30 Amazing Facts About U.S. Presidents You Never Knew
Meet the commander-in-chief who was really into astrology.
U.S. presidents are some of the most studied, discussed, and well-known figures in history. Yet there is so much about them that still manages to surprise. From odd hobbies and strange coincidences to just downright quirky behavior, presidents of the United States are colorful characters you may only think you understand. To get a better sense of who these guys were (and are), here are 30 astonishing facts about the men who have sat behind the Resolute Desk.
George Washington Was in the Whiskey Business
Aside from the five farms his home, Mount Vernon, included, you could also find a distillery. It wasn’t in the original plans, but Washington had a bounty of rye planted in his farms as a cover crop (what farmers use to hold soil in place to safeguard against elements). He and his plantation manager figured, hey, why let it go to waste? The distillery was established in 1797 (after he was president) and produced about 11,000 gallons of whiskey per year. Today, the distillery still releases a limited number of bottles annually.
John F. Kennedy Illegally Joined the Navy
Kennedy was plagued with a bad back that kept him from enlisting in the Army. But no matter: he used his father’s resources to have a family doctor fake a good bill of health, so he could sneak into the Navy and eventually become a lieutenant. Where many presidents found ways to get out of serving—from dodging the draft to paying people to serve in their place—he was an example of true grit and strength. At one point, while serving as a skipper, a Japanese destroyer sunk his boat in burning flames, after which he swam four hours to safety by holding the life jacket strap with his teeth.
Teddy Roosevelt Continued a Speech After Getting Shot in the Chest
During his third campaign running for president (which he lost), Roosevelt was set to deliver a speech in Wisconsin when a would-be assassin by the name of John Schrank shot him in the chest. Thankfully, Roosevelt’s speech was so long that the 50 pages of notes in his chest pocket slowed the bullet (though it did still pierce his chest), and he went on to finish his 84-minute speech. According to the Roosevelt Association, he addressed the audience then and there with the news:
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately, I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet—there is where the bullet went through—and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
Ronald Reagan Was Really into Astrology
Reagan loved astrology so much that he even had an astrologer (Joan Quigley) on-hand, which he paid through a third party, since astrological guidance wasn’t exactly presidential. Nancy and Ronald Reagan confirmed that astrology was not used for making any presidential policy decisions, but rather just to consult before scheduling any events or announcements. A “forecast” color code was established for his schedule, where each day was given a color: green for days Reagan was in the clear, yellow for days in which people should exercise caution, and red for bad days.
President Lincoln Established the Secret Service
Lincoln signed legislation on April 14, 1865, authorizing the creation of a government agency that would gain its fame for protecting the President of the United States: the U.S. Secret Service. He was shot and fatally wounded just hours later. However, even if established earlier, the agency probably wouldn’t have been any help: the original purpose of the Secret Service was to investigate and stop counterfeit money trading, as fake money accounted for up to 50 percent of the currency in circulation at the time.
Thomas Jefferson “Created” the Office Swivel Chair
Think of Thomas Jefferson like the Henry Ford of the swivel chair. (Ford didn’t create the personal automobile. Karl Benz did; Ford just made it more consumer-friendly and popular.) Though Jefferson is commonly associated with the invention of the swivel chair, all he did was make it better. Jefferson had purchased and enjoyed a revolving bench, but requested adaptation for a more executive setting (such at a desk or small table), and had the swiveling chair downsized to a small round cushion.
John Adams Loved the Public Humble-Brag
Way before social media, John Adams resorted to snail mail and passive aggression in an attempt to let his brethren know how *awesome* people in France thought he was. To be fair, Adams did do a great job in receiving funding from Holland for their war efforts, but he went above and beyond in trying to gain the appreciation and respect of his statesmen back at home: when sending important documents back to America, he “accidentally” attached a few pages from his diary essentially saying, “Can you believe how silly they are to have called me the George Washington of negotiations?”
However, instead of gaining respect, he was mocked by Congress—reportedly, they actually stopped an official meeting to read the excerpt out loud and mock him. Ouch…
Abraham Lincoln Was a Genius at Handling Stress and Anger
After Lincoln’s death, tons of angry letters were found, none of which were ever sent. If a situation ever arose where he was angry or frustrated with someone, he’d write a burning letter (which he’d call a “hot letter”) and put it aside. Then, once he cooled down, he’d write “never sent, never signed,” and just not send it. Next time you find your temper rising with someone, try this trick out. Just remember, if you’re writing an email, leave the “to” field blank. You wouldn’t want to accidentally send off a rage-filled note!
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Were Thieves
When visiting Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, Jefferson and Adams chipped off a piece of a chair that Shakespeare used to sit in as a personal souvenir. It sounds like a tall tale, yes, but there are signs that verify the claim: Adams recorded it in his diary, and a tiny wooden piece in Jefferson’s possession was accompanied with a note that read, “a chip cut from an armed chair in the chimney corner in Shakespeare’s house at Stratford on Avon said to be the identical chair in which he usually sat. If true like the relics of the saints it must miraculously reproduce itself.”
“OK” Came from Martin van Buren
Ever wondered where the “OK” sign came from? Thank president Martin van Buren, okay? Van Buren was born in Kinderhook, New York, and as a result he was nicknamed “Old Kinderhook.” During his reelection campaign in 1840, “Old Kinderhook” was shortened to “OK” in rallies, which became coupled with the (at the time) unpopular slang attempt at “oll korrect,” a misspelling of “all correct.” (Similar to how we use LOL and OMG in text idioms today, for “cool language” in the 1800s, people would purposefully misspell words.) His campaign established OK and the rest, as they say, is history.
Herbert Hoover Was a Self-Made Millionaire
Despite failing grades in high school, Hoover made his way into Stanford, where he worked as a clerk and even started a student laundry service to pay his tuition. After college, he become an ore-cart pusher in a gold mine, and worked his way up to mining engineer. Through consistent work and dedication, he became an expert in the industry, and eventually became a mining consultant and owner of multiple mines and businesses on every content except Antarctica, all by the age of 27. He even wrote the leading textbook on mining engineering. When he became president, he donated his presidential salary to charity.
President Jackson Hated Paper Money
Andrew Jackson was a staunch Constitutionalist and, having taken office just 50 years after the Constitution was established, he believed it was important to follow its word accordingly: “No State shall … make anything but gold and silver coin a tender in payment of debts” (Article 1, Section 10).
But the real dislike of paper money was personal: Jackson himself had previously taken a financial hit from devalued paper notes, and even shut down the Second Bank of the United States because of its ability to manipulate paper money, which he didn’t trust. It’s quite ironic, then, that he’s such a prominent face on paper money today.
Andrew Johnson Was Indentured Before He Was President
Andrew Johnson was just three years old when his father passed away. After that, Johnson and his brother became indentured servants to a tailor; they worked for food and lodging. They both eventually ran away, and, since Johnson didn’t even go to school, he taught himself to read, and worked as a tailor to support himself. Even once he became president, he never bought a suit. He continued to tailor his own.
The Hoover Dam Wasn’t Originally Named After President Hoover
Though Herbert Hoover was the one in office when the giant dam was approved, the custom at the time was to name the projects after the law that made it possible. In this case, it was the Boulder Canyon Project Act. As a result, it was originally named the Boulder Dam, due to party differences. By the time the dam was completed, Hoover was out of office, and the sitting president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was sure to refer to it as the Boulder Dam on the date of its dedication. It wasn’t until Harry Truman was in office that he a congressional resolution passed, officiating the dam’s name as the Hoover Dam.
Donald Trump Doesn’t Drink Alcohol
Despite his reputation for being an partier from the Manhattan 1980s heyday, Donald Trump claims to be a total teetotaler.. In fact (he claims), he’s never done drugs or smoke cigarettes, either. He himself will say that he doesn’t like to ever be out of control, and therefore doesn’t take the risk of consuming alcohol. His alcoholic brother’s death probably played a role in his view toward abstinence as well.
Cherries and Milk Killed War Hero Zachary Taylor
Though he was a pretty tough guy—a war hero, in fact—Zachary Taylor was done in by two fairly innocuous little thing: cherries and milk. It’s still unclear whether it was the cherries or the milk, but one (or both) of them were contaminated with bacteria that infected him with cholera. He died five days later.
Two Women Shot at President Ford
Two completely unrelated women, 17 days apart, shot at Gerald Ford while he was on his campaign trail in 1975. One, Lynette Fromme, was a member of Charles Manson’s cult, while the other, Sara Jane Moore, was by all accounts “normal.” It’s not clear what exactly prompted these women to shoot at Ford.
President Wilson is on the $100,000 Bill
Yes, the $100,000 bill exists, but they’re very hard to find: they were only created during a three-week stretch of time in 1934. The bills were designed for circulation among the Federal Reserve banks but fell out of use with the invention of the wire transfer.
Calvin Coolidge Was a Major Jokester
Calvin Coolidge would occasionally press all the buttons in the Oval Office, sending bells ringing throughout the White House—then hide to watch his staff run in. He would also hide from his personal body guard as a joke.
President Obama Rules the Court
Barack Obama played basketball on JV and Varsity from 1970 to 1970. He was so good, his nickname on his high school basketball team was “Barry O’Bomber,” named after his jump shot. To this day, he’s still pretty good, and he’s mentioned that playing basketball is one of his favorite activities. While he was in office, he would always play a game of basketball on election days, and one got so competitive that he was actually elbowed in the faced and needed 12 stitches!
Thomas Jefferson Was a Really Good Architect
Aside from being an archaeologist, Jefferson was skilled in architecture. In fact, he designed his own legendary home, Monticello, and even devised the plans for the Virginia State Capitol, and the University of Virginia.
Jefferson Was Afraid of Public Speaking
Thomas Jefferson was an incredibly intelligent and skilled man, but he preferred to move in silence. In fact, he only made two speeches during his entire eight-year presidency. And when he did, they were “hardly audible.” Many congressmen have been recorded as describing him as quiet, and he has been noted as saying that he would like to “go on in a strict but silent performance of my duty: to avoid attracting notice.”
President Garfield Was Shot—But Doctors Caused His Death
President Garfield was shot at in a train station by a deranged writer; the bullet hit his spine and lodged in his abdomen. Keep in mind, this was in the 1830s, and germ theory wasn’t established until 30 years later, so the doctors that rushed to the scene were literally digging through the open wound to try to find the bullet.
Unable to do so, they brought Garfield back to the White House, attempting to widen the wound and dig further. This didn’t work, so in came Alexander Graham Bell (yes, the same guy who invented the phone) with a rudimentary electromagnetic induction device that he had previously experimentally used to detect bullets in meat. Unfortunately, they still couldn’t get it, and eventually his body simply shut down from having to fight off infections for 80 days.
President Johnson Was the Ultimate Multitasker
Lyndon B. Johnson would often even start the morning working or orating to his aides while he was still in bed with his wife. Then, he’d hop in the shower, shave, and even use the toilet with them in the washroom with him, never missing a beat. He was brazenly unapologetic; as he remarked, “everyone’s seen these things before.”
Clinton Lost the Nuclear Codes for Months and Nobody Knew
The president of the United States must always have the codes needed to launch a U.S. nuclear site close by. It’s not really a guarded button that’s always kept on hand, but rather a set of codes that authorize a launch. Every 30 days, a Pentagon staffer is required to check the codes to ensure they’re correct. Then, they’re replaced every four months.
For one of those four-month spans, every time that member was dispatched to check the codes, President Clinton’s aide would say that he was too busy, and the Pentagon official would leave. It wasn’t until the fourth month, when it was time to collect the old codes to replace with new codes, that it became clear that Clinton had totally lost them. Since then, measures have been put in place so that even if the President is “too busy,” the Pentagon official must physically wait (for however long necessary) to verify the codes.
FDR Was Chauffeured in Al Capone’s Impounded Car
When Al Capone was sentenced to prison for evading taxes in 1931, the U.S. Treasury Department seized his assets, including his car. Fast forward 10 years—to the attack on Pearl Harbor. FDR was scheduled to give a speech to Congress the next day, but the Secret Service realized that there was no armored limo to transport the President. Then, one quick thinker in the Secret Service recalled that the government did indeed possess an armored car: Al Capone’s impounded armored Cadillac, which had 3,000 pounds of armor and one-inch-thick bulletproof windows.
LBJ Tested Personalities
You may have heard of how the CEO of Charles Schwab takes potential hires to breakfast and secretly has the manager bring the order incorrectly in order to see how the candidate will behave, but LBJ took a different approach to testing others’ character: he would pretend to get them into a car crash to see how they’d act!
Really, it was more for his own entertainment. He owned an amphibious car, which could go from land into water. He’d drive into the water, pretending to lose control—only for the car to float, safely.
Franklin Pierce Didn’t Swear on the Oath
Upon inauguration, most presidents swear an oath—generally, on the Bible—to the office. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, didn’t. He merely vocally affirmed it. (In fact, there is actually no law or mandate requiring that oaths in any office be taken on a bible. It has simply become customary.)
Also, Pierce’s vice president, William R. King, was the only VP to ever have been sworn in on foreign soil. King was in Cuba at the time of inauguration, nursing a bad bout of tuberculosis. He died 45 days into the Pierce’s tenure, and the VP office stayed empty for the rest of the term.
Eisenhower Desegregated Schools
In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ruled segregation in schools to be illegal. Though it was a Supreme Court ruling, states who opposed desegregation pushed back vehemently, refusing to integrate the schools. So, President Eisenhower sent 1,000 Army paratroopers to enforce the desegregation and maintain order.
President Harrison Only Served One Month
William Harrison died 32 days after becoming President, holding the title for “shortest serving president in American history.” He died of a cold he got while standing in the rain giving is inauguration speech—which, in stark contrast to his time in office, is still the longest running inaugural address in American history. And for more wild presidential stories, check out the 30 Craziest Things U.S. Presidents Have Done.
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