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Tales of America’s Presidents

Paul Arsenault, a Bellingham resident and regular at the Senior Center, has made a life-time study of American presidents. He presented some interesting facts last month, and will be doing so again on April 10th.

By David Dunbar
• Which American president had a pet alligator in the East Room of the White House?
• Which one was the shortest president?
• Which one was a frequent dueler?
• And did George Washington actually chop down his father’s cherry tree?
• Oh, and who went skinny dipping in the Potomac River every morning?
Sound like a Saturday night trivia contest at the local tavern? Answers to these questions, and a whole lot more, came from a presentation at the Bellingham Senior Center around Valentine’s Day last month.
Paul Arsenault, a Bellingham resident and regular at the Senior Center, has made a life-time study of American presidents. He attended UMASS Amherst and was a tax consultant before his retirement. “I enjoy my topic,” says Arsenault, “and it took years of research. I always thought I could be president!”
So, about the pet alligator. It was John Quincy Adams who hosted the French Marquis de Lafayette at the White House, and he brought with him an alligator who Adams kept in a large tub in the East Room “to scare guests.”
In 1824, there was a presidential election and Adams lost to Andrew Jackson. Under the 12th Amendment at the time, the House of Representatives could choose from the top three candidates. The House, with the help of Speaker Henry Clay, chose Adams. Clay would become Secretary of State.  Jackson never forgave Adams and called it a “crooked deal.” Sound familiar?
The shortest president was James Madison, at five feet, four inches tall. But, he stood tall as the “Father of the Constitution,” an important part of the Bill of Rights, and one of the authors of the “Federalist Papers.”  
During the War of 1812, the White House was set ablaze while Madison was not there. His wife, Dolly, first saved a portrait of George Washington before fleeing.
Who was the frequent dueler? Andrew Jackson, who was born in a log cabin, killed a man in 1806 and he was shot in the chest. He never totally recovered from the wound which may have led to his death 39 years later.
Jackson considered himself “a man of the people,” looking for the “rights of the common man.” At his inauguration at the White House, it was filled with the common and the interior was damaged and nearly destroyed.
George Washington did not chop down his father’s cherry tree. He did not throw a silver dollar across the Potomac River. However, he did have wooden teeth. (George Washington’s Mount Vernon museum disputes this, however, as according to them, “Washington employed numerous full and partial dentures that were constructed of materials including human, and probably cow and horse teeth, ivory (possibly elephant), lead-tin alloy, copper alloy (possibly brass), and silver alloy.”
He was the largest distiller at the time. He never lived in the White House. And at his farewell address on September 19, 1796, he stated, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Now, about the skinny dipping. Back to John Quincy Adams, who Senior Center presenter Arsenault called “strange.” Adams did not like reporters. And at one of his morning dips in the Potomac a female reporter showed up and sat on his pile of clothes. Until he granted an interview, she refused to budge.
Interestingly, the first seven American presidents were all “British subjects.” The first president born in the U.S. was Martin Van Buren. Two presidents, Thomas Jefferson and Adams, both died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
Arsenault will return to the Bellingham Senior Center on April 10th to continue his popular discussion of U.S. presidents, and it will be open to all. 
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