America!

In a letter to his wife, John Adams wrote that July 2, 1776 would be a day to be celebrated in the name of independence. He might have been about two days off  on his guess due to the time it took for editing, revising, and signing the Declaration of Independence (and some historians even attest that the document wasn’t signed by all members of the Second Continental Congress until after August 2, 1776). Still, Adams understood the significance of this parchment that legally separated the American colonies from the British crown, and eventually, the 4th of July was equated with America’s birthday, celebrated with parades, barbeques, and fireworks. This week’s trivia post will celebrate the 4th of July by highlighting interesting facts about US presidents.

Born on the 4th of July

Interestingly, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (the primary author of the declaration) were the only two signers who also went on to be elected president. They both also happened to die on the same day: July 4, 1826 – exactly 50 years after the Declaration was drafted. James Monroe, who was also a Founding Father but didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence, also coincidentally died on a 4th of July. Calvin Coolidge was the only president to have been born on the 4th of July. Of course, if you know the birthday problem, a common problem in probability, you would know that the probability of sharing a birthday (or death day) with someone is about 50% with 23 people and 99.9% with just 70 people. With 43 presidents sworn into office, coincidences are bound to occur, but they’re interesting nonetheless, as we’ll see later.

Tecumseh’s Curse

In Tecumseh’s War, William Henry Harrison led US forces in Indiana against Shawnee Native Americans and their allies, led by the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh. Harrison had negotiated the Treaty of Fort McHenry, which required Native Americans to give up a large amount of land to the US. The treaty incensed Tecumseh, who thought that Harrison may have used questionable negotiation tactics, and he attempted to resist the westward expansion of the US. Harrison eventually saw success; in the Battle of Tippecanoe, he defended against an attack by Tecumseh’s brother despite being outnumbered. According to legend, Tecumseh and his brother subsequently put a curse on Harrison and all future presidents that would also be elected in zero years.

This is likely a chicken-egg situation where a pattern was recognized, and then a curse was attributed. Still, it’s wildly fascinating that, up until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, all presidents elected in a year that was a multiple of 20 died in office. Harrison was the first in 1840; he died of pneumonia. Then, there was Lincoln (assassinated), Garfield (assassinated), McKinley (assassinated), Harding (heart attack/stroke), Roosevelt (stroke), and Kennedy (assassinated). It took 140 years for the pattern to be broken. Reagan was elected in 1980, and he survived two terms in office. Curse proponents may argue that the curse is unbroken; that it doesn’t necessarily cause the death of US presidents but only threatens their lives. Reagan was subject to an assassination attempt that injured him, and George W. Bush was targeted with a grenade that turned out to be a dud. More likely, it’s just a fascinating coincidence that makes for a good story.

John Tyler’s Living Grandchildren

John Tyler is not known for much, and he typically fares fairly low on most historians’ presidential ranking lists. When Harrison succumbed to Tecumseh’s curse, Tyler became the first vice president to become president. In fact, since he was the first, politicians from both sides argued whether the Constitution meant that Tyler should only fulfill the duties of the president or if he should assume the power and title of president. He ended up being sworn into office, but his adversaries never recognized his title, often referring to him as “Acting President”, “Vice-President”, or even contemptuously “His Accidency”.

Tyler was a former Democrat but ran for office with Harrison as a Whig. Eventually, his political inconsistencies garnered him many enemies, and he was ostracized by both parties. His entire cabinet resigned, and the first ever impeachment attempt was initiated against him. He sounds like a president only his family could have loved, and his grandchildren still do, more than 150 years after his death. If you do the math, you might think that there was a mistake; either it should be great-grandchildren or somewhere closer to 80 years to be reasonable. But due to strange circumstances, John Tyler actually still has grandchildren living today.

John Tyler was born in 1790, which means that there are almost 225 years that separate the birth of his generation and the generation of his grandchildren. Tyler had fifteen children with two different wives. He married his second wife, who was thirty years younger than him, after his first wife died. He had seven children with his second wife, one of them when he was 63 years old. This child ended up marrying twice as well, also to a much younger wife. He had three children when he was in his seventies. Two of those three are still alive today, both over 80 years old and both only one generation separated from the 10th president of the United States.

Presidential Misconceptions

Most of us are taught the famous legends of George Washington: his wooden teeth and his chopping down of a cherry tree. Most of us are also later taught the apocryphal origins of these stories. However, there are still a few presidential misconceptions that get passed around from time to time.

Abraham Lincoln is also subject to a few urban legends. Some say that he hastily wrote his famous Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while traveling by train. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe and industrialist Andrew Carnegie fueled the rumors by claiming they witnessed his hurried drafting of the oration and let him borrow a pencil. The story is unfounded; Stowe and Carnegie were in Boston and Pittsburgh respectively. Lincoln reportedly rewrote and rehearsed for at least two weeks prior to the Gettysburg Address. He didn’t finalize the speech until the night before but didn’t write anything on a napkin or on a jostling train.

Howard Taft is well-known, unfortunately, for his heftiness. Taft was the largest man to ever hold office, ballooning to over 335 pounds at his peak weight. It is true that his weight caused problems like requiring him to install a custom-built bathtub in the White House. However, there’s one story that his weight may have caused problems that is unfounded. It is said that Taft, an avid baseball fan who was the first president the throw the opening day pitch, was attending a prolonged baseball game. In the middle of the 7th inning, he was so uncomfortable in his wooden chair that he decided to stand up to stretch his legs. The rest of the stadium, thinking the president was getting up to leave, also rose to their feet out of respect. Taft sat back down, and so did the crowd. Some say this was the origin of the first 7th inning stretch. While it’s an appealing story, the 7th inning stretch originated much earlier than Taft’s presidential tenure.

John F. Kennedy famously gave a speech during the Cold War touting the US support of West Germany. Unfortunately, Kennedy reportedly misspoke when he said the famous line, “Ich bin ein Berliner”. Berliner is a German word that is used to describe a jelly doughnut. So basically, Kennedy said, “I am a jelly donut”. As it turns out, this is not quite true. As About.com correspondent David Emery points out, equating Berliner in that phrase with jelly doughnut would be the same as someone saying they’re a New Yorker and having someone think they’re a magazine. Kennedy’s phrase is accurately translated as, “I am one with the Berlin people”.

And finally, I’m sure by now many people have seen this list that compares Lincoln’s and Kennedy’s assassinations (taken directly from the Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences urban legend Wikipedia page):

  • Both presidents were elected to the House of Representatives in ’46.
  • Both presidents were elected to the presidency in ’60.
  • Lincoln defeated incumbent Vice President John C. Breckenridge for the presidency in 1860; Kennedy defeated incumbent Vice President Richard M. Nixon for the presidency in 1960.
  • Both their predecessors left office in their seventies and retired to Pennsylvania. James Buchanan, whom Lincoln succeeded, retired to Lancaster Township; Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Kennedy succeeded, retired to Gettysburg.
  • Both their Vice Presidents and successors were Southern Democrats named Johnson (Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson) who were born in ’08.
  • Both presidents were concerned with the problems of black Americans and made their views strongly known in ’63. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, which became law in 1863. In 1963, Kennedy presented his reports to Congress on Civil Rights, and the same year was the famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
  • Both presidents were shot on a Friday in the presence of their wives. Both Fridays preceded a major holiday observed within the week.
  • Both presidents were accompanied by another couple.
  • The male companion of the other couple was wounded by the assassin.
  • Both presidents had a son die during their presidency.
  • Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre; Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald in a Lincoln automobile, made by Ford.
  • Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy who told him not to go to the theatre; Kennedy had a secretary named Evelyn Lincoln who warned him not to go to Dallas.
  • Both presidents’ last names have 7 letters.
  • There are 6 letters in each Johnson’s first name.
  • After shooting Lincoln, Booth ran from a theatre to a warehouse; after shooting Kennedy, Oswald ran from a warehouse to a theatre.
  • Both Johnsons were succeeded as President in ’69 by Republicans whose mothers were named Hannah.
  • Both assassins died in the same month as their victim in a state adjacent to the state of their birth.
  • Both assassins were Southern white males born in the late ’30s, who were in their mid-20s.
  • Both assassins were killed before being tried, by men who were reared in the North, changed their name as adults, and were bachelors.
  • Both assassins had 15 letters in their name
  • Both were shot in the head

While these two situations appear to be astoundingly similar, it is purely coincidental. There was a contest in 1992 that had participants list other “spooky” relationships between different presidents, and similar lists were compiled for 22 different pairs (21 pairs of presidents and John F. Kennedy paired with Mexican president Álvaro Obregón). Most of the claims are true, but there are inconsistencies that are overlooked and outright fabrications.

For instance, Lincoln did not have a secretary named Kennedy. In other cases, the list compares the names of the assassins and demonstrates that both have 15 letters, but when comparing the names of the president, they only find that the last names match. Anyone could similarly use numbers to demonstrate what they would consider eerie. I could say that Kierstin and I were destined to have Simba because he was born on May 14th. That’s 05/14, which can be summed as 05+14=19. Kierstin and I were both 19 when we first started dating! While it remains interesting, it’s definitely not eerie, paranormal, or spooky – just cool coincidences and the magic of numbers.

 

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