The Longest Vacation in U.S. Presidential History

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History News Network
History News Network

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4 months

The War of 1812 was over. His administration was nearly at an end. So Madison, tired and eager to get away, slipped out of Washington in June 1816 and didn’t return until October. His four-month vacation was the longest of any president with the exception of John Adams, though Adams’s case, as you’ll see, is complicated. (It wasn’t really a vacation.) In other years his vacations lasted three months.

Seven Months on the Farm

In his celebrated biography, David McCullough insists that John Adams made greater sacrifices on behalf of the Revolution than almost any other Founding Father. Stingingly, McCullough observes, Jefferson went home during a critical moment in the deliberations of the Continental Congress while Adams remained, fighting illness, the flies and his fellow politicians. Poor Abigail had to put up with long absences.

But in the summer of 1798, during Adams’s presidency, when Abigail fell ill–at the height of our undeclared war with France–Adams ran home to be with her. He remained with her on their farm in Massachusetts seven long months. No other president stayed away from the capital as long. Enemies joked that he had abdicated.

Runner Up

Jefferson never liked to be away from Monticello and in 1805 decided he need not be away as long as previously during his administration. He left for home mid-July and did not come back until October, setting the precedent for long presidential vacations which Madison was to improve upon. (As vice president, in 1799, Jefferson had remained away from the capital even longer–ten months.)

His Mysterious Vacations

About a year into his presidency, Arthur developed an illness that was to kill him: Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder, which in the nineteenth century was always fatal. Ailing and losing weight, Arthur began traveling around the country in search of climates more congenial to his condition than swampy Washington. On one trip–to Florida–he nearly died. His last year in office he repeatedly voyaged west, attracting crowds along with critical headlines. Why on earth was Chet Arthur doing so much traveling people wanted to know. He never told them. When reporters asked if he was ill he pretended nothing was wrong, though on one occasion he had holed up in New York City because he was too ill to make it back to the capital. He died shortly after leaving the presidency. Only then did Americans begin to understand the reason for his mysterious vacations. (He was, incidentally, the first president to lie about his health. None had lied before him because they did not have to–the press did not make a president’s health an issue of public debate until Garfield’s death. Garfield had lingered for three long months after he had been shot. Newspaper circulation shot up when reporters began providing daily presidential health bulletins.)

It’s Cancer, Sir

His second term was barely a week old when the economy collapsed. It was at this moment that Cleveland discovered he had cancer. His doctor told him an operation was essential to survival. Worried that the news might further destabilize Wall Street, Cleveland chose to keep his cancer a secret. That July when he took his annual vacation he underwent a furtive operation to remove the cancerous tissue, which extended up into his eye socket. The operation took place aboard a yacht to decrease the chances of discovery. Afterward, Cleveland retreated to Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts to recover. The country finally learned the truth about Cleveland’s summer vacation in 1917, when one of his doctors related the story in an article in the Saturday Evening Post. By then Cleveland was long dead.

Vacations Aren’t Good For You

Eisenhower was just a few months into his first term when he took his first vacation, in Augusta, Georgia, at his favorite golf club. There he suffered what now appears to have been his first presidential heart attack. (He’d had another apparent heart attack in 1949, which was covered up.) His spokesman put out the word that Ike was suffering from indigestion. Unfortunately, Ike could not afford to rest. The very next day he was scheduled to return to Washington to deliver his first major foreign policy address, in which he was to hold out an olive branch to the Soviet Union, which was undergoing change as a result of the recent death of Joseph Stalin. Despite his illness Ike insisted on returning to Washington and delivered his speech as scheduled, though he nearly collapsed. To steady himself he had to grab hold of the lectern. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He finally succeeded in finishing the speech only by skipping whole paragraphs.In 1955 Ike was on a vacation in Colorado when he was struck by yet another heart attack. It was serious and this time the country was told everything. Ike remained in convalescence for months. When he was able to return, he made frequent trips for relaxation to Camp David, the presidential retreat established by FDR. Ike when he became president had wanted to get rid of Camp David as an unnecessary extravagance–and as an all too vivid symbol of his famous Democratic predecessor. Mamie had forced him to keep it.

The Western White House

Ronald Reagan loved his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. According to the Associated Press,” Reagan spent all or part of 335 days in Santa Barbara over his eight-year presidency.”

The Margin of Error is Plus or Minus Two Points

Clinton, famously, loved to party with the rich and famous in Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons. But in 1995 and 1996 he went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for his summer vacation, on the advice of Dick Morris, who cited polls showing it would be to Clinton’s advantage. Even Morris later admitted it was a dumb idea.

Five weeks in Crawford

George W. Bush took more days of vacation than Ronald Reagan. He split his vacation time between the ranch in Texas (77 trips) and his family estate in Maine for a total of 879 days. In 2005 he spent five weeks at the Texas ranch.


Initially it wasn’t Barack Obama, but his wife, who received flack for taking a vacation. In 2010 Michelle Obama, children in tow, went on vacation to Andalusia, Spain, just as new reports indicated the loss of 131,000 jobs. In 2013 and 2014 Barack Obama was criticized for vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard.

Photos: How Presidents Take Vacation

US President Barack Obama reacts to a missed putt on the first green at Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, Mass. on August 11, 2013 during the Obama family vacation to Martha's Vineyard.
Obama tends to take a winter break in Hawaii, where he was born and raised, and a summer vacation in Martha's Vineyard. In between, he plays basketball and has been known to do some skeet shooting at Camp David. His favorite pastime, no matter the location, has become easy to spot: golf.Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images
President Bush vacations on his ranch on August 24, 2007 in Crawford, Texas.
Fishing is in the Bush family DNA: for blues off the coast of Maine or anything with fins, almost anywhere else. George W. Bush relaxed as president by jogging and clearing brush on his Texas ranch near Waco. Since leaving office, he has become an avid mountain biker and, more recently, has taken up painting.Charles Ommanney—Getty Images
Rear view of Pres. Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wearing casual clothes and sitting on tree stumps while on vacation.
Clinton was never much good at vacationing. His staff had to practically force him to go on vacation his first year in office; his idea of relaxing was reading books while enjoying a cigar (chewed, not smoked). He sometimes played golf, but his somewhat elastic interpretation of the rules could drive his partners crazy.Bob McNeely—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Vice President George Bush tries to catch a fish August 1983 in Kennebunkport, ME.
Vice President George Bush tries to catch a fish in August, 1983 in Kennebunkport, Maine. The small town would sometimes be clogged with traffic when Bush, as Vice President and later as President, would visit, reporters in tow. Cynthia Johnson—Getty Images
President Reagan and Nancy Reagan riding on their new lawn mower, an anniversary present, at Rancho Del Cielo. 3/4/82.
"There is nothing so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse." That's what Nancy Reagan liked to say about why her husband often liked to go horseback riding while on vacation as his ranch near Santa Barbara, California. Above, the 'horse' was a riding mower.Reagan Foundation
Vice President Gerald Ford
President Ford and First Lady Betty chose Mauna Kea Beach, Hawaii on the Big Island for a getaway vacation in 1974, but they couldn’t escape the prying eyes of the press. Here, the president, a former All American football player at Michigan, turned his movie camera on a familiar photographer.David Hume Kennerly—Getty Images
Lyndon Johnson Herding Cattle
Johnson preferred his 2,700 acre Texas Hill country ranch to posh resorts, and he hosted guests there year-round. He owned 400 head of cattle and delighted in playing cowboy for visiting dignitaries. He also took guests for a ride in his tricked out amphibious car, surprising them by turning off road and into a pond.Bettmann/Corbis
President Lyndon B. Johnson relaxes in his pool with his grandson Lyn and the First Family's new dog, Yuki.
Johnson relaxes in his pool with his grandson Lyn and the First Family's new dog, Yuki, in 1968.Yoichi Okamoto—Corbis
JFK began competitive sailing in his youth. The president often snuck away for a bit of solitude on the Honey Fitz, his 92-foot power yacht on the Potomac. But being a talented sailor, his favorite was the Manitou, a 62-foot sailing yacht he first spotted as a young senator. Robert Leroy Knudsen—National Archives
In 1928, Calvin and Grace Coolidge spent their last presidential Thanksgiving at a beautiful Italianate villa, the Swannanoa Country Club, near Rockfish Gap on the summit of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. The palatial mansion reportedly pleased the first lady. AP
President Roosevelt Catching a Fish
FDR's polio limited his vacation options. He began visiting Warm Springs, Georgia in 1924 for its curative waters and later built a 2000 acre polio treatment center nearby. He liked to cruise the Potomac on the presidential yacht and three times as President returned to Campobello, in New Brunswick, Canada.Bettmann/Corbis
08/18/1998 - - slug: NA/CLINTON VACATION date: 8/18/98 - photographer: Robert A. Reeder TWP South La
Clinton, his daughter Chelsea, center, and wife Hillary walk with Buddy from the White House toward a helicopter as they depart for vacation en route to Martha's Vineyard, Mass. Robert A. Reeder—The Washington Post/Getty Images

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