16 Fascinating Facts About U.S. Presidents Before the Civil War

Updated on August 29, 2019
Lissa Clason profile image

Melissa loves learning about history, and also enjoys learning about the people making history today. She is always reading something new.

The title of President of the United States of America is now loaded with a history spanning back for 230 years. In that time, 44 men have risen to accept that title and all of its duties and responsibilities, each of them guiding the nation in their own unique way through our country's historical events.

The period from the country's inception as a nation to the outbreak of civil war was a time where many great men took on the office of president, setting new precedents for American law, expanding our borders, and dealing (or not dealing) with the issue of slavery. Here are 16 facts about the men who defined what it means to be an American president, from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln.

George Washington Was Addicted to Ice Cream

Back in revolutionary times, ice cream was a very expensive treat to make: you would need to have a cow produce fresh milk and not have to sell it for money, and be able to afford imported salt and sugar, and keep ice cut from a river cool in an ice house.

It is thought that Washington‘s love of ice cream began with a dinner with Virginia’s colonial governor sometime before the war. Our first president brought ice cream with him on entry to the White House, serving it at dinner parties and government functions. George Washington loved ice cream so much, he once spent $200 dollars in one summer on ice cream. That would be $3806.89 today!


John Adams's Last Words Were Factually Wrong

John Adams, our 2nd president, lived to the ripe old age of 90. Adams and Thomas Jefferson had a complicated relationship, with Jefferson serving as his vice president despite the fact that they were in different political parties. Their relationship was so contentious at one point that Adams skipped Jefferson's presidential inauguration. Yet, in the end, both men shared a mutual respect for each other.

On his deathbed, on July 4th, 1826, John Adams's last words were "Thomas Jefferson survives". But Jefferson had died a couple of hours earlier at his estate, Monticello. Both men shared a July 4th death date on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. James Monroe would follow them in death exactly 5 years later.


Thomas Jefferson's Hobbies Were Fossil Collecting and Archaeology

Thomas Jefferson was a very intelligent man, and one of his hobbies was exploring the natural environment of his new country and learning about the people and animals that used to live there.

Jefferson was known in his lifetime for compiling his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he describes in great detail his excavation of an Indian burial mound sometime around 1780-1784. Researchers are still studying this burial mound today, and Jefferson has been called the father of American archaeology.

Jefferson was also fascinated by animal fossils and had the bones of a mastodon sent to the Presidential House in Washington DC. These bones are now on display with the rest of his fossil collection in Monticello, his estate.


James Madison Once Lost an Election Because He Didn't Give the Voters Alcohol

Even at a young age, James Madison was devoted to politics and government. When he was 26, he ran for a position in Virginia's House of Delegates in 1777, but lost the election because he refused to "swill the planters with bumbo", or provide the voters free liquor at the polls.

Madison believed that bribing the voters in any way was against republican principles, but his opponent in the race, a tavern keeper, did not have those scruples. Luckily for Madison, he was chosen to fill an open seat on Virginia's Council of State, and by the time he was 29 he was the youngest delegate at the Continental Congress.


James Monroe is the Only Person to Hold Two Cabinet Positions at Once

James Monroe was known as a quiet, thoughtful, and hardworking man. He held many positions throughout his political career, serving in the Virginia assembly, serving as a delegate to the Virginia Convention, and taking positions as Minister to France and Great Britain and governor of Virginia.

President James Madison was a good friend of Monroe's, and was a huge proponent of his abilities, appointing Monroe as both Secretary of State (1811-1817) and Secretary of War (1814–1815) simultaneously. No other politicians in the history of the US have held more than one cabinet position at once.


John Quincy Adams Argued a Case Before the Supreme Court In Favor of a Group of Illegally Abducted Slaves

Like his father before him, John Quincy Adams was an excellent defense lawyer, advocating for the underdog and persuading juries to treat his clients fairly. One of his most famous cases, U. S. v. The Amistad, made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

On July 1, 1839, illegally abducted slaves aboard a ship called The Amistad seized control, killing the captain and cook, and commanding the rest of the crew to bring them back to Africa. Instead, the crew sailed north, and US officials captured the ship. The slaves asserted that they had a right to be freed, and fought for their property rights in court. This case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where John Quincy Adams argued on behalf of the slaves. His argument reads:

"The Africans were in possession, and had the presumptive right of ownership; they were in peace with the United States: ... they were not pirates; they were on a voyage to their native homes ... the ship was theirs, and being in immediate communication with the shore, was in the territory of the State of New York; or, if not, at least half the number were actually on the soil of New York, and entitled to all the provisions of the law of nations, and the protection and comfort which the laws of that State secure to every human being within its limits."

Adams was so persuasive that the Court ruled in favor of the slaves, with a 7-1 majority.


Andrew Jackson Walked Around With A Bullet in his Chest for Several Years That Eventually Killed Him

Andrew Jackson, the president on the 20 dollar bill, had a flaw that proved to be fatal: his temper. Jackson was notorious for taking part in duels, and his reason was to protect his wife's honor. His wife, Rachel, was in an unhappy marriage with another man when they met, and the divorce was not legally finalized when she married Andrew Jackson, so the press branded her a bigamist and adulterer.

President Jackson was also a plantation owner and had a fondness for gambling over horse races. In 1805, Jackson's horse was scheduled to race against the horse of a man named Joseph Erwin, but Erwin's horse was unable to race as planned. The two men disagreed on how the $800 forfeit fee was to be paid, and Erwin's son-in-law, Charles Dickinson, began publicly slandering Jackson's wife in an attempt to defend his father-in-law. The insults and drama went back and forth until May 23, 1806, when Dickinson published a statement criticizing Jackson in a Nashville newspaper; Jackson responded to this with a challenge to duel, even though Dickinson was considered one of the best marksmen in the state.

The duel took place in Kentucky since dueling was outlawed in Tennessee. They met in a clearing, and stood 20 feet apart. Dickinson hit Jackson in the chest but missed his heart. Jackson was saved by wearing a coat that was too big for him, deflecting the angle of the bullets. Then, through terrible agony, Jackson fired at Dickinson. Dickinson was hit in the stomach, which caused him to die of blood loss. Jackson’s wound took months to get better and never completely healed. His doctors were afraid to try to remove the bullet because the operation could kill him.

The bullet remained in Andrew Jackson's body for the rest of his life, and eventually gave him a fatal case of lead poisoning in 1845. Jackson was highly criticized for dueling and for killing Dickinson, but he never apologized for it.


Martin Van Buren Tried to Block Texas From Becoming a State

In the 1830s when Martin Van Buren became president of the United States, tensions were running high over the issue of slavery. Texas became independent from Mexico in 1836, and requested to join the United States as a slave state. Van Buren, a northerner from New York, took a negative stance on the abolition of slavery, but did not want to upset the balance of power between the north and south. He moved into action, gathering supporters among the northern state Congressmen, and got a majority to block Texas from becoming a state. Texas would not join the United States until 1845.


William Henry Harrison Spent Only One Month In Office Before Dying

William Henry Harrison was a decorated army officer, leading the charge at the Battle of Tippecanoe and participating in the War of 1812 as a Major General. His political opponents cast him as an ignorant backwoods redneck who would rather "sit in his log cabin drinking hard cider".

Determined to disprove this reputation and get the country to view him as a war hero, on his cold and rainy inauguration day he chose not to wear an overcoat or a hat, rode on horseback to the ceremony instead of riding in a carriage, and gave a 8,445-word inaugural address. Despite having the shortest presidency, he gave the longest speech, speaking for over 2 hours.

Unfortunately, his habit of giving long speeches in the rain led to his death. On March 26, 1841, Harrison came down with a cold after being caught in a torrential downpour and having nowhere to hide. People thought that his illness had been caused by the bad weather at his inauguration three weeks earlier, but his symptoms started after the 26th.

Doctors were called in and they diagnosed him with pneumonia, treating him with outlandish concoctions such as a boiled mixture of crude petroleum and Virginia snakeroot, and placing heated suction cups and leeches on his torso. Naturally, these treatments didn't help, and on April 4, 1841, nine days after becoming ill, he died. A succession crisis ensued until the Vice President, John Tyler, claimed the presidency and set a precedence for the presidential line of succession.


Most of John Tyler's Cabinet Resigned and the Whig Party Kicked Him Out

John Tyler was given the nickname “His Accidency” upon ascending to the presidency, and things only got worse from there. The new President Tyler inherited his cabinet from President Harrison, minus a Vice President, since there was no precedent for him to be appointed one.

Immediately, Tyler butted heads with his cabinet because they wanted him to be a figurehead carrying out the previous president‘s plans while he wanted to implement his own policies. When it came time to authorize a bill for a new national bank, he vetoed the bill twice even though the Whig party supported it. The whole cabinet except for Daniel Webster, the Secretary of State, quit that day. The Whig party also became disgusted with his obstinence and expelled him from the party.

Later on, Congress tried to impeach John Tyler when he vetoed a bill that would increase tariffs on imported foreign goods past the current 20 percent limit. A depression was currently happening, and Tyler did not want to change the limit on tariffs because he was afraid that a decline in international trade would escalate the country's economic instability.

Before John Tyler, presidents did not use the power of vetoing bills often, and Whigs in Congress accused him of undermining them and trying to shift the balance between the branches of government. Luckily for Tyler, the Whigs lost control of the House in the elections of 1842, and his impeachment never went anywhere.


James K. Polk Established White House Office Hours, but Came to Regret It

President Polk was a serious, humorless workaholic, working 12 hour days and only taking 27 days off his entire term. During those long days in his office, he established office hours on two days per week where any American could stop by and voice their concerns or simply stop by to chat.

The grim, antisocial President quickly found these visits more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress, especially visits from job seeker begging him for work, and scrapped the idea. However, some of his other ideas, like the Smithsonian Institute, the US Naval Academy, and the US Treasury, still exist today.


Zachary Taylor Opposed the Marriage of His Daughter to the Future Confederate President

Zachary Taylor had 6 children and was particularly fond of his second oldest daughter, Sarah Knox Taylor, who he called Knoxie. When she was 17, Knoxie met Lieutenant Jefferson Davis, who served with her father in the Black Hawk War, and fell in love. Taylor was against their courtship because he didn’t want his daughter to experience the difficult life of being a military wife that her mother had had, but the young couple was determined to be together.

Davis and Knoxie married, but sadly the marriage didn’t last long. She died of malaria three months after her wedding at the age of 21. Jefferson Davis went on to become the first and only President of the Confederate States of America, remarrying to Varina Howell. President Taylor never saw his son-in-law betray his country; he died of a digestive ailment after eating raw cherries and iced milk at an 1850 event celebrating the construction of the Washington Monument.


Millard Fillmore Married His Teacher

Millard Fillmore met his wife Abigail at a private all-grades academy in New Hope, New York; he was her oldest student at 19 and she was his teacher, although she was only two years older than him.

The couple bonded over their love of learning, and although her family did not approve of him at first, they began a lengthy courtship that survived his graduation and his time in law school. They finally married seven years after they met, and she continued teaching after marriage which was rare at the time.

Abigail was a great influence on Millard’s career, advising him on political matters, befriending foreign officials, and creating her own improvements to the White House like the White House library. The couple had two children together, and were very happily married.


Franklin Pierce's 11-Year-Old Son Was Killed In a Train Accident Right Before His Inauguration

Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, was no stranger to tragedy. Two of his sons had died in childhood, Franklin Jr. dying at 3 days old and Frank Robert dying from typhus at age 4. But it was the death of his 3rd son, Benny, that was the most painful.

On January 6, 1853, Pierce, his wife Jane, and 11-year-old Benny were coming home to New Hampshire from a funeral in Massachusetts. Minutes after they boarded the train to leave, one of the train's axles broke, and their car derailed and tumbled down a 20-foot embankment. The car broke apart into several pieces, and Benny was killed instantly, partially decapitated by pieces of the train that fell on him.

His parents suffered minor physical damage, but the emotional toll was much greater. At his inauguration, Pierce refused to swear on the Bible because he believed that God was punishing him for his arrogance by killing his son. His wife could not even bear to come to the inauguration, and wrote a lengthy letter of apology to Benny for her failings as a mother. Jane would not make her public debut as First Lady for two years because of her grief.


Rumors That James Buchanan Was Gay Spread Around The Capital

James Buchanan was our only president to have been a lifelong bachelor, and his close relationship with Alabama senator William Rufus King incited many rumors over the pair's sexuality. They lived together in a boarding house in Washington DC for more than 10 years, even though both men were independently wealthy and could afford to live in their own homes. Andrew Jackson referred to them as "Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy", and other politicians referred to King as Buchanan's "better half", and called them "the Siamese twins".

King was present at many functions with Buchanan until 1844 when he became America's ambassador to France and moved to Paris. In a letter to a friend, Buchanan wrote:

“I am now ‘solitary and alone,’ having no companion in the house with me. I have gone a wooing to several gentlemen, but have not succeeded with any one of them. I feel that it is not good for man to be alone; and should not be astonished to find myself married to some old maid who can nurse me when I am sick, provide good dinners for me when I am well, and not expect from me any very ardent or romantic affection.”

After Buchanan won the 1856 presidential election, his niece and King's niece destroyed many letters of their correspondence. Historians may never know whether their relationship was a romantic one or a deep friendship.


The Brother of Lincoln's Assassin Saved the Life of Lincoln's Oldest Son

Around the beginning of 1865, a Lincoln and a Booth had a life-changing encounter. However, this is not the Lincoln and the Booth you may be thinking of. Robert Todd Lincoln, the president's oldest son, was standing on a crowded train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey. He became stuck between the platform and the train car, and when the train began to move he slipped into the gap and dangled helplessly. Edwin Booth, the older brother of the infamous John Wilkes Booth and a famous actor in his own right, saw Lincoln fall and pulled him out of the gap by his coat collar. Lincoln recognized his rescuer and thanked the actor profusely. This encounter gave Booth some peace after his brother murdered President Lincoln. Robert Todd Lincoln spread the story during his time in the army to make sure that Edwin Booth was not shunned for John Wilkes Booth's crimes.


© 2019 Melissa Clason


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    • pratik987 profile image


      8 months ago from Canada

      Good one

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      13 months ago from UK

      This is a fascinating list of facts. I was unaware of all of these.


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