Presidents Who Killed Someone: How Many Presidents Have Killed A Man?

The men who’ve been president have certainly been a varied lot! From brilliant (Thomas Jefferson) to dopey (Warren G Harding) from unifying leader (Dwight Eisenhower) to divisive loner (Richard Nixon), our presidents have represented both the best and worst that America has to offer.

During a recent college presentation, I was asked an intriguing question: “Have there been any presidents who killed someone?” I could come up with several off the top of my head, but I thought it would be interesting to see if I could put together a comprehensive list.

In doing so, I excluded the those presidents who gave orders that ended in the deaths of others. Thus, Barack Obama, who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden; and Lyndon B. Johnson, who ordered the bombing of North Vietnam are excluded.

Here is my list of the Presidents who killed someone. If you find an oversight, please let me know in the comments section below!

1. George Washington (probably)

Washington, a career soldier, was involved in several engagements early in his career in which he fired his weapon in close order combat. As you might expect in such circumstances, it is difficult to know if Washington actually killed someone, but it would seem highly probable.

2. James Monroe.

Monroe on the ground, shot and seriously wounded at Trenton.

The Battle of Trenton was the turning point of the American Revolution and future President James Monroe was one of its greatest heroes. Monroe was badly wounded while conducting an act of almost unbelievable heroism. Without question, Monroe would have died on the streets of Trenton had his gun shot wound not been treated quickly and well. Many eyewitness accounts say that he killed one or more Hessians during the battle. Like JFK and the PT-109, James Monroe’s actions in the military became an important part of his biography when he ran for President.

3. Andrew Jackson.

Jackson in a duel.

In addition to his  controversial military career, we know that Jackson killed a man in a duel to defend the honor of Jackson’s wife. Jackson fought more than one duel–definitely not a man to make mad! Additionally, he was in numerous close-range battles as a soldier. His fearlessness under fire was remarked upon often

4. Many presidents served in command capacity during the Civil War. (A. Johnson, U.S.  Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Harrison and McKinley) and others, most notably W. H. Harrison and Zachary Taylor combat who saw heavy combat, served in other 19th century wars. It is impossible to know precisely when soldiers are firing rapidly in a battle who killed whom. A very strong case could be made that Benjamin Harrison killed men during heroic action in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Resaca in the Civil War. (A  hat tip to historian Kara DiDomizio for pointing out Benjamin Harrison’s involvement!)

5. Grover Cleveland.

Sheriff Grover Cleveland carried out the death sentence on 3 condemned prisoners.

A man of staunch integrity, Cleveland, as Sheriff of Buffalo, carried out 3 orders of execution personally. While the law did not require the Sheriff to personally carry out the execution, Cleveland believed it was his duty.

6. Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders

TR claimed to have killed men during the Battle of San Juan Hill. One thing that distinguishes Theodore Roosevelt from the other presidents on the list is that he boasted proudly of his accomplishments.

7. Harry S Truman. Our only president to serve during World War I, Truman’s courage under fire saved the lives of many of his men. His biographer does not record any instance in which Truman was believed to have killed anyone, but, as with any soldier in combat during wartime, it is certainly possible.

8. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush

all served during World War II. Given the nature of his assignment, it is very likely that George H. W. Bush killed numerous people while serving as a bomber pilot. He earned his wings as the youngest Navy pilot at the time and all tolled, he flew nearly 60 missions. He was shot down and then rescued and earned his Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. Due to the nature of their assignments, none of the others would have killed anyone.

So what is the final total of Presidents who killed someone?

Definitively: (6)  Washington, Monroe, Jackson, Cleveland, T. Roosevelt, G. H. W. Bush

Probably: (4)  W. H. Harrison, Taylor, Grant, Benjamin Harrison

A list of people associated with the presidency who killed others, outside of war situations, is quite fascinating and probably deserving of a separate post! Adlai E. Stevenson and Laura Bush are two of the more prominent names.  Click here to read about JFK and the PT-109 – as close a brush with death as a future President would come.

20 thoughts on “Presidents Who Killed Someone: How Many Presidents Have Killed A Man?

  1. I’m sure we all want to know about Laura Bush! Did she kill an intruder? How interesting. “Still waters run deep.” may apply to her. I do admire her and the one daughter that I seem to know a little more about. Not so much her husband, Geo. W. Also, what was Adlai’s story? I proudly told in History class 8th grade that I was related to Andrew Jackson and the teacher said, “That’s nothing to be proud of”. Really nice to say to a kid in front of the class. He was kind of a scoundrel. She was from N.Y.”New Rochelle”, as she often would tell us, and we all wished she had stayed there! This is an interesting subject to explore. mjk

    • Marilyn,

      I put the link to my blog post on Adlai Stevenson’s tragic killing of Ruth Merwin above. Although Adlai Stevenson never spoke or wrote about this unbelievable tragedy, it does not seem like a stretch to suggest that it helped to shape his personality toward being conciliatory and looking for nonviolent solutions.

      Barry

    • As a history buff and educator I think I’d have to say that your “New Rochelle” teacher was totally wrong in her statement and it was based on her own personal biases. Without a doubt Andrew Jackson was a “scoundrel”, the scandal about his wife and the subsequent duel not withstanding but he was also devoted to his Country. She should have taken the time to read the histories of that period. Poverty, corruption, Domestic and Foreign unrest. How could ANYONE be expected to do better than Jackson tried?

  2. Laura Bush killed a man in an auto accident. She was the driver. I, too, want to know about Adlai!

    I never realized how many presidents were involved in so many deaths!

    Love your fascinating facts!!!!!

    • Judy,

      Laura Welch (Bush) was the 17-year-old driver in a car that killed a good friend of her, Michael Dutton Douglass, in an accident. She was not charged for the accident, although it does appear she had run a stop sign. Later, it is clear from her memoirs, the incident changed her. For a long while, according to her, she questioned her face. Ultimately, she became a more serious and focused person. From her career as a teacher and librarian, through her sterling example as a first lady, it is clear that she has used the tragedy to become a better person and dedicated her life to helping others.

      Barry

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  9. How about Aaron Burr, Vice President under Jefferson? He was going to be dropped from the ticket in 1804, ran for the New York governorship instead. Burr lost, Alexander Hamilton had campaigned against him; Burr felt he needed an apology, they could not reconcile, and a duel was called, even though it was illegal in both NY and NJ. Burr killed Hamilton who was 49. Hamilton’s youngest of eight children was two years old. His oldest son had also died in the same spot in New Jersey in a duel three years earlier. Burr eventually returned to Washington to finish his term as VP, and the charges against him were dropped.

    • Candy,

      The story of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton is a fascinating one! The overwhelming popularity of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” has only increased the public’s interest in how to men who had been comrades during the Revolutionary war came to such a tragic end.

      Now you’ve raised an interesting question in my mind – “how many vice presidents have killed a man?” I would have to give the matter some study. the first name that jumps to mind for me is Vice President Richard M Johnson, who served as VP under Pres. Martin Van Buren. One of his claims to fame was his boast that he had killed Tecumseh, a major Native American warrior/leader. I’m sure my ego why readers may offer other ideas on this. Obviously, VP Dick Cheney shot did not kill a man while he was vice president!

      Thanks so much for your comment!

      Barry

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  11. You could argue that when Truman ordered the atomic bombs be dropped on Japan, that he effectively pulled the trigger on all those people…I mean, would any other president have made that decision? We’ll never know. But what we do know is that without his order, those bombs never get dropped.

    • Sum,

      Thanks for your comment. As I stated in the introduction to the piece, I only included Presidents who personally killed someone. I would imagine every President has given orders that ended in someone’s death. I haven’t studied the question, but off the top of my head, I can be sure that every President since Hoover (1928-32) has given orders that led to deaths. Obviously, every wartime President, including all those who were Presidents during the Indian Wars (1870-1900) gave such orders. SO I limited my criteria to those Presidents who personally killed someone.

      I appreciate you reading my blog!

      Barry

  12. I would like to also mention that Grant served in the Mexican American War, and at one point actually dragged a artillery piece to within nearby range of Mexican troops and bombarded them, he also stormed Chapultepec. In those cases, especially in the former, he likely killed someone.

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