As soon as the sun rose on the morning of the 30th of April, 1789, crowds in New York City gathered to witness an important event. That afternoon, a tall man walked onto the balcony of the New York Federal Building with a companion. The Bible in the hand of Robert Livingstone was flipped open. The tall gentleman placed one hand on it and raised the other.
I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
With that, George Washington became the first President of the United States. Ever since, there has been a fascination with the men who have run the country. In the early days, before the vote was extended beyond a few elites, there was almost a mythical quality about them. Even as the vote expanded to nearly all American citizens 18 and over, the mystery and excitement did not finish.
Those who have held the title have been varied. Some, like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are revered. Others, like James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding are often regarded as failures. Thomas Jefferson and Calvin Coolidge were quiet men, whilst Theodore Roosevelt and Donald Trump had the personality of a showman. Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton were born into poverty, whilst Franklin Roosevelt and George HW Bush enjoyed privilege.
Even their lives have been non-uniform. John Tyler had 15 children, the eldest and youngest 45 years apart in age. James Buchanan never married. James K. Polk had no biological children. Jimmy Carter has been married for 74 years at the time of writing, longer than some presidents have been alive.
Some were cut down in their prime, while others lived long lives. Their wives ranged from shy wall-flowers to social butterflies. Nearly all endured tragedy, from widowhood to the death of a child. Some attended Harvard and Yale, while others were barely literate. Many served in the military.
On this Presidents’ Day, let’s dive into some fun facts to share.
- The first President (Washington) and the latest (Biden) were born 210 years apart. Their first years in office were 232 years apart.
- The longest Presidency was that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who clocked in a whopping 4,442 days. The shortest belonged to poor Willaim Henry Harrison at exactly one month.
- The youngest president to take office was Theodore Roosevelt at 42 years old, whilst the youngest to be elected was John F. Kennedy at 43 years old. The eldest is incumbent Joe Biden at 78 years old.
- The shortest living was JFK at 46 years & 177 days, whilst the shortest living who died of natural causes was James K. Polk at 53 years & 255 days. The longest lifespan belongs to Jimmy Carter, who is 96 at the time of writing.
- The president who was youngest upon marriage was 18-year-old Andrew Johnson. Grover Cleveland was the oldest at 49, though some married for the second time later than that.
- The largest age gap between a President and his wife belongs to John and Juli Tyler at 30 years.
- The state with the most presidential births is Virginia, with a grand total of eight.
- Only two presidents have had both parents at their inauguration: Kennedy and George W. Bush.
- Teddy Roosevelt’s 1906 trip to Panama was the first time a President went abroad during his time in office.
- The only president to be buried in Washington, D.C. is Woodrow Wilson.
- All Presidents, apart from Martin Van Buren, are related to King John of England.
On a bit of a bum tone, let’s remember the eight presidents who lost their lives during their tenure:
William Henry Harrison (1841): Only a few weeks after taking office, Harrison felt ill. Doctors diagnosed pneumonia and began old medical treatments such as bloodletting. The nation prayed for his health, but Harrison died only nine days after falling ill and a month after inauguration.
The myth that he got ill from doing his inaugural speech in the pouring rain with no cost is indeed a myth. His illness probably came from later activities that included walks in the marshes.
Cause of death: Septic shock believed likely, but the initial illness is unknown – likely typhoid or pneumonia.
Zachary Taylor (1850): During the Independence Day celebrations of 1850, Taylor enjoyed lots of raw fruit washed down with milk. He started to get ill soon after and quickly went downhill, predicting that he’d die. One day after that prediction, he passed away.
The sewage system in Washington was terrible and it allowed open season on illness. Taylor may have gotten ill from the fruit and milk, but there’s a high chance that he got cholera. This could have come from the ice, but there were plenty of other places he could have got it. An investigation years later nixed the idea of poisoning.
Cause of death: Gastroenteritis, possibly cholera.
Abraham Lincoln (1865): Lincoln, his wife Mary, Major Henry Rathbone and Rathbone’s fiancée Clara Harris attended the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre in DC. John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor and Confederate sympathizer, snuck in during the performance. He slipped into the President’s box and immediately fired.
Booth managed to escape whilst an army surgeon who’d been watching the play rushed over to help. Lincoln was eventually moved to a house across the street. The wound was immediately decided to be mortal, and Lincoln died the next morning.
Cause of death: Gunshot wound to the head
James Garfield (1881): Disgruntled and mentally unbalanced office seeker Charles Guiteau was angry that Garfield would not give him a job. He arrived at the train station Garfield was leaving DC from and shot the president twice. Guiteau was immediately apprehended.
Garfield was taken upstairs, but then moved to the White House. Doctors decided the wound was fatal, but Garfield surprised them the next day by being alert. Over the next two and a half months, Garfield’s condition continually changed. The doctors who treated him attempted to remove the bullets with their bare hands, as the germ theory was not mainstream yet. Alexander Graham Bell helped by using a metal detector to find the bullets, but it didn’t work as Garfield was on a metal framed bed. Towards the end, Garfield was septic, had lost a large amount of weight, and was hallucinating. Eventually, Garfield died due to an aortic aneurysm.
It’s well known that Garfield could have survived if he’d been treated by modern medicine, but the practices of the time made it impossible. Guiteau himself argued this in court, saying “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” This didn’t stop him from receiving the death penalty.
Cause of death: Aneurysm caused by septic shock as a result of bullet wounds.
William McKinley (1901): William McKinley was attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He was shaking hands with crowd members. When he shook hands with a man named Leo Czolgosz, Czolgosz shot McKinley twice in the stomach.
McKinley was rushed to hospital. He asked that Czolgosz would not be harmed and asked that his delicate wife would be told gently. The hospital did not have the best equipment and the doctors used their fingers to examine his open wound. At first, McKinley seemed to be doing well. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt left for a trip, whilst others left McKinley’s side when they assumed he’d be okay. Unfortunately, gangrene was actually setting in. A week after he was shot, McKinley started to worsen rapidly. He died early in the morning on 14th September.
Cause of death: Gangrene and acute pancreatitis
Warren G. Harding (1923): In late July, on a West Coast trip, President Harding started to feel unwell. It was initially believed to be a stomach complaint, but a later relapse revealed that he also had pneumonia. Harding was told to stay in bed rest and again, he seemed to be doing well. As his wife was reading him a good review in the paper, Harding suddenly started convulsing before dropping still. Doctors were immediately called in, but Harding was dead.
His actual cause of death, a heart attack, was not officially suggested as doctors at the time were unaware of those symptoms. His wife Florence’s refusal of an autopsy led to rumours she’d poisoned him over his affairs and illegitimate child.
Cause of death: Heart attack
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1945): FDR had suffered illness for some years and continued to as he entered his fourth term. He was sitting for a portrait in his Warm Springs residence, joined by painter Elizabeth Shoumatoff and his lover Lucy Mercer. As he ate lunch, he suddenly said that “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.” He then slumped over. He was carried to the bedroom and his doctor immediately diagnosed it as a cerebral haemorrhage. FDR died a few hours later.
Cause of death: Cerebral haemorrhage
John F. Kennedy (1963): Whilst on a campaign stop in Texas, JFK, his wife Jackie, Texas Governor John Connally, and his wife Nellie were riding down the streets of Dallas. The common explanation is that Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots at JFK. One shot entered from the back of his neck and came out of his throat. The second was the killer, it hit his head and damaged a large portion of his brain. Connally was also injured, but he recovered.
The car sped to Parkland Hospital, where doctors immediately decided it was a mortal wound. A tracheotomy was performed, as well as a heart massage. At exactly 1PM, JFK was declared dead and last rites were administered.
Cause of death: Gunshot wound to the head
Every President has brought something to the table. Whilst it is generally Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln who are remembered today, let’s not forget every other man who has made the office what it is.