Not just Trump: New Yorkers in the White House

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Not just Trump: New Yorkers in the White House

For President's Day, a look at the presidents from New York.
February 16, 2018

President Donald Trump is more closely associated with New York than any other recent major party presidential nominee: raised in Queens, the son of a developer who built massive middle-class housing complexes in the outer-boroughs, Trump’s eponymous luxury high-rises loom over iconic streets such as Fifth Avenue and Central Park West. His rise to fame owes much to New York City’s tabloids. Trump cited his provenance as an asset on the campaign trail, with boasts such as, “I know the best negotiators. I’m in New York — I know the good ones, the bad ones.” Even Trump’s yuuuge accent has become an Internet meme.

But Trump isn’t the only New Yorker ever to ascend to the country’s highest office. New York launched the careers of six other presidents, and just as many have lived there at one time. In honor of Presidents Day, here is a list of presidents with significant connections to New York, from born-and-raised to passing through:

NATIVE SONS

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

The eighth president was born and raised in Kinderhook, in Columbia County, where died and is buried. In between, he held just about every major political office in New York. He served as a state senator, attorney general, U.S. senator, and was governor of New York for three months before being tapped as Andrew Jackson’s secretary of state. He served as vice president for Jackson’s second term, and for one term as president. Van Buren then returned to New York, and remained heavily involved in politics. Although he had previously been a Democrat, he ran unsuccessfully for president in 1848 as the nominee of the Free Soil party.

Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Like Van Buren, the Moravia native served in the state Legislature, as an assemblyman. From his small town in the Finger Lakes, Fillmore was elected to Congress and – Thomas DiNapoli, take note – Fillmore also served as state comptroller before being chosen as Zachary Taylor’s running mate on the victorious Whig ticket, becoming president upon Taylor’s death. In 1852, he lost his party’s nomination on the 53rd ballot at the national convention to General Winfield "Old Fuss and Feathers” Scott. Fillmore ran for president again in 1856, losing to James Buchanan in the general election. He spent his latter years in Buffalo, where he is also buried.

Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)

Although born in Vermont, Arthur was raised in Schenectady. A major player in New York Republican politics who served in the New York militia, he was named collector of the Port of New York by President Ulysses S. Grant. As Ed Cox surely must know, Arthur was also the chairman of the state Republican Executive Committee. Arthur, like Fillmore, ascended to the presidency after his predecessor’s death – in this case, the assassination of James Garfield. He died shortly after leaving office, in 1886, and is buried outside Albany.

Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)

Cleveland, a Democrat from Buffalo, is the only president to serve two nonconsecutive terms. He was sheriff of Erie County, then mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York before being elected president for the first time in 1884. He worked for a New York City law firm during the four years between his two presidencies. After his second presidency, Cleveland retired to New Jersey, of all places.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Born and bred in Manhattan, the 26th president also served in the state Assembly, including as Assembly Minority Leader. (Brian Kolb, take note.) Although he came in third place as a New York City mayoral candidate, he went on to be police commissioner and later governor. Roosevelt is another New York vice president-turned-president due to the death of his predecessor, William McKinley. He also followed in Van Buren’s footsteps by leaving the major party in which he had been president – in his case, the Republican party – to run unsuccessfully as a minor party candidate for president, in 1912. He is buried on Long Island.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)

The Hyde Park native made his stamp on state politics, serving as a lawyer, senator and later governor in New York before being elected to four presidential terms. Harold Holzer, the director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, lists Roosevelt as one of his favorite presidents from New York, in large part because the planning for the presidential transition took place in the building where the Roosevelt Institute at Hunter College is located. “All the fabric of the social safety net was woven in that building,” Holzer said. “The New Deal was made in New York.”

Donald Trump (2017-Present)

Although he never served in public office, Trump often inserted himself into New York political conversations, from publishing his opinion on the Central Park Five to mulling gubernatorial bids. Holzer, a Queens native, noted that Trump is the first president to be from Queens, even though the borough voted heavily for his opponent Hillary Clinton in 2016. “I should feel more Queens pride,” Holzer laughed.

CITY DWELLERS

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)

The famed Civil War general attended West Point, and he was briefly stationed in upstate New York, on the northeastern edge of Lake Ontario, during his Army career. In retirement, Grant lived first in New York City and then upstate while writing his highly-regarded memoirs. He died in Wilton, seven miles north of Saratoga Springs. His funeral was in New York City, and he is buried in Manhattan.

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)

Hoover grew up in Iowa and worked all over the world, but he lived in New York City in his retirement until his death in 1964.

Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)

The World War II general famously presented himself as a modest man from Kansas when running for president. But in between he was president of Columbia University in 1948. Despite living in the city before being elected president in 1952, Eisenhower still considered himself an outsider, said Holzer. “Eisenhower didn't want to identify with New York, even though he had settled here after the war,” he said.

John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)

Don’t let the Massachusetts accent fool you – JFK was a New York boy. Well, at least he was for a few years during his childhood, when he lived in the Bronx and then Bronxville, before being shipped off to boarding school in Connecticut. Still counts.

Richard Nixon (1969-1974)

After his failed bids for president in 1960 and governor of California in 1962, the former vice-president moved to New York City, where Nixon was a partner at New York law firm Nixon, Mudge, Rose, Guthrie, & Alexander before running for president again in 1968. After his presidency, he and his wife bought a New York City townhouse, and although he spent much of his retirement in New Jersey, he died at New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center in Manhattan.

Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

Clinton may “still believe in a place called Hope” – the conveniently-named Arkansas town of his early childhood – but after leaving the White House, he and his wife Hillary moved to Chappaqua, in Westchester. While Hillary served as senator for the Empire State, and then presidential candidate, and then secretary of state, and then presidential candidate again, the former president kept an office at his foundation’s headquarters in Harlem. In 2011, the organization moved downtown. The Clintons are still in Chappaqua.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

James Monroe (1817-1825)

Although Monroe was a Virginian, his wife Elizabeth was from a New York City family. The two honeymooned on Long Island – remember, this was before air travel had been invented – and briefly lived in New York City in the 1780s. Monroe returned to New York after his wife’s death, and was originally buried in the city after he died in 1831.

Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

Holzer considers Lincoln to be connected to New York, because one of the defining moments of his career was his speech at Cooper Union in 1859. Not only was the Illinoisan’s speech widely praised by the 1,500 in attendance, he also had it published in the leading newspapers in the city, greatly expanding his audience. “Had he not made that speech in New York there's no way that he would have been the nominee for president,” Holzer said.

William McKinley (1897-1901)

McKinley attended Albany Law School. He was also assassinated in Buffalo in 1901, which allowed Theodore Roosevelt to ascend to the presidency.

Barack Obama (2009-2017)

Obama attended Columbia University from 1981 until 1983. He then worked briefly for Business International Corporation and then the New York Public Interest Research Group in New York City before moving to Chicago.

Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.
20191018