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Presidential Stature: Honoring 5 Short Men in the Oval Office

In the history of the U.S. Presidency, 13 presidents have stood under 5’10”. In honor of this year’s President’s Day, we will be highlighting the achievements of some of the shortest men to occupy the Oval Office. Did you know, for example, that “Hail to the Chief” is played whenever the president enters the room because James K. Polk wasn’t tall enough to be easily seen? Here are a few other intriguing facts about the shorter men who left a long mark on U.S. History.

John Adams 5’7” (2nd President 1779-1801)

John Adams 5’7” (2nd President 1779-1801)

Adams was born into a Puritanical family, who held strictly to moral tenants, and made a point of acknowledging the many powerful women in his life, beginning with his mother:

As a child I enjoyed perhaps the greatest of blessings that can be bestowed upon men—that of a mother who was anxious and capable to form the characters of her children.

His education led him to a degree in the law, and the leading legal questions of the day led him to the cutting edge of politics. He published a series of bitterly critical essays under the name “Humphrey Ploughjogger” and became increasingly vocal about the Writs of Assistance (which allowed soldiers to search a home without cause or warning) and the Stamp Act (a tax imposed on American legal documents, levied without the input of American representatives and enforced by military rather than civil courts).

Yet, in spite of his colonialist leanings, Adams took the huge risk of defending the soldiers who participated in the Boston Massacre, firing into an unarmed mob who were throwing ice and stones at the soldiers. No other attorney would take the case, so Adams chose to do so because the law requires a fair trial, and a fair trial requires good counsel for the accused. In the end, he achieved acquittals for all of the soldiers except for the two who fired directly into the crowd.

As the most prominent lawyer in the area, Adams joined the First Continental Congress, and helped draft a letter of grievances to King George III, working to achieve a compromise between radicals and conservatives. He later became a primary figure in the drafting of the Declaration of Independence but did not sign the U.S. Constitution. At the time of the signing, he was in England, securing a peace treaty and several vital government loans.

Adams formally nominated George Washington to be the commander-in-chief of the colonial army, and after the war served as Washington’s Vice President. As the second President (and the first to win a contested election), Adams also became the first to reside in the White House.

What would Adams have to say to an era of Fake News?

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence….It is more important that innocence be protected than guilt be punished, for guilt and crimes are so frequent in this world that they cannot all be punished. But if innocence itself is brought to the bar and condemned, perhaps to die, then the citizen will say, “whether I do good or whether I do evil is immaterial, for innocence itself is no protection,” and if such an idea as that were to take hold in the mind of the citizen, that would be the end of security whatsoever.

– Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials

James Madison 5’4” (4th President 1809-1817)

James Madison 5’4” (4th President 1809-1817)

Madison was well-known for being, not only the shortest president, but also the smallest. One of twelve children, Madison was sickly from an early age and was often kept indoors, where he spent his time reading. All of that reading apparently gave him big ideas, because, although he never topped 100 pounds, he left a deep footprint in America’s history.

Over the course of his long and colorful life, Madison never held a job outside of politics. While, today, that career path might be met with more skepticism, Madison was a charter member of the Continental Congress and the Philadelphia Convention. He pushed for the development of a full Constitution and, later, the Bill of Rights.

As President, he launched the war of 1812, to protest the British affinity for pirating U.S. trade ships and impressing American sailors into the British navy. The war itself was inconclusively ended, but it did make his wife Dolley famous for saving some critical documents and a painting of George Washington from the White House before the British burned it to the ground. Plucky to the end, the dying, 85-year-old Madison’s final words were: “I talk better lying down.”

And what would Madison say to our current climate of bitter political division?

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an ailment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty (which is essential to political life) because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air (which is essential to animal life) because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

– The Federalist Papers, No. 10

James Madison 5’4” (4th President 1809-1817)

Ulysses S. Grant 5’8” (18th President 1869-1877)

As a child, Grant became known for his skill with horses, a talent that translated well to a long military career. He first served with distinction in the Mexican-American war, then resigned from the military, reenlisting at the beginning of the American Civil War. He rapidly rose in rank to become a general in the Union Army, winning several major battles and gaining critical control of the Mississippi River. In 1864, Lincoln promoted Grant to “Lieutenant General,” and he became the first man to hold that rank since George Washington. He accepted Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865, signaling the end of the Civil War.

At the age of 47 (the youngest man to be elected President in the 19th century), he won the Presidency against Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. With the decisiveness that defined his military career, Grant promptly stabilized the economy, formed the Department of Justice, prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, and assigned key federal posts to Jewish-Americans and African-Americans. However, his relentless personality provoked severe reactions, and his presidency was plagued by numerous scandals and controversies. Retiring from office, Grant embarked on a two-year world tour that improved the perception of America in the international community, then returned to America to write his memoirs.

And what would Grant say to the nation’s ongoing racial and religious divisions?

No political party can or ought to exist when one of its corner-stones is opposition to freedom of thought and the right to worship God “according to the dictate of one’s own conscience,” or according to the creed of any religious denomination whatsoever….As time passes, people, even of the South, will begin to wonder how it was possible that their ancestors ever fought for or justified institutions which acknowledged the right of property in man.

– Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant


William McKinley 5’7” (25th President 1843-1901)

William McKinley 5’7” (25th President 1843-1901)

Like Grant, McKinley served in the Union Army, but unlike Grant, he began his career as an enlisted soldier. Over the course of the war, he was promoted to Brevet Major, before settling in Ohio, where he took up a career in law. Eventually elected to Congress, then governor of Ohio, the critical issue of McKinley’s election was financial conservativism, upholding the gold standard and “sound money” policies combined with high tariffs to protect American industry.

As President, he decisively won the Spanish-American War of 1898, acquiring the colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. In the same year, McKinley ordered the annexation of the Republic of Hawaii, which also became a United States territory.

Although best known for his pro-business innovations, McKinley was also the first president to use a telephone to campaign, the first to be featured on $500 bill (last printed in 1934), and the first to own a famous White House pet (a parrot named “Washington Post” who could whistle “Yankee Doodle”). McKinley also became the first president to travel in an automobile, although the circumstances were tragic, while visiting the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot twice by an anarchist assassin, then carried from the scene by electric car. Although a primitive x-ray device was at the fair, it was not employed, the second bullet was never located, and the President died from infection eight days after the shooting.

What would McKinley say to the latest Government spending crisis?

The best way for the Government to maintain its credit is to pay as it goes—not by resorting to loans, but by keeping out of debt—through an adequate income secured by a system of taxation, external or internal, or both.

– First Inaugural Address, 1897

Harry S. Truman 5’8” (33rd President 1945-1953)

Harry S. Truman 5’8” (33rd President 1945-1953)

Born into a farming family from Missouri, Harry was given the middle initial “S” to honor his grandfathers Anderson Shipp Truman and Solomon Young, but the “S” doesn’t actually stand for anything. The symbolism came to be appropriate, because Truman was always the kind of man determined to carve out his own destiny and make his own name.

From a young age, Truman took a series of political offices. Yet, although he briefly studied both business and law (and, in 1996 the Missouri Supreme court issued him a posthumous honorary law license), he was the first president since McKinley not to attain a college degree. Lacking funds to complete his education, Truman turned to West Point, which rejected him on the grounds of poor eyesight. He instead enlisted in the Missouri National Guard, where he again failed an eye exam, due to almost total blindness in his left eye; Truman, undaunted, secretly memorized the eye chart and was successfully enlisted in 1905. He stayed in the military through the entirety of WWI.

He was famous for his practical, effective leadership; in late 1918, his participated in the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and spotted a German gun emplacement being set up to fire on the neighboring 28th Division. Although his orders were only to protect the 35th Division, Truman ordered his men to wait until the emplacement was fully situated, then fire on it, destroying the guns and saving the lives of the 28th division. The regimental commander threatened court-martial for the unauthorized action, but Truman was never formally reprimanded and is credited for saving the lives of the 28th Division soldiers.

Retiring as a captain, Truman joined the Officers’ Reserve Corps, where he eventually attained the rank of colonel, before running for the U.S. Senate. He volunteered to serve in WWII, but was denied by the president, who didn’t want to lose Congressmen to active duty. In 1945, Truman ran as the Vice-Presidential candidate in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fourth bid for reelection, and served as Vice President until Roosevelt’s death, eleven weeks into the term.

Immediately after being sworn in, Truman was informed about America’s secret nuclear program, and, four months later, authorized the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, effectively ending Japanese participation in WWII. At the conclusion of the war, Truman’s first prominent acts were to implement the Marshall Plan, counter Soviet expansion, and establish the North American Treaty Organization.

The 1948 election was so close that the Chicago Tribune famously published the headline “Dewey Defeats Truman,” hours before the results confirmed Truman’s reelection. However, for all of his world-changing peace negotiations, Truman’s presidency was again defined by war; he launched the Korean War in 1950, when Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, a war that was still ongoing when he retired from office in 1953.

Truman’s take on political responsibility?
It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.

Or, perhaps more famously:
The buck stops here.

Extraordinary men. Imperfect men. Men with tempers and faults, courage and conviction. Men who stepped up to serve honorably to the best of their abilities. On this day of remembrance, we tip our hats to the shorter men who served this country from its highest office, and who have left us a legacy worth preserving. In McKinley’s words:

That’s all a man can hope for during his lifetime—to set an example—and when he is dead, to be an inspiration for history.

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