If you are like a lot of Americans, you probably believe that our current president or his predecessor are either the best or worst thing that ever happened to this country. But believe me, a lot of men elected to the highest office in the land have had their own fans and enemies for many reasons. Here are some interesting bits of trivia about former presidents that you might not have known.
Popular folklore would have you believe that George Washington, our first president, had wooden teeth. That’s not true. While he did have dentures, Washington was a wealthy man who could afford only the finest, and his were made from ivory and mounted in silver.
While today’s presidents retire with a healthy pension, then spend their days writing their memoirs, things weren’t always like that. When Washington left office, he went into the whiskey business, opening a distillery that became the largest in the nation.
Founding fathers John Adams (our second president) and Thomas Jefferson (our third) held different views on many things but were friends even though they often disagreed. Among their bones of contention was the fact that Jefferson was a strong advocate for state’s rights, while Adams favored a strong central government to run the new nation. Though they sometimes clashed in public and in private, and at one point did not speak to each other for twelve years, there is no question that they had great respect for each other. Ironically, the two ex-presidents both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Unaware that Jefferson had died hours before him, Adams’ last words were said to have been “Thomas Jefferson survives.”
John Adams seems to have believed in keeping it in the family. In 1754 he married his third cousin, Abigail Smith, over the strong and vocal opposition of her mother.
Thomas Jefferson was an educated man with many interests, from science and literature to politics, but he was also a craftsman. It is said he loved working with his hands and built many beautiful pieces of furniture. While he was president, Jefferson somehow obtained the bones of an ancient mastodon which he had shipped to the White House, where he spent his leisure time reconstructing the full skeleton of the prehistoric giant.
Unlike George Washington, who enjoyed success in the whiskey business after he left the presidency, Thomas Jefferson found himself so deeply in debt that in 1815 he sold his personal library of over 6,000 books to Congress for $23,950 to pay off his creditors. These books would supply the Library of Congress, whose original book collection had been burned by British troops during the War of 1812.
Many of our presidents have kept dogs and cats in the White House, but our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, apparently thought mundane pets like that were boring. That would explain why he kept a full-grown alligator in his bathtub. Historians say he had great fun showing off the big reptile to his friends and official guests.
Maybe it wasn’t an alligator, but President Andrew Jackson had a pet parrot that was just as ill-tempered. Not only did Polly bite anyone who came near, but the bird also had a penchant for profanity that Jackson took great delight in. It is said that the bird’s language proved scandalous to genteel society attending functions at the White House.
We all know that political debates can get heated at times, and the comments can turn downright ugly. It was no different back in the days of President Martin Van Buren, who grew so tired of the viciousness of elected officials that he carried a pair of dueling pistols to Senate meetings, just to keep the elected body in line.
Chewing tobacco is frowned upon these days both from a health and social standpoint, but back in the “good old days” it was common for men to chew. President Zachary Taylor was not only a chewer but also quite a spitter. Saloons and offices always had a spittoon, often made of brass, and they were messy, nasty things often coated in tobacco juice from spitters who did not aim well. Not President Taylor! He was very proud of the fact that when it came to spitting, he always hit his mark and never missed. Of course, who needs a spittoon when you are outside? It is said Taylor would sometimes knock a pesky fly out of the air with a well-aimed spit.
Besides chewing tobacco, Zachary Taylor apparently had a fondness for the taste of cherries as well. It is reported that at an Independence Day party in 1850, he ate an abundance of cherries washed down with milk, which caused a severe bout of gastroenteritis, followed by cholera and led to his death five days later. Maybe he should have spit those cherries out along with the tobacco juice.
We all think of Abraham Lincoln as being a kind and gentle man, and by all accounts, he was. But did you know that he was also quite the wrestler in his younger days? It is reported that he engaged in 300 wrestling matches and only lost one. That feat earned him a belated award from the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992.
We all know that Lincoln was a lawyer before entering politics, but did you know that he was also a bartender? In 1833, long before he went to Washington, the future president and a friend opened a saloon in New Salem, Illinois. The business failed because Lincoln’s partner was an alcoholic who drank far more booze than they ever sold.
Who doesn’t appreciate a president who is careful with the country’s money? What better way to do that than to do something yourself instead of paying somebody else for it? During Andrew Johnson’s term in office he sometimes returned to his pre-presidential days as a tailor, making his own suits to wear at public functions.
Maybe Johnson’s frugality was a result of the fact that his life was a true rags to riches story. Born in a log cabin in 1808, his father died when he was still a child and Johnson never had any formal schooling, teaching himself to read while he worked to help support his family from an early age.
Theodore Roosevelt is famous for advising people to speak softly and carry a big stick. Carrying a pair of eyeglasses also came in handy for Roosevelt, who survived a 1912 assassination attempt while on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The bullet passed through a multipage copy of the speech Roosevelt intended to give that day and an eyeglass case in his pocket before entering his body and lodging against a rib. Teddy Roosevelt wasn’t going to let something like that keep him from speaking to the assembled crowd. After calming the enraged mob who attacked his would-be assassin, telling his security detail to turn the mentally disturbed man over to police before he was beaten to death, Roosevelt brushed aside the concerns of his guards and a doctor called to the scene and went on to give the speech he came to Milwaukee to present. Doctors later determined that it would be more dangerous to remove the bullet than to leave it where it was, and there it stayed until Roosevelt’s death on January 6, 1919.
As you can see, colorful and sometimes controversial men have led our country from its earliest days. I sometimes wonder how they would have fared with today’s mass media and internet helping to mold public opinion.
Thought For The Day – A waist is a terrible thing to mind.