President’s Day: 46 Surprising Facts about 46 Presidents

Below are 46 strange and fascinating facts about all of America’s Presidents

Today is President’s Day! In addition to indicating a day off work or school for many, President’s Day is among the oldest federal holidays and it was the first to celebrate the life of an individual American. It was originally signed into law in 1879 in honor of George Washington’s birthday (February 22) but eventually moved to the third Monday of the month in a bid to create more three-day weekends for workers. Today, the holiday also recognizes the presidents past and present who have served since Washington.

From a 19th-century president who killed a man in a duel to a 20th-century leader who once worked as a lifeguard, learn surprising facts about each U.S. president. In some ways, all 46 U.S. presidents have been very much alike. Not lacking in ambition or charisma, each had a certain knack for self-promotion and networking.

At the same time, each commander in chief is unique. Read facts about every president in order of their service from a 19th-century hotshot with a taste for dueling to a 20th-century veteran who nearly died after being hit by anti-aircraft fire in World War II.

George Washington carved in stone at Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. George Washington (1789-1797): The first U.S. president and Revolutionary War hero was an enthusiastic dog breeder, particularly of hunting hounds to which he gave names like Sweet Lips and Drunkard.

2. John Adams (1797-1801): Adams and his wife, Abigail, exchanged more than 1,100 letters throughout their lengthy relationship.

3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809): Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, died on July 4, in 1826 within hours of John Adams. 

4. James Madison (1809-1817): Madison was the shortest president at 5 feet 4 inches and weighed barely over 100 pounds. James Madison and his wife, Dolley, helped popularize ice cream in America. Tastes in the treat, however, would be considered questionable today: chestnut, asparagus, and parmesan were all on the menu. Dolley’s favorite flavor was oyster.

5. James Monroe (1817-1825): Other than Washington, Monroe was the only president to ever run essentially unopposed, coasting to re-election in the 1820 race.

6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829): Years after leaving the White House, Quincy Adams argued a famous Supreme Court case that freed the captive Africans who had rebelled aboard the Amistad slave ship. The election of 1824 saw four viable candidates, none of whom won an outright majority of electoral votes. Andrew Jackson nabbed 99, John Quincy Adams won 84, William H. Crawford earned 41, and Henry Clay claimed 37. Despite having neither the highest number of electoral or total popular votes, Adams was chosen as President by the U.S. House of Representatives.

7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837): Jackson once killed a man in a duel. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841): Van Buren was the first president to be born an American. All previous presidents were originally British subjects, having been born prior to 1776. 

9. William Henry Harrison (1841): Harrison died just 31 days after his inauguration in 1841, the shortest presidency in United States history.

10. John Tyler (1841-1845): Tyler fathered 15 children, the most of any president.

11. James K. Polk (1845-1849): During his term, Polk secretly purchased a number of enslaved children for his Mississippi cotton plantation.

12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850): Old Rough and Ready never voted in an election prior to being on the ballot himself. 

13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853): Fillmore was the last Whig president; the party imploded soon after he left office. 

14. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857): The only president from New Hampshire also attended college in New England—Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. 

15. James Buchanan (1857-1861): In 1853, while serving as minister to Great Britain, Buchanan helped draft the 1854 Ostend Manifesto which advocated for an American invasion of Cuba.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865): Honest Abe, the tallest president at 6 feet 4 inches may have had Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes people to be very tall, thin, and long limbed. 

17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869): Though one of the few presidents without a pet, Johnson apparently cared for a family of White House mice which he called the little fellows.

18. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877): Civil War General Grant was invited to join Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on the fateful evening of April 14, 1865 but was forced to decline after he and his wife made plans to visit their children in New Jersey. 

19. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881): Hayes was the first president to have a telephone in the White House. 

20. James A. Garfield (1881): Garfield (who was the first known left-handed president) was elected to the U.S. Senate but never served as Ohio senator because he then won the Republican nomination for president. In 1880, Garfield attended the Republican National Convention with no intention of running for President. But when the convention stalled, a delegate nominated Garfield as a compromise candidate, and a stream of unexpected votes flooded in. “This honor comes to me unsought,” Garfield said. “I have never had the presidential fever, not even for a day … I have no feeling of elation given the position I am called upon to fill.”

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

21. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885): Arthur was named in honor of Chester Abell, the doctor who delivered him.

22. and 24. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897): No president except Cleveland has ever served non-consecutive terms: He defeated James G. Blaine in 1884, lost to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 (despite winning the popular vote), and then came back to defeat Harrison in 1892.

23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893): Harrison was the first president to hire a female White House staffer. Under Harrison’s watch, electricity was installed at the White House in 1891. The newfangled invention utterly terrified him. Harrison and his wife, Caroline, refused to operate the light switches. He was so afraid of pressing the knobs that, sometimes, he’d sleep with the lights on.

25. William McKinley (1897-1901): McKinley’s likeness appears on the $500 bill which was discontinued in 1969. 

26. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909): Roosevelt was the youngest president, taking office at age 42.

27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913): Famous for his corpulence, Taft was the first president to hurl the ceremonial first pitch at a Major League Baseball game. 

28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): In a 1914 proclamation, Wilson officially established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day.

29. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923): Prior to taking office, Harding wrote a series of lurid love letters to his mistress, the wife of one of his best friends. 

30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929): A quiet man, Coolidge purportedly replied, “You lose,” to a visitor who bet she could get at least three words out of him. 

31. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933): An Iowa native who spent part of his boyhood in Oregon, Hoover was the first president to hail from west of the Mississippi River. Despite humble origins, Hoover was a self-made multimillionaire. He was orphaned at the age of 9 and was raised by various relatives, eventually graduating from Stanford’s inaugural class with a degree in geology. Working for a British mine, he traveled the world looking for pricey mineral deposits and made millions doing 

32. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945): The longest-serving commander-in-chief claimed to be distantly related to 11 other presidents including his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt.

33. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953): The “S” in Harry S. Truman was just an initial; it didn’t stand for any name. (The “S” in Ulysses S. Grant didn’t stand for anything either.) 

34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961): World War II hero Ike was the first president to ride in a helicopter. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

35. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963): After being injured and honorably discharged in World War II, Kennedy was briefly employed as a journalist during the waning weeks of the war. 

36. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969): Johnson’s first career was as a teacher. He worked at a school near the U.S.-Mexico border for four years before launching a career in politics.

37. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974): Nixon became such a skillful poker player while stationed in the Solomon Islands during World War II that his winnings helped launch his political career upon his return to the U.S.

38: Gerald Ford (1974-1977): A star football player at the University of Michigan, Ford turned down offers from both the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers. 

39. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981): When his father died in 1953, Carter gave up his successful military career to move back to Georgia and work on their family’s peanut farm.

George Washington carved in stone at Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

40. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): Reagan worked as a lifeguard and sportscaster before becoming an actor and, later, a politician. 

41. George H. Bush (1989-1993): As a student at Yale, Bush was captain of the baseball team and a member of Skull and Bones, an elite secret student society.

42. Bill Clinton (1993-2001): Clinton played the saxophone and performed on the Arsenio Hall Show when he was a candidate for president. 

43. George W. Bush (2001-2009): Post-presidency, Bush took up oil painting, exhibiting his work at the Museum of the Southwest in Texas. 

44. Barack Obama (2009-2017): Prior to becoming the first African American president, Obama won two Grammy Awards for Best Spoken Word Album.

45. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021): Before becoming president, Trump was a real estate developer, entrepreneur, and host of the NBC reality show, The Apprentice.

46: Joe Biden (2021-present): Biden overcame a debilitating childhood stutter after enduring bullying over the condition in grade school. 

Worth Pondering…

Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.

—John F. Kennedy