The American President Who Befriended A Family Of Mice

Scores of American schoolchildren have read or watched the story of "Ben and Me," all about a wise little mouse named Amos who was the real brains behind Benjamin Franklin's life and career. It's a breezy and light-hearted way to look over the life and times of the most famous of the Founding Fathers never to become president. But perhaps less well-known than Robert Lawson's children's book is the story of the mice inside the White House.

Many U.S. presidents kept pets, going all the way back to George Washington. According to the Presidential Pet Museum, he kept hounds and horses, a relatively normal menagerie compared to some of his successors. Thomas Jefferson had a pair of bear cubs, John Quincy Adams had an alligator, James Buchanan kept two bald eagles, and William Howard Taft had cows. Some of these presidential pets have even garnered a measure of fame for themselves, like the Obama family dog Bo.

W magazine named just four presidents as not keeping animal companions in the White House: Martin van Buren, James K. Polk, Andrew Johnson, and Donald Trump. (Van Buren did briefly have two tiger cubs — until Congress made him give them up.) But it was Johnson who was halfway to a real-life "Ben and Me" situation when he tamed and befriended mice he found in his White House bedroom.

Johnson befriended his mice during his impeachment

Most people have little good to say about Andrew Johnson as president, when he was alive and in the years since. His advocacy of a quick and merciful re-admittance of the Confederate states to the U.S. after the Civil War may have aligned with Abraham Lincoln's initial instincts, but it didn't match the plan for Reconstruction drawn up by Lincoln's cabinet or the feelings of the Republican-controlled Congress. Johnson's narrow interpretation of the Constitution, his prejudice toward newly-freed Black Americans, and his defiant attitude toward congressional authority all worked against him. And when he tested the Tenure of Office Act by dismissing his secretary of war, he became the first president to be impeached.

Johnson had few friends in Washington, D.C. during his impeachment trial outside his family. But he did find some in the walls of his own bedroom: a family of white mice. Per the Presidential Pet Museum, he dubbed them "the little fellows" and enjoyed the fact that they became comfortable around him. With the results of his trial ending in a narrow acquittal and a firm assertion of congressional authority that overshadowed the presidency until the end of the century, Johnson was left with plenty of time to tend to his little fellows before leaving office in 1869.

His daughter didn't approve of the mice

Andrew Johnson was happy for the companionship of white mice. Per the Presidential Pet Museum, he fed them with grain ground at his own mills and also left water out for them. But within the White House, he was a party of one when it came to approving of the mice as pets. His wife Eliza struggled with tuberculosis and remained shut up in her rooms for most of her husband's presidency. That left management of the household to their grown daughter, Martha. And she did not care for rodents.

In her determination to get rid of all White House vermin, Martha brought in pets of her own: cats. She also brought in traps and poison to finish off whatever mice dodged her cats. The Johnsons left the White House without the final fate of the president's mice being recorded. They may have been left in peace in the presidential bedroom, or they may have been claimed by Martha's feline, mechanical, or chemical agents. Nevertheless, Johnson wasn't the last president to have rodents as pets — Theodore Roosevelt kept two kangaroo rats, among many other animals.