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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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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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Did William Henry Harrison Really Die of Pneumonia?
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
James Lambdin, The White House Historical Association, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Whether you learned it in school, or through a jaunty musical number on The Simpsons, the sad tale of William Henry Harrison is one of the more unique in American history. Before being elected the ninth President of the United States in 1840, Harrison was known as a military hero who led his troops to victory against an attack from the Native American confederacy in 1811, later known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. His heroics extended into the War of 1812, when he recovered Detroit from the British and won the Battle of Thames.

Military notoriety has often given way to a road into politics, especially in the 19th century. Harrison was soon elected a senator for Ohio, and then eventually became president after beating incumbent president Martin van Buren in 1840. At 67 years old, Harrison took office as the oldest president to ever be elected—a record that would stand until Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 at 69 years old. Despite the cold, rainy weather in Washington D.C. on inauguration day, Harrison stood in front of the masses without his overcoat, hat, and gloves, and gave an 8445-word speech that would last almost two hours. Three weeks later, Harrison complained of fatigue and of a cold, which later turned into what doctors called pneumonia. On April 4, 1841—exactly one month after taking office—Harrison was dead.

The historical narrative virtually wrote itself: Harrison, after being improperly dressed for the weather, got pneumonia and would go down as a cautionary tale (or a punch line) and as having the shortest presidency on record. But was it really pneumonia that killed him? Harrison's own doctor, Thomas Miller, was skeptical. He wrote:

“The disease was not viewed as a case of pure pneumonia; but as this was the most palpable affection, the term pneumonia afforded a succinct and intelligible answer to the innumerable questions as to the nature of the attack.”

While revisiting the case a few years ago, writer Jane McHugh and Dr. Philip A. Mackowiak of the University of Maryland School of Medicine came up with a new diagnosis after looking at the evidence through the lens of modern medicine: enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever. They detailed their findings in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases [PDF] and for The New York Times.

Before 1850, Washington D.C.'s sewage was dumped in a marsh just seven blocks upstream from the executive mansion's water supply. McHugh and Mackowiak hypothesize that Harrison was exposed to bacteria—namely Salmonella typhi or S. paratyphi—which could cause enteric fever. Harrison also apparently had a history of severe indigestion, which could have made him more susceptible to such intestinal distress. While treating Harrison, Miller also administered opium and enemas, both of which would cause more harm than good to someone in Harrison's condition.

Harrison would not have been the only person to be afflicted with a gastrointestinal illness while occupying the presidency in this time period. Both James K. Polk and Zachary Taylor, according to McHugh and Mackowiak, suffered through severe gastroenteritis, and the duo theorizes it was the same enteric fever as Harrison's. Polk recovered, while Taylor died in office of his illness, less than 10 years after Harrison's death.

Though Harrison's insistence on soldiering through his lengthy, bitterly cold inauguration while dressed in his finest spring wear wasn't a high point in presidential common sense, there's plenty of scientific evidence to suggest that it didn't contribute to the shortest presidency in American history.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Richard Nixon
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Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon than his political impropriety. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with Robocop.

1. HE WAS A QUAKER.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. HE WANTED TO JOIN THE FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. HE WROTE LOVE NOTES TO HIS WIFE-TO-BE.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A DOG HELPED SAVE HIS POLITICAL CAREER.

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. HE LITERALLY MADE THE MORNINGS DARKER.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. HE HAD A BOWLING ALLEY INSTALLED UNDER THE WHITE HOUSE.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. HE WANTED THE SECRET SERVICE TO WEAR UNIFORMS.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. HE ALMOST MESSED UP CHARLES MANSON’S MURDER TRIAL.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. HE MET ROBOCOP.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. HIS MEETING WITH ELVIS MADE NATIONAL ARCHIVES HISTORY.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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