One of my most-visited sites on the web is Reddit.com, and one of my favourite subreddits is HistoricalWhatIf, an online community that debates historical hypotheticals. Earlier today someone asked the question, In a mass knife fight to the death between every American President, who would win and why? Someone beat me to the obvious answer that a final showdown would see Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt doing a dagger-wielding version of a Mexican standoff, so I took it too far and walked through how I thought every president would turn out. An hour later the result greatly exceeded the maximum 10,000 character limit for a post, so I’ve decided to blog about it instead.
To begin, here were the original conditions of the hypothetical, as suggested by the redditor Xineph:
- Every president is in the best physical and mental condition they were ever in throughout the course of their presidency. Fatal maladies have been cured, but any lifelong conditions or chronic illnesses (e.g. FDR’s polio) remain.
- The presidents are fighting in an ovular arena 287 feet long and 180 feet wide (the dimensions of the  Roman Colosseum). The floor is concrete. Assume that weather is not a factor.
- Each president has been given one standard-issue  Gerber LHR Combat Knife , the knife  presented to each graduate of the United States Army Special Forces Qualification Course. Assume the presidents have no training outside any combat experiences they may have had in their own lives.
- There is no penalty for avoiding combat for an extended period of time. Hiding and/or playing dead could be valid strategies, but there can be only one winner. The melee will go on as long as it needs to.
- FDR has been outfitted with a  Bound Plus H-Frame Power Wheelchair, and can travel at a maximum speed of around 11.5 MPH. The wheelchair has been customized so that he is holding his knife with his dominant hand. This is to compensate for his almost certain and immediate defeat in the face of an overwhelming disadvantage.
- Each president will be deposited in the arena regardless of their own will to fight, however, personal ethics, leadership ability, tactical expertise etc., should all be taken into account. Alliances are allowed.
With the scenario set, here’s my take on it:
1) George Washington – Commanding presence, strong physique, military training, viewed as a hero by everyone asked to shank him: He makes Top 10 without question. Of the guaranteed top three (I’m going to call them the Holy Trinity for the purposes of this rambling rundown), my money is on Jackson being the one who murders him; he wouldn’t blink, either. They were closer in age, and the hero myth wouldn’t be quite as firmly set. Besides, I’m pretty sure Jackson didn’t blink when he sneezed…
2) John Adams is going out early. Nothing against the man, but portly well-spoken lawyers bring lampoons to a knife fight. It doesn’t end well.
3) Thomas Jefferson. I’d like to say he’d make a good show of it, but he was a bit of dandy… Middle of the pack, but his dying words would be incredibly quotable.
4) James Madison. He’s just too short. I’m sorry: You need reach in a knife fight. The bravado of the philosophy behind Manifest Destiny only gets you so far. He’ll die early, and his small corpse will be one of the least important tripping hazards as the battle wears on.
5) James Monroe. It’s surprisingly difficult to say how he’d do, because he’s just so damned unmemorable. An argument could be made that he’d last a while for the simple reason that his opponents would try to place him. “Who are you again?” That would be distracting.
6) John Quincy Adams. That man had a murderer’s face, a murderer’s eyes, and a murderer’s haircut. Based on these intimidating characteristics alone I’m going to say he makes Top 10. If he teams up with dear old Dad and they watch each other’s back they might even become crowd favourites until the portly lawyer is overcome by a rabid Jackson/Lincoln/Teddy Roosevelt assault.
7) Andrew Jackson –It’s already been said: The man’s nickname was Old Hickory because he walked around town with a bludgeon that to the untrained eye was a walking stick. A man who can beat a would-be assassin within an inch of his life with a cane is going to be a murder machine when provided with an implement designed to end a man’s life. I think of the Top Three he’d be reckless enough to go down first, but he’d also probably have the highest overall kill count.
8) Martin Van Buren. I’m going to put it out there: Jackson and Van Buren may have formed a pact early on (they were as friendly as anyone ever gets with Jackson). Plus, when he shouted obscenities in his native Dutch it might’ve spooked the presidents of the 20th Century whose military service included time fighting ‘ze Germans.’ I’m going to say he makes middle of the pack before Jackson forgets who his friends are and tears into him like a wolverine.
9) William Henry Harrison — The man’s most famous for dying on his 32nd day in office. I know the hypothetical puts him in his prime, but I think the fact that every president after him considers him feeble means he’ll be hunted down and eliminated early.
10) John Tyler – No one liked John Tyler, especially Team Jackson-Van Buren. Not only would he be hunted down, but he would have an unmemorable death unless Van Buren tries to go for style points. Five minutes into the scrap, people would ask each other, “Who was that again? Why is Jackson wearing his scalp as a beret?”
11) James Polk — I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt. That man had some grit and gumption and more than his share of character. He said what he meant, and he did what he said. He will not be one of the early deaths, although I think the Top 10 escapes him for a simple lack of ambition. Promising to serve a single term and then following through on that promise? He doesn’t dream big enough to escape the knives of the Holy Trinity.
12) Zachary Taylor: ‘Old Rough and Ready’ had a 40-year military career fighting men armed with hatchets. I like his odds in a knife fight. I really do. Top 10 for sure. Top 5 is not unrealistic. This is a man to watch, folks. If Lincoln and Jackson give him an inch, he’ll bury six inches between their ribs before Roosevelt righteous-indignation’s him to death.
13) Millard Fillmore. Let’s be honest: Weak character, unmemorable fellow, a little stout all his life, boring. No part of this guy suggests he’s going to come out well. Dead early, and only the presidents alive during his lifetime are even going to know whose corpse they keep tripping over.
14) Franklin Pierce. In his prime he was a soldier in a era where bayonets were the main thing that got the job done. He also has a touch of madness in his eye in his official portrait. I’m going to say he makes it to the middle of the fight. Beyond that, I can’t say.
15) James Buchanan. I’m going to put it out there: I think he’d be picked on. I believe at least half of the presidents after his time would want to be the guy to murder Buchanan. Dead early, and his corpse would be stabbed a few times to makes sure, and only Harriet Lane –his niece– is left to mourn him.
16) Abraham Lincoln is one of the Holy Trinity of this rumble. I put him ahead of Jackson and behind Teddy R., but it really would be a sight to see.
17) Andrew Johnson. I’ve got to be honest: This is one of the rare lapses in my understanding of history. Maybe Johnson was a badass, but my suspicion is that despite coming up from nothing he was a lifelong politician who couldn’t make friends. He was the first impeached president. Someone within his generation is going to have a grudge, and I don’t know what mitigating circumstances he has to defend himself. Dead early?
18) Ulysses S. Grant. A career soldier and a mean drunk. Ruthless. Comfortable with blood on his hands. Formidable physically. I think Grant is going to do very well. Top 10 certainly, and maybe he battles with Polk and Taylor for Top 5 outside the Holy Trinity?
19) Rutherford B. Hayes was wounded five times in the Civil War. He was a big guy, and he didn’t lack for courage. That said, he was a bit of a straight shooter and more than a little bit of a straight arrow: Principles can get in the way of winning in a knife fight. Also, that beard is begging someone to take it in their fist and throw him off balance. I see him making the later half of the scrap, but not the Top 10 unless he catches a lucky break.
20) James Garfield. I respect the man, and he served in the Civil War, but I just don’t know enough about his service and physique to make more than an educated guess: He’d hold his own in a fight, but the Holy Trinity would see the end of him at some point.
21) Chester A. Arthur had the build of a brawler, but even in his prime I wonder if his poor health would be a handicap. Dead in the first half, but certainly not among the first dead.
22 & 24) Grover Cleveland paid a man $150 so he didn’t have to fight in the Civil War. Even his biographer said his qualities were typical rather than unusual. I’m going to say among the first 20 dead.
23) Benjamin Harrison. I wonder if he’d try to get to know his grandfather –the marked for death William Henry Harrison– and therefore leave himself vulnerable to a quick shanking. I don’t know enough about him to say otherwise, so I envision a family reunion ending cruelly and bloodily fairly early in the festivities.
25) William McKinley. The man is famous for sitting on his porch and letting the party machine do the heavy lifting. A calm head and broad shoulders might see him through the early fracas, but I think he lacks the fire in the belly required to make his mark. Dead in the first half.
26) Theodore Roosevelt: The man, the legend. A member of the Holy Trinity, and my personal favourite to come out on top. Anyone who gets shot at the start of a long speech and delivers the whole thing anyway –a man who beat asthma by strength of character and who lost vision in one of his eyes while boxing in the White House– has the tenacity to endure more than a few knife wounds if he thinks he’s right and everyone else is wrong. Let’s also not forget how much time this man spent with a skinning knife in his hand: The Smithsonian is a monument to this man’s ability to butcher creatures of all shapes and sizes. He also liked to call his enemies cowards, and the force of his personality could easily unbalance those who would try to argue against his will.
27) William Howard Taft. What did that man look like in his prime? I suspect even at his most physically fit he could go toe to toe with the stereotypical 21st Century Wal-Mart patron. I just don’t think he was ever healthy enough to make a good showing in this arena. Dead early, and his corpse might well be used as a low wall or some sort of artificial hill to lend advantage to his conquerors.
28) Woodrow Wilson. A brilliant mind and a delicate physique. Dead very early. If Teddy Roosevelt in his prime knew that Wilson would be president after him, I suspect Wilson would be a hunted man early in the fight.
29) Warren G. Harding was a lover, not a fighter. Dead in the first half, although I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of his surprising all of us and making it a long way before his inevitable defeat.
30) Calvin Coolidge. He made a name for himself as a man of action during the Boston Police Strike, but I don’t think he’d have the staying power to see through a knife fight. I’m prepared to be wrong, but I just don’t know enough about him to venture an opinion beyond what I’ve already said.
31) Herbert Hoover. I think Truman would help him in the early stages of the fight, but there were enough presidents who grew up during the Great Depression who might like to settle a childhood animosity or two. He wouldn’t be long for this world in a fight with The Greatest Generation.
32) Franklin D. Roosevelt in this scenario has a pretty impressive chair, and that’s going to protect a lot of his vital organs, give him a low center of gravity, and otherwise lend him an advantage not available to other presidents. Plus, one third of the Holy Trinity isn’t out to murder him and might even back him up. I see Franky D. going far, but at some point Old Hickory or Abe is going to be spooked by the chair and lash out. That’ll be the end of him.
33) Harry S. Truman would make a good show of things, but he was a little guy. No reach. No intimidation. That said, he keeps calm under pressure and is willing to make hard decisions. I definitely think he’d be a major force early on, perhaps even delivering the coup de grace on those left suffering.
34) Dwight D. Eisenhower has a solid military background, and in his prime he should have been a force to be reckoned with. That said, his penchant for negotiation and seeking consensus is going to infuriate Andrew Jackson. When that mad man comes after Ike without anyone to pull them apart it will be a duel worthy of a 14-part 20-second-in-real-time anime epic.
35) John F. Kennedy. What was his prime? When did he get the bad back and Addison’s Disease? JFK would go down swinging, and he’d leave a beautiful, charismatic corpse. Maybe he makes Top 10, and certainly he makes it through the early melee. Beyond that, I don’t dare speculate.
36) Lyndon B. Johnson was a giant of a man, a Texan, and more than a bit of an asshole. He would be a force to be reckoned with, absolutely. Top 10 possibly, and a staying power throughout the struggle. Beyond that, it’s not up to me.
37) Richard Nixon doesn’t have the physique to go the distance in a battle like this, but I think he had the cunning and the drive to live a lot longer than the majority. I worry that he’d try to take on Kennedy or Johnson early, which might be the end of him. That said, maybe he can convince Jackson to do his dirty work for him?
38) Gerald Ford was another big guy, but I suspect he had too soft a heart for a knife fight. He would defend himself, certainly, but would he hunt down the weak and give them the old cold steel? At some point the hesitation would catch up with him.
39) Jimmy Carter and a knife fight is a comical thought to me. Among the first dead would be my suspicion.
40) Ronald Reagan looks like he would know a thing or two about brawling, and he spent a lot of his prime in either the military or playing a cowboy. I expect he’d go far, but not far enough. Twenty years after the battle people will rewrite the fight to make him a lion among bobcats, but that’s mostly driven by nostalgia.
41) George H. W. Bush gets painted as an intellectual, but he was a war hero and head of the CIA. I’m also confident his son would team up with him from the very beginning. They’d make a formidable team, and I would expect great things from the two of them.
42) Bill Clinton is another big guy, but he’s a lover, not a fighter. He’d give it his very best shot, but I hesitate to say he’d last very long at all.
43) George W. Bush would team up with his father, and the two of them at their prime would be a match for just about anyone outside the Holy Trinity. That said, of the two of them he’ll be the weak link. When he stumbles, his father will overextend himself trying to help. My expectation is they’ll die within moments of each other, but probably surrounded by heaps of their foes.
44) Barack Obama –for all his wonderful qualities– is not a scraper. He’d probably try to negotiate an end to hostilities, and while seeking a middle ground some loon would get the better of him. In an arena full of knife-wielding war veterans, I don’t hold out a lot of hope that he’d make it through the first few minutes.
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