From Traveling to Non-Consecutive Terms: Little-Known Presidential Firsts

Did you know Woodrow Wilson was the first president to hold a news conference?

August 25, 2018 5:00 am
Barack Obama learning to code (YouTube)

People notice what a president is doing, whether or not it is a momentous thing. But there have been times where presidents have become the first commander in chief to do something — like travel across the country or write a line of code. We take a look at some presidential firsts that have happened over our country’s lifetime.

First to be born a U.S. citizen

Martin Van Buren (Wikipedia)

Nowadays, you cannot be president if you were not born in the United States. But the early presidents had no choice but to be born as foreign citizens since the United States was not a country when they were born. Therefore, the first president to actually be a U.S. citizen was Martin Van Buren, the country’s eighth president. He was born in 1782 in New York.

First flight: FDR

FDR inflight, with TWA pilot Otis Bryan. (FDR Library)

It is common place nowadays for a president to board Air Force One, but in 1943, flying was a big deal. And Franklin D. Roosevelt made history when he flew across the Atlantic in a Boeing 314 flying boat. He was heading to meet Winston Churchill for the Casablanca Conference, where the two demanded unconditional surrender from their Axis enemies. The crew didn’t know that they would be flying the president and were “very much surprised” to learn his identity.

First to shake hands: Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson. (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Oddly enough, George Washington wouldn’t shake hands because he didn’t think it was very presidential. So instead he would bow to guests and they would bow in return. John Adams continued this tradition, but Thomas Jefferson eliminated it when he started shaking hands, which is still what the president does now.

First to travel out of the country during office: Teddy Roosevelt

teddy roosevelt
circa 1905: Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919),the 26th President of the United States (1901-09) sitting at his desk working. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Not until the 20th century did any American president set foot outside the United States during office. Theodore Roosevelt boarded the USS Louisiana to head to Panama and inspect construction of the Panama Canal.

First to hold nonconsecutive terms

Grover Cleveland (Flickr)

Though FDR is the only president to serve more than two presidential terms, he served them all back to back. Former New York Governor Grover Cleveland, however, served as president No. 22 and No. 24, making him the only commander in chief to serve nonconsecutive terms.

First to be elected before age 50: James Polk

James K. Polk, circa 1840, Oil on canvas by Minor K. Kellogg (Flickr)

All previous presidents before James Polk had been older when they were inaugurated, the oldest being William Henry Harrison at 68-years-old. Polk took office in 1845 when he was 49-years-old, which made history at the time. Later, Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest at 42, and with John F. Kennedy a close second at 43.

First to pardon a turkey: Abraham Lincoln

(Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.)

It is a time-honored tradition now, but Abraham Lincoln was the first person to pardon a turkey in the mid-2oth century. His son Tad had a pet turkey that he walked around on a leash. When it came time to eat said pet, Tad pleaded for clemency, and the president agreed.

First president of all 50 states: Dwight Eisenhower

9th July 1942: Major-General Dwight Eisenhower (1890 – 1969), commander of the American Forces in the European theatre of war, at the time of his promotion, by President Roosevelt, to Lieutenant General. (Photo by M. McNeill/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Getty Images

You wouldn’t think about a president not being president of all the states, but Hawaii and Alaska weren’t admitted into the union until 1959. Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to be commander in chief of all 50 states.

First to have photograph taken while in office: William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison (Wikipedia)

William Henry Harrison posed for a daguerrotype portrait after delivering his outdoor inaugural address on March 4, 1841. Unfortunately, the picture has been lost to history. The above portrait was taken at a different date.

First to write computer code: Barack Obama

Barack Obama learning to code (YouTube)

He might be best known as our first black president, but Barack Obama also became the first president to write a line of code as part of the “Hour of Code,” which was an online event to promote Computer Science Education Week in 2014. Obama wrote “moveForward(100);”.

 First to be President and VP without getting elected: Gerald Ford

Photograph of President Gerald Ford announcing his decision to grant a pardon to former President Richard Nixon. (Wikipedia)

He never earned a single vote at the ballot box. When Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned in a tax evasion scandal in 1973, Gerald Ford was appointed to the position by President Richard Nixon. But then, a year later, under political pressure by the Watergate scandal, Nixon resigned. This made Ford the only commander in chief ever to be president and vice president without ever being elected to office.

First to be sworn in by a woman: Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office aboard Air Force One. (Cecil W. Stoughton/Wikimedia Commons)

Lyndon B. Johnson did ask for a woman, federal judge Sarah T. Hughes, to swear him in after JFK’s assassination. Some historians think this is because he hadn’t been consulted in her appointment to the bench and wanted to send a signal about his new power, but, we can at least hope it was a little bit of a feminist move as well.

First to establish a White House Library: Millard Fillmore

A portrait of Millard Fillmore (1800-1874). Fillmore served as Vice President on the Whig ticket with Zachary Taylor, and assumed the Presidency upon Taylor’s death in 1850. He was nominated for a second term in 1856 by the Know-Nothings (American Party) but lost that election to James Buchanan. (Mathew B. Brady Studio/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Millard Fillmore installed a permanent White House library. Before him, all other presidents had just brought their own books with them and then took them home when their terms were complete Fillmore was also the first president to carry a dictionary with him at all times.

First to hold a regular news conference

Woodrow Wilson’s first posed photograph after his stroke. He was paralyzed on his left side, so Edith holds a document steady while he signs. June 1920. (Library of Congress)
Library of Congress

The first president to hold a news conference was Woodrow Wilson, in March 1913. Wilson and the next five U.S. presidents held off-the-record news conferences, so they could amend anything said to the media. In January 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower held the first televised news conference, which ushered in a new era.

First (and only) to be a bachelor: James Buchanan

James Buchanan in his post-presidency years. (Wikipedia)

A lot of presidents campaign on their family values, proving that through their marriages and kids. But James Buchanan was a lifelong bachelor, and he shared a home with Alabama Senator and former Vice President William Rufus King.


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