NPS Logo

Historical Background

Biographical Sketches

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading

THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Biographical Sketches

JUST over half, or 21, of the 43 Presidents (as of 2004) served single terms or less. The only one to hold the office more than the traditional two terms, slightly more than 12 years when he died near the beginning of his fourth term, was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Subsequently the 22d amendment (1951) to the Constitution restricted future tenure to a maximum of two terms plus any unexpired term of less than 2 years to which an incumbent might have succeeded.

Nine Chief Executives served two full terms: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Grant, Cleveland (nonconsecutive), Wilson, and Eisenhower. Lincoln and McKinley were elected to second terms, but were assassinated during them. Nixon resigned before completing his second term.

Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson, who all succeeded to office through the Vice-Presidency, were subsequently elected to full terms and lived to complete them. No Presidents who succeeded through the Vice-Presidency ever won second elective terms. Vice Presidents Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, and Ford succeeded to the Presidency, but never won election in their own right.

Johnson, Kennedy
Judge Sarah T. Hughes, the first woman in history to swear in a Chief Executive, administers the oath to Vice President Johnson aboard Air Force One at Dallas in 1963. This occurred only a few hours after a sniper's bullet had struck down President Kennedy. The bereaved widow, Jacqueline, is at the right; Lady Bird Johnson, at the left. (National Park Service, Cecil W. Stoughton, 1963)

The shortest term was that of William Henry Harrison, who was stricken soon after his inauguration and died after only a month in office. Only one Chief Executive, Andrew Johnson, was impeached by the House of Representatives, but he was not convicted by the Senate. Nixon, facing almost certain impeachment, resigned.

Incumbent Presidents who were defeated when they ran for reelection were the two Adamses, Van Buren, Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, Taft, Hoover, and Ford. Five sitting Chief Executives sought but did not win their parties' renomination: Tyler, Fillmore, Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and Arthur. Jefferson, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Cleveland, and Nixon lost Presidential elections but subsequently were successful.

Tyler and Franklin D. Roosevelt were the losing Vice-Presidential candidates of major parties before elevation to the Presidency. In those eight instances where a death in office has occurred, the succession—of Vice Presidents Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Truman, and Lyndon B. Johnson—has been automatic. Vice President Ford took office when Nixon resigned. John Adams, Jefferson, and Van Buren won nomination and election while serving as Vice President. Nixon is unique in that he lost his first bid for the Presidency at the end of his Vice-Presidential term, but was later able to capture the office.

ALTHOUGH the health of the Presidents during their tenure has varied considerably and the burdens of office have placed them under great stress, only Garfield (gunshot wounds), Wilson (stroke), and Eisenhower (heart attack) were incapacitated for extended periods. Franklin D. Roosevelt was handicapped throughout much of his adult life from the effects of infantile paralysis.

Of the eight Chief Executives who died in office, four were assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy). The others (William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Harding, and Franklin D. Roosevelt) died of natural causes. Jackson, Truman and Ford weathered serious assassination attempts while they were President, as did also President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as Theodore Roosevelt after his Presidency.

Tyler fortuitously escaped death in 1844 when a cannon exploded during a firing demonstration while he was aboard the Princeton on the Potomac River. Lincoln, while viewing a Confederate attack on Fort Stevens, D.C., was the only President to be under hostile fire while in office, though many were prior to their election while in military service. Before entering office, Jackson and Lincoln engaged in duels, and Jackson was seriously wounded during an altercation.

Grant, who toured the world during his retirement, being received by the Emperor of Japan in 1879. (Engraving in John R. Young, Around the World with General Grant, 1879, Library of Congress.)

MOST Presidents have remained active in retirement, and blended participation in political and national affairs with pursuit of private concerns. For a number of them, the return to private life has brought vast relief. Buchanan and Hayes, for example, made unabashed statements of pleasure on departure from the White House. On the other hand, some individuals left office reluctantly and never fully adjusted to the change in status. Van Buren, Fillmore, Grant, Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt sought to regain the Presidency; only Cleveland succeeded.

Just a few of the men returned to major elective or appointive public office. Two went back to the U.S. Congress, Andrew Johnson briefly late in his life to the Senate and John Quincy Adams for an extended period in the House of Representatives. Taft was co-chairman of the National War Labor Board during World War I, and in his twilight years Chief Justice of the United States. Various others also sat on Government boards, commissions, and committees; represented the incumbent Chief Executive on ceremonial occasions; advised him; or performed specific tasks at his request.

A few ex-Presidents, including Taft, Benjamin Harrison, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ford, taught or lectured at universities. Numerous individuals served as officials or trustees, held honorary offices, or otherwise supported educational institutions, libraries, learned societies, and charitable and philanthropic organizations. Arthur, Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Coolidge resumed their law practices, though they were usually less active in the profession than in earlier years.

Several men traveled extensively. Van Buren, Pierce, Fillmore, and Hoover visited Europe. Theodore Roosevelt traveled there as well as to Africa and Latin America. Grant journeyed leisurely around the world. Nixon flew to China.

Grant and Roosevelt subsequently described their travels and impressions in books. A large number of individuals wrote memoirs, autobiographies, and books on other subjects, as well as magazine and newspaper articles, pamphlets, and tracts on national or political affairs, as well as miscellaneous subjects.

IN physical appearance the Presidents have ranged from handsome to homely. Some have worn beards, mustaches, and sideburns; some had long hair, some short; some were bald. Others have worn spectacles. Some were stylish dressers, and others favored informal attire. They ranged in height from Madison (5 feet 4 inches) to Lincoln (a full foot taller). Other short Presidents were the two Adamses, Van Buren, and Benjamin Harrison; tall, Washington, Jefferson, Arthur, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson. Madison, the lightest, weighed a mere 100 pounds; Taft, 300 pounds, and Cleveland, 260 pounds.

Truman Carter
Presidential hobbies have been as diversified as the men themselves. Eisenhower paints; Truman plays the piano (left); Harding golfs; and Carter plays tennis (right). (National Archives (left), The White House (right).)

FOR diversion, over the course of their careers the Chief Executives have enjoyed a variety of hobbies, some of which they pursued avidly and others casually. Their interest in sports, though often only in a spectator capacity, has been strong. Included are such individual pursuits as hunting, fishing, walking-hiking, horseback riding, swimming, golf, bowling, skiing, tennis, and exercising. Popular team sports have been baseball, softball, football, and basketball. Two of the most active sportsmen-Presidents, both of whom took part in and watched a wide range of athletic activities, were Theodore Roosevelt and Ford.

Other hobbies include: philately, bird watching, and collecting naval prints and models: Franklin D. Roosevelt; playing cards: Washington, John Quincy Adams, Van Buren, Buchanan, Harding, Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon; painting and cooking: Eisenhower; the theater: Washington, Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Lincoln, and Carter; movies: a number of the 20th-century Presidents.

NPS History: Government — Presidents

Few individuals have exhibited any strong musical inclination, though some played instruments—with varying degrees of skill. Jefferson, Tyler, and Nixon played the violin; Truman and Nixon the piano; Coolidge the harmonica; and Harding the alto horn and cornet. Many of the Chief Executives have enjoyed listening to music and dancing. Nearly all have enjoyed reading—ranging from Shakespeare and other classical authors to mysteries and westerns as well as histories and biographies. In addition, many Presidents have enjoyed occasional cruises on the Presidential yacht. Most of them have sought whenever possible to rest away from the Capital, at official retreats or in their private residences or vacation homes.

Previous Next
Last Updated: 04-Feb-2004