The 10 U.S. Presidents Who Spoke Greek

Ask most Americans to name all 43 individuals who have been president of the United States (there are “44 presidents” under the Constitution, but Grover Cleveland counts twice because he was elected to non-consecutive terms) and they might get stuck after rattling off about 10 or 15 of them.
“Washington, Lincoln, Adams, Jefferson, the two Roosevelts, the two Bushes, Kennedy, Truman, Reagan, Clinton, ummm, Eisenhower…oh yeah, Obama, he’s president now…Benjamin Franklin, was he president? I’m not sure…oh Nixon! How could I forget him, and…umm…”
Few would utter the names Rutherford Birchard Hayes, James Abram Garfield, or Chester Alan Arthur. But those three, in addition to the better-known John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, and the relatively obscure John Quincy Adams (John Adams’ son), John Tyler, James Polk, and James Buchanan, share at least one common distinction besides having occupied the White House: they were all fluent in Greek.
Garfield, in fact, who also knew Latin, had the amazing ability to read (or hear) a passage in English, and translate it into Greek with one hand, and Latin with the other hand, simultaneously!
He and John Adams also taught the Greek language.
After Garfield was assassinated in 1881, his vice president, Arthur, became president. Arthur, who did not seek election to his own term and left the White House in early 1885 after serving out Garfield’s term, was the last U.S. president who was fluent in Greek.
The consecutive Adams-Jefferson-Madison and later Hayes-Garfield-Arthur presidencies marked the two instances in our nation’s history when three chief executives in a row spoke Greek. It is not surprising, given those times – because most Americans seeking higher education were required to know Greek and Latin. It is also not surprising, then, that of all foreign languages spoken by any presidents, Greek is the second-most common (10 presidents), next to Latin (13 presidents).
Interestingly, some of America’s most revered presidents, of modern times and of all time, did not speak any foreign language: they include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. Also, three presidents often considered worldly either because of their mastery of foreign affairs or their affinity for other cultures – John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama – also never learned a second language.
Martin Van Buren, the eighth president under the Constitution, is the only one who learned English as a second language – he grew up in New York, speaking Dutch.
Lastly, there are the Bushes. George W. (the son), whose intellectual rigor, if not outright intelligence, is often mocked, speaks Spanish. But George H.W. (the father), who doesn’t speak any foreign language, once gave a speech while vice president, for which his speechwriter had inserted quotes from Thucydides. But after the elder Bush struggled pronouncing the Ancient Greek historian’s name time and again while practicing the speech, the speechwriter simply attributed those quotes to “Plato.” As classics scholar Tracy Lee Simmons described, the thinking was: one dead Greek was as good as another, and who would know the difference?