The Shortest US Presidents

3 Short, but Great, Heads of State

Vintage print of the first twenty-one Presidents seated together in The White House.
John Parrot/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

The shortest Presidents of the United States want you to know that there has never been a sign outside the White House warning, “You must be this tall to be President.”

The ‘Taller-the-Better’ Theory

There has long been a theory that people who are taller than average are both more likely to run for public office and to be elected than shorter people.

In a 2011 study titled, “Caveman Politics: Evolutionary Leadership Preferences and Physical Stature,” published in Social Science Quarterly, the authors concluded that voters tend to prefer leaders with greater physical stature and that taller than average people are more likely to consider themselves as qualified to be leaders and, through this increased sense of efficacy, more likely to demonstrate interest in pursuing elected positions.

In fact, since the advent of televised presidential debates in 1960, some analysts have contended that in an election between two major-party candidates, the taller candidate will always or almost always win. In reality, the taller candidate has been victorious in 10 of the 15 presidential elections held since 1960. The most recent exception came in 2012 when 6’ 1” incumbent President Barak Obama defeated 6’ 2” Mitt Romney.

Just for the record, the average height of all U.S. presidents elected during the 20th and 21st centuries is 6-feet even. During the 18th and 19th centuries, when the average man stood 5’ 8”, America’s presidents averaged 5’ 11”.

While he had no opponent, President George Washington, at 6’ 2”, towered above his constituents who averaged 5’ 8” at the time.

Of America’s 46 presidents, only six have been shorter than the average presidential height at the time, the most recent being 5’ 9” Jimmy Carter elected in 1976.

Playing the Stature Card

While political candidates rarely play the “stature card,” two of them made an exception during the 2016 presidential campaign. During the Republican primaries and debates, 6’ 2” tall Donald Trump derisively referred to his 5’ 10” tall rival Marco Rubio as “Little Marco.” Not to be outdone, Rubio criticized Trump for having “small hands.”

“He is taller than me, he's like 6' 2", which is why I don't understand why his hands are the size of someone who is 5' 2"," Rubio joked. “Have you seen his hands? And you know what they say about men with small hands.”

Three Short, but Great, US Presidents

Popularity or “electability” aside, being of less than average height has not prevented some of America’s shortest presidents from accomplishing some tall deeds.

While the nation’s tallest and certainly one of the greatest presidents, 6’ 4” Abraham Lincoln, towered above his contemporaries, these three presidents prove that when it comes to leadership, height is just a number.

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James Madison (5’ 4”)

Madison And The King
He may have been small, but that doesn't mean James Madison couldn't put up a fight. Here's a political cartoon of our 4th president giving King George a bloody nose, circa 1813. MPI / Getty Images

Easily America’s shortest president, the 5’ 4” tall James Madison stood a full one-foot shorter than Abe Lincoln. However, Madison’s lack of verticality did not stop him from being elected twice over substantially taller opponents.

As the fourth U.S. president, Madison was first elected in 1808, defeating 5’ 9” Charles C. Pinckney. Four years later, in 1812, Madison was elected to a second term over his 6’ 3” opponent De Witt Clinton.

Considered an especially knowledgeable political theorist, as well as a formidable statesman and diplomat, some of Madison’s accomplishments included:

As a graduate of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, Madison studied Latin, Greek, science, geography, mathematics, rhetoric, and philosophy. Considered a masterful speaker and debater, Madison often stressed the importance of education in ensuring liberty. “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” he once said.

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Benjamin Harrison (5’ 6”)

Senators In Maine
Benjamin Harrison stands on a step in order to surpass the height of his wife, Caroline. FPG / Getty Images

In the 1888 election, the 5’ 6” Benjamin Harrison defeated 5’ 11” incumbent President Grover Cleveland to become America’s 23rd president.

As president, Harrison crafted a foreign policy program focused on international trade diplomacy helping the United States recover from a 20-year period of economic depression that had lingered since the end of the Civil War. First, Harrison pushed funding through Congress that allowed the U.S. Navy to greatly increase its fleet of battleships needed to protect American cargo vessels from the growing number of pirates threatening international shipping routes. In addition, Harrison pushed for passage of the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890, a law that imposed heavy taxes on goods imported into the U.S. from other countries and easing a growing and costly trade deficit.

Harrison also showed off his domestic policy skills. For example, during his first year in office, Harrison convinced Congress to pass the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act outlawing monopolies, groups of businesses whose power and wealth allowed them to unfairly control entire markets for goods and services.

Secondly, while foreign immigration into the U.S. was increasing exponentially when Harrison took office, there was no consistent policy regulating points of entry, who was allowed to enter the country, or what happened to the immigrants once they were here.

In 1892, Harrison orchestrated the opening of Ellis Island as the primary point of entry for immigrants to the United States. Over the next sixty years, the millions of immigrants who passed through the gates of Ellis Island would have an effect on American life and economy that would last for years after Harrison left office.

Finally, Harrison also greatly expanded the system of National Parks launched in 1872 with President Ulysses S. Grant’s dedication of Yellowstone. During his term, Harrison added new parks including, Casa Grande (Arizona), Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks (California), and Sitka National Historical Park (Alaska).

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John Adams (5’ 7”)

Engraved portrait of President John Adams
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Besides being one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, the 5’ 7” tall John Adams was elected as the nation’s second president in 1796 over his taller friend, 6’ 3” Anti-Federalist Thomas Jefferson.

While his election may have been aided by having been George Washington's choice as vice president, the relatively diminutive John Adams stood tall during his single term in office.

First, Adams inherited an ongoing war between France and England. Though George Washington had kept the U.S. out of the conflict, the French Navy had been illegally seizing American ships and their cargo. In 1797, Adams sent three diplomats to Paris to negotiate peace. In what became known as the XYZ affair, the French demanded that the U.S. pay bribes before negotiations could begin. This resulted in an undeclared Quasi-War. Facing America’s first military conflict since the American Revolution, Adams expanded the U.S. Navy but did not declare war. When the U.S. Navy turned the tables and started taking French ships, the French agreed to negotiate. The resulting Convention of 1800 brought a peaceful end to the Quasi-War and established the new nation’s status as a world power.

Adams proved his ability to deal with domestic crises by peacefully suppressing Fries' Rebellion, an armed tax revolt raised by Pennsylvania Dutch farmers between 1799 and 1800. Though the men involved had admittedly carried out a revolt against the federal government, Adams granted them all full presidential pardons.

As one of his last acts as president, Adams named his Secretary of State John Marshall as the fourth Chief Justice of the United States. As the longest-serving Chief Justice in the nation’s history,

Finally, John Adams sired John Quincy Adams, who in 1825 would become the nation’s sixth president. Standing only one-half inch taller than his 5’ 7” father, John Quincy Adams defeated not just one, but three much taller opponents in the 1824 election; William H. Crawford (6’ 3”), Andrew Jackson (6’ 1”), and Henry Clay (6’ 1”).

So remember, when it comes to evaluating the popularity, electability, or effectiveness of U.S. presidents, length is far from everything.

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Longley, Robert. "The Shortest US Presidents." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, December 6). The Shortest US Presidents. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "The Shortest US Presidents." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).