12 Surprising Facts About US Presidents We Never Knew - Until Now

List Rules
Vote up the most surprising facts about past Commanders in Chief.

When it comes to US history, facts about American presidents factor heavily into what we know. Names of the Founding Fathers, dates of presidential assassinations, heroic leadership of chief executives during times of crisis - these are the types of details presented in books and popular culture alike. It might seem like you know everything there is to know about US presidents - but it turns out there's much more to learn.

Whether it's a long-forgotten tidbit about the life of a president, a seemingly minor point of interest, or a pretty significant matter that continues to influence us today, facts about US presidents keep surprising us. Vote up the ones that are part commanding, part chiefly, and downright surprising to you, too. 

  • Thomas Jefferson Introduced The Practice Of Shaking Hands At The White House
    Photo: Thomas Sully / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801, he intentionally changed the way greetings were exchanged at the White House. He didn't invent handshakes, per se, but he did change how the President of the United States interacted with others.

    Rather than bowing - something one would do to a monarch - shaking hands was a less submissive and more personal form of greeting. By suppressing "all those public forms and ceremonies which tended to familiarize the public eye to the harbingers of another form of government," as Jefferson put it, he helped usher in a sense of equality and unity.

    • Birthplace: Shadwell, Virginia, United States of America
    • Presidency: 3
    • V.P.: Aaron Burr, George Clinton
    • Profession: Statesman, Inventor, Author, Farmer, Architect
    400 votes
  • Among his other accomplishments, Abraham Lincoln was an inventor. He received a patent for "Buoying Vessels Over Shoals" in 1849 and remains the only president to have accomplished such a feat. His application to the US Patent Office read:

    Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the County of Sangamon, in the State of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steamboat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes....

    Basically, Lincoln designed a mechanism to lift and move boats over sandbanks and sandbars, also known as shoals. He came up with it after his own frustrating experiences being stranded on the Mississippi River. While his invention was never actually manufactured, Lincoln's design received patent number 6,469

    Honest Abe's affinity for invention may have informed his career as a patent lawyer. He praised the patent system because it "secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things."

    • Birthplace: Hodgenville, Kentucky, United States of America
    • Presidency: 16
    • V.P.: Andrew Johnson, Hannibal Hamlin
    • Profession: Statesman, Politician, Lawyer
    352 votes
  • George Washington Borrowed Money To Attend His First Inauguration
    Photo: Ramon de Elorriaga / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    George Washington somewhat reluctantly accepted the presidency in 1789, and began making preparations to take on the role. From his home in Mount Vernon, VA, he got his personal and financial life in order, including paying off his debts.

    While he held land, he didn't have any real cash on hand, so to speak. As a result, Washington had to borrow £600 from a banker in Alexandria. The funds left Mount Vernon "free from obligations" and helped him get to New York City to take the oath of office.

    It took Washington a full week to travel from Virginia to New York, making several stops and being greeted by spectators along the way. In grand form, he took an elaborate barge across the Hudson River on April 30, 1789, where a crowd watched his inaugural on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City. 

    • Birthplace: Virginia, United States of America
    • Presidency: 1
    • V.P.: John Adams
    • Profession: Surveyor, Politician, Soldier, Military Officer, Farmer
    406 votes
  • One of John Quincy Adams's favorite activities was swimming in the Potomac River. As a man who liked to stay active, Adams also enjoyed walking and playing tennis, but taking refuge in the waters of the Potomac during the hot summer months in Washington, DC, was especially appealing.

    In 1822, he swam for nearly an hour each day, a span of time that extended to about 80 minutes the next year. His doctor told him to just do an hour - but to add a new challenge to the activity: wearing clothes. Until that point, Adams had been swimming in the nude.

    Adams didn't abandon skinny dipping, and was reportedly still swimming in his birthday suit when he was nearly 80 years old. It was at that point that journalist Anne Newport Royall staked out his swim and sat on his clothes until he agreed to meet with her to discuss military pensions (as a widow, she felt she should receive her late husband's pension). Adams said he would meet with her later if she went away. She refused this compromise, so he ultimately gave her an interview on the spot

    • Birthplace: Braintree, Massachusetts Bay, British America
    • Presidency: 6
    • V.P.: John C. Calhoun
    • Profession: Politician, Diplomat, Attorney at law, Lawyer
    266 votes
  • Ulysses S. Grant's First Name Was Actually Hiram
    Photo: Brady-Handy Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The man most of the world knows as Ulysses S. Grant was born under a completely different first name: Hiram. When Grant got into West Point in 1836, he switched his first and middle names - Hiram and Ulysses - so he wouldn't be identified with the initials "H.U.G." By some accounts, this was just a clerical error, and after he'd been accepted under the name "Ulysses S. Grant," he adopted the moniker for fear of losing his appointment to the military academy. 

    Grant went by Ulysses for much of his life even before the swap occurred. The "S." has no real meaning - a fact he told Julia Dent, his future wife, in 1844, "You know I have an 'S' in my name and don’t know what it stands for."

    Some observers think it was erroneously given to him because "Simpson" was his mother's maiden name.

    Regardless, Ulysses S. Grant is what the future military leader and politician came to call himself - and what others called him, too. The initials "U.S." proved useful, and after the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865, they came to represent "Ultimate Surrender." 

    • Birthplace: Point Pleasant, Ohio, United States of America
    • Presidency: 18
    • V.P.: Schuyler Colfax, Henry Wilson
    • Profession: Politician, Soldier, Military Officer
    356 votes
  • Jimmy Carter's mother, Lillian, was a nurse who advocated for the accessibility of healthcare throughout her long career. When she gave birth to her first child, James Earl Carter, in 1924, she chose to do so in a hospital.

    Her decision was in stark contrast to common practice. Rather than have a baby at home with family and maybe a country doctor, the cleanliness of the Wise Sanitarium - where she worked - was a better option. The facility was located in Plains, GA, and now functions as a nursing home bearing Lillian Carter's name. 

    • Birthplace: Plains, Georgia, United States of America
    • Presidency: 39
    • V.P.: Walter Mondale
    • Profession: Statesman, Politician, Novelist, Military Officer, Author
    314 votes