American presidents: 9 things you (probably) didn’t know

Writer Jem Duducu brings you nine surprising facts about the country’s presidents past…

1) You are unlikely to know the name of the first president of America

Most minds will leap to George Washington, but think about that for a moment. During the American Revolutionary War of 1775–83 (also known as the War of Independence), Washington was first and foremost a politician; he was voted in as president in 1789, six years after the end of the War of Independence. So who was doing the governing side of things before Washington?

It is now largely forgotten that between 1774 and 1788, there were 15 men who were the ‘presidents’ of the Continental Congress. The important difference between these men and Washington (and all subsequent presidents) is that they were not voted in by the general population but, essentially, by committee.

The first of these was Peyton Randolph of Virginia. Randolph was a lawyer and had served as Attorney General of the Colony of Virginia. However, he resigned from the colonial government in the 1760s as he set about trying to counter (by legal means) the Stamp Act and other unwanted taxation of the American colonies by their British rulers.

Randolph had a keen legal and political mind as well as a proven track record of working against King George’s government, so he was a logical choice of candidate for president when delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies gathered in Philadelphia for the First Continental Congress in 1774. Without much debate, Randolph was promptly elected its first president, so we can say that the first American president took office before the Declaration of Independence of 1776.

Randolph was instrumental in the creation of the Olive Branch Petition of 1775, which was a final attempt to heal the wounds between the American colonies and the British government before war broke out, but he fell ill and died in that same year. However, the process whereby the Continental Congress elected a president continued for over a dozen times more. Randolph was succeeded by John Hancock of Massachusetts. None of the subsequent leaders were elected by the population at large because there was no government infrastructure, and later they were fighting a war against the world’s largest empire, so everyone was too busy to get out ballot papers.

In effect the president was just another member of the Continental Congress, elected by fellow members to serve as an impartial moderator during its meetings. Designed to be a largely ceremonial position without much influence, the office was unrelated to the later office of president of the United States. These early presidents did, however, oversee meetings that dealt with nascent foreign policy, the conduct of the revolutionary war and all the other pressing matters of the time.

The last president of the Continental Congress was Cyrus Griffin (another lawyer), who resigned in November 1788 to pave the way for the first general election of a true president in 1789. This was won by an ex-British officer by the name of George Washington.

 

2) Aaron Burr was the most dangerous American vice president

How much do you know about Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson’s vice president during his first term of office?

By the time Burr was aged two, both of his parents had died and he was raised by his uncle. He was smart and ambitious and was studying law when the American Revolutionary War started. Burr was from the younger generation who, while having been born in the Colonial era, had spent most of their adult lives as Americans. He joined the Continental Army and worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was involved in many engagements, most notably at the 1775 battle of Quebec (which the British won).

While the war ground on, Burr not only fought for independence – he also qualified as a lawyer and, after the war, settled in New York. In 1789 his flirtation with politics became serious when he became the New York State Attorney General.

Burr’s influence and interest in politics grew over the next 15 years, and by 1801 he had made it to vice president. It was in this role that his strained relationship with Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers (who had been attacking Burr via the press throughout 1804) flared up, and he challenged the first secretary of the treasury and the founder of the New York Post to a ‘duel’. The two men represented the two main political parties of the day: Burr, the Democratic-Republicans, and Hamilton, the Federalists. There was simply too much riding on this personal animosity, and cooler heads should have prevailed. They didn’t. Burr shot and mortally wounded Hamilton. Hamilton made it home, where he died the next day. Burr is the only vice president to have killed a man during his term of office – and he did not go to jail.


An engraved illustration of the Burr-Hamilton duel, 11 July 1804. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
 

Unbelievably, this wasn’t as controversial as it got for Burr. Shortly after leaving his role as vice president, Aaron Burr was tried for treason. He was said to be at the head of a conspiracy whose goal was to create an independent country in the centre of North America and parts of present-day Mexico. Burr’s version was that he intended to take possession of and farm 40,000 acres (162 km²) in the Texas territory – land that had been leased to him by the Spanish crown.

Despite no firm evidence, President Thomas Jefferson ordered that Burr be arrested, and he was indicted for treason. Burr’s true intentions remain unclear. Some historians believe he intended to take parts of Texas and some or all of the Louisiana Purchase (the western half of the Mississippi River basin purchased in 1803 from France by the United States) for himself. Whatever the truth of the matter, Burr was acquitted of treason, but the trial destroyed his already faltering political career.

War hero, killer and possible traitor: 19th-century American politics was far from dull!

 

3) It seems Jefferson did not consider being president his greatest achievement

Jefferson mastered many disciplines including philosophy, mathematics, horticulture and architecture. He spent 40 years erecting, destroying and redesigning the rooms of his Monticello estate where some of the rooms are octagonal because he found the shape pleasing.

Jefferson was also a voracious reader and collector of books. Back in the early 19th century a collection of 100 books would be seen as quite an expansive (and expensive) library. In 1815, congress bought Jefferson's collection of 6,487 books.

Jefferson was a true overachiever and left instructions that his tombstone should read as follows: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom and Father of the University of Virginia”. What’s not on there is “Third President of the United States of America”…

 

4) John Quincy Adams was a colourful character

When we look at the stern, serious portraits of presidents past, it’s easy to forget that these leaders had personalities and personal interests of their own. However, the interests of the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams, were more unusual than most. For example, he got up every morning at 5am to swim the Potomac River naked. This became so well known that a female reporter, Ann Royall, once stole his clothes and sat on them, refusing to hand them over until he agreed to give her an interview, thus becoming the first woman to interview an American president (though, presumably, not just as he emerged from the river).

Adams is known to have charged the government $61 for a pool table at the White House, which was so mocked as a sign of his aristocratic tastes that he had to reimburse the treasury. He also kept a ‘pet’ alligator in a bath in the East Wing of the White House and enjoyed scaring guests when showing them around.

As unusual as all this sounds, there is a yet stranger story associated with Quincy Adams. In 1818, Adams became excited about the idea put forward by American officer Captain John Cleves Symmes that “the earth is hollow, and habitable within…”. Symmes published articles and went on speaking tours, building on his original idea to later include “mole people” who supposedly inhabited the interior of the earth.

Unbelievably, John Quincy Adams put together the funding for an expedition to the Arctic Circle where it was proposed that a hole be drilled that would lead to the earth’s interior. There, Adams thought, they would find these “mole people”.

Thankfully, for the sake of the taxpayers and Adams’ reputation, the expedition didn’t happen. Adams failed to get re-elected and Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, was not the kind of man to be taken in by such fanciful ideas.

While all of this is amusing, it should also be remembered that Adams was one of the few presidents who was staunchly anti-slavery – many of the previous presidents had owned slaves and James Monroe, America’s fifth president, even brought some to the White House. Adams fought tirelessly to end the scourge.


John Quincy Adams. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

5) Andrew Jackson’s encounter with a house painter named Richard Lawrence made history

Richard Lawrence was a house painter who had migrated to America with his family at the turn of the 19th century. He was, in many ways, an average person, but as he grew older he became more and more erratic. At one point he told his family he was going back to England, only to return a month later declaring he had changed his mind because it was too cold. Unfortunately he became obsessed with the seventh American president, Andrew ‘Old Hickory’ Jackson, who took office in 1829.

The two men’s worlds notably intercepted at a funeral in January 1835. Lawrence had been following Jackson for some time and was seen to be agitated on the day. As he left a paint shop, he was heard to mutter to himself, “I'll be damned if I don't do it”.

As Jackson was walking away from the funeral gathering, Lawrence stepped out behind the president, raised and fired a pistol. Nothing happened. However, Lawrence had been thorough in his plans and raised a second pistol, but this, too, failed to fire. Jackson was a man of action in every possible sense, and on this occasion he showed Lawrence just why he was sometimes called ‘Old Hickory’ as he wielded his hickory walking stick and beat senseless his would-be assassin. Jackson was in his late sixties but clearly still had enough fire in his belly to retaliate against the man who had tried to kill him. This was the first assassination attempt carried out against a sitting president of the United States of America.

In the ensuing court case, Lawrence explained that he associated the president with the loss of his job, and that by killing Jackson he hoped for a better world. He also informed the court that he was not just Richard Lawrence but Richard III, king of England (who had been dead for some 350 years). Because of such outlandish statements and other testimony about his ever-more bizarre behaviour, Lawrence was found “not guilty by reason of insanity” and institutionalised for the rest of his life.

So why did Lawrence’s plot fail? When the two pistols were inspected they were found to be new and in good working order. However, later research suggested that this particular model was prone to misfire in damp conditions, which would have been the case on that late January day in Washington DC.

Many more attempts would be made on other presidents’ lives – some successful, some not. As with these later attempts, conspiracy theories were linked to Lawrence’s action, but there was never any evidence to implicate anyone else in this assassination attempt.

 

6) Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state bought Alaska

Andrew Johnson, the 17th president of the United States, is forever linked to the American Civil War and the Reconstruction afterwards, but there was another key aspect of his presidency which, at the time, was seen as yet another of his mistakes. But it turned out to be one of the shrewdest moves any American president has ever made.

Johnson’s secretary of state, William Seward, had been busy talking to the Russian government. Russia was then about as far removed from America as you could get, but Seward’s intention was to buy some of its real estate located on the North American continent. The area in question was Alaska. There was some interesting chicanery in the initial negotiations, for example: Joseph S Wilson, the commissioner of the General Land Office, claimed that all the imperial powers were interested in the land (they weren’t) and that Alaska’s climate had “a high range of climatic temperature…(with a)…wonderful current of warm water”. Seward’s purchase of Alaska in 1867 for $7.2 million became known as ‘Seward’s Folly’.

However, as the years rolled by, the advantages of the purchase became apparent. Right at the end of the 19th century, gold was discovered in Alaska. Then, in the 20th century, large oil and natural gas deposits were identified. Thirdly, the acquisition meant that the US had a strategically important border with Russia (later the Soviet Union and then Russia again). What had initially seemed a bad deal turned out to have been one of the best purchases in American history.


William Henry Seward, c1860. (Photo by Henry Guttmann/Getty Images)

 

7) Grover Cleveland was an honest liar

Grover Cleveland began his second term, now as the 24th president, by concealing important personal information from the nation. What had started as a bump on the roof of his mouth grew larger and he was diagnosed with cancer. Cleveland feared that if his tumour became common knowledge it could cause political and financial chaos in the country, so he did what any politician would do: he covered it up. It is, however, the scale of his deception that was downright ingenious. He told a few people but excluded even his own vice president, Adlai Stevenson, from the news. 

Cleveland’s cover story was a four-day ‘fishing trip’ where some of ‘the crew’ consisted of six of the best surgeons in America. They wanted Cleveland to shave off his moustache so they could go in just below the nose, but Cleveland feared that if his signature moustache was defaced, people would realise something was up, so the operation was conducted through the roof of his mouth. Four days was the minimum time needed to convalesce. 

The risky operation was a complete success, and present-day oral surgeons have described it as nothing short of miraculous. Cleveland made a full recovery, the general population was none the wiser, and the president’s moustache remained intact.

 

8) William McKinley was the third president to be assassinated

Shortly into his second term, the successful and popular William McKinley, 25th president of the United States, became the third victim of assassination (after Abraham Lincoln on 14 April 1865 and James A Garfield on 2 July 1881).

McKinley’s personal secretary, George Cortelyou, feared assassination attempts, especially as McKinley refused the security that was available. Cortelyou had twice postponed a presidential visit to an exposition in Buffalo, fearing that McKinley would be most vulnerable in a crowded area, but the president loved meeting the public and twice put the visit back into his diary.

Cortelyou was right in his fears. On 6 September 1901, McKinley finally visited the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition, where he met a line of well-wishers. One of them was Leon Frank Czolgosz, a former steel worker who had lost his job in the Panic of 1893 (a serious economic depression) and had since become an anarchist. When Czolgosz got to the front of the line, with a pistol hidden under a handkerchief, he fired two shots into McKinley’s abdomen before being wrestled to the ground. The crowd rounded furiously on Czolgosz and began to beat him savagely, when the gravely wounded McKinley shouted out, “Boys! Don’t let them hurt him!” McKinley also asked that his wife should have the news broken to her gently.

McKinley was rushed to hospital and, over the next few days, appeared to be making a recovery; however, no one knew that gangrene was slowly spreading in his stomach and fatally poisoning his blood. He died on 14 September 1901. After this murder of a third president, Congress passed legislation that charged the Secret Service, which had been in existence since 1865, with the protection of the president.

Czolgosz was arrested and was put on trial within days. The defence lawyers wanted more time to construct their case, but there had been dozens of eyewitnesses and even Czolgosz himself did not hide the fact that he had killed the president. It took the jury only 30 minutes to come to a guilty verdict. Czolgosz was convicted and executed by electric chair.


William McKinley, c1895. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

9) Eisenhower finished off the British Empire

In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt, was making waves about Arab nationalism, which culminated in Egypt nationalising the Suez Canal. This was astonishing news to the British and French who had spent a fortune building it and still owned and managed it.

A secret plan was thus devised by the British, French and Israeli authorities to invade Egypt, depose Nasser and take back control of the Suez Canal. It was classic gunboat diplomacy which, had it happened 50 years earlier, would probably have been one of those little colonial conflicts that everyone (apart from the indigenous population) has subsequently forgotten about. In the event, the invaders tore through the Egyptian forces. The plan had worked perfectly.

However, President Eisenhower was appalled. He had been attempting to calm Nasser and get him to side with the west and America, rather than the Soviet Union, which was also courting this young revolutionary. With the western powers playing the part of the foreign villain, it was looking like Nasser would willingly go over to Khrushchev and the Soviets.

Meanwhile, the Soviets were carrying out an invasion of their own in Hungary, under the pretext of bringing calm to a popular revolution against communist rule. America had no option but to condemn both operations, as anything else would have been seen as political bias and hypocrisy. The bigger problem was that the Soviets were more resistant to threats than Israel and Western Europe. A UN Security Council meeting resulted in serious political and economic pressure on all of the invading nations.

The outcome was the worst of both worlds for western democracy. Firstly, the Soviets successfully crushed the Hungarian Revolution and kept their forces in the country, effectively annexing it. Neither Eisenhower nor the UN could do anything about it; Soviet influence had moved further west.

Secondly, just as America had feared, Nasser looked to the Soviet Union to take on the role of protector and defence partner. A potential ally had become a potential enemy.

Thirdly, and most critically, America’s political scolding of Britain and France showed them to be much diminished in status. It proved that Britain, in particular, was no longer the world power it had been just a generation earlier. Although Britain had lost the subcontinent in 1947, in 1956 it still had an empire and the Commonwealth stretching across the globe, but many mark the start of the demise of the British empire with the Suez Crisis of 1956. British prime minister Anthony Eden was forced to resign over the whole sorry mess.

With hindsight, Eisenhower later recognised that his neutering of British power had been a mistake.

Jem Duducu is author of The American Presidents in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016). You can find Jem as @HistoryGems on Twitter and Facebook.

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