It’s a tantalizing question worthy of campfire discussion: Which U.S. presidents throughout history would’ve been Scouts if the organization existed when they were young?
Would Teddy Roosevelt, who was a council commissioner as an adult and established five national parks as president, have enjoyed monthly hikes with his troop? Would George Washington have won election as senior patrol leader? Which merit badge — Coin Collecting or Communication — would Abraham Lincoln have earned first?
But there is a group of presidents for whom we don’t have to guess whether they would’ve been Scouts. For them, we know.
Of the 12 U.S. presidents who had not yet turned 18 by the time the Boy Scouts of America was founded in 1910, at least six were involved in Scouting in their youth.
The key words are those last three: “in their youth.” That’s because every U.S. president since William Howard Taft, who served from 1909 to 1913, has been given the title of Honorary President of the Boy Scouts of America.
Building the list
The Boy Scouts of America was founded on Feb. 8, 1910. That means we can eliminate those presidents who were adults or no longer living when the BSA was formed.
Young people can be registered as Scouts until they turn 18 — a fact that’s been true since 1910. That means any person born after Feb. 8, 1892, could’ve been a Scout for at least a day. (Someone born on Feb. 9, 1892, to use the most extreme example, would’ve turned 18 the day after Scouting’s founding.)
That means our list won’t include Dwight Eisenhower, who was born Oct. 14, 1890. At 19 when the BSA was created, Eisenhower was the most recent president to miss the cut.
Still, we know that many of the most active Scouters weren’t involved in the program as young people. As you’ll read in the section labeled “Presidential Scouters” below, Eisenhower is a terrific example of someone supporting Scouting as an adult.
Which U.S. presidents were Scouts?
John F. Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Joe Biden were all Scouts as boys.
John F. Kennedy
Born: May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Mass.
Kennedy was a member of Troop 2 of Bronxville, N.Y., from 1929 to 1931. He earned the rank of Star Scout.
When he started his Scouting career as a 12-year-old, Kennedy was earning an allowance of 40 cents. That simply wasn’t going to cut it, he wrote in a letter to his father.
“When I am a Scout I have to buy canteens, haversacks, blankets, searchlights, a poncho — things that will last for years and I can always use while I can’t use chocolate marshmallow sundae ice cream,” he wrote. “And so I put in my plea for a raise of 30 cents for me to buy Scout things and pay my own way around.”
Born: July 14, 1913, in Omaha, Neb.
Ford is, to date, our only Eagle Scout president. He earned Scouting’s highest honor in 1927 as a member of Troop 15 of Grand Rapids, Mich.
Our 38th president says he tried to live up to Scouting values throughout his life.
“It has recently been said that I am too much of a Boy Scout in the way I have conducted myself as president, and so I reviewed the Boy Scout Law and Boy Scout Oath,” he said in 1974. “Well, if these are not the goals of the people of the United States, what they want their president to live up to, then I must draw this conclusion: Either you have the wrong man or I have the wrong country, and I don’t believe either is so.”
Born: Aug. 19, 1946, in Hope, Ark.
Clinton was a Cub Scout in Pack 1 of Hot Springs, Ark. His pack, part of the Ouachita Area Council (now called the Quapaw Area Council), met at Ramble Elementary School.
“So many times I have wished that every young person in America had the chance to be a part of Scouting,” Clinton told the attendees of the 1997 National Jamboree. “And tonight I see why, more clearly than ever. So I hope you’ll go home and help others to serve and learn the joy that you share by the service you do.”
George W. Bush
Born: July 6, 1946, in New Haven, Conn.
Bush was a Cub Scout in the Buffalo Trail Council of Midland, Texas.
“When I was a Cub Scout, my mother was our den mother. It’s about the time her hair turned white,” Bush said at the 2005 National Jamboree. “I want to thank the Scoutmasters of America and the volunteer Scouters for taking the time to care. I want to thank you for your leadership and thank you for setting such a good example for a new generation of Scouts.”
Bush’s Cub Scout uniform can be seen on his bed at the George W. Bush Childhood Home in Midland.
Born: Aug. 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii
Obama, who moved with his mom to Indonesia when he was 6, was a member of the Indonesian Scout Association where he was the equivalent of a Cub Scout.
“Some of our nation’s greatest heroes have worn the Scout uniform, including 11 of the 12 men who have walked on the moon,” Obama said in his message to attendees of the 2010 National Jamboree. “And today, Scouts across the country continue the tradition of collecting food for those in need, improving our neighborhoods and reaching out to those less fortunate.”
Born: Nov. 20, 1942, in Scranton, Pa.
Biden was a Boy Scout and Explorer, earning at least the First Class rank, as seen in this photo.
In 2016, as U.S. vice president, Biden wrote that Scouting teaches young people “many valuable life lessons.” Scouts “acquire numerous important skills, adopt guiding principles, and forge new and lasting friendships.”
And how did he come to that conclusion? “Because I was once a Boy Scout,” he wrote.
Before, during and after their terms in our nation’s highest office, many presidents have found ways to serve Scouting.
Here are just three noteworthy examples.
Wilson has the distinction of being the president who signed the BSA’s charter. In 1916, his signature made the BSA official.
“The Boy Scout movement should not only be preserved, but strengthened,” he said four years later. “It deserves the support of all public-spirited citizens.”
Eisenhower was a Scouting supporter for nearly 40 years and his son, John, was a Boy Scout in the 1930s.
Dwight Eisenhower served on the BSA executive board, attended the 1960 National Jamboree (celebrating the BSA’s 50th birthday) and continued to make time for Scouting well into retirement.
Today, at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Kansas, Scouts who wear their uniforms get free admission.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Johnson served as a volunteer in the D.C.-based National Capital Area Council, where he organized Explorer Post 1200, which was chartered by the House of Representatives for congressional pages. He also visited the 1964 National Jamboree held at Valley Forge, Pa.