Who’s your favorite of the US Presidents with Beards?
There have been 11 US presidents with beards while in office. The three with mustaches are included at the end of this list as runners-up, because while having a mustache is admirable and does require some dedication, it’s not the same as having a beard (or whiskers). The remaining eight had beards, or enough of a whisker situation to play a role in our completely unbiased and definitive ranking below. Some lineups also include 12th president Zachary Taylor, but technically all he wore was a pair of short sideburns that barely broke even with his earlobes, so we’re leaving him off.
Why so few contenders?
Facial hair is considered a detriment to holding public office. According to Justin Peters over at Slate, “Beards won’t take hold in politics, it seems, until a bearded candidate wins a high-profile election. Politicians are unabashed copycats and generally won’t try a new campaign strategy until it’s been proven to work.” Fortunately, there’s a PAC for that – the Bearded Entrepreneurs for the Advancement of a Responsible Democracy (BEARD) PAC, which has sworn to “dependently support the candidacies of bearded candidates nationwide.”
Perhaps one of those bearded candidates will win soon. In the meantime, however, here’s Rugged Rebels’ definitive ranking of presidential beards, presented in ascending order from “No thanks, Chester” to “General Grant wins.”
8. Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
We’re giving 21st U.S. President Chester Arthur took the “No thanks, Chester” spot partly because the name fits. But it’s mostly because of that thing on his face. To be fair, Arthur was quite the dapper gentleman in his day. We think he sometimes pushed those mutton chops a bit too far. Maybe he should have stuck with the short look? Incidentally, he had that thing on his face back in his younger days as well, and according to a legend we just made up, that thing still shows up to haunt Washington, D.C. every Inauguration Day.
Arthur’s facial hair didn’t stop him from becoming a very not-bad president. VICE Magazine calls him chief among the most boring presidents, but really Arthur was a character and a half. As the Collector of the Port of New York, he oversaw New York Custom House employees and supported the entrenched spoils system of patronage that defined the existing political machine. President Rutherford B. Hayes (see below) removed Arthur from office when he introduced reform measures. Arthur soon found himself vice president alongside another reformer, James Garfield (also see below), but then Garfield someone he’d refused to appoint to office under the spoils system shot him. Arthur did a major about-face when he stepped up to bat.
Previously sympathetic to the interests of Roscoe Conkling and the Custom House, Arthur decided to pursue civil reform, and it was under his hand that the Pendleton Act came into law and turned the spoils system on its head. He literally flipped off his old political allies, recognizing the changing times (and seeing an opportunity to win popularity).
Oh, and Arthur was also a general in the Civil War. This is going to turn into kind of a theme, by the way.
7. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
Let’s hop back in time to John Quincy Adams, sixth U.S. president and son of No. 2, John Adams. Little Adams hadn’t even hit double-digit years when the Revolutionary War rolled around. Since there was no decent TV news coverage, he watched the patriots lose the Battle of Bunker Hill from the top of a hill near his family’s farm. We assume that’s also when he started growing his famous chops.
Adams went on to serve as minister to the Netherlands, beginning at the wizened old age of 26. He later became a senator, then the minister to Russia, and then secretary of state under President James Monroe, in which capacity he was largely responsible for creating a little foreign-affairs statement known as the Monroe Doctrine. Monroe lost both the popular and electoral votes to Andrew Jackson, yet won the election. As a result, his presidency was largely ineffective, marred by obstruction from an oppositional Congress.
After losing the 1828 presidential race (to Jackson), Adams attempted to retire but served as a U.S. representative in 1830. After close to 20 years of fighting for civil liberties and generally being one of the best congressmen ever, Adams had a stroke right on the House floor. He died two days later.
6. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
A quick jump over Andrew Jackson and we arrive at Martin Van Buren, the eighth U.S. president. Van Buren was the first president actually born a U.S. citizen instead of a British subject. Dutch was his first language – not English. What the “Little Magician” lacked in height (he was about 5′ 6″) he made up for in facial hair. Unlike Chester Arthur) he managed to pull off the look, in our definitely authoritative opinion.
As an Andrew Jackson supporter, Van Buren opposed Adams in the Senate and helped create a new political coalition that eventually morphed into the Democratic Party. During Jackson’s presidency, Van Buren served as secretary of state and then as vice president.
The economic Panic of 1837 marred Van Buren’s presidency. The cause is complicated: part Jackson’s financial policies and complicated by Van Buren’s own continuation of such policies. They called him Martin Van Ruin.
5. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Flash forward a few decades. With that snazzy beard up there, Rutherford B. Hayes (#19) has the mountain-manliest look of our presidential contestants.
Hayes was known in his time by the derisive nicknames “Rutherfraud” and “His Fraudulency” due to an epic election smackdown in Congress that makes Bush vs. Gore look like horseplay. (Yes, Florida was involved in this one, too.) After months of debate and definitely a bit of fraud, the decision came down – Hayes wins, 185 electoral votes to 184. Part of the highly suspicious dealings behind that final decision involved Hayes compromising with the Southern Democrats (who hated his guts) and agreeing to end Reconstruction efforts, which wasn’t great for the African-American population. But he got the presidency and then proceeded to piss off fellow Republicans by appointing an ex-Confederate to his Cabinet. Here he is kicking Chester Arthur out of the Custom House.
Earlier, back when Hayes was still busy fighting and getting wounded as a general in the Civil War, he enjoyed a much easier election process when his party nominated him for a seat in Congress. He refused to campaign for the spot, saying that “an officer fit for duty who at this crisis would abandon his post to electioneer… ought to be scalped.” He won the seat anyway.
There’s another nickname in the Hayes story – that of his wife, “Lemonade Lucy” Webb Hayes. Supposedly, “Lemonade Lucy” was responsible for banning alcohol in the White House during Hayes’s term; however, according to Tom Culbertson, executive director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, it was Hayes himself who made the call. Also, nobody called Lucy that in her lifetime. The legend came later, as legends are wont to do (e.g., the Legend of Chester’s Chops).
4. James Garfield (1881-1881)
20th US president James Garfield was a classics professor before starting his military career (yep, another Civil War general). Like Hayes, Garfield was also elected to political office during the war. However, unlike Hayes, he resigned from military service to take the position. President Lincoln really wanted him to. Garfield proceeded to spend nearly two decades as a Republican in the House.
He clearly had a pair of balls on him, which he used as president to exercise his executive authority over the New York Custom House, refusing to budge on his appointments. He also started trying to undo some of the policies introduced by Hayes. Then, before he had time to get much of anything done, a man named Charles Guiteau shot him.
That was on July 2, 1881. Garfield didn’t die until Sept. 19, and it wasn’t his gunshot wound that ultimately did him in, but rather all the infection, sepsis, and internal hemorrhaging. There’s a pretty good chance his physicians didn’t know as much as much about sterile environments as would have been ideal.
3. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
Now skipping over the aforementioned Chester Arthur as well as Grover Cleveland’s first term, we come to Benjamin Harrison. Like Martin Van Buren, Harrison was also a solid five and a half feet tall, and for that reason, his detractors called him “Little Ben”. He’s most the guy stuck between the two Cleveland administrations. This made for an interesting scenario where President Cleveland did some stuff, then President Harrison undid a bunch of it, and then President Cleveland came back and did/undid stuff again. But what really matters for the purposes of this list is that Benjamin Harrison was the last U.S. president to wear a full beard.
Did you already guess that Harrison was a Civil War general? Surprise, you are correct!
2. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
Honest Abe. The man who led the Union to victory in the Civil War and abolished slavery. He made presidential beards cool again.
But Lincoln didn’t grow his iconic beard until after a young girl named Grace Bedell wrote him a letter suggesting that facial hair would improve his chances of winning the presidential election. This sounds like a legend, but it’s really true. “[Y]ou would look a great deal better for your face is so thin,” Bedell wrote. “All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Born and raised in the sticks, Lincoln was a smart whippersnapper. He taught himself right past the state bar and into lawyerhood. Later, he ran for senator against Stephen Douglas in 1858. Although he lost the bid for Congress, he won the 1860 presidential race partly thanks to his decision to publish the Lincoln-Douglas debates. This move gained him enough fame and influence to land the Republican nomination. It must have felt great to beat Douglas in that race.
1. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
And finally, we present the winner of the great presidential beard contest none of these men knew they were a part of. Disagree? Just have a look at this photo from his Civil War days. That right there is a hard beard face to beat.
Ulysses S. Grant, Union commanding general under Lincoln, was a national hero and an easy choice for president during the 1868 campaign. He was officially the first U.S. president to wear an honest-Abe, full-on beard in office. Grant kicked off what Wait But Why calls the Mustache Era (1869-1913), an uninterrupted facial hair party among presidents in which each successive leader had at least a ‘stache on his face.
While a shrewd military leader, Grant was evidently not as creative doing politics as he was doing war. His administration was extremely corrupt (remember that spoils system we mentioned?), not because he personally encouraged corruption, but because he just didn’t really see what was happening. Speaking of creativity, though, Grant was a talented painter and writer. Mark Twain praised Grant’s memoirs, calling them “a literary masterpiece”. Grant wrote his memoirs after learning he was dying of throat cancer. It’s okay, the alcohol would have got him eventually if the cigars hadn’t kicked in.
Runner-Up: Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)
We already covered a few details of Grover Cleveland’s presidency by way of Benjamin Harrison, but did you also know that Cleveland was sheriff of Erie County, New York, for a
while and dropped the trapdoor out from under a couple convicts? He married Frances Folsom while in office, a woman 28 years his junior.
Runner-Up: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
We wrote about this badass Rough Rider in our list of Top 10 Innovative Halloween Costumes with Mustaches. If you don’t feel like reading it, just know that the next time you go trick-or-treating and dress up as Teddy, some other costumed dude who did read it might walk up and pull a cap gun on you.
Teddy Roosevelt was one of the most influential presidents in U.S. history. It’s a shame he preferred to stick with the mustache; in his younger days, he often wore a good deal more than that.
Runner-Up: William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
There isn’t a whole lot to say about William Taft, except that he was Roosevelt’s secretary of war, McKinley’s chief civil administrator in the Philippines, the 27th U.S. president, the (unenthusiastic) Republican nominee for 28th U.S. president, a Yale law professor, the 10th U.S. chief justice, and hold on, there’s actually a lot to say.