The Martial Chronicles: Political Fighters

Images_mediumEvery 3rd Monday of February we here in the United States of America celebrate Presidents’ Day to honor those that have occupied the highest office in the land. To mark this day I thought it would be fitting to rank the Presidents - not by their achievements in office, nor by any great leadership they may have shown in troubled times, but instead by their ability to kick ass. An ability that was not uncommon amongst our former heads of state, many of whom were quit adept in the art of unarmed combat.

For example, our 38th president, Gerald R. Ford, was not only a tremendous athlete who excelled in football at the University of Michigan, but he also excelled in boxing, coaching it first at Yale and then in the Navy during his service in the second World War. Dwight Eisenhower too was a standout in football, during a time when many wanted to ban the sport for its brutality, and also boxed and wrestled, with his instructor at West Point being none other than former American Heavyweight Champion and master catch-as-catch-can wrestler Tom Jenkins.

Amongst our Commander-in-Chiefs wrestling has easily been the most popular martial art: James Garfield, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Chester Arthur were all ardent wrestlers. Sometimes so much so that it would interfere with their political lives: Pierce wrestled in the New Hampshire House of Representatives building while he was the house speaker, and Grant famously apologized to a surrendering General Robert E. Lee at Appomatox for the mess at his campsite, a result of Grant and "some of the boys" having a wrestling match the previous night. Some of our former Presidents didn’t merely practice the craft, but actually excelled in it: Zachary Taylor was well known for his "scuffling" abilities amongst the Illinois Volunteers during the Black Hawk uprising, while William Taft was a fourth generation wrestler under the collar and elbow style, and was famed for his mastery of the "flying mare". "Big Bill", as the 225 lb. William was known during his youth, would twice win the intramural heavyweight championships at Yale. Not all though were of Taylor’s or Taft’s level: Calvin Coolidge was described by his father as being only "tolerable good" until age 14 when he quit, focusing instead on "duding around and daydreaming about being a big-city lawyer".

Amongst all these fighting Presidents three clearly stand above their peers and are truly worthy of consideration as being the toughest men to hold the office of Commander-in-Chief. 

3. George Washington


Originally today’s Holiday was simply known as Washington’s Day in honor of our very fist president George Washington whose birthday in fact falls on February 22nd. All through his life Washington was renown for his toughness and bravery, almost to the point of foolhardiness. "I heard the bullets whistle and, believe me, there is something charming to the sound of bullets" was how he described his feelings on the battlefield in a letter to his bother. He was also man that led from the front and gave himself no advantage or luxury accorded by his position or rank as Commander of the Continental Army, suffering the same hardships as the men that served beneath him. He was also one hell of a wrestler.

As a youth Washington attended Rev. Maury's Academy at Fredericksburg, Virginia, a finishing school which had a reputation as a fine place to learn how to grapple. At age 18 he won the county ''collar and elbow'' wrestling championship (although in some places it is reported as being the even more impressive championship of all the American colonies). Washington’s skills remained with him as he grew older, and in late 1776 at the age of 46 (and in the midst of waging war against the English crown), he demonstrated his old champion caliber abilities when he accepted a challenge from seven members of the Massachusetts Volunteer Guard. Charles Wilson detailed what happened as "the Commander of the Continental Armies summoned enough of his old form to deal flying mares to seven saucy volunteers from Massachusetts." [EN 1]

2. Theodore Roosevelt


Teddy Roosevelt grew up a sickly and asthmatic child, who took up rigorous exercise to combat his numerous ailments. One of the first sports he took up. with his father’s hearty encouragement, was boxing and his first boxing-master was an ex-prize-fighter named John Long. Long grew confident enough in the young Roosevelt’s progress that eventually he entered him into a lightweight tournament with the prize being a pewter mug. To everyone’s surprise, including Roosevelt’s, he won the tournament and the trophy. [EN 2] Teddy would go on to box while at Yale, although he never won any championships while there, and would continue with his pugilistic practices until a sparring session detached his retina and almost left him blind while Governor of New York, forcing him to focus solely on grappling for the remainder of his years.

Roosevelt had begun wrestling at a young age as well, and even competed in it at Harvard, reaching the finals in a championship tournament one year under the catch-catch-can rules. Roosevelt continued wrestling late into life, describing in his autobiography how, while serving as the Governor of New York, he had a wrestling mat purchased by the state Comptroller so that the Middleweight Champion of America could stop by three or four afternoons a week to grapple with him.

The final martial art he took up was Judo, which he learned from a visiting Yamashita Yoshiaki while Roosevelt was serving as President. [EN3] He described his White House practices in the exotic Japanese fighting style in letters he wrote to his son Kermit:

I am wrestling with two Japanese wrestlers three times a week. I am not the age or the build one would think to be whirled lightly over an opponent's head and batted down on a mattress without damage. But they are so skilful that I have not been hurt at all. My throat is a little sore, because once when one of them had a strangle hold I also got hold of his windpipe and thought I could perhaps choke him off before he could choke me. However, he got ahead. [EN4]

For two years, Roosevelt studied Kodokan Judo with Yamashita, eventually attaining the rank of 3rd degree brown belt and the title of most well rounded of all the fighting presidents.

1. Abraham Lincoln


There can be little doubt that there was no tougher President than Abraham Lincoln. While his gaunt and lanky appearance fooled many, the 6’4" 214 lb man who would go down as perhaps our nation’s greatest leader, was a splendid athlete, whose strength was legendary in the Kentucky and Illinois backwoods. Often he was described as a "Hercules", a "Samson". or simply the ‘strongest man I ever knew" and the testimony of many reinforces that impression. Numerous stories exist detailing how "He could strike with a maul a heavier blow - could sink an axe deeper into wood than any man I ever saw", how his strength was so great that ‘he was equal to three men, having on a certain occasion carried a load of six hundred pounds", or how on another occasion "he walked away with a pair of logs which three robust men were skeptical of their ability to carry. " [EN5]

One particularly incident at the Old Mill in Salem is worth repeating, where according to William Herndon: "By an arrangement of ropes and straps, harnessed about his hips, he was enabled one day at the mill to astonish a crowd of village celebrities by lifting a box of stones weighing near a thousand pounds." Before one discards this tale outright, others describe they witnessed Lincoln "lift betwen 1000 and 1300 lbs of rock waid in a Boxx ..."  and still others reported that they saw him "in the old mill on the river bank to lift a box of stones weighing from one thousand to twelve hundred pounds." [EN6]

Besides his prodigious strength, Lincoln was a phenomenal wrestler in both collar-and-elbow and the brutal backwoods catch style of rough-and-ready, a skill he aptly demonstrated at age 19 when he defended his stepbrother’s river barge from highjackers by throwing the thugs overboard. Soon after he would defeat Daniel Needman, a famous Southern Illinois wrestler in those days, in two straight falls, and in 1830, at the age of 21, he was proclaimed the wrestling champion of his county and soon the whole of Southern Illinois and Northern Kentucky. [EN7]

In 1831 Lincoln would engage in his most celebrated wrestling match against the local leader of the Clary Grove boys, a group of bullies who terrorized the residences of New Salem, named Jack Armstrong and who was described by Daniel Green Burner as being "considered the best man in all this country for a scuffle" and by Lincoln himself as being as "strong as a Russian bear".  After a brief skirmish Lincoln took "the great bully by the throat and shook him like a rag…" before slamming him to the ground and rendering him unconscious. [EN8]

While serving as a militia officer in the Sangamon Country Volunteers during the Black Hawk War, Mr. Lincoln took a "prominent part" in wrestling matches. One fellow soldier recalled that "Very few men in the army could successfully complete with Mr. Lincoln, either in wrestling or swimming; he well understood both arts." ."  Others testified that "His Specialty was Side holds; he threw down all men." And that Lincoln would often be found "wrestling for the Company against every Bully Brought up". [EN9]

Lincoln quarreled not only with outside companies, but sometime his own as well, according to his longtime friend William G. Green. When his men threatened to kill an old Indian who stumbled into their camp, Captain Lincoln blocked the soldiers' path and stated that any who wished to kill their visitor had best "choose your weapon." None took him up on his offer. [EN10]

Lincoln found much success while wrestling during the War, and after disposing of seven opponents he found himself one win away from the regimental championship. Lincoln’s opponent for the title would be Private Lorenzo Dow Thompson, a fellow soldier from his home state and who was well known as the champion of Northern Illinois. The two men clashed, and after taking a respite since neither man had gained the advantage, Lincoln remarked that Thompson was "the most powerful man I ever had hold of." Upon resuming the match Lincoln would finally taste defeat as Thompson would throw him twice. [EN11]

It was a remarkable feat by Thompson, for while Lincoln is thought to have competed in some 300 wrestling matches during his life,  according to Bob Dellinger, director emeritus of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Okla. "we can only find one recorded defeat of Lincoln in 12 years", Lincoln would proudly declare himself the second best wrestler in Illinois, behind only Thompson,  for years to come.

And Tyler Durden. Lincoln would kick your ass.



EN1. Charles Wilson detailed it in his book, The Magnificent Scuttlers (Brattleboro: Stephen Greene Press, 1959)

EN2. Roosevelt describes with some detail his interest and experiences in combat sports in Chapter 2: The Vigors of Life of his autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt - An Autobiograph (The MacMillan Company 1913)

EN3. Yamashita Yoshiaki  was one of the "Four Guardians of the Kodokan", and an important figure in the development and rise of Kodokan Judo. Yamashita visited America in an attempt to spread Kano Jigoro's art around the world, and in 1904 met and began instructing the President in the "Gentle-way'. The President was so enamored with the Japanese sport that he had Yoshiaki assigned to the position of wrestling instructor at the Naval Academy. Yamashita would hold that position for almost two years before returning to his native Japan.

EN4. In a letter dated March 5, 1904 to his son Kermit Roosevelt. In another letter to Kermit he describes Yamashita working off his back against his other son, Grant. 

EN5. The quotes are from Daniel Green Burner, John Gillespie, and Eliot Herndon and can be found in Herndon's Informants.

EN6. Herndon's story of Lincoln's feats at the old mill can be be found in Herndon's informants. The other two witnesses where Ward. H. Lamon and J. Rowan Herndon.

EN7. The Needman encounter at "Wabash Point" is taken from Abraham Lincoln, The Physical Man by Albert Kaplan.

EN8. There are many versions of his encounter with Jack Armstrong. The one I used is an amalgamation of the most common elements. Other descriptions of the encounter can be found at here and here.

EN9. The various statements are from Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln. 

EN10. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln.  Letter from Jason Duncan to William Hi. Herndon, May 28, 1865

EN11. Lorenzo Thompson was the Champion of St. Clair County. A more thorough description of their encounter can be found in David Herbert Donald's Abraham We are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and Friends as well as here.

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