new models for the White House fleet. He grew to be so fond of them that upon leaving office he bought one from the government for his personal use. He did not drive himself though. The first President to have a driver’s license upon entering office was Warren Harding, who also holds the distinction of being the first President to be driven in an automobile to his inauguration. The car was a Packard Twin-Six. The Secret Service by then had established a strict rule keeping the President from driving an automobile.

FDR didn’t give a fig for the Secret Service regulations, purchasing while in office a Ford Phaeton which he had modified to be operated through hand controls. Roosevelt took delivery of the vehicle in 1936 and drove it when he pleased, usually at Hyde Park and occasionally at Shangri La when it became a Presidential retreat in 1942. It is now known as Camp David. Roosevelt added several cars to the Presidential fleet, including a 1933 Cadillac, a 1936 Packard, and a 1939 Lincoln Convertible which was called the Sunshine Special. The Special was the first automobile built to the specifications of the Secret Service and accompanied FDR to his wartime conferences in Casablanca, Teheran, and Yalta.

In 1950 Harry Truman’s White House leased a fleet of 10 Lincolns. Truman himself directed these vehicles, which were specially built versions of the Lincoln Cosmopolitan, to be obtained from that company rather than the competing Cadillac, which was built by General Motors. Nine were solid-body vehicles and the tenth was a convertible. It was one of these vehicles in which the President took the wheel while returning to Washington from Charlottesville, Virginia. Reporters in the following press car claimed that the President went well over the speed limit and an indignant Truman responded that he never exceeded the pace set by the escorting police vehicles. It was the first time a President had been reported for speeding in an automobile.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
President Truman walking aft aboard Williamsburg, about to depart for a cruise to Bermuda. He later wrote a vivid account of the stormy seas encountered on the cruise. National Archives

The President’s Yacht

The first President to have an official Presidential yacht at his disposal was Theodore Roosevelt, who acquired the use of the re-commissioned USS Mayflower for his personal use. It was crewed by US navy sailors and captained by Naval officers throughout its career as the President’s yacht. Roosevelt first used the yacht as a meeting place where he presented the Russian and Japanese delegates to each other prior to the Portsmouth Peace Conference. Roosevelt found the yacht useful throughout the conference, believing the enhancement to the President’s prestige added to his authority during negotiations.

Woodrow Wilson found the yacht useful in negotiations of another kind, using Mayflower as a setting for several meetings with the widowed Edith Galt. Much of his courtship of Edith was conducted on the yacht on cruises down the Potomac and in the Chesapeake Bay. Mayflower was used for numerous receptions and entertainment of diplomats, foreign heads of state, and other visitors deemed of importance. The yacht did not appeal to Herbert Hoover when he took office, however, and he ordered the stewards from its crew transferred to the Presidential retreat on the Rapidan River in Virginia and the yacht itself disposed of, becoming the first President to decommission a Presidential yacht.

Although Hoover had disposed of the Presidential yacht, he really simply disposed of its being operated as a United States Navy ship. Hoover borrowed another yacht from the Commerce Department, Sequoia, on which since it was not a commissioned Naval vessel, liquor could be consumed aboard. Hoover used the vessel frequently since he was an avid fisherman, and fond of alcohol. In 1933 his successor Franklin Roosevelt had Sequoia commissioned as a Presidential yacht, and during the Second World War, it was decommissioned again but continued to serve the President and other high-ranking officials of the Navy and State departments.

By then there was another official President’s yacht, the USS Potomac. Potomac was the first Presidential yacht to be used as a decoy to hide the President’s whereabouts from the press, complete with a double for Roosevelt aboard. When Roosevelt was secretly transferred from Potomac to USS Augusta to travel to meet with Churchill near Newfoundland, Potomac retained the Presidential Flag – indicating that the President was aboard – and cruised conspicuously off New England, a Secret Service agent posing as the President. The press didn’t learn of Roosevelt’s true whereabouts until the release of the Atlantic Charter.

President Truman enjoyed another Presidential yacht, USS Williamsburg, when it was at anchor off Key West, or on quiet cruises on the Potomac. He did not enjoy the open water of the Atlantic or the Chesapeake Bay, however. Neither did his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, who ordered Williamsburg decommissioned after only one cruise aboard. They were both former Army officers. It took a Navy man, Jimmy Carter, to order the final decommissioning of Sequoia in 1977, leaving the President without a yacht at his disposal.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
John Adams was the first president to run for re-election and lose. Embittered by his defeat, he refused to attend his successor’s inaugural. The White House

Presidential Petulance

The inauguration of the incoming President is a demonstration to the American people and the rest of the world of the peaceful transfer of power under the Constitution of the United States. The act of one President withdrawing gracefully and another taking office is one of the most important features of American government. But it has not always been as graceful as it seems. There have been several instances of the outgoing administration withdrawing with anything but grace and not only in the example of pranks within the office spaces of the West Wing.

The first President to refuse to attend the inauguration of his successor in office was the second President to be elected and the first to lose an attempt to be re-elected, John Adams. Adams was in a snit not only because of losing the election but also because of the way he believed Jefferson and his supporters had sabotaged his Presidency. As Jefferson walked to his inaugural – the first President to be inaugurated in Washington DC – Adams was already on his way home to Massachusetts, thoroughly disgusted with his successor’s political beliefs and methods. The two men had once been close friends and eventually resumed a friendship via correspondence, but never saw one another again.

A similar lack of grace was displayed by John Adams’ son John Quincy Adams following the campaign in which he lost the Presidency after just one term. John Quincy was the first son of a President to become President. His campaign to retain the Presidency against Andrew Jackson was one of the nastiest Presidential campaigns in the nation’s history, but most of the personal animosity came from the candidate’s supporters, rather than the candidates themselves. After Jackson won the election of 1828 he did not make the traditional courtesy call on the outgoing President, and a peeved Adams refused to attend the inauguration in retaliation.

Andrew Johnson – the first President to be impeached and tried in the Senate – likewise refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, though it had nothing to do with his treatment in Congress. Johnson and Grant shared a mutual dislike for each other and Grant informed the outgoing President that he would not share his carriage with him from the White House to the Capitol. Johnson remained in the White House signing last-minute orders and legislation while his popular successor took the oath of office and delivered his address, which was well received by the audience and the press.

Richard Nixon announced his resignation from the office of the President on national television – the first President to resign – the evening before it was to take effect. Though the swearing-in of his successor took place in the White House, in the Oval Office, Nixon chose to avoid the cameras there and instead played to them outside as he departed the White House shortly before Ford took the oath. Nixon had made Ford President by nominating him for Vice-President after Spiro Agnew resigned that office in disgrace. Thus Gerald Ford was the first person to occupy both the office of Vice-President and President of the United States without being elected to either of them.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
John Tyler was the first President to issue a veto for reasons other than Constitutional considerations. Congress tried but failed to impeach him. The White House

Presidential Vetoes

The first Presidential veto was issued by the first President, George Washington, on April 5, 1792. It was for an act to change apportionment when considering the number of members of the House of Representatives and Washington considered it unconstitutional after discussion of the bill with members of his cabinet. Washington returned the bill to Congress with his view of its failings, and rather than attempt to override the President’s veto, the House discarded the original bill and wrote another.

John Adams did not attempt to veto any bills which were presented during his Presidency, making him the first President not to attempt to override any legislation which appeared before him. Neither did his successor, Thomas Jefferson. It was Jefferson’s successor, James Madison who applied the first pocket veto, although it wasn’t given that name for the President’s action, or rather inaction until Andrew Jackson resorted to the tactic much later.

The first President to have a veto overturned by Congress was John Tyler. The bill denied the President the authority to order Revenue Marine cutters (today’s Coast Guard cutters) without first obtaining funding authorization from Congress. Tyler vetoed the bill to protect existing contracts and the power of his office. Congress overturned the veto by large margins in both the House and the Senate, after stopping the clock in the House chamber before proceeding to the vote, as by law the Congress ended at midnight.

There were 635 vetoes during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, not surprisingly the most of any President since he served through three full terms and a few weeks of a fourth. Only nine of his vetoes were overridden by Congress, among them the Revenue Act of 1943. It marked the first time in American history in Congress enacted a Revenue Act without the approval of the White House. FDR was also the first President to read a veto message personally before a joint session of Congress, on May 22, 1935, when he disagreed with early payments of bonuses to the veterans of the First World War.

In total, up to the end of the Obama administration, the Presidents of the United States have issued 2,572 vetoes, with 1067 of them being pocket vetoes. Congress has successfully overridden 110. The vast majority of Presidential vetoes have led to legislation being rewritten to address the issues debated by the President or simply being set aside. As with all Presidential firsts, succeeding Presidents have put their own mark on the precedent set by those who have served in the office before them.

10 Presidential Firsts and Their Unexpected Impact on the Presidency and the Country
Rutherford B. Hayes was the first President to travel to the West Coast while in office. Library of Congress

Some other Presidential Firsts

The first President to have his photograph taken while he was in office was also the first President to die in office, William Henry Harrison. He was also the first President to have been born outside of the original 13 states. His Vice-President was John Tyler, who became the first President to face a vote of impeachment in the House of Representatives. Until Tyler, Presidents had only issued vetoes on Constitutional grounds, he expanded the use of the veto to consider political differences and Congress responded with a move to impeach him, which failed.

The first President with no prior experience in an elected political office was Zachary Taylor, who achieved fame as a soldier in the Mexican War. Taylor was also the first President with the misfortune of winning election while the opposing political party took control of both Houses of Congress. Coupled with his inexperience, Taylor had little chance of forwarding any agenda, but he died in his second year in office. His successor, Millard Fillmore, was the first President to establish a White House Library. He did very little else.

Abraham Lincoln was the first and to date only President to hold a US Patent. He obtained the patent for a device he designed to lift steamboats over shallows and obstructions encountered in streams and rivers. Lincoln obtained the patent during his first term in Congress and a model of the device can be seen in the National Museum of American History in Washington DC. The Smithsonian has expressed doubts over whether the device would work.

The first President to have graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point was Ulysses S Grant. The only other American President to have graduated from West Point was Dwight David Eisenhower. The first and thus far only President to have graduated from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis was Jimmy Carter. Curiously, Grant and another President, Harry S. Truman, used the letter S as a middle initial, it meant nothing in either case. Grant was also the first President to publish his memoirs, with the assistance of Mark Twain, completing them shortly before his death from cancer.

Rutherford B. Hayes installed a telephone and typewriters in the White House, both firsts. He was also the first President to lose the popular vote but attain the Presidency by carrying the Electoral College, an achievement he seldom if ever boasted about. Hayes was the first President to travel west of the Rocky Mountains while in office, making a ten-week tour of the west, arriving in California via the Transcontinental Railroad, and then touring the western states via stage, rail, and steamship.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Air Force One: A History of Presidential Air Travel”, by Robert Dorr, Defense Media Network, November 10, 2016

“All Aboard! The Amazing History of Presidential Trains”, by Tyler Rogoway, The Drive

“Thomas Jefferson”, entry, About the White House, whitehouse.gov

“Does the White House have a Pool?”, The White House Historical Association, whitehousehistory.org

“Cars of the Presidents”, The Quint, November 2020

“Truman”, by David McCullough

“Presidential Yachts”, (pdf), usspotomac.org

“Imperfect Presidents: Tales of Presidential Misadventure and Triumph”, by Jim Cullen, 2007

“Presidential Vetoes”, by John Wooley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project, online

“The Book of Political Lists”, from the editors of George Magazine, 1998

“Abraham Lincoln is the Only President Ever to Have a Patent”, by Owen Edwards, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2006

“Rutherford B. Hayes”, biography, The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums, rbhayes.org