Romancing History

Category: Presidents

What Your History Teacher Didn’t Teach About Our Presidents

When people discover what a huge history geek I am, they usually wrinkle their noses and tell me how boring they think history is. Boring? That was one thing I never understood. History is full of some pretty colorful characters.

Weird Facts About US Presidesnts

To prove my point, I’m highlighting of some of the interesting, unique and just plain strange facts about some of the men who occupied the hallowed halls of the White House.  Did you know one of our presidents liked to skinny dip in the Potomac River? Or that another vandalized Shakespeare’s property? Or that one President trained his parrot to swear?


Things Your History Teacher Never Taught You

Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

…had a bit of a stealing problem. While visiting William Shakespeare’s birthplace in England in 1786, he and John Adams cut off a piece of Shakespeare’s chair to take home as a souvenir. Later, while in France, Jefferson smuggled rice out of the country by stuffing his pockets.

James Madison (1809-1817)

…our smallest president, Madison stood at 5’4″ and weighed around 100 pounds.

John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

….was known for skinny dipping in the Potomac River every morning. A reporter took advantage of this information and sat on his clothes until the president would grant him an interview.

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

…taught his pet parrot to swear. It was all fun and games, until the parrot had to allegedly be removed from Jackson’s funeral because it wouldn’t stop cursing.

Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

…was an indentured servant to a tailor. While in the White House, Johnson preferred to make made his own suits.

James A. Garfield (1881)

…was ambidextrous and could write in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other—at the same time!

Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)

…became the legal guardian to his friend’s 11-year-old orphaned daughter. Ten years later, they were married at the White House, making her the youngest First Lady ever at the age of 21. I’m a big fan of the Happily-Ever-After but that’s just plain creepy.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

…had electric lighting installed in the White House. He was so scared of being electrocuted that he refused to touch the light switches and was known to go to bed with all the lights on.

William McKinley (1897-1901)

…considered carnations his good luck charm and wore them everywhere. On September 6, 1901, his luck ran out when he gave a little girl the carnation from his lapel and was shot by an assassin a short time later. He died the following week.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)

…was triskaidekaphobic (try saying that three times real fast). Terrified of the number 13, FDR and refused to have dinner with 13 guests or leave for a trip on the 13th of any month.

Image result for number thirteen

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

…had a toy named after him following a 1902 hunting trip when friends clubbed a black bear and tied it to a tree. Roosevelt declined to kill the bear stating it was unsportsmanlike. When the Washington Post printed a cartoon depicting the event, a toy maker created “Teddy Bears” in his honor.

Harry S Truman (1945-1953)

…doesn’t have a middle name. His parents chose the initial because they had a lot of relatives whose names started with that letter.

Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)

…is the only president to never be elected by the American people. He was appointed to the vice-presidency when Spiro Agnew resigned and then later ascended to the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation. Talk about being in the right place at the right time.

Image result for jar of jelly beansRonald Reagan (1981-1989)

…loved jelly beans so much that he had a standing order of 720 (yes, you read that right–seven-hundred twenty) bags be delivered to the White House each month. Reagan shared his favorite candy with colleagues and visitors. Jelly Belly created a blueberry-flavored jelly bean just for him so he could have jars full of red, white, and blue beans.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

…has two Grammy Awards,  one for spoken word and one for audiobook projects.

George W. Bush (2001-2009)

…was his high school’s head cheerleader.

Barack Obama (2009-2017)

…had a pet ape called Tata when he lived in Indonesia.

Hopefully you now agree, behind every page in the history textbook lurks interesting and strange facts you never learned in school.

What Do Macaroni, a Wheel Cipher and the Presidency Have in Common?

Q: What Do Macaroni, a Wheel Cipher and the Presidency Have in Common?

A: Thomas Jefferson

That’s right! When he wasn’t drafting the Declaration of Independence, establishing the University of Virginia or serving as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson  was also an inventor and an innovator.

Here’s a list of some of the his amazing inventions:

Courtesy of Monticello

The “Wheel Cipher”– Long before electronic encryption and account passwords, codes were needed to make sure messages stayed safe. Jefferson’s device consisted of twenty six letters inscribed on cylindrical wooden pieces threaded together onto an iron spindle. The pieces with the letters could be rearranged to send coded messages that could be easily deciphered with the right key.

Courtesy Agricultural History Museum

Iron Plow – Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, was one of the largest in Virginia but his fields were prone to erosion because of the of the Virginia climate and the rolling hills. The plows of his day were made from wood and could only partially dig into the soil. Jefferson needed a plow that could dig up to three inches deeper to facilitate hillside planting. Together with his his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, he created an iron and moldboard plow that could create furrows down hillsides. Iron plows were also more durable.

Courtesy of Monticello

“Macaroni Machine” – Following his travels to Europe, Jefferson developed a passion for fine wine and European cuisine. One of his favorite foods was macaroni.  Jefferson created the “macaroni machine” which forced the pasta dough through six small holes so that it could have that classic elbow bend thus allowing his personal chef to create the pasta dish in less time. Side note, Jefferson also enjoyed adding various cheeses to traditional dishes, often melting it into a type of sauce and many food historians credit Jefferson with the invention of macaroni and cheese!

Swivel Chair – There is some dispute over this one, but many historians credit Jefferson with the invention of this office staple. While in Philadelphia, Jefferson purchased a simple English-style Windsor chair from a local cabinet maker. Then Jefferson set about modifying the chair so that the top and bottom parts were connected by a central iron spindle-enabling the seat to swivel. Legend has it that Jefferson drafted the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 in his swivel chair. Jefferson later had the invention sent to his Virginia plantation where he later built a “writing paddle” onto its side in 1791. Since 1836, the chair has been in the possession of the American Philosophical Society located in Philadelphia.

Devices Jefferson Improved Upon:

Courtesy of Monticello

The Polygraph Duplicator  – Not the kind we think of today for measuring the veracity of a suspect’s testimony, but instead a copy machine. Long before carbon paper, this was a machine used to copy letters by imitating the movements of the writer’s hand. It was originally invented by the Englishman John Isaac Hawkins, who later sold the rights to produce and market the device in America to Charles Willson Peale. Jefferson purchased many versions of the Polygraph from Peale, several of which were developed after recommendations for improvements by Jefferson himself. Jefferson called the device,”the finest invention of the present age.”

Courtesy of Monticello

“Dumb Waiter” – During a trip to a Parisian cafe, Jefferson observed the staff using a mechanical dumb waiter. Once he returned to Monticello, he drew designs and adapted the device to accommodate wine bottles. Servants controlled the dumbwaiter by using a pulley system that would safely deliver the beverage from the kitchen to his drawing room while entertaining. Jefferson even devised an inconspicuous place for his creation, hiding it in the side of a fireplace inside his Virginia plantation house.

Although he did not invent crop rotations, Jefferson improved many crop rotation methods, farming implements, and developed over 300 types of hybrid vegetation at Monticello.  He also invented a rotating book stand, a folding ladder, the lazy Susan and a seven-day clock . Jefferson thought of furnishings as a waste of space. His dining room table was designed to be fold away when not in use, while beds were often positioned in alcoves.

Thomas Jefferson commented on his love for science, saying “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.” Despite his fascination with science, technology and innovation, Jefferson never filed for a patent. Jefferson, a strong proponent of equality among all people, was not sure if it was fair or even constitutional to grant what was essentially a monopoly to an inventor, who would then be able to grant the use of his idea only to those who could afford it.

Which Jeffersonian invention or innovation surprised you the most?



Ronnie and Nancy, Love Letters from History

While I love a good romantic novel or film, nothing beats real life love stories. One of the best, revolves around a former president and his lady love. Yep, you guessed it, I’m talking about President Reagan and his wife, Nancy.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan sharing a joyful moment. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library/Getty Images

Whether away from home or across the room, the former President was known to pen his undying love and admiration for the First Lady. “You should…be aware of how essential you are in this man’s life. By his own admission, he is completely in love with you.”

In 2000, former First Lady Nancy Reagan published the endearing and often tear-jerking memoir, I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan. Have a box of tissues handy because this beautiful collection of love letters will have you laughing and crying, often at the same time.

Note the White House stationery on this letter from the former president to the first lady.

I have a box of letters my husband and I exchanged during the year we were engaged while he was stationed at Ft. Ord, California, and I taught 10th grade in Pennsylvania. I treasure those letters as the former First Lady treasured hers. “Whenever Ronnie went away, I missed him terribly, and when his letters arrived, the whole world stopped so I could read them.” Letters that no doubt brought Mrs. Reagan great comfort as her beloved husband suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Image: Wenn

One such letter dated December 25, 1981, the couple’s first Christmas in the White House, described the different aspects of his wife and what he loved about each one. The letter was read  by former Prime Minister and close friend of Ronald Reagan’s, Brian Mulroney, at the funeral service for Nancy Reagan in March, 2016.

“Dear Mrs. R, there are several much beloved women in my life, and on Christmas, I should be giving them gold and precious stones and perfume and furs and lace. I know that even the best of these would fall short of expressing how much these several women mean to me and how empty my life would be without them. There is the fun First Lady Nancy who brings “so much grace and charm to whatever she does,” the do-gooder Nancy who visited sick children in hospitals, the “nest-builder” Nancy, “the girl who goes to the ranch,” the “sentimental lady,” and the girl who “loves to laugh.”

“Fortunately, all these women in my life are you. Fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you. Browning asked, ‘How do I love thee, let me count the ways…’ For me there is no way to count. Merry Christmas to all the gang of you: mummy, first lady, the sentimental you, the fun you, and the pee-wee powerhouse you. Merry Christmas, you all. With all my love, lucky me.”

You can almost see the twinkle in the former President’s eyes when he wrote, “The nicest thing a girl ever did for me was when a girl named Nancy married me and brought a warmth and joy to my life that has grown with each passing year.”

President Reagan wanted Nancy and everyone else to know that the greatest treasure was not his successful career or the fortune he amassed. Rather, his greatest treasure was his marriage.

“We haven’t been careless with the treasure that is ours — namely what we are to each other.”

Although she was an accomplished actress in her own right, Nancy Reagan wrote “when I say my life began with Ronnie, well, it’s true. It did. I can’t imagine life without him.” Nancy Reagan never thought of herself as an actress or as the First Lady. In her opinion, Mrs. Reagan was the best job in the world. “My job is being Mrs. Ronald Reagan.”

If this post didn’t melt your heart, yours must be made of stone for as the former Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney said, “Theirs was a love story for the ages.”

Now that’s a sigh-worthy ending!

Which Reagan quote melts your heart the most?





Inaugural 411


On a beautiful sunny day in April 1789, George Washington laid his hand on the Bible and took the Oath of Office as the first President of the newly formed United States of America. Washington took the oath in the open overlooking a crowd in New York City. Upon completion, he spontaneously kissed the Bible and then delivered the nation’s inaugural address. With no guidelines having been prescribed in the Constitution for a presidential inauguration, many of Washington’s inaugural choices have served as precedents that continue to be followed by most of his successors.

Here’s a list of American Inauguration trivia. See if you can sort out the fact from the fiction.

The Oath of Office is administered by the Speaker of the House. Fiction The Oath of Office is  traditionally administered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, though not required by the Constitution.

John Adams was the first President to be sworn in by the Chief Justice. Fact Because the Supreme Court had not yet been established, Robert R. Livingston, Chancellor of New York, administered the Oath of Office to George Washington.

Every President has given an Inaugural Address. Fiction Its  hard to imagine a politician NOT taking an opportunity to give a speech, but Presidents John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Gerald Ford all assumed the presidency following his predecessor’s death or resignation and so decided that it would be inappropriate to give an inaugural address.

Newspaper covering FDR’s second inauguration, 1937.

The Inauguration has always been on January 20. Fiction Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to be inaugurated on January 20. Prior to this, the Inauguration was held on March 4th to allow ample time to tally the popular vote, have the electoral college members send their votes to Washington, and for the new government to be formed under the president-elect. By 1933, modern forms of communication allowed for a more stream-lined transition of power. The Twentieth Amendment of the Constitution was ratified in 1933 and officially switched the date of the Inauguration to January 20th.

James Monroe was the first president to take the oath of office outdoors in Washington, D.C.  Fact After Washington swore his first oath of office before the city of New York from the balcony of Federal Hall in 1789, all subsequent inaugural oaths were sworn indoors until 1817. Washington swore his second oath of office in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia. John Adams swore the oath of office in the Hall of the House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s Federal Hall before a joint session of Congress. For both of his inaugurations Thomas Jefferson swore his oath in the new Senate Chamber of the partially built Capitol building in Washington, D.C. And James Madison was administered the oath of office in the Hall of the House of Representatives in the Capitol.

The oath is the only part of our elaborate inaugural ceremonies and celebrations that is required by the Constitution. Fact  Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution provides the brief, but imperative oath that every president beginning with George Washington has sworn to. The exact moment when a president-elect concludes the oath signals that he or she is now officially president and commander-in-chief.

Presidents must “swear” their loyalty to the Constitution. Fiction The Constitution does allow a president the choice of swearing or affirming the oath of office. Franklin Pierce is the only president to affirm his oath. It is unclear exactly why Pierce chose to affirm the oath. Some historians note that Pierce’s religious beliefs may have have deemed swearing the oath unethical.

President Barack takes the oath of office for the second time, on January 21, 2009

Barack Obama took the Oath of Office four times. Fact President Obama is the only president to take the Oath of Office twice each time he was elected. In 2009 there was some concern the Oath wasn’t properly administered at the formal swearing-in, so he took it again the next day. In 2013 January 20 fell on a Sunday, so there was a small swearing-in ceremony on the 20th and then the public ceremony on the 21st.


Bonus Trivia

Though tradition plays a dominant role in presidential inaugural ceremonies, special circumstances and personal preferences sometimes compel changes.

  • The inauguration of Martin Van Buren in 1837 marked the first time both the incumbent and president-elect rode together to the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony.
  • In 1853 Franklin Pierce affirmed his oath, instead of swearing it. He also chose not to kiss the Bible, but to place his hand on it instead.
  • Because inauguration day was a Sunday in 1877, Rutherford Hayes was sworn in before the actual inauguration day, and for the first time, a president swore the oath privately in the White House on Saturday. He then swore the oath in public that Monday.
  • In 1917 Woodrow Wilson became the first president to swear the oath on a Sunday. He also was the first to swear the oath in the President’s Room at the Capitol in private.
  • In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower chose not to kiss the Bible, but to recite a personal prayer following the oath.
  • President Lyndon Johnson was the first to ask his wife to actively participate in the inaugural ceremony. In previous years, the clerk of the Supreme Court would be asked to hold the Bible for the oath. However, Johnson asked his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, to hold the Bible. First Lady Johnson wrote about the experience, “I was touched that Lyndon wanted me to hold the Bible for the swearing-in. We used the Bible Lyndon’s mother had given us . . . and I stood facing the throng between the Chief Justice and Lyndon while he took the oath.” A new tradition was born. Since Johnson’s inauguration in 1965, every subsequent first lady has held the Bible for her husband’s oath.
  • The shortest and longest inaugural addresses were given by George Washington and William Henry Harrison, respectively. Washington’s second inaugural address was only 135 words long. William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address was 8,445 words long.

Most inaugurations continue to be festive events celebrated by traditional ceremonies, parades, and balls, but it is the oath of office that reigns as the highlight. In his book, Democracy’s Big Day, historian Jim Bendat writes, “Our Inauguration Day is one that demonstrates the continuity of our country and the renewal of the democratic process, as well as the healing that is sometimes needed after an election battle.”

Never has this been needed more in our country than today.

How about you? Will you be watching the festivities?

“Bully” for Teddy Roosevelt!

Teddy RooseveltBest known as the 26th President of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt was also a soldier, explorer, outdoorsman, author, reformer and trailblazer. Immortalized in stone on Mt. Rushmore, President Roosevelt’s influence stretches far beyond today’s history text books. It can be heard in many common words and expressions the former president popularized and we still use today.

Square Deal (a fair bargain or treatment) The Square Deal was President Theodore Roosevelt’s domestic program formed upon three basic ideas: conservation of natural resources, control of corporations, and consumer protection. These three demands are often referred to as the “three C’s” of Roosevelt’s Square Deal.

“The labor unions shall have a square deal, and the corporations shall have a square deal.” –TR, 1903.squaredeal

Hat in the Ring (The official beginning of a political campaign.) When amateurs wanted to challenge the winner of a boxing match for a chance to win a lucrative prize, they would throw their hat in the ring. A great sportsman, Teddy Roosevelt is credited with adapting this phrase from the outrageously popular sport of boxing to the political arena.

“My hat is in the ring, the fight’s on.”—TR, 1912. (Roosevelt said this when asked if he’d be running for president again that year.)

Mollycoddle (to treat someone indulgently or protectively; to pamper or baby)

“The Mollycoddle vote [consists of] the people who are soft physically and morally, or have a twist in them which makes them acidly cantankerous and unpleasant.” –TR, 1913. He also used this word to  describe the game of baseball, a sport for which he had no favor.

Pussyfoot (to avoid making a definite decision or commitment often out of fear or doubt)

“I think they are inclined to pussy-foot, and it is worse than useless for them to nominate me, unless they are prepared for an entirely straightforward and open campaign.”—TR, 1916. (This was Roosevelt’s response when asked about his odds of again becoming the Republican presidential nominee.)

Muckrakers (The name given to US journalists and other writers who exposed corruption in politics and business in the early 20th century.) The term was first used by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The phrase was modified from a character in John Bunyan’s novel Pilgrim’s Progress. “The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck”—TR, 1906.BullMooseParty

Strong as A Bull Moose (to demonstrate formidable strength) Teddy Roosevelt coined this phrase after he received the Republican Party’s Vice Presidential nomination. After failing to win the presidential nomination in 1912, he formed the Bull Moose Party founded on progressive principles

      “I am as strong as a Bull Moose and you can use me to the limit.” –TR, 1900.

 Bully Pulpit (A public office or position of authority that provides an outstanding opportunity to speak out on any issue.) “Bully”, one of Roosevelt’s favorite expressions, means “grand” or “excellent.”

“I suppose my critics will call that preaching, but I have got such a bully pulpit!”—TR, 1909.

'Promise me we'll have meaningful wedding vows without any weasel words...'

 Weasel Words (soft and ambiguous language; words used in order to avoid being clear or direct.)

“One of our defects as a nation is a tendency to use what have been called ‘weasel words.’ When a weasel sucks eggs, the meat is sucked out of the egg. If you use a ‘weasel word’ after another, there is nothing left of the other.” –TR, 1916.

Nailing Jelly to the Wall (something difficult-to-impossible to understand or describe). I don’t hear this too much anymore but this phras was osed to be one of my grandmother’s favorite expressions.

“Somebody asked me why I did not get an agreement with Columbia. They may just as well ask me why I do not nail cranberry jelly to the wall.” –TR, 1912.

TR’s exuberant, no-nonsense personality impacted everything he touched from politics to nature conservancy leaving behind not only a legacy as one of America’s most popular presidents, but many additions to the American lexicon as well.

Is there a phrase above you use or hear frequently? One you’ve never heard?


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