The 21 Most Shocking Things U.S. Presidents Have Said (Or Done)

Published December 28, 2015
Updated March 12, 2024

From Abraham Lincoln to George W. Bush, some of these shocking presidential quotes and actions will make you wonder about who you're really voting for.

December 28th marks the birthday of President Woodrow Wilson, ​who served as Commander in Chief of the United States through World War I. Wilson had a lot of radical ideas for his time—like lowering tariffs and attempting banking reform—but one of his most radical views was his devotion to eugenics. During his presidency, Wilson even signed into law an act that permitted forced sterilization of the “degenerates” that eugenics hoped to stamp out

This seems outrageous by today’s standards, but of course Wilson was not the only president to say, do, or believe some pretty surprising (and in some cases, downright terrible) things, as you’ll see from the following shocking presidential quotes:

LBJ On Voting Democrats
Johnson was known for his dreams of a Great Society and the War on Poverty, but both could also be reduced to his desire to make blacks in the U.S. forget about Jim Crow and segregation—historically spearheaded by southern Democrats—and vote Democrat.Wikipedia

George W Bush Presidents
Said to Brazilian President Fernando Cardoso, Washington, D.C., Nov. 8, 2001.Wikipedia

Bad Presidents Lincoln
Part of Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. During his presidency, Lincoln attempted to colonize black populations outside the United States.Wikipedia

Reagan Facts Copy
Said at the 1988 Republican National Convention, attempting to quote John Adams, who said, ''Facts are stubborn things.''Wikipedia

Nixon Presidents Illegal
Said in a 1977 interview with David Frost.Wikipedia

Grover Cleveland Presidents

Harry Truman Presidents
From a February 1914 letter to his wife, Bess.Wikipedia

Jimmy Carter Presidents
Said in an interview with 'Playboy' one month prior to the 1976 election.Wikipedia

James Garfield Presidents
In response to the idea that freed blacks have a separate territory.Wikipedia


Nixon on Watergate Tapes
Commenting on Watergate.Wikipedia

Teddy Roosevelt Race
Like Wilson, Roosevelt also was a proponent of eugenics.Wikipedia

Presidents Roosevelt
Roosevelt said this in 1914 after noting that, "I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding; and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done."Wikimedia

Teddy Roosevelt Indians
Another gem by Teddy Roosevelt.Wikipedia

In the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli signed by Founding Father John Adams. Compared to other Western states at the time, that the United States would eschew the formal establishment of religion when crafting the republic was unheard of.Wikipedia

Thomas Jefferson Presidents
In a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814. At this time, religious doctrine, at least in some respects, often bled into law.Wikipedia

Ronald Reagan Presidents
After a trip to South America, Ronald Reagan regaled this story to the press.Wikipedia

James Madison
In a letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822Wikipedia

John Adams President
In an 1814 letter to John Taylor.Wikipedia

Fdr Presidents

Bill Clinton Presidents
Said on Black Entertainment Television, November 2, 1994.Wikipedia

Facts About American Presidents
History Uncovered Podcast
Episode 44: The Secret Lives Of U.S. Presidents
Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a champion wrestler or that Lyndon Johnson was a fervent practical joker? These are the most fascinating facts and lesser-known stories about America's presidents.
Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England . Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Bustle, Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura, and Quartz.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.