30 Presidential Nicknames, Explained

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From Old Granny to Uncle Jumbo, His Accidency to Grandfather's Hat, here are a few presidential nicknames, and how the commanders in chief came by them.

1. George Washington: American Fabius

Our first commander in chief earned this nickname based on the strategy he used to fight the British in the Revolutionary War, named for a Roman dictator who avoided large battles to engage in small ones. (But Washington might not have even known about that general and his strategy until a year after he began using it!) Another great nickname: Sword of the Revolution.

2. John Adams: Old Sink or Swim

John Adams got this nickname from a speech he gave: "Sink or swim, survive or perish with my country, is my unalterable determination."

3. Thomas Jefferson: Long Tom

At 6 feet 2.5 inches, Jefferson was six inches taller than the average height for men in his day, which earned him the nickname “Long Tom.” 

4. James Monroe: Last of the Cocked Hats

The man behind the Monroe Doctrine was the last of the major politicians of his day to have fought in the Revolutionary War, during which the Revolutionary fighters apparently wore cocked hats. 

5. John Quincy Adams: Old Man Eloquent

The second Adams to hold the office of president got the nickname during his time as a Congressman, for “his passionate support of freedom of speech and universal education, and especially for his strong arguments against slavery.”

6. Andrew Jackson: Sharp Knife

Native Americans bestowed this nickname for his fighting tactics (they also called him Pointed Arrow). 

7. Van Buren: Machiavellian Belshazzar

This moniker was not a compliment: It was given to Van Buren by his detractors for his insincerity in political matters.

8. William Henry Harrison: Old Granny

The “Granny” nickname got thrown around a lot back in the day. In Harrison’s case, Democrat detractors—including Van Buren—gave the 68-year-old this nickname to get across the idea that he was both ancient and out of touch. He came down with a cold three weeks after his inauguration; it turned into pneumonia and pleurisy, and he died soon after. Harrison was the first president to die in office.

9. John Tyler: His Accidency 

He was Harrison’s VP, and got this nickname when he became president after Harrison’s death.

10. James Polk: Young Hickory

Both Polk and his father were strong supporters of Andrew Jackson; in fact, the younger Polk was Jackson’s best ally in Congress. Jackson was Old Hickory, and Polk became Young Hickory. Polk was also nicknamed Napoleon of the Stump for his fierce oratory.

11. Zachary Taylor: Old Rough and Ready

Though he was a General, this military hero was more than willing to share the hardships of field duty with his troops, a fact that earned him his nickname.

12. Millard Fillmore: Wool Carder President

After Taylor died in office, Fillmore took over. Born in a Cayuga County, New York log cabin in 1800, Fillmore was apprenticed to a wool carder when he was 15—hence his nickname.

13. Franklin Pierce: Purse

The nickname Handsome Frank is self-explanatory, but sources don’t quite agree on why some called Pierce “Purse.” According to one source, it was a nickname given to him by his friends; another posits it might have been because of his wealth; and yet another says it was because of his involvement in the Gadsden Purchase, which brought lands from the states of Arizona and New Mexico into U.S. hands. Still others say the president pronounced Pierce that way.

14. James Buchanan: Ten-Cent Jimmy

The bachelor president got this unflattering nickname after he said that 10 cents a day was a fair wage for manual laborers. What a gaffe.

15. Abraham Lincoln: Grand Wrestler

Did you know that Honest Abe was a wrestler? He’s even been inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame.

16. Andrew Johnson: Sir Veto

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Johnson, who took over as president after Lincoln was assassinated, came by this nickname for his use of that privilege in those tumultuous years. He was also called The Tennessee Tailor because of his former profession. Another nickname whose source proves elusive: Daddy of the Baby.

17. Ulysses S. Grant: Unconditional Surrender Grant

Young Hiram Ulysses Grant (he dropped his first name and added the S. later, and it stood for nothing at all) was reportedly nicknamed “Useless” by his father. Ouch. Thankfully, his nicknames got better during the Civil War. After capturing Fort Donelson in Tennessee in 1862, he was called “Unconditional Surrender” Grant. Another awesome nickname: Great Hammerer.

18. Rutherford B. Hayes: His Fraudulency

So nicknamed because he allegedly stole the campaign of 1876 (more about that here).

19. James A. Garfield: Canal Boy

Like Fillmore and Johnson, Garfield got his nickname thanks to an old job: He ran away from home when he was 16 to work on the canal boats that took cargo from Cleveland to Pittsburgh. He wasn’t very good at it, though; during the six weeks he worked on the boats, he fell overboard 14 times and eventually contracted a fever and had to return home. You can read one account of his time working on the canal here.

20. Chester Arthur: Dude President

Sometimes called America’s First Gentleman, our 21st president got another nickname, Dude President, because of his sense of style.

21. Stephen Grover Cleveland: Uncle Jumbo

The only president to serve two non-consecutive terms tipped the scales at 250 pounds, so it’s no wonder that he earned the nickname Uncle Jumbo when he became Governor of New York in 1882 (his friends also called him Big Steve). Another nickname, bestowed upon him by the New York Sun, was Stuffed Prophet.

22. Benjamin Harrison: Grandfather’s Hat

Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison; he was also rather short, standing just 5 feet 6 inches tall. Though he tried to distance himself from his grandfather, Harrison didn’t succeed. He reportedly got the nickname “Grandfather’s Hat” because Democratic cartoonists often drew him standing next to a huge version of his grandfather’s beaver hat (or wearing it) and also because Republicans campaigned for him with a song called “Grandfather’s Hat Fits Ben.”

23. William McKinley: Wobbly Willie

McKinley earned this nickname for his reluctance to enter into a war with Spain in 1898 over Cuba. Theodore Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy, said that McKinley had “no more backbone than a chocolate eclair.”

24. Theodore Roosevelt: Telescope Teddy

This “speak softly and carry a big stick” president got this nickname because, when out West in 1900, he had all of his rifles fitted with small telescopes for long-distance shooting in addition to his very thick glasses.

25. Woodrow Wilson: Coiner of Weasel Words

This nickname was reportedly given to Wilson by Teddy Roosevelt. You can read the speech where Roosevelt accuses the president of creating such words here.

26. John Calvin Coolidge: Silent Cal

Thinkstock (moth)

Turns out our 30th president was a pretty quiet guy. According to the New York Times, someone once said he spoke so infrequently that “every time he opened his mouth, a moth flew out.”

27. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: The Sphinx

By December 1939, FDR was being called The Sphinx by reporters and cartoonists because of his penchant for secrecy regarding whether or not he would run for a third term in 1940. So at the annual Gridiron Dinner for White House correspondents on December 9, 1939, the president was presented with an 8-foot tall Sphinx statue in his likeness. It was designed by James D. Preston, Assistant Administrative Secretary of the National Archives and former Superintendent of the Senate Press Gallery, based on caricatures by cartoonists Peter Brandt of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and James T. Berryman of the Washington Star. You can see the Sphinx in the FDR Presidential Library.

Another great nickname for FDR: Houdini in the White House.

28. Ronald Reagan: Teflon President

A nickname bestowed upon Reagan by Patricia Schroeder, a Democratic congresswoman from Colorado. “I got the idea of calling President Reagan the ‘Teflon president’ while fixing eggs for my kids,” she wrote in USA Today in 2004. “He had a Teflon coat like the pan.”

29. George W. Bush: Shrub

A nickname given to the president by liberal columnist Molly Ivins, who went to high school with him.

30. Barack Obama: Barry O’Bomber

This nickname was given to No. 43 by his high school basketball crew for his jump shot.

BONUS: Herbert Hoover, the Hermit Author of Palo Alto

Though I couldn’t find any real documentation for why Hoover was given this nickname, it was too good not to include. It’s possible that the president acquired it after his term was over, when he retreated to his home in Palo Alto, California, and wrote a series of letters and essays attacking FDR’s New Deal. The hermit part doesn’t quite make sense, though; Hoover traveled a lot after his presidency. Any insight? Leave it in the comments below!

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise stated. 

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May 29, 2014 - 5:00pm
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