Our Presidents Up-Close
John Burke Jovich
Presidential Historian
HomeProgramsAbout UsContact JohnMediaClients
GrantFDRT. RooseveltMcKinleyName GamePhoto Gallery

The Presidential Name Game
Late in 1964, recording artist Shirley Ellis created a temporary national fad with a song titled “The Name Game.”  You remember that one.  “Shirley, Shirley bo Birley Bonana fanna fo Firley Fee fy mo Mirley, Shirley!”  It was a great kids’ song that quickly caught on with adults.  Unfortunately many children were reprimanded when they innocently substituted the name Chuck into the lyrics.  No explanation necessary.  

But have you heard about the presidential name game?

Granted, most Americans are unable to place a face with each presidential name, unless, of course, the names happen to be those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.  Many of us need not bother glancing at a one- or five-dollar bill, or a half-dollar coin to recall their well-recognized images.

But whose countenance comes to mind when the names of Presidents Leslie King and William Blythe are mentioned?

Presidents King and Blythe?  “Gimme a break!” you say.  “Those fellas must have been generals in a bygone war or perhaps British prime ministers from long ago.”

Actually, Gerald Rudolph Ford was named Leslie Lynch King Jr. at birth, and William Jefferson Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe IV.  Both were renamed after their stepfathers.

To what extent the character of Presidents Ford and Clinton was affected by the change in their birth names we cannot ascertain.  What we do recognize as fact is that Jerry Ford developed a solid reputation as a man of impeccable decency and rectitude.  And as for Bill Clinton?  He too is a nice guy, one who became acquainted with a White House intern with a dark blue dress and, well, you know the story.

Other presidents endured changes in their birth names, although not to the extent as had Ford and Clinton.  Grover Cleveland was born Stephen Grover Cleveland, his parents naming him Stephen Grover after a minister his father, himself a clergyman, had succeeded at a church in New Jersey.  Although most of his family and friends called him Steve, Cleveland, as an endeavoring attorney in Buffalo, favored his middle name Grover as more distinguished.  By the time he was elected president, some partisans had nicknamed him “Grover the Good” which, one must admit, had a better ring to it than “Stephen the Good.”

In 1856, Thomas Woodrow Wilson entered the world.  His parents named him after his maternal grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, and he was called Tommy all through his formative years.  But Wilson, surely one of the most intellectual men to serve in the White House, dropped the name Thomas soon after his graduation with a Ph.D. from Princeton University.  He was right to do so.  Somehow, the name Tommy would not have suited the bespectacled, cerebral scholar he was.

Our thirtieth president, Calvin Coolidge, was born John Calvin Coolidge Jr. on the Fourth of July, 1872.  Various biographers claim Coolidge’s parents purposely began calling him Calvin at home to avoid confusion between father and son.  But that is only partly true.  According to a meeting I enjoyed in 1997 with President Coolidge’s son, the late John Coolidge, then 91 years old, his father had asked his elementary school teacher and classmates to call him Calvin “because there were two other boys in the classroom with the first name John.”  Calvin Coolidge became the most taciturn president of all and was appropriately nick-named “Silent Cal.”  

So let's get this straight.  Then-future Presidents Cleveland, Wilson, and Coolidge voluntarily traded in "Steve," Tom," and John" for "Grover," Woodrow," and Calvin," respectively.  No doubt a definitive nightmare for today's political handlers!

In addition, David Dwight Eisenhower changed his name to Dwight David Eisenhower, and several presidents who were born with “junior” at the end of their names eventually dropped the “Jr.” following the death of their fathers.

Incidentally, some presidents have indirectly influenced morsels of our phraseology and slang.  For example, the acknowledgement “OK” derives from the delegates at the 1836 Democratic National Convention.  Their nominee that year was Martin Van Buren who, they discovered, hailed from a small village in upstate New York called Kinderhook.  While celebrating his nomination, they began chanting, “Old Kinderhook!  Old Kinderhook!”  Before long the delegates conveniently shortened the nickname to “O.K.”  What we now use as a common slang for the word “alright” is “okay”, thanks to “The Friends of Martin Van Buren Committee.”

Most of us know that the Teddy Bear originated from Theodore Roosevelt’s reluctance to shoot a bear cub during one of his numerous hunting excursions.  But Teddy shot just about everything else at one time or another.

Even the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln has resulted in common expressions.  After actor John Wilkes Booth mortally wounded Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, he leapt from the presidential box to the stage below, fracturing an ankle bone in the process. Hence came the old theatrical adage, “Go out there and break a leg!”  Having escaped the theater, Booth galloped his horse into Maryland where Dr. Samuel Mudd had set the bone in the assassin’s leg.  Dr. Mudd was tried and convicted as a conspirator in Lincoln’s murder and imprisoned nearly four years.  He was so widely despised by Northerners for aiding Booth that the contemptuous phrase, “Your name is mud(d),” took root.





Perhaps the most interesting president insofar as name revisions is Ulysses S. Grant.  He was born Hiram Ulysses Grant in a small cottage in rural Point Pleasant, Ohio.  As a child in elementary school in Georgetown, Ohio, he was sometimes teased by his classmates about his first name, Hiram.  One day, while leaving his home for the long walk to school with friends, Grant’s mother stepped from the front door of the house with the bagged lunch he had forgotten, yelling, “Hiram! Hiram!”  For the remainder of that day and henceforth, Grant’s buddies ridiculed him, mocking his mother’s way of pronouncing his first name. It wasn’t long before the young boy lobbied hard at school and home for everyone to call him by his middle name, Ulysses, the hero of Greek mythology.  Grant likely thought to himself, “Ulysses, hmmm, now there’s a masculine name for me . . . how can you get beat up after school with a name like that?!”

Grant’s reward for being an above-average student was an appointment by his local congressman to West Point.  In those days, new cadets traditionally entered the military academy with their possessions in a trunk and initials emblazoned thereon. He thought of his birthright initials, H.U.G.  Lovely, he dejectedly thought, at the embarrassing word they formed.  But Grant’s congressman had mistakenly registered his name as Ulysses Simpson Grant, Simpson being his mother’s maiden name.  Now that was ideal!  U.S. Grant . . . translation “United States Grant” . . . or “Uncle Sam Grant.”  Like Ulysses, Sam was an acceptable, virile name for the new cadet.  And by the time Grant graduated from West Point, intimates would call him Sam for the remainder of his life.  His parents, siblings, and future wife, however, called him Ulys.

Did the frequent changes in Grant’s name during his youth have an adverse affect on his life?  It depends on which historian you ask.

As you will note in my website article about his overcoming adversity, in the end, ol’ Sam Grant did alright.  He was a regular guy -- one who had made a name for himself in more ways than one.  


*     *     *