America’s presidents have come from many professions and walks of life. While many were trained as lawyers, other professions have been well represented in the White House as well. There have been soldiers and sailors, engineers and teachers, writers and publishers, tailors and storekeepers. Many were farmers. Some were from extreme wealth, others from near poverty. All of them had personality traits which can be referred to politely as quirks, and some of those were downright strange. Others are mildly amusing. There is no question that the pressures of the office lead the president to find ways to blow off steam, and here is how some of them did so in history.
1. George Washington was a brewer and distiller, and he named some of his dogs accordingly
George Washington never lived in the White House, and most of his pets remained at his Mount Vernon home during his presidency. They included several dogs which he liked to have accompany him when he indulged in his favorite out of office pastime, horseback riding. Washington brewed beer, including spruce beer, made peach brandy and applejack, and distilled whiskey at Mount Vernon, both for sale and for personal consumption. Four of his coonhounds were named in a manner reflecting alcohol consumption. The black and tan hounds were named Drunkard, Tipsy, Tipler and Taster.
2. John Adams abhorred drunkenness, but started each day with a glass of hard cider
When John Adams served as an emissary to both Britain and France, he wrote to his wife Abigail disapprovingly of the heavy consumption of alcohol he observed in both societies. Though he was not a teetotaler, he found the long series of wines served at formal dinners – and the period of toasts among the gentlemen which followed – to be contrary to the conduct of business. He also found the drinking in Britain’s taverns and the streets and alleys of London shocking. Nonetheless, throughout his adult life, Adams began each day by drinking a glass of hard cider before consuming a modest breakfast and beginning his work.
3. Thomas Jefferson re-gifted the bear cubs sent him by Zebulon Pike
Jefferson kept several pets at the White House and Monticello, including at least four mockingbirds. But when Zebulon Pike sent him a gift of two grizzly bear cubs, he was nonplussed over what to do with them. Jefferson had learned of the ferocity of the western grizzly from the reports of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and sent the bears to a newly developed zoo operated by Charles Wilson Peale. However, during the two months it took to exchange letters and prepare the bears for shipment, they outgrew their enclosures and roamed freely about the lawns of Monticello. Jefferson recorded that they ate mainly bread from maize during their stay.
James Madison is usually portrayed as solemn to the point of stoicism, and the reports of his contemporaries do not note him as a man of mirth for the most part. But when at his Virginia plantation, Montpelier, the author of the Bill of Rights allowed himself some time for fun. Montpelier was perpetually filled with guests and extended family and Madison enjoyed romping on the lawns with the children, and with his wife Dolley, who often carried Madison piggy-back as she was chased about the grounds by the children and other adult guests, carrying similar burdens of their own.
5. James Monroe was the last president to wear knee breeches and a tricorn hat
James Monroe’s primary legacy remains the doctrine which bears his name. For most of his life he was insolvent, a situation made worse by the ill-health his wife suffered throughout her life. During his presidency, men’s fashion changed to make long pants and shorter coats the most commonly worn clothing, except among servants. But to save money, Monroe continued to wear knee breeches and the tricorn hat which he had worn in his youth for the rest of his life. He was the last president to be so arrayed. He was also the last president of which no photograph was taken, and thus the last recognized today only through the efforts of portrait painters.
6. John Quincy Adams’s pet alligator is most likely a myth
Multiple reports that John Quincy Adams kept a pet alligator in the East Room of the White House are not supported by any contemporaneous accounts, and are likely apocryphal. The first reports of the alligator appeared in 1888, and contained no references to earlier accounts. The president did keep silkworms though, and his wife Louisa used their silk. Quincy Adams did have a habit unusual today but fairly common in his time in American cities. He liked to rise early and head to the Potomac where he indulged himself by swimming naked in the early morning hours as a means of relaxation and exercise before his work day began.
7. Andrew Jackson’s character was reflected in the animals he kept
President Jackson kept a parrot, which he taught to swear so well that it often had to be removed from the room when ladies were present, to Jackson’s amusement. At Jackson’s funeral the bird swore so continuously and loudly it was carried out, according to the letters of several attendees. Jackson also kept another type of bird, both at the White House and his Tennessee home, The Hermitage. Those were fighting cocks, used for cockfighting, an entertainment and gambling activity in which Jackson indulged throughout his adult life. Jackson raised and gambled on his birds while president, and retained a handler for them among his servants.
Martin Van Buren received a gift of two tiger cubs from the Sultan of Muscat and Oman and for a brief time the tigers occupied the White House with the president known as Old Kinderhook. Congress protested, arguing that the acceptance of the gifts was a violation of the emoluments clause, and Van Buren had the tigers sent to a zoo rather than indulge in a political battle. There are reports that Van Buren was the source of the American use of the word “okay” (from Old Kinderhook) but etymologists disagree, with some noting an Indian word “okeh” used as an affirmative as the more likely source of American usage.
9. William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural oration – in the rain
Presidents were inaugurated in March when William Henry Harrison was elevated to the office in 1841, and the day chosen was commented on by attendees as particularly cold, wet, and raw. The weather did not deter the incoming president from delivering an address which was reported as lasting over two hours (some say nearly three), and some credit the weather as exacerbating the cold which Harrison soon exhibited, which worsened into pneumonia and took his life 30 days later, which brought about a constitutional crisis regarding the presidential succession. Harrison gave the longest inauguration speech as he entered what remains the shortest presidency in American history.
10. John Tyler was the first un-elected president to ascend to the office
The death of William Henry Harrison was expected by April 1, 1841, and Vice-President John Tyler was at his home in Williamsburg, Virginia when he learned of the possibility of opposition to his accession among party leaders. Tyler had been a compromise choice for Vice President to attract southern votes. Upon Harrison’s death Tyler had the oath of office administered as quickly as possible and moved into the White House. Throughout his presidency he was referred to by his opponents as “His Accidency”. Tyler’s presidency was marked by the first attempt by the House to open impeachment proceedings, and the first override of a presidential veto.
James K. Polk was strictly all business in his approach to the office of the presidency and the residence he occupied. He and his wife made the White House as quiet as a tomb when not entertaining guests. Card games of all kinds were banned and playing cards removed from the house. All alcoholic beverages were banned, even at state dinners and receptions, to the consternation of foreign dignitaries. The only entertainment was conversation, although occasionally musicians would play at receptions, though the Polks allowed no dancing at any event of which the president was the host, whether in the White House or another site.
12. Zachary Taylor was proud of a somewhat unpleasant habit
The antebellum age is often depicted with women in beautiful gowns and well-dressed gentlemen escorting them, an era of grace, style, and manners. This picture omits the spittoons, which were everywhere, in almost every room of the White House, on the floors of the Senate and the House, in taverns and saloons, businesses and offices. Chewing tobacco was prevalent everywhere, commented on disapprovingly by Charles Dickens following his 1841 visit. Zachary Taylor disagreed. One of the skills the accomplished soldier was most proud of, frequently boasting of it and demonstrating it to onlookers, was his ability to hit a spittoon dead center from extraordinary distances.
Millard Fillmore ascended to the presidency following the death of Zachary Taylor in office, and his tenure is consistently ranked as one of the worst administrations in American history. A lover of books and libraries, Fillmore was in the White House on Christmas Eve when the Library of Congress suffered the worst fire in its history, and though he went to the scene to assess the damage, he did not join in fighting the fire as is often reported. He spent a great deal of time and energy to restore the library’s collection in the aftermath of the fire, which was one of the few successes of his presidency.
Franklin Pierce was elected to the presidency in 1852, following the forgettable Fillmore, and spent his single term in office becoming even more forgettable. In fairness, much of his life had been filled with tragedy; his wife suffered with bouts of mental illness and their children all died young, the last of which in a train accident which occurred before Franklin’s eyes. His heavy drinking throughout his presidency was an open secret in Washington circles. After leaving office and following the Civil War, Pierce began to drink less for a brief period, but resumed drinking heavily in 1869 as his health worsened. He died in the fall of that year of cirrhosis of the liver.
15. James Buchanan was the only lifelong bachelor president
James Buchanan never married, though in his youth he courted a woman to whom he became engaged, though she later broke off the engagement. His niece served the functions of his First Lady. William Rufus King and Buchanan shared rooms in a Washington boardinghouse for nearly a decade in the 1830s and 1840s, which ended when King was sent to France in 1844. During their time residing together they also attended social events together and wagging Washington tongues, especially among political opponents, spread rumors about the still small city. Andrew Jackson called the pair “Aunt Fancy and Miss Nancy”. Though no definitive evidence exists of Buchanan’s sexual leanings, the rumors have never stopped.
16. Abraham Lincoln may have popularized the name Fido for dogs
The Lincoln White House teemed with pets which included dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, horses, goats and a turkey which became a pet after Tad Lincoln intervened with a cook who was preparing to kill it for Thanksgiving Dinner. Lincoln sided with his son in the first presidential pardoning of a turkey. One pet which did not accompany Lincoln to the White House was a dog left behind in Springfield in a neighbor’s care, named Fido by its master. Lincoln never returned to Springfield alive, and a few months after his assassination Fido was killed by an angry drunk. The American Kennel Club attributes the popularity of the name Fido for dogs to Lincoln’s use of the name.
17. Andrew Johnson needed a cat in his White House
After the Civil War the White House was not in the best of condition. Drapes and wallpapers had been cut up by souvenir seekers, carpets were worn and shabby, and the overall condition of the fifty year old building (it had been rebuilt after the war of 1812) was not good. President Andrew Johnson was penurious by nature – the former tailor made his own suits – and found pets to be an unnecessary expense. But when he found white mice in his bedroom in the somewhat dilapidated house he made sure to take bread crumbs and other foods from his table to feed them, rather than having them removed or employ a cat as a mouser.
Ulysses Grant loved horses, and had several for riding kept in the White House stables, including a thoroughbred of international fame. He liked to ride fast and drive fast, and he nearly always drove himself in his own coach, often unaccompanied. He was doing just that when a Metropolitan Police Officer pulled over his coach for driving too fast on the streets of the District. After seeing who he had pulled over, the officer offered to let him go. Grant insisted that the officer do his duty and paid the fine (the coach was temporarily impounded. The ticket cost the President five dollars, equivalent to about $70 today, and after paying the President walked back to the White House.
Rutherford B. Hayes served a single term in the White House, accompanied by a horde of pets and his wife Lucy. At the first White House reception held during his administration he allowed wine to be served, over the protests of his wife. From that time on, alcohol was banned from the premises and Lucy Hayes became known to the indulgers in alcohol around town as Lemonade Lucy. The ban in the White House encouraged members of the growing temperance movement around the country to vote Republican, and although many Republican functionaries in Washington personally opposed the ban they welcomed the support at the polls.
20. James Garfield was the first President who was not right-handed
Reports that Garfield was the first left-handed president are not wholly accurate. He was ambidextrous. Garfield could write with either hand and frequently wrote with both hands simultaneously. He enjoyed demonstrating this skill by having a visitor ask him a question. Garfield would then compose the answer, on two sheets of paper, using both hands to write his reply before handing them to the visitor, who would no doubt view them with considerable astonishment. One page would be written in Latin and the other in Greek. Garfield, the last American president to have been born in a log cabin.
21. Chester A. Arthur sold off the White House furnishings
When John Adams entered the White House he complained in a letter to Abigail about the lack of furniture and other furnishings in the building. Over the years every president had added to the building’s furnishings, many of which were stored in the White House basement when not in use in the residence or the president’s offices and studies. When Chester A. Arthur entered the White House following the death of Garfield, he reviewed the furnishings and ordered them sold to the highest bidder. Furniture, artwork, and other furnishings dating back to the Madison administration (those prior to that were burned) were hauled off and sold.
22. Grover Cleveland had a secret operation while in office
Grover Cleveland served two terms as president, but they were not contiguous. Just after taking office for the second time he detected a lump in his mouth which was diagnosed as cancer. His doctors recommended removal, and with the country sliding into recession the president decided to keep the surgery secret. The president told the country that he was taking a four day trip on a friend’s yacht and during the trip the surgery was performed. A reporter had the story within a few weeks, but the White House and Cleveland issued firm denials and took steps to discredit the reporter. The truth about the surgery remained secret for more than two decades.
23. Harrison was the first to electrify the White House
Benjamin Harrison was a single term president, in office from 1889 – 1893. His voice is the earliest of the American presidents to have been recorded, a thirty six second wax cylinder recording still exists. It was Harrison who decided to have electricity installed in the White House, and the project was completed by the Edison General Electric Company. However the Edison technicians were unable to eliminate Harrison’s fear of electricity, nor that of his wife. After the electric lights were installed, the Harrisons refused to touch the light switches for fear of electrocution, often sleeping with the lights on.
24 According to some, William McKinley gave away his good luck charm just before he was shot
Following the assassination of William McKinley a story arose that the president gave away a red carnation to a little girl in the reception line as he was shaking hands with the public. According to the story McKinley habitually wore a red carnation as a good luck totem, and he kept them in a bowl on his desk in the White House to give to favored visitors. He was known to occasionally remove the carnation in his lapel and give it away, though his habit was to replace the flower as soon as he could. Years later a woman named Myrtle Ledger claimed to have been the recipient of the carnation, though the lack of contemporaneous reporting of the story makes it possibly apocryphal.
25. Theodore Roosevelt kept a menagerie at the White House
As president Teddy Roosevelt kept animals at the White House and in its outbuildings which included several dogs of different breeds, guinea pigs, other pigs, macaws and canaries, a small bear, cats, rabbits, rats, a pony, several horses, snakes, and lizards. He also kept a badger he had been given as a gift on a western trip. Roosevelt also often sojourned to the Potomac Island known as Rock Island for shooting sessions, where a probably apocryphal story claims that his targets bore the images of the Russian Tsar and other European leaders.
26. Taft was the first President known to worship the game of golf
The first man (and thus far the only man) to serve as President of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Taft was also the largest president in American history in terms of weight, topping well over 300 pounds. He did not let his girth deter him from hitting the links, playing golf at every opportunity. Taft was the first president to openly admit to playing the game; it is likely that others did before him but kept it secret from the public, fearing criticism from those believing the game consumed too much time. Taft referred to the game as “a splendid form of exercise”.
27. Woodrow Wilson was not a man known for frivolity
Woodrow Wilson was a serious, sober man of letters, educated at Davidson and Princeton, a student of history and political science. In the late 1970s and since he was been berated as both a racist and having possessed anti-Semitic views, despite having appointed Louis Brandeis, an active Zionist, to the Supreme Court, overcoming strong opposition. Wilson was also thrifty. Rather than retain groundskeepers to trim the White House lawns, Wilson had a flock of sheep kept on the property which at one point numbered four dozen head, as an economical means of keeping the grass short. The wool from the sheep was sold and the proceeds donated to the American Red Cross.
28. Warren G. Harding was a dedicated poker player
Warren G. Harding was a publisher from Ohio with a background in both state and national politics when he successfully ran for president in 1920. He didn’t so much run as stand; the candidate remained at home and delivered speeches from his front porch. His presidency is mostly remembered for scandals, cronyism, and extramarital affairs. Harding enjoyed poker games at the White House, playing often with a group of friends which became known as the Ohio Gang. The same friends led his administration into scandals, few of which were known about during his presidency. Harding died on a trip to the west while still in office after years of heavy drinking, poor diet, and lack of exercise.
29. Calvin Coolidge kept a small zoo of pets and a strange morning ritual
Among the many animals kept as pets by President Coolidge were a pygmy hippopotamus, lion cubs, a wallaby, and several other exotic animals and birds, as well as a pack of dogs, cats, and at least two raccoons, one of which found White House life not to its taste and escaped. Coolidge also enjoyed a daily scalp treatment which involved his head being massaged with petroleum jelly, often while he enjoyed his breakfast, which he habitually took while in bed. The purpose of the treatment was lost to history. After his retirement from public life the man known as Silent Cal penned his autobiography and a newspaper column he called Calvin Coolidge Says.
30 Hoover starred in America’s first long-distance television transmission
Before he became president Herbert Hoover was a highly successfully mining engineer, a self-made man who had been a member of the first graduating class of Stanford University. He became internationally famous for his humanitarian work feeding refugees in the aftermath of World War 1 (an act he would repeat following World War 2). As Secretary of Commerce under Coolidge, Hoover was the subject of the first television transmission, with him speaking in Washington DC and the image and sound sent to an audience of reporters and others in New York City. “Human genius has now destroyed the impediment of distance”, he said.
31. Franklin Roosevelt was a devoted stamp collector and loved to drive
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s devotion to his stamp collection is well known, and he was working over his collection on a December day when word of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor reached the East Coast of the United States. FDR, despite being restricted for the most part to a wheelchair, nonetheless loved to drive his own car. Most of his driving was restricted to his estate at Hyde Park, though he did from time to time drive his own vehicle before reporters. A specially modified Ford Phaeton which allowed FDR to drive using hand controls was kept at Warm Springs, and while there the president loved to drive around the area, attempting to elude the Secret Service.
Harry Truman and his wife Bess enjoyed bourbon at the end of the work day, and Harry was known to take a setting up shot in the morning before he had his breakfast, a practice he continued almost to the day he died. He was also a devoted poker player, and during presidential trips by train, airplane, and presidential yacht the time was passed in poker games. On one trip the President was accompanied by Winston Churchill, and Truman noted that Churchill was not a particularly good player, losing steadily. During a break Truman warned the other players to go easier on the former Prime Minister, allowing him to win a hand here and there.
33. Ike was a well-known devotee of golf and bridge
Dwight Eisenhower was an accomplished athlete in his youth, excelling at baseball, football, and horseback riding. He later famously focused his athletic competiveness into the game of golf, which he played as often as he could, both as president and in retirement. He was also, as were many presidents, a lover of cards, but Ike preferred bridge over poker. Eisenhower learned the game in his youth, and during his war years in Europe it was his main source of relaxation. He continued to use the game to keep his mental faculties sharp as president, with Saturday nights at the White House set aside for bridge games with guests.
34. Kennedy was another president deluged with pets
As would be expected of an astute political operative with a highly photogenic family, JFK’s White House was another in which the press of numerous pets was visible. Several were gifts from dignitaries and foreign leaders for JFK’s daughter Caroline, among them a pony named Leprechaun, given to her by Irish President Eamon de Valera. Another was a dog by the name of Pushinka. The dog was a puppy of the Soviet space dog Strelka, which had orbited the earth in 1960. Pushinka later had pups of her own, fathered by Kennedy’s dog Charlie, and which the president referred to as pupniks.
35. LBJ didn’t let calls of nature interrupt meetings
Lyndon Johnson was known to reach out during meals, with hands, fork, or spoon, and help himself to the contents of one of his fellow diner’s plates, often claiming a food which was outside of the president’s dietary restrictions. Even more startling to staffers and others, when he felt the call of nature during a meeting or while giving dictation, he would enter a nearby bathroom, leave the door open, and continued to conduct business while he did his business. He was known to insist that aides accompany him into the bathroom at times, whether he required the use of a stall or a urinal, in order to not interrupt the business of government.
36. Nixon preferred private recreation over public appearances
Richard Nixon was known for his lack of social skills, a difficult failing for a career politician to overcome. He was famously poor at small talk and the routine interchange of conversation. For recreation he preferred what could be performed privately. He played no less than five musical instruments, learning from his aunt in his youth, and after discovering his talent could be a political asset he performed on piano before television cameras. For physical exercise he preferred bowling, using the alleys at the Old Executive Office building before installing a single alley in the White House basement, beneath the North Portico.
37. Gerald Ford could have played professional football
During his presidency Gerald Ford developed a reputation for stumbling down stairs and falling off of sidewalks. LBJ often commented that Ford had played too much football without a helmet. Ford was an athlete for most of his life, an avid skier and golfer when serving as president. In his youth, the former Michigan football player received offers from the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions, though the recent graduate chose Yale Law School instead. Also in his youth, Ford worked briefly as a male model, appearing on the cover of the April, 1942 edition of Cosmopolitan.
38. Jimmy Carter was attacked by a rabbit and reported a UFO
President Carter was on a fishing trip after which he later told staffers that a rabbit swam towards his boat, and that he had had to use an oar to roil the water and fend off the attack. The staff thought he was kidding them until footage from a White House photographer confirmed the incident. Earlier, when serving as governor of Georgia in 1969, Carter reported seeing a UFO in the night sky over Leary, Georgia. Carter later explained the he called it a UFO because it was unexplained, but that his training in engineering and physics precluded him calling it alien in nature.
In May of 1988 White House spokesman Marvin Fitzwater confirmed to the press that Ron and Nancy Reagan used astrology and readings in preparing their schedules and for other activities. According to Reagan’s former Chief of Staff Donald Regan, the first couple consulted with a San Francisco based astrologer before making all major decisions. Regan did not identify the astrologer but it wasn’t long before the press did, and Reagan’s political opponents had a field day with the news, which came following the revealing of theIran-Contra Affair. Later biographers wrote that the Reagan’s faith in astrology was a long-standing affair.
40. George H. W. Bush hated being trapped in the White House
The first president Bush was known to be an affable man according to many who met him. On occasion, the President would join a White House tour, without fanfare, until one of the other tourists spotted him. The physically active president didn’t care for being stuck in the White House and journeyed to Camp David as frequently as possible during his single term presidency. Few modern presidents more openly expressed their displeasure for entrapment within the bubble of security and filtered information which are characteristics of the modern presidency.
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