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president's day

As the nation comes together to celebrate President’s Day, we find ourselves in a moment of reflection, not just on the monumental leadership and decisive policies that have shaped the United States but also on the more personal, human qualities of the men who have held the office of Commander-in-Chief. Beyond their political achievements and contributions to American history, the physical strength, toughness, and self-defense capabilities of these leaders offer a unique lens through which to view their legacies. It’s a facet of presidential history that, while often overlooked, provides insight into the character and resilience of these individuals. This article delves into an exploration of which U.S. presidents stood out not just as leaders of a nation but as paragons of physical fortitude and martial skill.

By examining their lives, both in and out of office, we at embark on a journey to rank these presidents, drawing on a fascinating blend of historical records, anecdotes, and assessments of their physical prowess. Through this analysis, we aim to shed light on a different kind of leadership quality—one rooted in physical capability and the ability to confront challenges not only with the mind but with the body as well.

1. Theodore Roosevelt

Topping our list is Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, whose life was a testament to the spirit of physical vigor and martial competence.

Theodore Roosevelt stands as a towering figure not just in the annals of American presidency but also as an emblem of the indomitable spirit of physical and martial excellence. His life and presidency were marked by a relentless pursuit of the “strenuous life,” a philosophy that championed vigorous, outdoor activity and physical exertion as means to live fully and lead effectively. This ethos was not merely rhetorical for Roosevelt; it was a way of life that he embraced wholeheartedly and encouraged others to adopt for the betterment of their personal health and the vigor of the nation.

Roosevelt’s engagement with physical fitness and martial arts began in his youth. Plagued by asthma and considered frail as a child, he took up boxing as a means to overcome his physical limitations and to defend himself against bullying. This early commitment to transforming his physique and fortitude through boxing laid the foundation for a lifetime of dedication to physical fitness and martial arts. His prowess in the ring was recognized during his time at Harvard, where he became the boxing champion, showcasing not just his skill but also his determination and resilience.

However, Roosevelt’s martial interests extended beyond boxing. He was one of the first American public figures to embrace judo, earning a brown belt, an impressive feat that underscores his commitment to learning and mastering new forms of physical and self-defense disciplines. His involvement in judo at the time when it was relatively unknown in the United States is a testament to his pioneering spirit and open-mindedness towards diverse cultures and practices.

Wrestling, too, formed a part of Roosevelt’s regimen, further illustrating his love for close combat sports and his belief in grappling and physical control as essential skills. These activities were more than mere hobbies; for Roosevelt, they were integral to building character, discipline, and a robust physique capable of enduring the rigors of leadership and the demands of the presidency.

Roosevelt’s passion for physical fitness was matched by his advocacy for the same in the public sphere. He famously promoted the “strenuous life” as essential not only for the individual’s health and happiness but also as crucial for the nation’s vitality and strength. Under his leadership, efforts were made to encourage physical education and outdoor activities among the public, with Roosevelt himself often leading by example, engaging in horseback riding, hiking, and even military drills.

His presidency (1901-1909) was marked by this same vigor, with Roosevelt using his office to champion conservation efforts, creating national parks and forests that preserved the natural beauty of the American landscape for outdoor activities and ensuring that future generations would have ample opportunity to live the strenuous life he so valued.

Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy as a president is vast and multifaceted, encompassing significant political and social achievements. Yet, his dedication to physical fitness and martial arts stands out as uniquely personal and influential, reflecting a belief in the power of the physical to shape the mental and moral character. In this regard, Roosevelt was not just a proponent of the strenuous life but its embodiment, making him an enduring symbol of self-defense capability and the transformative power of physical discipline and martial skill.

2. Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, often celebrated for his profound contributions to American history and his pivotal role in preserving the Union during the Civil War, also possessed a lesser-known but equally remarkable facet to his character: his exceptional physical strength and skill in wrestling. This aspect of Lincoln’s life offers a fascinating glimpse into the man behind the myth, revealing a rugged, physically imposing figure whose early life on the frontier shaped him into a formidable wrestler.

Standing at an impressive 6’4″, Lincoln’s physical stature was notable even in his own time, a period when the average height of an American male was significantly shorter. His long limbs provided him with an extensive reach, an advantage he skillfully utilized in his wrestling matches. Lincoln’s background as a rail-splitter and laborer in his youth contributed to his physical strength, endowing him with the kind of raw power and endurance that few of his contemporaries could match.

Lincoln’s wrestling prowess was not merely a product of his physical attributes; it was also a testament to his competitive spirit and mental resilience. In the rough-and-tumble world of frontier wrestling, where matches were often as much about mental fortitude as they were about physical strength, Lincoln excelled. His ability to read his opponents and anticipate their moves, combined with his strength and reach, made him a formidable competitor.

The legacy of Lincoln’s wrestling career is immortalized in his induction into the Wrestling Hall of Fame, a rare honor that underscores the depth of his skill in the sport. Out of approximately 300 matches, Lincoln was defeated only once, a record that speaks volumes about his dominance in the arena. This remarkable achievement is not just a footnote in the biography of a great leader; it is a window into the character of a man who embodied the qualities of determination, physical fitness, and competitive spirit.

Lincoln’s wrestling talents also had a symbolic resonance, reflecting his personal struggles and his leadership during one of the most tumultuous periods in American history. Just as he navigated the physical challenges of wrestling, Lincoln navigated the political and moral challenges of his presidency with a similar blend of strength, strategy, and resilience. His ability to stand firm, to endure, and to emerge victorious against formidable odds in the wrestling ring paralleled his leadership in guiding the nation through the Civil War.

Moreover, Lincoln’s engagement with wrestling and physical activity speaks to a broader understanding of the importance of physical fitness and mental well-being. In an era when the rigors of daily life demanded physical strength and endurance, Lincoln’s wrestling prowess was both a personal attribute and a public virtue, symbolizing the strength and resilience that he believed were essential to individual and national character.

Abraham Lincoln’s legacy as a wrestler is more than just an interesting anecdote; it is a testament to the multifaceted nature of a man who is rightly revered for his leadership and moral vision. His wrestling career adds a layer of complexity to our understanding of Lincoln, illustrating that his strength was not only intellectual and moral but also physical. In this, Lincoln serves as a powerful example of how physical fitness and competitive sports can play a role in developing the qualities of leadership, resilience, and character.

3. George Washington

George Washington, the first president of the United States, is often celebrated for his leadership and strategic mind. However, Washington was also revered as the founding father and the first president of the United States, is a symbol of leadership, integrity, and strategic genius. His contributions to the formation of the nation are monumental, from leading the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolutionary War to presiding over the convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution. Yet, beyond these accomplishments lies another dimension of Washington’s character: his exceptional physical strength, toughness, and prowess as an outdoorsman and horseman. These qualities not only complemented his leadership abilities but also played a crucial role in shaping his legend.

Washington’s physicality was noted by his contemporaries, who admired him for his stature and strength. Standing over six feet tall, he presented an imposing figure, a trait that served him well both on and off the battlefield. His physical presence was matched by his extraordinary physical strength, which was evident in his activities as a surveyor, soldier, and farmer. Washington’s endurance and vigor were essential to his leadership style, allowing him to command respect and inspire confidence among his troops and peers.

An exceptional horseman, Washington’s skills in the saddle were legendary. His ability to ride with grace, speed, and endurance was not just a matter of personal pride but a practical asset in his military and surveying endeavors. His prowess on horseback was a testament to his physical coordination, balance, and strength, and it played a significant role in his reputation as a leader. Washington’s equestrian skills were so renowned that he was often depicted on horseback in paintings and statues, symbolizing his leadership and vitality.

Moreover, Washington’s abilities in the wilderness further underscore his physical resilience and capability. His early career as a surveyor of the Virginia wilderness required not only a keen strategic mind but also the physical stamina to traverse vast and uncharted territories. These expeditions honed his survival skills, deepened his understanding of the land, and cultivated a resilience that would later define his military campaigns. His experience in the wilderness contributed to his strategic acumen, particularly in utilizing the terrain to his advantage during the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s military experience, too, is indicative of his physical capabilities. His participation in the French and Indian War and his leadership during the Revolutionary War demanded not only strategic intelligence but also physical endurance. Washington’s presence on the battlefield, often in the thick of action, inspired his troops and demonstrated his willingness to share in the hardships of war. His ability to endure the same conditions as his soldiers, coupled with his physical fitness, solidified his reputation as a leader of unwavering resolve and strength.

In sum, George Washington’s legacy as a leader is inseparably linked to his physical attributes. His strength, toughness, and skill as a horseman and outdoorsman were not mere complements to his strategic mind but foundational elements of his character. These qualities enabled him to lead by example, endure the rigors of military campaigns, and navigate the challenges of early American wilderness. Washington’s physical resilience and capability are as much a part of his enduring legacy as his moral fortitude and leadership, embodying the ideal of a leader who possesses both the strength of character and body.

4. Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, remains one of the most polarizing and dynamic figures in American history. Known for his robust personality and a combative style that defined both his political career and personal life, Jackson’s legacy is that of a fighter, in the literal and figurative sense. His physical toughness and resilience, underscored by his involvement in numerous duels and his survival of multiple gunshot wounds, exemplify a man who was as formidable in battle as he was in the political arena.

Jackson’s life was marked by violence and conflict from an early age. Orphaned as a teenager during the American Revolutionary War, he bore a lifelong disdain for the British, which fueled both his military career and his political ideologies. This early exposure to conflict instilled in Jackson a resilience and toughness that would become his hallmark. His physical and mental endurance was remarkable, allowing him to navigate the challenges of early American politics and military service with equal ferocity.

Dueling was a common practice among men of honor in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Jackson was no stranger to this tradition. He participated in numerous duels throughout his life, most famously against Charles Dickinson in 1806, whom he killed over a matter of honor involving a horse race bet and an insult to his wife. Jackson himself was severely wounded in the duel, with a bullet lodged near his heart that would remain there for the rest of his life. This incident is a testament to Jackson’s fearlessness and his unwavering commitment to defending his honor, regardless of the personal cost.

Jackson’s military career further exemplified his physical toughness and strategic acumen. His leadership during the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812 made him a national hero. With minimal casualties on his side, Jackson’s forces inflicted significant losses on the British, showcasing his tactical skill and his ability to inspire and lead men under his command. His physical presence on the battlefield, often in the thick of danger, served to motivate his troops and intimidate his enemies.

Beyond his dueling and military exploits, Jackson’s presidency (1829-1837) was characterized by his strong-willed approach and his advocacy for the “common man.” His physical toughness was mirrored in his political actions, including his fight against the Second Bank of the United States and his stance on the Union during the Nullification Crisis. Jackson’s willingness to confront his adversaries head-on, whether on the dueling ground or in the political arena, reinforced his image as a steadfast and resilient leader.

Andrew Jackson’s enduring legacy as one of the most physically formidable presidents in American history is not solely based on his capacity for violence or his participation in duels. Rather, it is his overarching resilience, his ability to endure personal and professional hardships, and his unwavering commitment to his principles that define his formidability. His life story, marked by physical and moral battles, reflects the complexities of American identity and the spirit of a nation in its formative years. Jackson’s toughness, both of body and spirit, remains a defining aspect of his contribution to the American presidency and the historical narrative of the United States.

5. Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, is often celebrated for his military genius and leadership during the Civil War, a tumultuous period that defined the nation’s history. However, Grant’s contributions extend beyond his strategic acumen; his physical endurance, toughness, and direct involvement in the rigors of war played a crucial role in his success as a military leader and later as a president. Grant’s life story is a testament to the power of resilience, both on the battlefield and in the face of personal and political challenges.

Born in 1822 in Ohio, Grant’s early life was characterized by a modest upbringing and a strong work ethic instilled by his family. His journey to prominence began with his education at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was trained in the art of warfare and exposed to the disciplines that would later define his military career. Despite his unremarkable start at West Point, Grant’s true prowess became evident during the Mexican-American War, where he served with distinction and demonstrated his innate ability to lead and endure under pressure.

Grant’s physical endurance and toughness were most prominently displayed during the Civil War. As a Union general, he was known for his relentless pursuit of victory, often at great personal risk. Grant’s leadership in key battles, such as the Siege of Vicksburg and the Battle of Shiloh, highlighted not only his strategic mind but also his willingness to endure the same hardships as his men. He often worked in close proximity to the front lines, sharing in the dangers and deprivations of his troops, which earned him the respect and loyalty of his soldiers.

His approach to warfare was marked by an understanding of the importance of physical endurance and the ability to operate effectively under extreme conditions. Grant’s campaigns were characterized by rapid movements, long marches, and the use of aggressive tactics that required a physically robust leader who could withstand the rigors of prolonged engagements. His ability to ride and shoot, skills honed from his early days at West Point and throughout his military career, were complemented by a mental resilience that allowed him to make critical decisions in the heat of battle.

Grant’s physical and mental toughness were further tested during his presidency (1869-1877), a period marked by the challenges of Reconstruction and the need to unify a nation still divided by war. His leadership style as president mirrored his military approach—direct, resilient, and unyielding in the face of opposition. Though his presidency faced criticism and controversies, his commitment to civil rights and his efforts to rebuild the post-war nation showcased his enduring strength and dedication to the principles of equality and justice.

Beyond the battlefield and the political arena, Grant’s personal life was marked by struggles, including financial difficulties and a battle with throat cancer that ultimately claimed his life. Throughout these challenges, Grant’s toughness never wavered. His determination to complete his memoirs, despite his deteriorating health, provided a final testament to his resilience. The memoirs, completed shortly before his death, were a critical and financial success, securing his family’s future and cementing his legacy as one of America’s most enduring figures.

Ulysses S. Grant’s legacy as a physically and mentally robust leader is a powerful reminder of the importance of resilience, determination, and the willingness to face adversity head-on. His life and career, marked by significant contributions to the United States during one of its most challenging periods, highlight the indomitable spirit of a man who embodied the very essence of endurance and strength.

Honorable Mentions

The presidency of the United States has seen a wide array of individuals, each bringing their unique strengths, backgrounds, and capabilities to the highest office in the land. Among them, several presidents have distinguished themselves not only through their leadership and policy achievements but also through their physical fitness, toughness, and martial skills. While the main list highlights those with direct combat or self-defense skills, our honorable mentions feature leaders whose lives and careers were significantly shaped by their physical capabilities and experiences in sports and military service.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Before assuming the presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower had already etched his name into history as a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II. His role as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe required not only an exceptional strategic mind but also a significant level of physical endurance. Leading the planning and execution of major operations like D-Day, Eisenhower’s military career is a testament to his physical and mental resilience. His background suggests a president whose leadership was informed by a life of rigorous physical activity and the demands of military command, underscoring a level of fitness and toughness required for both the battlefield and the political arena.

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy, despite being plagued by chronic health issues that included severe back pain and Addison’s disease, demonstrated remarkable physical courage and endurance. An avid swimmer and participant in several sports, JFK’s active lifestyle was emblematic of his youthful vigor and charisma, which played a significant role in his public image. His military service during World War II, particularly his command of a patrol torpedo boat (PT-109), highlighted his bravery and physical courage. After his boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy’s leadership and endurance in ensuring the survival and rescue of his crew members underscored his physical and mental fortitude. Kennedy’s ability to overcome personal health challenges and perform acts of valor in the face of danger speaks to a resilience that defined his presidency and his approach to leadership.

Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford’s path to the presidency was marked by notable achievements in athletics, underscoring a life committed to physical fitness and toughness. As a standout center, linebacker, and long snapper for the University of Michigan’s football team, Ford’s athletic prowess was evident. His contributions on the field helped lead his team to two national championships in the 1930s, showcasing not just his physical abilities but also his leadership and teamwork skills. Ford’s dedication to sports and physical fitness carried into his political career, where he was known for promoting physical activity as an essential component of a healthy lifestyle. His background in athletics suggests a president who understood the value of physical fitness both personally and as a national priority, emphasizing the importance of strength, endurance, and discipline.


These honorable mentions highlight the diversity of backgrounds and experiences that have shaped the men who have occupied the Oval Office. Their stories of physical courage, endurance, and athleticism offer a broader understanding of the qualities that contribute to effective leadership. Whether through military service, athletics, or overcoming personal health challenges, these presidents exemplify the importance of physical fitness and toughness in the realm of public service and leadership.

This ranking provides a glimpse into the physical and combative capabilities of U.S. presidents, showing that many of America’s leaders were not just strategic and diplomatic figures but also men of significant physical strength and martial ability. Their stories inspire us to embrace the values of resilience, physical fitness, and self-defense, reminding us that these qualities have been revered throughout America’s history.

As always, be safe and be prepared.


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