In honor of President’s Day, we give you five fun and off-beat facts about each of New England’s presidents, beginning with the earliest and working forward.
Massachusetts’ John Adams was the nation’s second president. Elected after serving as George Washington’s vice president, Adams was a Federalist who served one tumultuous term in office after winning election in 1896. He was defeated for a second term by Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican candidate who had earlier lost to Adams.
While the colonists pulled together during the American Revolution, they were hardly of one mind politically when it came to establishing the new nation. As vice president, Adams was called on to settle ties in the senate 31 times, a record that stands to this day.
Linked With Jefferson until Death
While Jefferson and Adams were bitter political rivals in the early days of America, the two men eventually reconciled. In their later days, they shared many letters that discuss the fortunes of the country that they both worked to found. Eventually, they would both die on the very same day, July 4, 1826 – the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Dire Warnings for the Future
One month before his death, Adams published a statement on the upcoming anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that contained something of a warning about the future of America. The country, he cautioned, was “destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind.”
Stole a Bit of Shakespeare’s Chair
In 1786, Jefferson and Adams visited England on a diplomatic mission, and while in the country they took time to tour William Shakespeare’s home in Stratford-Upon-Avon. While there, they chipped off a tiny piece of one of the Bard’s chairs as a souvenir, which Adams explained was the custom.
Not a Slaveholder
Adams, from Massachusetts, was the only President until 1825 who was not a slaveholder. His son John Quincy was the second.
John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, was the son of another president who faced intense political hostility in office and only served one term. Adams was far more successful before and after his four years in the White House; before, he set foreign policy as a diplomat and secretary of state; after, he vehemently opposed slavery as a long-time member of the House of Representatives.
At the age of 14 he became secretary to Francis Dana, traveling with him to St. Petersburg, Russia, to win recognition for the new United States. Born July 11, 1767, in Braintree, Mass., to John and Abigail Adams. He first traveled with his father in 1778 on a diplomatic mission to France. He became one of the greatest diplomats in U.S. history, negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, and designing the Monroe Doctrine.
He was the only president later elected to the House of Representatives. He served for 17 years to more acclaim than he had in the White House, where he served one term from 1825 to 1829. He used his role in Congress to fight slavery.
He liked to go skinny dipping in the Potomac during his presidency. Every morning at 5 a.m. he would go down to the river and swim. A female reporter named Ann Royall was denied the chance to interview him, but she knew of his habit. One morning she went to the riverbank and sat on his clothes until he gave her an interview. He thus became the first president to give an interview to a female reporter.
The Marquis de Lafayette gave him an alligator, which he had been given as a gift on his tour of the 24 states in 1824 and 1825. He in turn gave it to President Adams and his wife Louise. They kept it in the bathtub, where Adams enjoyed showing it to incredulous guests for several months. Eventually the alligator found a new home.
Haunting the Capitol
John Quincy Adams’ ghost is said to haunt the Capitol. He had a stroke at his desk in the House chamber on February 21, 1848. His condition was fragile, so he was taken to the Speaker’s Room. He lingered there for two days, then died. Many say they’ve heard him rail against slavery in National Statuary Hall. Many also claim you can hear his whisper by standing where his desk once stood.
New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce served a relatively forgettable four years in the White House following the 1852 elections. Remembered largely as an appeaser of southern slaveholders, he was beset with personal difficulties when his son died after the election but before his inauguration and his wife, stricken with grief, never got beyond the loss. A few unusual facts from his life:
No Flags for Lincoln
In the aftermath of the assassination of President Lincoln, a mob several hundred angry Concord, N.H. residents accosted Pierce at his home demanding to know why he was not displaying the flag to mark the tragedy. Pierce said he had no need to raise the flag to show his patriotism, and apparently did not do so. The event ended without violence.
No One Wanted Four More Years
Pierce was the only elected president in history to be rejected for re-nomination by his own party. Others have declined to run or dropped out of the race, but Pierce had the decision made for him at the convention where his party chose to nominate James Buchanan, one of the few presidents that historians think less of than Pierce.
He Bought Tucson
If you have an affection for Tucson, Arizona, you can thank Franklin Pierce. The Gadsden Purchase that added a swath of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico was finalized during Pierce’s time in office.
He Defended Two Wrongly Accused Men
Long before he was president, Franklin Pierce represented the defendants in one of New England’s most highly publicized murder trials, and he got the accused off. Jonas Parker, Manchester’s tax collector, was brutally murdered with a knife and razor in 1845. When suspicion fell on the Wentworth brothers of Saco, Maine, they relied on Pierce to get them acquitted. Pierce’s co-counsel in the case was Benjamin Butler of Lowell, Mass. who went on to become one of the most feared northern generals in the Civil War. Butler would later reveal that he had deduced who the murder was: it was a man from Massachusetts that had connections to Parker, and the murder was probably because Parker would not return $2,000 to the man — the proceeds of an earlier robbery that Parker had invested and refused to return.
Lifelong Friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne
Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College together, and the two remained close throughout Hawthorne’s life. Hawthorne wrote a flattering biography of Pierce that served as election propaganda, and was rewarded after the election with the post of consul of Liverpool. An odd-sounding job, perhaps, but a lucrative one. It gave Hawthorne a cut of all shipping between Liverpool and America. Following Hawthorne’s return to America in 1860, the two old friends embarked on a carriage tour of New Hampshire in 1864 that they hoped would restore Hawthorne’s failing health. Hawthorne died on the trip, however, in Plymouth, N.H.
Chester A. Arthur, the man with the mutton chops, was an improbable president during America’s Gilded Age: First, because he’d never been elected to office before James A. Garfield selected him as his running mate; and second, because he exceeded very low expectations of him when he took office upon Garfield’s assassination.
Only One Election
Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president of the United States, was only elected to one public office, vice president of the United States. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Collector of the Port of New York after he had risen in the political machine of New York Sen. Roscoe Conkling. James Garfield then selected him as his vice president. Arthur became president after Garfield was assassinated.
Arthur, born in Fairfield, Vt., on Oct. 5, 1829, was the son of a staunch abolitionist minister. William Arthur was a Baptist minister who helped for the New York Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s. Chester Arthur became a New York lawyer. In 1855,he successfully represented Elizabeth Jennings Graham, an African-American woman who insisted on her right to ride on a Manhattan streetcar. The case paved the way for the desegregation of public transportation in New York City.
Married a Singer
He married a singer. Arthur and Ellen “Nell” Lewis Herndon were wed on October 25, 1859. She was a talented soprano who sang with the Mendelssohn Glee Club, performing at benefits in New York City. They had two sons, one who died at age three, and a daughter. Nell died of pneumonia on Jan. 10, 1860.Arthur’s sister acted as First Lady when he became president on Sept. 19, 1881.
The Oddly Honest President
Arthur surprised everyone when he turned out to be an honest president. He was a member of the Republican Party’s Stalwart wing, which supported machine politics and patronage. When Charles Guiteau shot Garfield, he shouted, ““I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! Arthur is president now!” Arthur was mortified and hid out at his home in New York while Garfield lingered near death. When he took office he overcame his dirty reputation by successfully advocating civil service reform – and enforcing it. He also fought fraud in the U.S. Postal Service. He died shortly after leaving office. Mark Twain praised him, saying, “It would be hard indeed to better President Arthur’s administration.”
The Clothes Horse
Arthur was a clothes horse whose love of fine fashion earned him the nicknames Gentleman Boss and Elegant Arthur. He was said to own 80 pairs of pants.
Calvin Coolidge was the president who made the roaring 20s roar. Coolidge took over the presidency after the death of President Harding, whose administration had gotten bogged down in cronyism and scandals. Coolidge changed that. He was a no-nonsense leader. Unfortunately, he also took a hands-off approach to governing that helped create the bubble that burst and gave us the Great Depression. Both Massachusetts and Vermont can claim Coolidge as he was born in Vermont, but rose to political prominence in Massachusetts as a mayor and later governor.
Sworn in in Vermont
Calvin Coolidge was actually sworn in to office in Vermont. He was vacationing at his family’s homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vt., which had no telephone, on August 2, 1923, when Harding died. His father, a notary, swore him in in the early morning of August 3 and Coolidge went back to bed for the rest of the night.
Caught Shaving with a Hat
Coolidge earned his law degree and in 1897, at his father’s urging, joined to the Massachusetts bar to practice in Northampton, Mass. where he settled. His first introduction to his future wife Grace came in 1905 when she spotted him through the window of the boarding house where he was staying shaving — while wearing a hat. They were later formally introduced and went on to marry. He explained, by the way, that he wore the hat while shaving because it kept his hair under control.
Coolidge was a man of few words, especially for those he found annoying or stupid. And so he came to be known as Silent Cal. He was, however, far from silent. He had more than 500 press conferences, gave speeches that were aired on the radio and was the first president to have his inauguration broadcast over the radio. Perhaps more than silent, he was boring.
One of Ronald Reagan’s favorites
Coolidge rose to national prominence when he ended a Boston police department strike by ordering up the National Guard to keep the peace in the city and firing all of the striking police officers. Ronald Reagan praised Coolidge for his firing of the police officers when he, himself, famously fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy brought an image of youthful vigor to the White House, though he was plagued with health problems throughout his short life. His wife, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, restored the White House and hosted dazzling, sophisticated dinners, lending the name ‘Camelot’ to the Kennedy presidency. His assassination in 1963 traumatized the country; ask Baby Boomers where they were on Nov. 22, 1963 and they will tell you.
One Leg Short
President John F. Kennedy was born May 29, 1917 in Brookline, Mass., with one leg shorter than the other. The condition caused muscle spasms in his back and left leg, making it hard to walk. The pain was so bad he considered giving up his political career. Dr. Janet Travell discovered the condition, prescribing corrective shoes and shots of procaine. She also advised him to sit in a rocking chair, which became a famous piece of Kennedy lore.
He was a huge fan of Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels. His favorite was From Russia With Love, in which James Bond is marked for death by the Russian counterintelligence agency SMERSH. Fleming had dinner with Kennedy at his Georgetown home in 1960, when he was running for president, and the two discussed ways to overthrow Fidel Castro.
Donated his Salary
Kennedy gave all of his $100,000-a-year salary as president to charity. He was wealthy, as his father Joseph P. Kennedy had made a fortune in finance, movies and liquor. After taxes were taken out of his presidential income, it was given to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America, the United Negro College Fund, and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.
Integrated the Inauguration Dancefloor
He was the first president to dance with African-American women at an inaugural ball. Frank Sinatra, a friend of Kennedy’s brother-in-law Peter Lawford, put on a pre-inaugural gala featuring entertainers Nat King Cole, Sidney Poitier, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald. Kennedy’s was the first fully integrated inaugural ball in history.
Last Rites X 4
He was given last rites, the Catholic blessing before death, four times in his life: in 1947 on a sea voyage home after becoming gravely ill in England; in 1951 while stricken with a high fever in Japan; in 1954 following back surgery; on Nov. 22, 1963, after he’d been shot in Dallas.
Very interesting and amusing article on these New Englanders!
I’ve always loved history.i guess that’s why I got good grades in high school in history
We seem to be missing a certain president that was born in MA and still spends his summers in ME.
^Don, We wrestled with that. We generally focus on events that occurred before 1976 but did consider adding GHWB as a bonus. However, we thought he mightn ot appreciate being considered ‘historic.’
Funny lot, those New Englander’s!
John, thank you for posting this for President’s Day! Through genealogy, we recently found out President Pierce is in our family tree! It would be interesting to have contact from any other Franklin Pierce relatives out there.
We must also remember that George W. Bush along with his father Goerge H. W. Bush were also two presidents both born in New England. It is very doubtful if even Abraham Lincoln could have succeeded as a great President had he been President when Franklin Pierce was 1853-1857. Even Lincoln didn’t think he would be re-elected to a second term in 1864 because so many people disliked him. Had he not been assassinated very shortly after the end of the Civil War his star probably would not have risen as high as it did.
[…] some first-ever personal campaigning, Adams refused to follow suit. The second president to come from New England held firm. If the country wanted his services, he declared, she must ask for them. She didn’t. […]
[…] in the public eye, we often remember this president, congressman and diplomat for his quirks – his pet alligator or swimming naked in the Potomac or even his near […]
Comments are closed.