The 5 Most Badass Presidents

When you think of the job title “President of the United States of America," action hero is not necessarily the image you conjure up. Nor, perhaps should it be. In the movies and on television, fictional presidents have sometimes been quite the badasses. Think Harrison Ford in Air Force One, Bill Pullman in Independence Day hopping into his jet fighter to kill some aliens, or that consummate vampire hunter, President Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Even Martin Sheen on “West Wing” could probably hold his own in a bar fight.


But lifelong politicians don’t usually fit the action hero stereotype, and recent presidents tend to talk a lot tougher than they walk. But there actually were some U.S. presidents who were every bit as tough, maybe tougher, than their badass-iest fictional counterparts.

Here are five presidents (and some runners-up) you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

1. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, man of the people. Andrew Jackson, Indian hater. Andrew Jackson, tough son of a bitch. Say what you will about Old Hickory, he was a guy you did not want to mess with. While many presidents have served honorably and ably in war, as did Andrew Jackson, who served in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, none fought and killed a man face to face in a duel. Jackson was purported to have engaged in over 100 duels, mostly defending the honor of his wife, Rachel, who had married him before her divorce from her first husband was official. One such insult was apparently tossed her way in 1806 from the mouth of a Jackson political opponent, Charles Dickinson. Jackson, having gotten wind of it, challenged Dickinson, who was 13 years younger, to a duel. Since duels were illegal in Tennessee, the men conducted their duel over the river in Kentucky. Jackson was not the marksman his rival was, and he shrewdly decided his best chance was to let Dickinson fire first, hoping that in haste, he might miss. 

Facing each other, Jackson allowed Dickinson to fire. Following the loud crack and billowing smoke, Jackson still stood. “My God! Have I missed him?” cried Dickinson. No, actually. Jackson had taken a bullet to the chest but simply disregarded it. He then took careful aim and fired at Dickinson, who was required by rules of the duel to face Jackson and remain still. Dickinson also took a bullet to the chest, but he was not Old Hickory; he died that evening. Jackson lived with that bullet in his chest for the rest of his life. It caused him pain and numerous respiratory difficulties, but never took him down.

Andrew Jackson was also the victim of an assassination attempt after he was elected president. A man named Richard Lawrence walked up to the president and tried shooting him with both of the pistols he carried. Both guns misfired, even though they were later tested and said to be in perfect working order. Jackson did not take lightly to being a target. He proceeded to use his cane to beat the man senseless. 

2. George Washington

Because George Washington is the "father of our country," never told a lie, chopped down the cherry tree, and all that mythical nonsense, we tend to forget he was first and foremost a soldier, and a pretty damn tough one. Thomas Jefferson remarked that Washington was “naturally irritable,” and when his temper, “broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath." The Iroquois tribe referred to Washington as Caunotaucarius, which roughly translated to Destroyer of Towns. A tough, tough dude, he once wrote to his brother after a particularly nasty battle, "I heard the bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming to the sound of bullets."

As a leader of men, Washington’s bravery was unquestioned. Usually at the frontlines, he more than once returned from battle with bullet holes in his uniform, sans horse, which had been shot out from under him. "Discipline is the soul of an army,” was his belief, and he practiced it religiously. Two officers under his command were convicted of treason. Washington ordered them killed before a firing squad. He then purposely appointed the very men who were conspiring with the two officers to be the ones to kill the traitors. We assume they learned their lesson.

3. Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt was a walking, talking repository of overflowing testosterone. At various times during his life he was a rancher, deputy sheriff, explorer, police commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, New York governor, war hero, killer of big game, Vice President, and of course, kickass President of the United States. Despite, or maybe because of a sickly, asthma-ridden childhood, Roosevelt built himself up into the picture of the manly man. The man could box, knew jujitsu and walked around the White House with a gun on his person. The outdoors was his love and he hiked, rode horseback, hunted, and roughed it whenever he could.

During the Spanish-American War, Teddy famously led his cavalry soldiers, the Rough Riders, on the charge up San Juan Hill on foot, no doubt scaring the bejesus out of the Spaniards, who must have wondered who this crazy man was. The Rough Riders were known to complain about the number of miles they had to ride (25 miles a day). Roosevelt answered that by riding 100 miles (he was 41 years old at the time).

While campaigning for president in 1912, Teddy was struck by a would-be assassin’s bullet. Some men would have thought it wise to get that tended to. Roosevelt allowed the shooter to be taken away, and then he finished his 80-minute speech, with a bullet in his chest. When Teddy Roosevelt died, another politician remarked, "Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake there would have been a fight."

4. Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland, tough guy? Well, yeah. You don’t earn the nickname "Buffalo Hangman” for nothing. Long before he was president (twice, non-consecutively), long before fathering a child out-of-wedlock, being publicly outed on it, and still being elected president, Cleveland was elected sheriff of Erie County, New York.

Erie County was no picnic. It had almost 700 saloons, a ton of transients and visiting sailors, and more prisoners than any other county jail in New York. Elected on the promise to clean up the county, Cleveland took the bull by the horns and went to work. As it turned out, he wasn’t all that great a sheriff, except for one thing. He felt morally responsible to do what other sheriffs had delegated to their assistants: he personally carried out the execution of two prisoners. He didn’t enjoy it, mind you. In fact he is reported to have gotten ill after his first execution. Still, anyone with the title "Hangman” on his resume deserves some serious street cred.

5. John F. Kennedy

Probably no president had (in the purely biblical sense) as many women as Kennedy did. Among his many paramours were Marilyn Monroe, Angie Dickinson, Jayne Mansfield, Audrey Hepburn, Blaze Starr, and reportedly the entire secretarial staff of the White House. Given the existence of his children, he even had time for Jackie. Given JFK’s womanizing rep, it is easy to forget that he also overcame a lifetime of physical pain and was a genuine war hero. Kennedy had chronic and severe back pain as well as Addison’s disease, an adrenal condition that plagued him his whole life. Despite symptoms that included weakness, nausea and weight loss, JFK became an excellent athlete. He suffered in silence and most people never knew the extent of his disabilities.

Despite his physical challenges, JFK decided to enroll in the navy in World War II. Having the advantage of a wealthy father, strings were pulled and Kennedy found himself the skipper of PT-109, a naval torpedo vessel. In 1943, Kennedy established his tough-guy credentials. His boat was attacked by a Japanese destroyer and ripped apart. Finding himself in the water, Kennedy swam four hours to safety while towing an injured crewman by holding his lifejacket strap in his teeth.

5 Runners-up

John Quincy Adams: JQA had a regular exercise routine that included skinny-dipping across the Potomac River in just one hour. Besides setting the record for nude presidential swimming, he also had a pet alligator.

Jimmy Carter: No one thinks of Jimmy Carter as a tough fellow, but he was a lieutenant who graduated from the Naval Academy. In 1952, he led a team of 24 men down into a malfunctioning nuclear reactor that was so radioactive he and his men were limited to 90-second shifts inside it. Carter later wrote that he "absorbed a year's maximum allowance of radiation in one minute and 29 seconds."

Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln carried on a no-holds-barred war against the South that eventually crushed its spirit. That’s enough to gain badass status. Add to that he was an excellent wrestler who rarely lost a match.

Zachary Taylor: Nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready,” Zachary Taylor was a hero during the Mexican-American War. Cornered by Mexican leader Santa Ana and vastly outnumbered, he was commanded by Santa Ana to surrender. His response? “I beg leave to say that I decline acceding to your request.” He then went on to beat Santa Ana down, ensuring victory in the war.

George H.W. Bush: Labeled a wimp by media outlets during his administration, Bush 41 was anything but. During World War II, he was, at the time, the youngest naval aviator ever. While flying one bombing mission, his plane was hit. Ignoring the peril, he completed the bombing mission while the plane was on fire, then flew over water and ordered his two crewmembers to bail out. Only afterward did he parachute to safety.

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