Presidents are much more than the policies they back or the speeches they give — sometimes they put out fires in the Library of Congress and file UFO reports. Below are 45 strange and fascinating facts about all of America's presidents.
1. George Washington
While every acting president serves as the commander-in-chief of the U.S. military, nobody will ever outrank George Washington. He was posthumously given the rank of General of the Armies of the United States, essentially making him America’s only six-star general.
2. John Adams
The Boston Massacre, in which British soldiers shot and killed five citizens, was a major flashpoint on the road to the Revolutionary War. When murder charges were brought against the soldiers, John Adams acted as their defense lawyer. He called the trial one of his most “gallant” and “disinterested actions of my whole life.”
3. Thomas Jefferson
When Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark out west to explore the Louisiana Territory, the president told the explorers to watch out for mammoths. Jefferson was apparently obsessed with mammoths and was convinced they were still alive, gallivanting in America’s wild west.
4. James Madison
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
While George Washington gets all the credit for bravely crossing the icy Delaware River, Monroe deserves attention too. Then-Lieutenant Monroe was part of an advance unit and crossed the river before Washington’s crew. On the other side, Monroe was wounded at the Battle of Trenton, as Hessian soldiers shot him in the shoulder.
6. John Quincy Adams
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
In 1835, Jackson received a present at the White House: a 1,400 pound wheel of cheese. It sat around idle for two years until Jackson, sick of the cheese, invited 10,000 visitors into the White House to get rid of it. As one resident recalled: “The air was redolent with cheese, the carpet was slippery with cheese, and nothing else was talked about at Washington that day.” Another called the event, “an evil-smelling horror.”
8. Martin Van Buren
Having grown up in a Dutch-speaking community in New York, Van Buren was the only president whose first language was not English. Although Van Buren worked hard to mask his original tongue, observers claim his accent would surface whenever he became visibly excited.
9. William Henry Harrison
When a pesky newspaper claimed that Harrison sat in a log cabin and swilled hard cider all day, Harrison didn’t fight the libelous claim. He embraced it. Supporters started calling him the “Log Cabin and Hard Cider candidate” and handed out cider and specialty bottles of booze shaped like log cabins. (Supporters even composed a song for him called “Good Hard Cider.”)
10. John Tyler
According to Smithsonian, Tyler was “the only president to commit a public act of treason against the U.S. government.” Sixteen years after leaving office, Tyler embraced Virginia’s decision to secede from the Union and was elected to the Confederate Congress. He died before taking a seat with the Confederate government, but the damage was done: When Tyler died, President Lincoln reportedly refused to lower the flag at half-staff.
11. James K. Polk
For two days a week, any Joe Schmoe could walk off the street and visit President Polk in the White House for an evening reception. These “office hours” weren’t very productive, though. Many people walking off the street, to Polk’s annoyance, merely came in asking for a job.
12. Zachary Taylor
The second president to die in office did not smoke or drink, but he did chew tobacco — lots of it. In fact, he was an impressive spittle-shooter. According to the book Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary, Taylor had “the reputation of never missing the sand-filled box that served as a spittoon in his office.”
13. Millard Fillmore
Millard Fillmore was an avid reader who would do nearly anything for a book. On Christmas Eve in 1851, when the Library of Congress caught on fire, Fillmore ran to the scene with a group of Congressmen and "rendered all the service in their power” to stop the fire. Fillmore led the bucket brigade early into Christmas morning.
14. Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce was one of many presidents who came from a law background, but he was also known for being especially personable and having an excellent memory. He reportedly could give half-hour-long speeches without the help of notes and had "a knack for recalling the names of every juror who ever sat on one of his cases."
15. James Buchanan
Considered one of America’s weakest presidents, Buchanan’s fence-sitting on the topic of slavery helped set the stage for the Civil War. It was just one of many controversial positions: On the campaign trail, Buchanan argued that a wage of 10 cents was fair for a day’s labor. (At the time, most Americans supposedly needed around $6 a week—or 86 cents a day—to live.) The gaffe earned Buchanan the nickname “10 Cent Jimmy."
16. Abraham Lincoln
Honest Abe was an accomplished wrestler. It’s said that, as a young man in Illinois, Lincoln competed in about 300 wrestling contests and lost just one match. In 1830, after he was crowned his county’s wrestling champion, Lincoln wasn’t afraid to trash-talk his opponents: “I’m the big buck of this lick,” he reportedly said. “If any of you want to try it, come on and whet your horns.”
17. Andrew Johnson
Lovers of Alaska’s mountains and streams have Andrew Johnson and his Secretary of State, William H. Seward, to thank. During Johnson’s presidency, Russia sold Alaska to the United States for the price of $7.2 million … in gold. Although most Americans supported the purchase, critics would call the land “Walrussia,” “Icebergia,” and Johnson’s “polar bear garden.”
18. Ulysses S. Grant
The “S” in Ulysses S. Grant’s name doesn’t mean anything. It’s a clerical error. Grant received the erroneous middle initial when a friend of his father, Thomas Hamer, nominated Ulysses for enrollment at West Point. The initial stuck. Writing to his future wife, Grant said: “I have an ‘S’ in my name and don’t know what it stands for.”
19. Rutherford B. Hayes
Several presidents served during the Civil War, but only Hayes was wounded in combat. He had four horses shot from under him. He suffered a wounded knee, a gunshot wound to the left arm, a hit from a spent musket ball to the head, an ankle injury, and a final gunshot wound at the Battle of Cedar Creek.
20. James A. Garfield
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, 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 in view of the position I am called upon to fill."
21. Chester A. Arthur
Birtherism isn’t new. The historical record states that Chester A. Arthur was born in Fairfield, Vermont in 1829. However, when Arthur ran as James Garfield’s Vice President, rumors swirled among his opponents that Arthur was actually born across the border … in Quebec. (There’s no solid evidence to support this charge.)
22. Grover Cleveland
Long before he served as president, Grover Cleveland worked briefly as an executioner. Cleveland had previously been the humble sheriff of Erie County, New York and had the unpleasant job of wrapping the noose around the neck of two criminals. Political opponents would later call him “The Buffalo Hangman.”
23. Benjamin Harrison
Under Harrison’s watch, electricity was installed at the White House in 1891. The newfangled invention utterly terrified him. In fact, 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.
24. Grover Cleveland
Cleveland was only president to win two non-consecutive terms. His wife, Frances, always knew the couple would be coming back to Washington. Leaving the White House after their first term, she purportedly told a stable boy, “I want you to take good care of all the furniture and ornaments in the house, for I want to find everything just as it is now, when we come back again … four years from today."
25. William McKinley
McKinley won the presidential election in 1896 without hardly ever leaving his couch. He staged a “front-porch” campaign, giving speeches and meeting with delegations from the comfort of his home in Canton, Ohio. The stay-at-home strategy worked. More than 700,000 people visited him.
26. Theodore Roosevelt
Always the nature-lover, Roosevelt refused to allow a Christmas tree in the White House. This, however, didn’t stop his children from secretly dragging a small pine tree inside, decorating it, and hiding it in the sewing room closet.
27. William Howard Taft
During Roosevelt’s presidency, Teddy bears became all the rage. Taft wanted to ride the craze and invented his own plush, stuffed animal: An opossum. Unfortunately, America's children didn’t find “Billy Possum” to be very fun, cute, or cuddly.
28. Woodrow Wilson
Wilson had a way with animals. Not only was he the last president to be towed by horse-drawn carriage to his inauguration, he also kept sheep on the White House lawn. The sheep helped save money on the cost of mowing the lawn and, during World War I, their wool was auctioned off for more than $50,000. (The money was donated to the Red Cross.)
29. Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding is the only member of the Fourth Estate to win America’s highest public office: He was a journalist and eventual owner and publisher of an Ohio newspaper, the Marion Daily Star. In fact, he still maintained a financial interest in the paper during the first two years of his presidency.
30. Calvin Coolidge
Coolidge, the only president born on July 4, had an electric-powered mechanical horse installed in the White House after the Secret Service banned him from riding real horses outside. The press dubbed the machine “Thunderbolt,” and Coolidge rode it up to three times a day. (He believed it helped his health.)
31. Herbert Hoover
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 it.
32. Franklin D. Roosevelt
FDR was not much of a law student. He attended Columbia Law School, but failed so many classes that he had to go to summer school. A professor later said, “He didn’t appear to have any aptitude for law, and made no effort to overcome that handicap by hard work.” Despite never earning his law degree, Roosevelt still passed the bar.
33. Harry S. Truman
Upon leaving office in 1953, one of Truman’s first decisions was to go on a road-trip. He and his wife, Bess, hopped into their Chrysler New Yorker and traveled across the country for 19 days. When he was pulled over by a cop for going too slow in the fast lane, the police officer saw him … and decided to let him off with a warning.
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
During World War II, General Eisenhower was instrumental to the success of the D-Day invasions. But in case the assault went wrong, he wrote a speech: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed … If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
35. John F. Kennedy
While some politicians use their family’s wealth and influence to avoid military service, John F. Kennedy did the opposite. The young Kennedy suffered from a slew of medical problems that disqualified him from serving, so he employed a fake health certificate from a family doctor to sneak into the armed forces. Kennedy would command a patrol boat and receive a Purple Heart during his tour of the Pacific theater.
36. Lyndon B. Johnson
Long before he was president, Johnson was a Texas schoolteacher. And like most teachers, he was something of a human Swiss-army knife: He coached the debate team and kept a watchful eye over the playground. He taught fifth, sixth, and seventh grade. He even served as a janitor.
37. Richard Nixon
Never a gifted romantic, Nixon proposed to his future wife, Pat, on their first date. She declined. And when Pat started dating other men, Nixon refused to give her up. He became her chauffeur and drove her to and from her dates.
38. Gerald Ford
In 1940, Ford and his girlfriend were asked to pose for a snowy photoshoot in Look magazine. A cash-strapped law student, Ford agreed. (The title of the article: “A New York Girl and Her Yale Boyfriend Spend a Hilarious Holiday on Skis.”) It wasn’t Ford’s only magazine shoot: He also appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan.
39. Jimmy Carter
In 1969, Carter saw an unusual object floating in the Georgia sky. It was “very bright [with] changing colors and about the size of the moon.” Carter was so confused by the experience that he decided to file a report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, making him the only U.S. President to file a UFO report.
40. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan is, almost certainly, the only president to be nearly strangled by a chimpanzee. In 1951, the actor was on the set of Bedtime for Bonzo, a comedy starring a chimp. The furry leading actor was apparently intrigued by a tie Reagan was wearing and yanked it so hard that the future-president almost suffocated.
41. George H.W. Bush
Bush hated broccoli so much that he banned it on Air Force One. “I haven’t liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it,” he said. “And I’m President of the United States, and I’m not going to eat any more broccoli!”
42. Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton’s first job as a teenager was at an Arkansas grocery store, where he ran a comic book stand. “I had two chests filled with perfectly preserved comic books...” Clinton later said at the National Retail Federation Expo. “I sold every one. I made about $100 and I felt like a millionaire. I now know I was a fool. If I had saved those comic books, they’d be worth $200,000 to $300,000 today.”
43. George W. Bush
George W. Bush is ridiculously popular in the town of Fushe-Kruje, Albania. Ever since the president visited the town in 2007, locals have erected a statue of him downtown and have named a square, a street, and even a cafe after him. The bakery he visited has reportedly become a national landmark.
44. Barack Obama
It’s common for heads-of-state to exchange gifts. In 2011, Australia’s Northern Territory Chief Minister gave President Obama a $50,000 insurance policy in the unlikely event the president was ever attacked by a crocodile. Other unique gifts Obama received? Boxer-briefs, a ping pong table, and a donkey.
45. Donald J. Trump
Donald Trump has done cameos in at least 13 films and documentaries, including Zoolander, The Little Rascals, and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. His first film appearance was for the 1989 dud Ghosts Can’t Do It, starring Bo Derek. Trump’s performance earned him a Golden Raspberry Award, or Razzie, for “Worst Supporting Actor.”