Washington to Biden: Knowing the Presidents, Past and Present
George Washington was, and remains, the only U.S. president never affiliated with a political party.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
George Washington, 1789–1797
George Washington was the son of Augustine Washington (1694-1743) and his second wife, Mary Ball Washington (1708-1789).
The Washington family moved to Ferry Farm Plantation in 1738. Located on the Rappahanock River, Washington would spend most of his childhood there.
George was only 11 years old when his father died. Upon his father’s death, the plantation and all its holdings were left to George’s older half-brothers, Lawrence and Augustine.
Although George Washington attended grammar school, he is one of eight presidents that did not attend college.
At 17 years old, George Washington served as county surveyor of Culpepper County.
Washington’s military career began when he was 21 years old.
In 1789, only 10 of the 13 original colonies voted in the election.
The 1790 Census reported a population of 3,929,214: 2.4 million free white men and women, and 600,000 slaves.
Citizens across the colonies as well as Washington’s former comrades in arms insisted that only he could forge a nation. Washington won the presidency by unanimous electoral vote in both 1788 and in 1792.
About less than 1.3% of the population, at the time, voted in the election of 1788-89.
Because he was America’s first president, George Washington essentially created the presidency. For example, although the Constitution explained government roles and some limitations, no term limitations were set.
Foremost in domestic affairs was the challenge of expansion and conflicts with Native Americans. White settlers began to move inland, west of the Appalachian Mountains, where they confronted 100,000 Native Americans. From 1790 to 1800, about 10 percent of all American households relocated.
Near Toledo, Ohio, Washington sent federal troops to fight seven tribes of Native Americans in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in the summer of 1794. Defeated, the seven tribes—the Shawnee, Miami, Ottawa, Chippewa, Iroquois, Sauk, and Fox—relinquished large portions of their land to the United States and then moved west.
In foreign affairs, Britain refused to surrender its western posts and also used these to supply Indians in order to stir up trouble for the US.
Due to the Revolution in France, Washington revoked the former American colonies’ alliance with that country, an action that put him at odds with strong Francophiles like Thomas Jefferson.
Another thorn in Washington’s side was the Spanish right of deposit in the port of New Orleans, LA, which, since 1763, had been part of the Spanish empire.
To avoid becoming embroiled in the war between Great Britain and France, Washington issued a Proclamation of Neutrality in 1793. During this time, he was cautious of the counsel offered by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson (supporter of the French) and that by the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton (supporter of the British).
In 1794, George Washington suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion (when Pennsylvania farmers attacked federal officials after an excise tax was imposed in 1791, on whiskey) by invoking the power of the federal government over the states.
In 1795, the Jay Treaty strengthened American economic ties with Britain and vacated English forts in the American west.
George Washington established the title, President, and outlined the capacities of the office through his example.
Washington started the tradition of the inaugural address as well as the Presidential Cabinet, neither prescribed by the Constitution.
Washington wrote and gave a farewell address still relevant today for its call for political unity among Americans.
Washington sided with Alexander Hamilton in the debate on how to fund a nation by imposing taxes and establishing a national bank. Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed Hamilton, and two opposing parties formed: the Democratic-Republican Party headed by Jefferson, and the Federalist faction, led by Hamilton.
John Adams, 1797-1801
John Adams was many things: lawyer, diplomat, member of the Continental Congress, and one of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Adams was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1735. He proposed to Abigail Smith in 1762 and they married two years later. The couple had six children.
On November 6, 1758, Adams was sworn-in as a lawyer. Returning to Braintree, he opened his own practice. Stemming from a poor performance in his very first case, the practice, in its first year (1759-1760), suffered. However, with training and time, John was able to refine his skills.
As a member of the Federalist Party, Adams decided to run for the presidency. He lost and became Vice-president to George Washington during both terms (1789-1792) (1793-1796).
In 1796, he decided to run yet again for the presidency. He won the election and assumed the presidency at the age of 61.
In 1796, The United States, with a population of about 4.6 million, was comprised of sixteen states in the Union.
When George Washington was unwilling to serve a third term, Adams decided to run yet again for the presidency as the Federalist Party nominee—against Thomas Jefferson of the Republican Party.
The election of 1796 was the first of its kind. It launched the multi-party system, where people could vote for their party of choice.
Receiving seventy-one electoral votes, only three more votes than his opponent, Adams won the election and assumed the presidency at the age of 61.
The election of 1796 was the only one in which the elected president (Adams) and vice president (Jefferson) came from different parties.
Election debates focused on foreign policy—especially how closely to align with Great Britain and France; developing a strong central bank and monetary system; the role and size of the federal government; how to regulate land speculators and private investors; and the civil rights of immigrants.
John Adams was in the shadow of George Washington, and he knew it. He served one term as president.
The true test of his presidency came in the aftermath of the Jay Treaty, which Washington had signed. France felt slighted by the Jay Treaty, believing that it favored Great Britain. In response, France cut ties with America (diplomatic and trade).
Related to the Jay Treaty, the XYZ Affair involved confrontations with France in 1797 and 1798 which became known the “Quasi- War.” Much of Adams’ presidency was dedicated to dealing with international issues—but he was successful and ultimately avoided war with the Treaty of Montefontaine in 1800.
During the election of 1796, the Federalists quickly labeled Adams as a Francophile, giving him the perhaps unearned reputation of being more concerned with the international interests than with domestic affairs.
Adams at odds with his own Federalist Party and was often undermined by his own cabinet member, Alexander Hamilton. Adams’ characteristic aloofness and refusal to enter directly into political conflict probably cost him his reelection in 1800.
John Adams signed the unpopular Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. These four pieces of legislation (Naturalization Act, Alien Friends Act of 1798, Alien Enemy Act of 1798, and Sedition Act of 1798) made it harder for immigrants to become citizens as they increased residency from 5 to 14 years, and allowed those considered ‘dangerous’ to be imprisoned or deported from the US.
Adams voided former financial loans and rescinded political treaties negotiated with the French. Nevertheless, he managed to avoid a retaliatory war with France through diplomacy.
Adams was the first president to take up residence in the President’s House (the original name of the White House). In the last year of his term, Adams would move to Washington on November 1st, 1800, and lived there for about five months.
John Adams supported building a strong defense system and remains referred to as the “Father of the American Navy.”
Because Adams believed in the elite idea of Republicanism and didn’t trust public opinion, he was probably one of the most disliked presidents.
Adams was left to deal with a major international crisis of the nation related to relations with France; his best legacy is the fact that he avoided war with France.
Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809
When the election of 1800 produced no clear winner, the House of Representatives decided the outcome. It voted for Thomas Jefferson as president and Aaron Burr as vice president.
Jefferson called his election (and the defeat of Adams) “the revolution of 1800” because this was the first time control of the nation passed from one party (the Federalists) to another (the Democratic-Republicans).
The contentious election of 1800 placed upon Thomas Jefferson the task of unifying the young republic.
Jefferson stated in his inaugural address, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to divide this Union…let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, doubling the size of the United States.
Jefferson commissioned the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the country’s western frontier in hopes of finding a water route to the Pacific Ocean.
In his regard for his own legacy, Thomas Jefferson valued other chapters of his life over that of his presidency. He wrote his own epitaph for his headstone describing himself as: “Author of the Declaration of American Independence; of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom; & Father of the University of Virginia.”
James Madison, 1809-1817
As Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of state, James Madison inadvertently began a pattern in which this cabinet office position would lead directly to the presidency. This would continue until 1828, with the election of Andrew Jackson.
With regard to the affairs of state, wrote one contemporary, Madison “has the most knowledge…of any Man in the Union.”
James Madison struggled to keep the nation neutral in the war between Britain and France. Strong dissent, especially in New England, characterized the strife as “Mr. Madison’s War.”
British seizure of American seamen pushed James Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war in June 1812. The United States entered the conflict without a strong military. Consequently, early battle losses, including the burning of the White House and the Capitol by British troops, created strong dissent.
Victory in the Battle of New Orleans, on January 8, 1815—a battle led by Andrew Jackson—restored to the nation a sense of pride and sovereignty, which in turn enhanced the legacy of James Madison’s presidency.
James Monroe, 1817–1825
James Monroe was the last of the so-called Virginia Dynasty of presidents.
Like James Madison, Monroe was secretary of state before becoming president. A spirit of vigorous nationalism known as the Era of Good Feelings ushered Monroe into the White House, virtually unopposed, for two terms.
Two years into James Monroe’s presidency, a severe financial panic gripped the nation in 1819, triggering widespread unemployment through 1821.
Sectional animosities over slavery characterize bitter debates in Congress during Monroe’s tenure as president. Before now, no one had ever tried to pretend that slavery was a good thing for white or black people. New positions on slavery, however, framed a new idea that slavery was for the “positive good.”
James Monroe approved the acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819.
Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise in 1820, which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state. When the Supreme Court decided three years later that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in the territories, they repealed this act in the Dred Scott decision.
In a message to Congress in December 1823, Monroe stated that the United States would not tolerate European intervention in the Western Hemisphere. This became known as the Monroe Doctrine.
The Monroe Doctrine is James Monroe’s great legacy. It still informs U. S. foreign policy in the Americas today.
John Quincy Adams, 1825-1829
The election of 1824 was contested by four candidates, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, William Crawford, and Andrew Jackson, none of whom won the majority. The election was decided by a vote in the House of Representatives.
Although Andrew Jackson had won a plurality of popular and electoral votes in the general election, Adams won the decisive vote in the House.
Jackson charged that a “corrupt bargain” had been made when Clay, Speaker of the House and no friend of Jackson, was offered the cabinet post of secretary of state, then considered to be the stepping-stone to the White House.
Though the election has been labeled “dirty,” the constitutional procedures for electing a president were faithfully carried out.
John Quincy Adams was a Harvard graduate, an intellectual, a lover of the arts and sciences, and woefully out-of-step with the common people of America.
John Quincy Adams’s proposals for internal improvements, such as an interconnecting network of roads and canals, largely failed, with the exception of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.
John Quincy Adams was a dedicated servant in the cause of anti-slavery.
Andrew Jackson, 1829-1837
Jackson was born in the then remote Waxhaws region of the Carolinas, on March 15, 1767. His parents were Scots-Irish immigrants, and his father died just three weeks shy of Jackson’s birth.
One of three children (all boys), Jackson grew up in near-poverty and received very little schooling as a child. His older brother Hugh died of heat stroke during the Battle of Stono Ferry—a battle against the British, near Charleston, SC, during the American Revolution in 1779. Andrew, then thirteen years old, joined the local militia as a patriot courier.
At fifteen years of age, Jackson and his other brother, Robert, were captured by the British in 1781. Jackson’s face was slashed by a British officer’s sword when he refused to polish his boots while in imprisoned, leaving lasting scars. While in confinement, the two brothers contracted smallpox, from which Robert would die just a few days after being released.
Soon after the death of his brother, Jackson’s mother died of cholera and Jackson was orphaned at the age of 14. The deaths of his family members led to his lifelong distrust of Britain.
In 1791, Jackson married Rachel Donelson Robards (1767-1828). He was her second husband; she divorced her first husband, Lewis Robards.
In 1802 Jackson was appointed as major general of the Tennessee militia, and would later lead troops in the War of 1812.
Jackson led his troops to victory in the Battle of Horseshow Bend in March of 1814, which decimated the Red Sticks, a faction of the Creek Indians, and lead to the US obtaining 20 million acres of land in what is now Georgia and Alabama. Jackson would then be promoted to major general.
Although the War of 1812 had officially ended, the British later attempted to separate the Louisiana Territory from the rest of the US. “Mad Dog Jackson,” as he was known during his military career, led his soldiers to victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans in January of 1815, despite his 5,000 soldiers being outnumbered nearly two-to-one.
Jackson was nominated for presidency in 1824, but lost to John Quincy Adams when the election came down to the vote of speaker of the House, Henry Clay. Clay’s decision to support John Quincy Adams became known as the “Corrupt Bargain” once it was found out that Adams named Clay as his secretary of state.
Reactions to the “Corrupt Bargain” led the House to nominate Jackson for presidency in 1825, three years before the 1828 election.
During the election, Jackson was nicknamed “jackass” by his opponents. He liked the name so much that he used a symbol of a donkey in his campaign for a short time. While his use of the symbol died down, the donkey would later become a symbol of the new Democratic Party.
Supporters of Adams accused Jackson of being a tyrant who would use his position to achieve Napoleonic-like ambitions. Jackson called Adams an elitist who wanted to increase government in order to benefit the so-called “aristocracy,” Americans of enormous wealth.
In the fall of 1828, Jackson won the vote, revealing that the American public preferred him because he stood for the “common man,” an image he validated when he gave the vote to all white male citizens (rather than only to white land owners).
The 1828 election was seen as a rematch between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson; the latter won, in part, because of the “Corrupt Bargain” election of 1824.
In Congress, “Whigs,” as Jackson’s opponents became known, proved to be major opponents. Due to their strength, Jackson exercised his veto power more than all his predecessors combined, and he was the first president to use the pocket veto. In total, Jackson vetoed twelve bills.
In 1836 a budget surplus of approximately 20 million dollars genuinely perplexed Jackson. Jackson signed a surplus bill which distributed the money among the states. In an election year, Jackson understood the political clout this could give his hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren.
Jackson replaced about 10% of offices which he held power over, which was a high percentage in comparison to previous presidents. Jackson set up a “principle of rotation” by removing those whom he saw as corrupt or generally inept.
One of Jackson’s goals was to stabilize government finances. His spending controls combined with an increased revenue allowed him to pay off the national debt by 1835. This would be the only time in U.S. history that the federal government was debt free.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 facilitated the forced displacement of Native Americans from their tribal lands. In what is today known as the Trail of Tears, members of the Cherokee Nation were rounded up and transplanted westward by military force in 1838 under Jackson’s successor Martin Van Buren.
Concluding a long political battle between Jackson, Henry Clay and Alexander Hamilton over how to build the countries’ economic strength, the Compromise of 1833 brought an end to tariff agitation until the 1840s.
Jackson issued the Specie Circular in July 1836, requiring payment in gold or silver for public lands. However, banks could not meet the demand and began to fail, leading to the Panic of 1837. This had devastating effects on the economy throughout the course of his successor Martin Van Buren’s presidency.
Andrew Jackson is of the most portrayed chief executives in the history of presidential portraiture, reflecting his stature as a military hero and an authoritative leader.
Caricaturists satirized every facet of Jackson’s political agenda, including his promise to cleanse the government of corruption, his fight to kill the National Bank, his Indian Removal Bill, his “Kitchen Cabinet” of advisors, and the grooming of his successor, Martin Van Buren.
Five years before his death, Jackson continued to inspire commentary. An 1840 article on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of the Battle of New Orleans opined, “What a wonderful man is Andrew Jackson!… the iron man of his age—the incarnation of American courage.” Jackson’s “iron will” was the way that people of the period saw what we know today was the genocide and removal of Native Americans.
Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841
Martin Van Buren entered the White House on the coattails of his illustrious predecessor, Andrew Jackson, making him the second vice president to succeed his immediate forerunner.
Three months into Martin Van Buren’s presidency, the Panic of 1837 engulfed the country in its worst depression to date. Van Buren was largely ineffective at stemming the economic collapse. He completely stopped any Federal aid to internal improvements.
Van Buren laid the groundwork for an independent treasury system to process government transactions.
Martin Van Buren opposed the expansion of slavery to the point that he blocked the annexation of Texas because he feared it would become a pro-slavery state. He also feared that gaining Texas would mean a war with Mexico.
Van Buren enforced Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. In a devastating move, the federal government forced the Cherokee Nation to relocate west of the Mississippi to present-day Oklahoma. Known as the Trail of Tears, a full quarter—approximately 4,000 of the 15,000 Cherokee people—died.
Because he mishandled the financial Panic of 1837, Martin Van Buren left the White House as a discredited president.
William Henry Harrison, 1841
Due to his military career, William Henry Harrison became the frontrunner of the Whig Party—a new political faction assembled by opposition to Jackson. Despite his aristocratic Virginian roots, the 1840 campaign remade Harrison as a heroic western Indian fighter, living in a log cabin and drinking hard cider. “Old Tip” was transformed from a genteel blueblood into the everyman, and with this image, he won the election.
As he had the most fleeting presidency in our history, William Henry Harrison died too soon to prove himself. His promises included a weak executive office (meaning the President did not have authoritative power), particularly in the management of fiscal policy. Also, although he owned slaves and criticized anti-slavery, he thought slaves should make their own decisions about their freedom.
William Henry Harrison gave the longest inaugural address ever—almost two hours—on a cold day without an overcoat. He succumbed to pneumonia exactly one month into office.
At age 68, William Henry Harrison was the oldest president to date, and the first to die in office.
John Tyler, 1841-1845
When John Tyler assumed the presidency upon the death of William Henry Harrison, critics referred to him as “His Accidency.” At fifty-one, Tyler was the youngest man yet to become president.
Tyler, who supported states’ rights over federal power, was largely at odds with the nationalistic policies of his adopted Whig Party. He was rejected as the party’s candidate in 1844.
John Tyler was determined to be the president and not just a stand-in. Although Henry Clay controlled the Whig Party, Tyler refused to allow him to dominate the presidency.
Philosophically, Tyler wrestled with members of his own Whig Party in Congress. When he vetoed a bill to establish a National Bank, Whigs expelled him from their party. The rest of his presidency was characterized by ongoing clashes with Congress.
The Webster–Ashburton Treaty of 1842, negotiated by Secretary of State Daniel Webster, settled a contentious border dispute in the northeast with Canada.
The Log Cabin bill allowed settlers to acquire western lands at reduced rates.
John Tyler annexed Texas into the Union, signing the statehood bill into law three days before he left office.
As vice president, John Tyler set the example for a seamless and immediate succession of presidential power when an incumbent president dies.
Tyler demonstrated how a president who was willing to use the veto could block Congress. He vetoed a bill resurrecting the Bank of the United States (which Jackson had dismantled). He also vetoed bills calling for high tariffs.
James K. Polk, 1845-1849
In 1844, James K. Polk became the first dark horse candidate to win the presidency, beating Henry Clay.
Polk promised that he would be a one-term president.
James K. Polk was an avowed expansionist, committed to acquiring California and New Mexico from Mexico even at the risk of war.
Polk acquired the then British-held territory of Oregon and negotiated for its border to be located along the 49th parallel.
Congress declared war with Mexico in 1846.
In 1848, Mexico ceded California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and parts of Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico—more than fifty percent of Mexico at the time—to the U.S. for fifteen million dollars.
During James K. Polk’s four years in office, the nation acquired vast lands that expanded the country to reach across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
Polk was a tireless achiever and left the White House in a state of exhaustion. He died four months later.
Zachary Taylor, 1849-1850
Zachary Taylor was the reluctant candidate of the Whig Party, which nominated him purely on his reputation as a hero of the Mexican–American War. He defeated Democrat Lewis Cass.
The election was significant for the emergence of a distinctly anti-slavery third party, the Free Soil party; their ticket was headed by former President Martin Van Buren.
Despite being a southerner and a wealthy slave owner, the apolitical Zachary Taylor sought to be a unifying figure in his programs and appointments.
The issue that occupied his relatively short sixteen-month tenure was whether to allow the territory acquired in the Mexican-American War to enter the country as slaveholder states. This issue resulted in the Compromise of 1850 (signed after Taylor’s presidency) and inaugurated a decade in which slavery was a major political issue at all levels of American politics.
An agreement with Great Britain, the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, ended international squabbling over Central America related to a possible inter-ocean canal. The Treaty reduced American interests in Central America and stepped away from using the theory of Manifest Destiny as a policy.
Though Zachary Taylor attempted to be a unifying figure in an era of increasing sectionalism and violent partisanship, his passivity and unflinching support of the Union was at odds with the issue at hand, the western expansion of slavery.
Millard Fillmore, 1850-1853
A powerful congressman from New York, Millard Fillmore was Zachary Taylor’s vice president and ascended to the presidency upon Taylor’s death.
Millard Fillmore inherited the uncompleted legislation known as the Compromise of 1850, a senatorial initiative to reconcile the competing issues involved in organizing the territories acquired in the victory over Mexico as well as related issues of slavery.
Fillmore, in extending his patronage, replaced Zachary Taylor supporters with his own supporters, alienating a substantial faction of his party. This caused him to be denied re-nomination by the Whigs.
Millard Fillmore signed the Compromise of 1850, which delayed the Civil War for a decade.
The Compromise outlined that California would enter the Union as a free state; in exchange, the South was guaranteed that no federal restrictions on slavery would be placed on Utah Territory or New Mexico. Though New Mexico territory remained separate from Texas, Congress compensated Texas with $10 million.
One part of the Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, required northerners to return runaway slaves under penalty of law; meanwhile, the slave trade in Washington, D.C. was abolished.
Millard Fillmore’s presidency stalled disunion, but because he did not use the power of his office, he resolved no major issues.
Franklin Pierce, 1853-1857
Franklin Pierce was the lackluster choice of the Democratic Party in 1852, nominated after 48 ballots.
In a campaign devoid of issues—for example, both parties endorsed the Compromise of 1850—Pierce defeated the Whig Party nominee, war hero Winfield Scott.
Franklin Pierce had to deal with the violent consequences—“Bleeding Kansas”—of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which some historians categorize as a low-intensity civil war.
Pierce ineffectively dealt with a dominant Congress, typical in an era in which the executive was weak and Congress was powerful.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery within their borders, nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which allowed Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state), and permitted slavery in the territory north of 36° 30´ latitude.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act effectively re-opened the question of slavery in the territories and proposed states, and is often seen as the single most significant event leading to the Civil War.
Franklin Pierce’s attempts at foreign policy, including an initiative to acquire Cuba by force if necessary, all failed, and the Cuban initiative caused an international uproar.
A largely failed president, even in the limited sense of maintaining the status quo, Franklin Pierce has come to typify the “Bungling Generation” of incompetent presidents and politicians who allowed the country to steadily break apart.
James Buchanan, 1857–1861
James Buchanan had tried for the Democratic nomination several times and finally succeeded in 1856, in large part because as Ambassador to Great Britain, he had been absent during the controversies associated with the Kansas–Nebraska Act.
At the time of James Buchanan’s election, the Union itself was at stake, as the South was now actively threatening secession with the rise of the Republican Party.
The continuing issue of slavery in the territories eventually broke the national party system into sectionalized, Northern/Republican and Southern/Democratic parties. The Whig Party eventually disappeared altogether.
James Buchanan’s consistent support of the south, while also espousing Unionism, fatally compromised his attempts to reach a solution on the status of the violence in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Denied the re-nomination, and a lame duck after Lincoln’s election, Buchanan’s actions were feckless and irresponsible. For example, he called for a Constitutional Convention to protect the rights of the slave-owners just as the South began to secede.
Generally, James Buchanan is regarded as the worst American president. Though it is hard to know what he could have done during the “Secession Winter” of 1860–61 (when the Confederacy formed and broke away from the United States), his passivity condemns him.
Abraham Lincoln, 1861–1865
In addition to being president, Abraham Lincoln was the post-master of New Salem; he also offered services as a wood chopper, county deputy surveyor, and lawyer.
Abraham Lincoln was born in a one-room log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky and grew up in Indiana. The youngest child of Thomas Lincoln and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Lincoln had one sister three years his senior, Sarah (who went by “Sally”).
Nancy Hanks Lincoln died in 1818 when Lincoln was 9 years old. Tom left his two children, ages eight and eleven, for close to six months in order to travel to Kentucky and to find a new wife. He returned remarried to Sarah Bush Johnston, who made sure to give Abe any opportunity she could for an education.
At age twenty-two, Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois. After only six months in his new town, he announced his plans to run for a seat in the State Legislature.
During the April 6- August 27 Black Hawk War (an attempt in 1832 of the Sac and Fox Indians led by Black Hawk to reclaim their homelands in northern Illinois), Lincoln, aged twenty-three, volunteered with the Illinois militia. The U.S. Army, the Illinois militia, and groups of Sioux and Menominee warriors beat back Black Hawk and his warriors. 450 to 600, or about half of the 1,100 people who entered Illinois with Black Hawk in 1832 died; approximately seventy seven white settlers, members of the US Army, and Illinois militia also died.
Though he never studied law formally, Lincoln passed the state- bar exam of Illinois in 1836 and received his license in 1837.
Lincoln married Mary Todd on November 4, 1842; they had four sons. Lincoln’s second son, Eddie, died in 1850 at the age of four; another, Willie, died of Typhoid fever in 1862. His youngest son, Tad Lincoln, died in 1871.
Lincoln suffered from “melancholia,” the nineteenth-century term for clinical depression. He would enter such bouts that would last for weeks on end.
Abraham Lincoln became president at the age of 52. Though Lincoln was involved with the Whig Party (which was formed to oppose Andrew Jackson and his use of presidential power) earlier on his career, he switched parties becoming the first Republican president of the United States.
In the election of 1860, Abraham Lincoln ran against John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat), John Bell (Constitutional Union), and Stephen A. Douglas (Northern Democrat). At this time, there were thirty-three states in the Union and the US Census of 1860 (beginning in January 1, 1860), recorded the population of the United States as 31,443,321.
In the spring of 1860, Lincoln, the Republican candidate, ran against a deeply divided Democratic Party. Most importantly, the campaign contested states’ rights; it also addressed the construction of a transcontinental railroad; and immigrants and their rights. Lincoln was left off the ballot in a handful of Southern states, and in others (about 9 states) he did not received any votes. The election of Lincoln prompted the South to begin to withdraw, or secede, from the Union.
In 1860, Lincoln was the first ever president to be elected with less than 50% of the vote.
In the election of 1864, he ran against George B. McClellan, in the midst of civil war. The United States held another presidential election, a feat that no other democratic nation had ever accomplished. Even when Lincoln felt he had no hope to win, he never seriously considered postponing the election. He was the first president since Andrew Jackson to win re-election.
Lincoln faced a divided Union. Separated into the Pro-slavery South and the Abolitionist North. He led a deeply divided country into civil war.
Lincoln had to raise a citizen’s army of volunteers who were willing to die for the Union; find generals capable to lead them; and finance the war.
Lincoln also had to make sure that the Confederacy would not be recognized by any foreign nations.
In order to discourage treason, with his presidential powers, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, which prevents the government from holding citizens without trial. Between fifteen and twenty thousand citizens (mostly from border states) were arrested on suspicion of disloyal acts.
In September 1862, Lincoln announced his preliminary emancipation proclamation. The President warned that if the rebellion did not end by January 1, 1863, he would issue his presidential order of emancipation and move to destroy slavery in the rebel states once and for all. The reason he waited is because his cabinet felt that it was prudent for Lincoln to wait for a moment of triumph, in order to avoid seeming desperate. He kept his promise and issued the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863.
In the Homestead Act of 1862, Lincoln signed into law the right of any adult citizen (male or female) who headed a family could obtain a grant of 160 acres of public land by paying a small registration fee and living on the land for five years. By 1866, 15,000 claims were filed.
Through government contracting and the expansion of state activity, such as the approval of a transcontinental railway and the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 to settle western lands, he laid the foundations of a modern economy.
Abraham Lincoln transformed the role of the President allowing for the chief executive to hold full power over Congress and its other branches.
He was strongly committed to the preservation of the Union at all costs, even if that meant defying Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Constitution in order to do so. To Lincoln, the greatest upset would be to lose the Union.
Above all, under Lincoln, civil rights evolved. He committed the nation to freedom for African -Americans. Historians judge him as the president who accomplished the most while facing the greatest challenges.
Andrew Johnson, 1865-1869
A Unionist Democrat from Tennessee, Andrew Johnson was put on the ticket by Lincoln in 1864 in an effort to reach union sympathizers in the Border States.
Andrew Johnson had to navigate the reunification and reconstruction of the Union while addressing issues such as African-American civil rights. He failed badly, to the extent that his ineffective leadership brought impeachment charges against him principally associated with his alleged violations of the Tenure of Office Act and the Command of the Army Act.
Unable to mediate the interests of anti-slavery radicals (such as abolitionists) and those of the majority of the South, Johnson also proved inadequate to the tasks of dealing with Congress and reconstructing the nation.
During Andrew Johnson’s tenure, foreign policy was largely handled by the Secretary of State William H. Seward. Alaska was acquired from Russia; the French, led by Napoleon III, were driven from Mexico; and relations with Great Britain were repaired.
Andrew Johnson’s racism and antipathy towards African-American civil rights were a harbinger for similar attitudes to come during Reconstruction.
The first president to be impeached—but not convicted or removed from office—Johnson often contends with James Buchanan for the title of worst president.
Ulysses S. Grant, 1869-1877
Ulysses S. Grant continued the American tradition of electing military figures as presidents—those men who led and won key battles in war.
Attempting to be apolitical, Grant campaigned on the complacency-signaling slogan “Let us have peace.”
As for all post-Civil War presidents, the dominant issues in governance at the time of Ulysses S. Grant’s tenure were related to the South and African-American civil rights.
Reconstruction needed major federal intervention to prevent states from allowing white supremacy to dominate their legislative agendas.
Attempting to curb the economy’s depression in 1873, Grant vetoed an inflation bill and established hard currency based on the gold standard.
Beginning in 1870, Enforcement Acts protected the right to vote. One of these was the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act, geared to counter the rise of white terrorist activity against blacks in the South.
Ulysses S. Grant was inconsistent in his policy supporting Reconstruction. He sent federal troops into South Carolina to protect African-Americans’ civil rights, but failed to send federal troops into Louisiana and other southern states when Reconstruction began to fail there.
The Peace Policy attempted to move Native Americans closer to white civilization (and ultimately U.S. citizenship) by housing them on reservations and helping them become farmers. Ultimately, this policy proved ineffective.
Ulysses S. Grant’s good intentions and integrity were undermined as his reputation became tarnished by corruption in his administration.
Rutherford B. Hayes, 1877-1881
In an election decided by the House of Representatives, Rutherford B. Hayes defeated Democratic candidate Samuel Jones Tilden in the most controversial election in American history to date. Tilden received a quarter of a million more popular votes than Hayes, prompting Democrats to refer to the newly elected president as “His Fraudulency.”
Reconstruction effectively ended in the South as the Democratic Party turned to violence in order to keep white supremacy in control. Rutherford B. Hayes was unable to combat the violence, as most of the 25,000 soldiers in the federal army were deployed in the West.
The economic crisis beginning in 1873 deepened, resulting in the Great Strike of 1877, in which violence characterized the unorganized resistance of railroad workers across the eastern seaboard.
Temperance activists found an ally in Hayes when he banned liquor from the White House.
Because of government corruption, Rutherford B. Hayes inaugurated major efforts at reforming the nation’s civil service.
Hayes incorporated more humane policies toward Native Americans and ended the practice of removing them from their homelands.
The 1875 Specie Resumption Act carefully built up the federal government’s gold supply. Prosperity returned, and by the end of Hayes’s presidency, the economy had made a stunning comeback.
Rutherford B. Hayes is remembered for his responsible executive leadership and his sterling personal character. Regarding his presidency, Hayes declared that “it would be difficult to find one which began with so rough a situation, and few which closed with so smooth a sea.”
James A. Garfield, 1881
Rutherford B. Hayes declined to run again, so the Republicans turned to James Garfield, who was attractive, eloquent, and untainted by scandals.
Although Garfield followed tradition by not campaigning in the modern sense, he delivered speeches at his house in Ohio during the so-called “Front Porch Campaign.”
Rivalries within the Republican Party posed problems for James Garfield. Roscoe Conkling, governor of New York and leader of the Stalwarts, supported the use of state resources to reward individuals for their electoral support, which put him in direct opposition to civil service reform, one of Garfield’s major goals.
Shortly after Garfield assumed the presidency, the Star Route Scandal erupted, in which it became known that federal contracts were given to private stagecoach and wagon agencies involved in serving isolated areas of the West. Essentially, postal route contracts were being sold in return for payoffs.
Although he was assassinated before he could do much, James Garfield defeated his party rivals in the Senate and consolidated executive power.
The dramatic assassination of James Garfield, a mere 100 days after he assumed office, remains his distinguishing legacy.
Chester A. Arthur, 1881
Succession of Garfield
lack of legal guidance on presidential succession: as Garfield lingered near death, no one was sure who, if anyone, could exercise presidential authority. Also, after Conkling’s resignation, the Senate had adjourned without electing a president pro tempore, who would normally follow Arthur in the succession. Arthur was reluctant to be seen acting as president while Garfield lived, and for the next two months there was a void of authority in the executive office, with Garfield too weak to carry out his duties, and Arthur reluctant to assume them.
Through the summer, Arthur refused to travel to Washington and was at his Lexington Avenue home when, on the night of September 19, he learned that Garfield had died. Judge John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court administered the oath of office in Arthur’s home at 2:15 a.m. on September 20. Later that day he took a train to Long Branch to pay his respects to Garfield and to leave a card of sympathy for his wife, afterwards returning to New York City. On September 21, he returned to Long Branch to take part in Garfield’s funeral, and then joined the funeral train to Washington. Arthur arrived in Washington, D.C. on September 21. On September 22, he re-took the oath of office, this time before Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite.
In the 1870s, a scandal was exposed, in which contractors for star postal routes were greatly overpaid for their services with the connivance of government officials (including Second Assistant Postmaster General Thomas J. Brady and former senator Stephen Wallace Dorsey). Reformers feared Arthur, as a former supporter of the spoils system, would not commit to continuing the investigation into the scandal. But Arthur’s Attorney General, Brewster, did in fact continue the investigations begun by MacVeagh, and hired notable Democratic lawyers William W. Ker and Richard T. Merrick to strengthen the prosecution team and forestall the skeptics. Although Arthur had worked closely with Dorsey before his presidency, once in office he supported the investigation and forced the resignation of officials suspected in the scandal. An 1882 trial of the ringleaders resulted in convictions for two minor conspirators and a hung jury for the rest.
With high revenue held over from wartime taxes, the federal government had collected more than it spent since 1866; by 1882 the surplus reached $145 million. Opinions varied on how to balance the budget; the Democrats wished to lower tariffs, in order to reduce revenues and the cost of imported goods, while Republicans believed that high tariffs ensured high wages in manufacturing and mining. They preferred the government spend more on internal improvements and reduce excise taxes. Arthur agreed with his party, and in 1882 called for the abolition of excise taxes on everything except liquor, as well as a simplification of the complex tariff structure.
Arthur’s unpopularity in life carried over into his assessment by historians and his reputation after leaving office disappeared. By 1935, historian George F. Howe said that Arthur had achieved “an obscurity in strange contrast to his significant part in American history.” By 1975, however, Thomas C. Reeves would write that Arthur’s “appointments, if unspectacular, were unusually sound; the corruption and scandal that dominated business and politics of the period did not tarnish his administration.”
Grover Cleveland, 1893-1897
Grover Cleveland’s victory brought back a defeated president to the White House for a second term, an historic first that remains unique.
In this second election on the Democratic ticket, Cleveland won because voters could not stand the Republican platform of prohibition nor the economic depression caused in part by the high rates of the McKinley Tariff of 1890.
The Panic of 1893 was the worst economic depression of the century. Against inflation, Grover Cleveland would not allow the government to intervene and defended the gold standard as the basis for the national currency.
Cleveland faced revolt in his party when he “colluded” with financial tycoons like J. P. Morgan on bond sales to float the government’s Treasury, which had dwindled.
The Pullman Strike earned Cleveland a reputation as a union buster.
Cleveland accomplished tariff reform, repealing the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 (which placed silver as the backing of currency) and advocated for free trade.
Congress prevented Cleveland from supporting revolutionaries in Cuba, and the conflict continued, negatively affecting American economic interests and business relations.
Grover Cleveland repealed the Silver Purchase Act, which obligated the government to purchase a fixed amount of silver each month and diminished the Treasury’s supply of gold.
Cleveland signed the disastrous Dawes Act of 1887, which empowered the president to allot land within the reservations to individual Native Americans, with all surplus land reverting to the public domain. The policy essentially legalized the stealing of land from Native Americans.
During the administrations of Grover Cleveland, the municipal, state, and federal governments adopted numerous new laws, anticipating the reforms of the Progressive Era.
Cleveland asserted his independence from Congress with an unprecedented number of vetoes and forceful use of presidential authority in his second term. These actions prepared the way for the rise of autonomous presidential leadership, laying the foundation for the modern presidency fully realized by Theodore Roosevelt.
Cleveland’s failure to deal with the economic depression during his second term instigated the greatest realignment of voters since the Civil War, in which Democrats lost support everywhere but in the Deep South.
Benjamin Harrison, 1889-1893
A Republican, Benjamin Harrison campaigned against Grover Cleveland in defense of the protective tariff, as well as sound currency, pensions for Civil War veterans, and efficiency in office.
Reserved and self-contained, Benjamin Harrison was unsuited to reform the corrupt political arena of the late 19th century.
Harrison contributed to the collapse of the nation’s economy by accepting the agenda of the “Billion Dollar Congress” of 1890, which produced controversial legislation on monetary policy and tariff rates.
The Tariff Act of 1890, supported by Ohio Representative William McKinley, was the highest protective tariff in the nation’s history and expanded presidential authority in foreign trade.
Benjamin Harrison’s administration produced the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the most important legislation of its kind in the nation’s history. Though weak and ineffective, the act was the first federal law to regulate giant corporations.
The Sherman Silver Purchase Act assured silver producers that the federal government would purchase 4.5 million ounces of silver a month—a guarantee perceived as a threat to the gold standard, and a concession to western silver interests in return for their support of the Tariff Act of 1890.
Pursuing the most active agenda in foreign policy since Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison set forth legislation that incorporated Hawaii into the United States, launching the nation on the road to empire that would distinguish the U.S. at the turn of the century.
Harrison began three distinguished initiatives: the construction of a modern navy, the control of a Central American canal, and the acquisition of naval bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific.
William McKinley, 1897-1901
For his first term on the Republican ticket, William McKinley ran on a largely pro-gold platform but reserved some possibility for bimetallism.
McKinley won his first term in the greatest electoral sweep in twenty-five years.
For his second term, McKinley had a less decisive victory, but with Theodore Roosevelt Jr. as his vice president, he still defeated the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan.
Questions of bimetallism backing the currency haunted William McKinley during his first term.
In the Spanish-American War of 1898, McKinley was a forceful and effective commander-in-chief who used the war powers of his office to shape events. Largely through his efforts, the United States was victorious in Cuba and the Philippines by mid-July 1898.
The Filipino Revolt after the Spanish-American War resulted in atrocity; the United States faced charges similar to those lodged against Spain in its dealings with Cuba.
The deteriorating position of U.S. African-Americans garnered no firm stance by McKinley, who, although he denounced lynching, never made the issue an official one; nor did he intervene for any other civil rights concerns, including voting.
In an uprising known now as the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese nationalists massacred American missionaries and Christian converts in China as well as laying siege to a foreign diplomatic community. McKinley used his executive power to dispatch 2,500 American troops and ships to put down the insurgents.
William McKinley signed the Open Door Policy for China, which sought to safeguard U.S. trading rights in China and asserted American interests in Asia.
Signaling an alliance with organized labor workers, Mckinley signed the Dingley Tariff of 1897, which authorized reciprocal trade treaties.
The Dodge Commission evaluated and reformed the organization of the army.
Resolving bimetallism and currency issues, the Gold Standard Act of 1900 formally placed U.S. money on the gold standard.
The Paris Treaty of 1898 resolved the Spanish-American War and the United States obtained Puerto Rico, Guam, and—for $20 million—the Philippine Islands.
William McKinley proved to be a forceful executive, acting as a forerunner for the modern presidency in asserting pressure on Congress to support his policies.
Under McKinley’s governance, the United States emerged as a colonial power.
Theodore Roosevelt, 1901–1909
Theodore Roosevelt was born in New York City to glass importer and leading philanthropist Theodore, Sr. and Georgia-born mother Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt.
As a student at Harvard University (1876-1880), Roosevelt studied German, zoology, natural history, forensics, and composition. Upon graduating, he decided to pursue a career in public service.
In 1884, Roosevelt lost both his wife and his mother within two days of each other. Distraught, he sought refuge out West in the Dakota Badlands, returning to Oyster Bay, New York in 1886 after marrying his new wife in England.
Roosevelt married Alice Hathaway Lee in 1880 and they had one child, Alice Roosevelt. After his wife’s death in 1884, Roosevelt rekindled a romance with his childhood love and second wife, Edith Kermit Carow (married 1886). They had five children; Theodore, Kermit, Ethel, Archibald, and Quentin.
Roosevelt authored about 35 books including The Life of Thomas Hart Benton (1887), The Life of Gouverneur Morris (1888), and The Winning of the West (four volumes, 1889-1896).
He was wholly committed to his career as a public servant serving as Commissioner of the U.S. Civil Service Commission (1889-1895) and as President of the New York City Police Board (1895). In 1897, he became assistant secretary of the Navy.
During the Spanish- American War, Roosevelt left his position as assistant secretary of the Navy to be Commander of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, “The Rough Riders”. Comprised of men from varied backgrounds, education and race, they are remembered for the Battle of San Juan Hill, instrumental to defeating the Spanish. Upon returning home, they received a war hero’s welcome.
Republican Boss Thomas C. Platt assisted Roosevelt, “The hero of San Juan Hill”, to become Governor of New York in order to defeat popular Democrat, Judge Augustus van Wyck. However, when Roosevelt deviated from the plans of party bosses, they rigged the Republican convention to ensure Roosevelt would run on the McKinley ticket as his Vice President to “kick [Roosevelt] upstairs” and get him out of New York government.
In 1901, Roosevelt became the 25th Vice President of the United States.
On September 14, 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated. At the age of 42, Theodore Roosevelt became the 26th President of the United States.
After becoming President due to McKinley’s assassination in 1901, Roosevelt was determined to win the presidency “in his own right” in the next election. In 1904, Roosevelt ran on the Republican ticket, defeating conservative New York Democrat, Alton B. Parker with 366 electoral votes to Parker’s 140. At time of the election, the American population was 82,166,000.
After his 1904 victory, Roosevelt pledged he would not run for re-election.
Roosevelt’s progressive reforms and vigorous foreign policy were so ambitious that he could not always finish them within his presidential term.
In foreign policy, however, Roosevelt was inconsistent in supporting the growth of American power internationally. He wavered on the Open Door policy of his predecessor as well as the buildup of the American naval fleet.
Roosevelt had to manage the territory of the Philippines (acquired during the War of 1898) during an era of violence. He often made decisions without consulting Congress.
Before the end of his second term, Roosevelt created five national parks and battled mining interests to name the beloved Grand Canyon one of 16 national monuments.
Roosevelt also oversaw the creation of 20 federal irrigation projects, 13 national forests, and 16 bird refuges. Altogether, 230 million acres were placed under federal protection during Roosevelt’s administration.
In foreign policy, Roosevelt famously advised, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He mediated a peace treaty to end the Russo-Japanese war in which Russia acknowledged Japan’s ascendancy in Korea and southern Manchuria.
In 1903, Roosevelt signed the the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty with Panama. The treaty guaranteed that the US had total control of the canal for the price of $10 million and an annual payment of $250,000.
In his two terms as president, he increased federal oversight of big business and expanded the reach of government. However, he failed to transform the Republican Party, which remained mired in conservative, pro-corporate interests.
He focused on educating the public and used his power broadly to improve the lives of the lower class and to expand the rights of women.
A racist whose beliefs reflected those of the elite of this period, Roosevelt thought African Americans to be inferior to white citizens. Although he invited Booker T. Washington, one of the leading philosophers of the time (and African American) to dine at the White House, he also dismissed 160 black soldiers from service, assuming them all to have colluded in a criminal shooting spree.
William Howard Taft, 1909-1913
William Howard Taft was the natural successor to Theodore Roosevelt, with whom he had a very warm working relationship (one journalist wrote that T.A.F.T. stood for “Take Advice From Theodore.”) He ran his campaign on the idea that his opponent William Jennings Bryan, who had twice lost already, was not a real opponent.
William Howard Taft stumbled dramatically on two important occasions as President: his special congressional session to revise the tariff downward, and his dismissal of Theodore Roosevelt’s friend, Chief Forester of the United States Gifford Pinchot, which tore the Republican Party apart and drove an inseparable wedge between Taft and Roosevelt.
The Mann-Elkins Act regulated railroads and set rates.
The Payne-Aldrich Tariff alienated progressives.
In foreign policy, William Howard Taft pursued “Dollar Diplomacy” in Latin America and Asia, encouraging American bankers and industry to invest in those regions, which he expected would in turn lead to the establishment of stable governments.
An indecisive leader, William Howard Taft was an ineffective president, especially when compared to the impressive administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.
However, Taft’s concern with the legal limits of his office has been regarded recently with greater respect in light of the growing potential for abuse of presidential power.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson, 1913–1921
A Southerner and a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson rode the Progressive Movement into the White House in 1912.
For his second term campaign in 1916, he promised to keep the USA neutral and not to enter WWI.
For the majority of his presidency, Wilson excluded both women and African Americans from gaining full citizenship rights.
He promoted self-government, with direct nomination of candidates and honest elections; as a result, 1914 was the first year in which senators were directly elected.
The revolution in Mexico caused Woodrow Wilson more difficulty than any other foreign policy issue in the Western Hemisphere.
Wilson attempted to keep the United States out of World War I until Germany’s U-boats wreaked havoc on American ships and Germany attempted to persuade Mexico to attack the U.S.
Wilson created the League of Nations, yet his career ended when he was unable to get Congress to approve it. His rigidity had something to do with his failure; he refused to appoint a bipartisan delegation to the peace conference to represent American interests.
Woodrow Wilson famously elaborated his Fourteen Points in January 1918, sketching out a new world order with a new open diplomacy, free trade, disarmament, and a general association of countries: the League of Nations.
Wilson established the Federal Reserve and the Federal Trade Commission—the first advocated a regional banking system with government control of the nation’s currency; the second reduced import tariffs.
Wilson furthered antitrust reform by sharpening the distinction between legitimate and illegal corporate practices. He also partially exempted labor unions from injunctions.
In 1917, Wilson signed the Jones-Shaffroth Act giving Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship but excluded those on the island from voting in presidential elections.
Woodrow Wilson introduced Pan-Americanism, or political and commercial cooperation with Latin America. But using military force to assert American interests in Latin America resulted in a legacy of distrust with Mexico. He also opened the Panama Canal in 1914 and consolidated U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean.
Wilson could not compromise and refused to include Republicans in his plans. This rigidity cost him support for the League of Nations, and his lack of bipartisanship would be a lesson to learn from.
Warren G. Harding, 1921-1923
Warren G. Harding ran his campaign based on party loyalty, supporting an “association of nations” (but not Wilson’s League of Nations). In addition, he called for a federal budget system, a protective tariff policy, a ship subsidy, stricter immigration standards, and lower tax burdens.
Warren G. Harding was overwhelmed by the burdens of the presidency and delegated much of the responsibility to his more able cabinet members. His weakness contributed to the growth of political corruption that eventually led to highly publicized scandals involving officials in the Veterans’ Bureau, the Office of the Alien Property Custodian, the Justice Department, and the Department of the Interior.
The Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921 provided federal subsidies for state programs of maternal and infant health care,
Warren G. Harding advocated labor reform and laid the foundations for an eight-hour work day.Through multiple treaties, the United States succeeded in slowing a naval arms race, securing the annulment of the Anglo-Japanese alliance, and gaining international recognition for its Open Door policy regarding China. Despite these achievements, the main goal, to stabilize peaceful economic development in the Far East, failed.
Warren G. Harding facilitated the nation’s passage through a painful transition between the First World War and peacetime. Although he stabilized a disintegrating executive system, he was easily manipulated by others and is often seen by historians as a mediocre president.
Calvin Coolidge, 1923-1929
In 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in after President William G. Harding died in office. Coolidge inherited many of Harding’s scandals, which he was able to handle with considerable ease. In 1924, he successfully ran his campaign on his ability to keep cool under fire.
Calvin Coolidge championed economical and efficient government and was more concerned with cutting federal taxes and the national debt than with financing new programs.
The Immigration Act of 1924 implemented a national origins quota, providing immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census. Immigrants from Asia were completely banned except for those from Japan and the Philippines.
Calivn Coolidge supported the Dawes Plan of 1924 to alleviate severe financial distress in post-war Germany.
Coolidge vetoed the “Bonus Bill,” blocking additional pay to veterans of WWI, saying “patriotism…bought and paid for is not patriotism.” Congress overrode him.
The Federal Radio Commission in 1927 regulated the emerging radio broadcast industry.
Calvin Coolidge faced few crises, but his economic policies created an imbalance in the American economy, setting up the instability for the Great Depression. Within the U.S., he increased funding for the conciliation of industrial disputes, programs for Native Americans, highway construction, and the development of commerce on inland waterways.
Coolidge’s foreign policies were ineffective, allowing for the rise of Nazism in Germany and a resurgence of world conflict.
Herbert C. Hoover, 1929-1933
Running on a progressive platform, Herbert C. Hoover was enormously popular. His economic acuity was especially respected as he had established his capable good judgment during his tenure as secretary of commerce for both Harding and Coolidge.
Herbert C. Hoover had to manage the nation during the Great Depression. Not until late 1931 did he embrace several initiatives employing emergency federal aid. Hoover could have done little to solve the Depression; not until WWII was the nation able to recover.
Hoover mishandled the “Bonus Expeditionary Force” (veterans of WWI asking for benefits). In 1932, in an effort to remove veterans living near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Douglas MacArthur burned 2,000 men’s camps, for which Hoover took responsibility. Hoover left office in disgrace, falsely blamed for both the Depression and the Bonus March fiasco.
Three things laid the foundations for what became the Good Neighbor policy toward Latin America under Roosevelt: the 1929 Pan-American Treaty of Arbitration; the League of Nations investigation of a dispute between Peru and Colombia in 1933; and Herbert C. Hoover’s plans for removing the marines from Haiti and Nicaragua.
In 1932, Roosevelt signed the Emergency Relief Construction Act, which provided $2 billion for public works projects and $300 million for direct relief programs run by state governments.
The Norris-La Guardia Anti-Injunction Act and the 1935 Wagner Act both supported organized labor and were important forerunners of pro-labor legislation.
Herbert C. Hoover dealt with U.S. foreign relations by relying on the power of negotiation rather than the use of force.
Hoover was an organizational genius who as chief executive practiced features of the modern presidency later associated with his successor Franklin D. Roosevelt. Some of Hoover’s ideas for combating the Depression—such as the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, aid to agriculture, and long-term public works and relief appropriations—were popularized by Roosevelt.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933-1945
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born January 30, 1882, the only son of wealthy parents James and Sara Delano Roosevelt (although his father had a son from a previous marriage).
Roosevelt began studying at Harvard University in 1900 where he earned his degree in three years. During his last year at Harvard, he became engaged to Theodore Roosevelt’s niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was also his distant cousin.
They married on March 17, 1905, and went on to have one daughter and five sons, one of whom died in infancy.
In 1921 Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio and became paralyzed in each of his extremities (although he would eventually regain the use of his arms, his legs never fully recovered). While his mother tried to persuade him to give up his career, his wife Eleanor urged him not to abandon his political dreams.
In 1932, the topic of highest importance to Americans was the Great Depression, giving Democrats an advantage in securing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s place in the White House.
Roosevelt’s campaign introduced Americans to the New Deal that would become his signature government reform, one promising that government policies would help Americans emerge from the economic depression. Four years later, Roosevelt held up his New Deal as the best option for the American citizen.
With the advent of the Great Depression, the 1932 election would inevitably represent a dramatic shift in political power. While Republicans had primarily dominated the presidency for decades, it was clear that citizens were desperate for change.
In 1932, his opponent—the incumbent Herbert Hoover—blamed the economic depression on external causes. Hoover was unpopular to the point that Roosevelt’s campaign strategy was simply not to do anything that would distract from that unpopularity.
In 1940, Roosevelt broke the tradition set by George Washington by running for a third term. The advent of Nazi Germany sealed his determination to seek the presidency again, despite the disapproval by many of this break with tradition. Roosevelt famously stated, “You don’t change horses in midstream.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in the aftermath of the worldwide financial crisis triggered in part by the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The Great Depression soon achieved a depth and duration unparalleled in modern economic history.
Facing one of the greatest challenges in American history—world war—Roosevelt helmed the government during the era just before World War II through the prosecution of the war to final victory in 1945.
By organizing the armed forces and establishing America as the arsenal of democracy, Roosevelt switched from “Dr. New Deal” to “Dr. Win the War.” Diplomatic challenges meant meeting with Churchill and Stalin in order to set the parameters of both wartime cooperation and the post-war world.
Roosevelt’s creation of multiple new governmental agencies within his New Deal program was unprecedented and set the stage for later presidents to take on added responsibilities and work both within and around the federal bureaucracy.
Roosevelt’s impatience with precedent led to a political misstep, the “Court Packing” bill of 1937. Angered by the Supreme Court over rulings limiting his New Deal programs, he proposed expanding the Court, “packing” it with friendly justices. Roosevelt’s high-handedness convinced die-hard opponents that he was a threat to the government and democracy itself.
During the Depression, Roosevelt directed the resources of the government toward the welfare of the American people.
Roosevelt’s mastery of mass media—first radio and then film and newsreels—presaged how chief executives could use the media to speak directly to the American people. His “fireside chats” in particular endure as a model of astute presidential messaging.
Roosevelt’s New Deal was held together by the force of his charismatic personality, strong will, and his control of the government. This hands-on approach would dominate politics for much of the postwar era.
American Liberalism—as a defining ideology of our society—was codified as governmental practice under Roosevelt. There has been little divergence from the template he set in terms of state intervention in the private sector, including business regulation and social welfare legislation.
Harry S. Truman, 1945-1953
After succeeding Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, Harry S. Truman won the presidency in his own right in 1948, defeating Republican Thomas Dewey and achieving one of the most stunning political comebacks in American history.
The Cold War began when World War II ended, and in 1947, Harry S. Truman formally committed the United States to the containment of Soviet expansionism in Europe.
In 1947, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established. It was ratified in 1949.
Truman refused to commit the U.S. to war in China and relieved Douglas MacArthur from his command.
Strained relations with Russia resulted in the Berlin Airlift—the dropping of supplies to East Berlin—and extended American wartime aid to the postwar period.
Harry S. Truman used nuclear weapons to end World War II.
The Taft-Hartley labor law moderately restricted union activity.
Truman raised the minimum wage and expanded Social Security.
Truman desegregated the United States military.
Harry S. Truman enacted some important first steps in civil rights while protecting many of the New Deal’s gains. He also presided over an economy that would enjoy nearly two decades of unprecedented growth.
In his Cold War containment strategies, Truman established many of the basic foundations of America foreign policy, especially in American-Soviet relations, that would guide the nation in the decades ahead.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953-1961
Dwight D. Eisenhower ran on the campaign of active Cold War containment, pledging “I shall go to Korea” to secure “an early and honorable” peace.
In 1957, the Soviet Sputnik—the world’s first man-made satellite—launched the space race in which the U.S. attempted to catch up with the U.S.S.R.
Dwight D. Eisenhower created major infrastructure, including the Interstate Highway program, established in 1956, which created a 41,000-mile road system.
Eisenhower dispatched federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect African-American students after Central High School was desegregated. He explained that he had a solemn obligation to enforce the law. This was the first time since Reconstruction that a president had sent military forces into the South to enforce federal law.
In 1957, Eisenhower signed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. The law provided new federal protection for voting rights.
Eisenhower helped create the South-East Asia Treaty Organization, under which the United States assumed responsibility for the defense of South Vietnam.
Among presidents who held office in the last 75 years, Dwight D. Eisenhower often ranks third in importance, behind only Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.
Eisenhower negotiated an armistice in the Korean War only six months after taking office. For the rest of his presidency, peace prevailed, even if Cold War tensions were high at times.
Eisenhower’s decisions, such as supporting the construction of the Interstate Highway System, stimulated the economy.
John F. Kennedy, 1961-1963
Promising a new generation of leadership, John F. Kennedy stated he would guide the nation out of the so-called “conservative rut.”
The arms race with the Soviet Union continued and escalated in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
John F. Kennedy agreed to a CIA plan which attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro by sending a band of armed Cuban exiles into Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
Kennedy established the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade.
When East Germany constructed a wall in Berlin to stem the flow of refugees from the communist-controlled East to the West, Kennedy stated, “A wall is not nice, but it’s a helluva lot better than a war.”
In 1961, with an executive order, John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps.
Kennedy established the Navy SEALs in 1962.
In what is known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy placed a naval blockade around Cuba when it was discovered that Russia had built a missile launch site there. After negotiations, the Soviets dismantled the sites in exchange for a pledge from the United States not to invade Cuba. In a separate deal, the United States agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.
John F. Kennedy was the youngest man elected to office, and the youngest to be assassinated on November 22, 1963. He was 46 years old.
In his inaugural speech, Kennedy famously declared, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
Lyndon B. Johnson, 1963-1969
Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson assumed the presidency after the assassination of President John Kennedy in November 1963.
Johnson declared a “war on poverty” in his 1964 election campaign, challenging Americans to build a “Great Society” and winning the election with more than 61 percent of the popular vote.
Lyndon B. Johnson dealt with racial unrest as well as anti-war protests, as the Vietnam War was highly debated. By 1968, the United States had 548,000 troops in Vietnam; 30,000 American soldiers had fallen. Johnson’s approval ratings, once at 70 percent in mid-1965, dropped dramatically to below 40 percent by 1967.
Lyndon B. Johnson implemented the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, gender, religion, or national origin. This was followed by the Voting Rights act of 1965, which outlawed literacy tests and created voting rights for all regardless of race.
On July 28, 1965 Johnson sent 100,000 troops to Vietnam, waging an escalating war.
Johnson established the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities in 1966.
Lyndon B. Johnson is largely remembered for the Vietnam War, the most unpopular war in American history.
Richard Nixon, 1969-1974
Richard M. Nixon lost the election of 1960 to John F. Kennedy by a small margin of 112,000 popular votes. When Nixon ran again in 1968, he cast himself as representing a “Great Silent Majority,” a more conservative America, in the face of riots and campus protests.
Nixon also campaigned as the law-and-order candidate, promising to end the war in Vietnam and unrest at home.
Upon election, Richard M. Nixon sought to end the Vietnam War. However, he ended up prolonging the massively unpopular war.
One of Richard M. Nixon’s greatest achievements was improving U.S. relations with China and the Soviet Union. With Henry Kissinger, he negotiated Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) in 1972 to control the arms race with the Soviet Union.
In 1974, as a result of the Watergate scandal, Richard M. Nixon resigned from office, the only president ever to do so.
Gerald Ford, 1974-1977
Appointed Vice President by Richard M. Nixon after Spiro Agnew resigned due to scandal, Gerald R. Ford then became president upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
Gerald R. Ford’s Whip Inflation Now (WIN) campaign sought to address the nation’s economic peril, but was unsuccessful in providing economic stability. The economy was at its worst since the late 1940s due to an energy crisis brought on by the consortium of oil-exporting nations called OPEC, which, in protest against U.S. support of Israel, embargoed shipments of oil to the United States.
Ford had to refocus the people’s attention in the aftermath of Watergate; he bungled this when he pardoned Nixon only months after assuming the presidency.
Ford could not convince Congress to unite behind him and was unsuccessful in turning around public opinion, which was now characterized by suspicion of political leaders.
In April 1975, President Ford issued an emergency evacuation for the remaining U.S. soldiers in Vietnam.
Ford achieved mixed results in handling a declining economy and a faltering geopolitical status.
Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981
James E. “Jimmy” Carter was largely unknown to the public prior to his candidacy for president. This made him favorable to a public which had lost hope in the government after the Vietnam War and Watergate.
During the Iran crisis, the United States military failed in a hostage rescue mission when militant Muslims, outraged over warm treatment by the American government towards the increasingly tyrannical Shah of Iran, stormed the American embassy and took sixty-six Americans hostage. After the failure, and left with a weak image, Jimmy Carter was politically doomed. Eventually, he organized the release of the hostages, agreeing that the U.S. would no longer interfere with Iranian politics.
Carter was faced with a failing economy, with runaway inflation and double-digit interest rates.
The Camp David Accords of 1978 and 1979 orchestrated a historic agreement: Israel would withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula; the U.S. would ensure that neither Israel nor Egypt would attack the other; both would recognize each other’s governments and sign a peace treaty; and Israel pledged to negotiate with the Palestinians for peace.
Jimmy Carter’s Energy Security Act created the U.S. Synthetic Fuels Corporation, which would ultimately provide $20 billion to the economy. He also temporarily reduced U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
Jimmy Carter was known as an independent, hardworking, and somewhat stubborn president and former peanut farmer. He restored balance to the “imperial presidency” of Nixon, and despite a lack of experience, confronted problems with composure, resolution, and optimism.
In 2002, Carter was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
Ronald Reagan, 1981–1989
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born on February 6, 1911 in Tampico Illinois to parents Jack and Nelle Reagan.
Reagan enrolled in Eureka College in 1928 as a major in Economics. Before graduating in 1932, he was active in football, swim team, drama club and debate club, as well as the school yearbook and newspaper.
Upon graduation, Reagan accepted a position with WOC in Davenport, Iowa as a radio sportscaster. While covering the Chicago Cubs spring training in 1937, he was scouted by a Hollywood agent from Warner Brothers. From 1937-1957, Reagan starred in 52 films.
Reagan married actor Jane Wyman in 1940 and had one daughter, Maureen, and an adopted son, Michael. After their divorce in 1948, Reagan married Nancy Davis in 1952. Together they had two children: Patricia and Ronald Prescott.
By 1980, Ronald Reagan had the upper hand as the country grew tired of the Democratic Party, facing problems such as inflation, unemployment, and oil shortages, in addition to a hostage situation in Iran in which more than 50 Americans were held captive by radical Muslims, scaring Americans even more.
Reagan struck a positive note with his ideas for America’s future, and in the spirit of colonial American John Winthrop, he identified the US as a “shining city upon a hill” with incredible potential.
Once elected, Reagan made it clear that his objectives were to cut taxes, fight communism, reinforce national defense, and slow the growth of government.
Reagan defeated Carter in the 1980 election, winning 50.7% of the popular vote and 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 41% and 44 electoral votes.
Ronald Reagan took office with the nation suffering a crisis of confidence. The United States faced key domestic and foreign policy challenges during the Carter Administration—most notably, the Iranian Revolution, the holding of American hostages in Tehran, and the ongoing energy crisis.
While Reagan’s nationalism and warmth helped change the national mood, he faced structural economic problems and strained relations with the U.S.S.R. that occupied most of his two terms in office.
Reagan sought to reduce the size of government, a goal that included reducing the authority of unionized federal workers.
Reagan oversaw a massive military buildup, including the never-implemented “Star Wars” missile defense system that contributed to the Soviet Union’s sudden implosion.
A former actor and governor of California, Ronald Reagan was a formidable politician whose rise exemplified the shift in American demographics to the west.
Within the Republican Party, his ascension marked the revitalization of the conservative western wing of the party that many thought had faded before his defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Reagan unapologetically reduced social welfare programs and encouraged a conservative social ethic regarding the role of religion in public life and reproductive rights.
In foreign policy, Reagan guided the United States through the end of the Cold War as the Soviet Union imploded, and he established a new working relationship with the post-Soviet Russian leadership.
Ronald Reagan embodied the rebound of conservatism after the 1964 defeat of Barry Goldwater, running on a platform distrustful of government action other than within the arenas of foreign policy and the military.
Reagan’s transition from actor to conservative activist to governor to president illustrates how a mastery of mass media can influence political careers.
A Californian, Reagan demonstrated how the political center of gravity was shifting westward.
Reagan took office with a program of reducing the size and scope of government while standing firm against the Soviet Union and leftist insurgencies elsewhere in the world.
Reagan could strike a graceful pose, as in his remarks after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986. His adamant nationalism and sunny personality made him much admired, but these qualities also allowed him to escape the negative consequences of the failures that occurred on his watch, such as the Beirut bombing, the Iran-Contra Scandal, and his administration’s passivity in the face of the growing AIDS crisis.
George H.W. Bush, 1989-1993
George H. W. Bush claimed he would not raise taxes, declaring “Read my lips: no new taxes.”
Bush did not claim to make any profound changes, but instead promised to maintain the work of previous administrations.
With a 2.8 trillion-dollar deficit and a collapsing Savings and Loan industry, George H. W. Bush had to balance the budget and stabilize the economy after pledging not to raise taxes. He was criticized for his inability to repair the economic status of the U.S.
Bush had to act decisively to counter Manuel Noriega in Panama, whose power was turning dictatorial. Sending 10,000 troops to the 13,000 already in Panama, Operation Just Cause was the largest deployment of troops since the Vietnam War. The invasion was supported by Panamanian citizens and gave the U.S. important crisis management experience.
Bush reached out to allies to restore the legitimate Kuwaiti government after Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops to invade that country. Ultimately, Bush sent 425,000 troops overseas during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991.
The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 reduced the deficit by cutting government expenditures and raising taxes.
The Americans with Disabilities Act was signed in 1990 to protect those with disabilities against workplace discrimination.
The Clean Air Acts Amendments of 1990 aimed to decrease urban smog and acid rain.
George H. W. Bush effected more positive change in foreign affairs than in domestic issues. He strengthened the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. In the so-called “New World Order,” Cold War alliances were broken down and peaceful nations united against rogue states.
William Jefferson Clinton, 1993-2001
In a three-way race against George H. W. Bush and Ross Perot, William J. “Bill” Clinton vowed to reform healthcare and focus on the economic prosperity of young people. He emphasized family values in his campaign and won the votes of suburban families across America.
“It’s the economy, stupid” was a Clinton campaign mantra.
Bill Clinton’s presidency was riddled with allegations of his infidelity, most famously his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton was impeached by the House for lying under oath about his affair with Lewinsky, but was acquitted and finished his second term.
During Clinton’s tenure, Congress became held by Republicans for the first time in forty years.
Clinton appointed his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton as the head of a task force to push through a health-reform bill. In placing the first lady in such a position of power, Clinton drew massive criticism, and the reform bill ultimately failed.
Bill Clinton eliminated the federal deficit and his presidency saw the strongest economy in recent history.
Clinton successfully deployed American military forces to stop the wars and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Clinton established several new organizations for free trade, most importantly NAFTA, which eliminated tariffs and trade barriers between Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
Bill Clinton was the first Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt to be elected to a second term, but that term was largely overshadowed by his impeachment.
Clinton was the second U.S. president to be impeached by the House of Representatives.
In the case of wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, Clinton continued a tradition of American diplomacy leading an effort to establish and maintain global peace and prosperity. However, his failure to act in Rwanda dims this legacy.
None of the countries involved in NAFTA have had impressive economic growth since, and the Great Recession of 2007–09 overshadowed any beneficial effects that NAFTA could have brought about.
George W. Bush, 2001-2009
In 2000, George W. Bush lost the popular vote during his election. Florida votes had to be recounted, and after weeks of legal battles, the Supreme Court ruled that there was no fair way to recount the votes in Florida in time for the state’s votes to be counted in the Electoral College. Bush ultimately won the presidency by just a few hundred votes. Although Bush won an Electoral College victory by a margin of 271 to 266, his opponent Al Gore won 500,000 more popular votes.
President Bush’s second term campaign was focused on reforming immigration, social security, and, of course, fighting the war on terror.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of what George W. Bush proclaimed the “War on Terror,” initiating the war with Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.
Hurricane Katrina devastated areas of New Orleans and the Mississippi delta, overwhelming sources of aid relief from the affected states. Bush did not act quickly or send enough federal assistance to the area, resulting in unnecessary violence, suffering, and death.
Bush could not placate Democrats in Congress, and the initiatives he took to reform Social Security failed.
President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act instituting a national curriculum and testing standards.
Bush passed the Patriot Act, which granted controversial and unprecedented freedom to government and law enforcement to protect citizens from terrorism.
The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 created new benefits and was the largest expansion of Medicare benefits since the program’s creation in 1965.
Bush helped stem an AIDS/HIV epidemic in Africa. By the time Bush left office in January 2009, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief had paid for the treatment of 2.1 million people and testing and counseling for more than 57 million.
Bush created the President’s Malaria Initiative, a $1.2 billion program to fight the disease in fifteen African countries with a goal of cutting malaria deaths in half.
Attempting to boost global economy, the Bush administration expanded the number of U.S. free trade agreements from three to seventeen and invested $6.7 billion in 35 partner countries.
In the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the Bush Doctrine stated that extremist violence against Americans would be avoided through preventive war in which the United States would strike an enemy nation or terrorist group before they had a chance to attack the U.S.; mandated unilateral action in which America would act alone if necessary to defend itself either at home or abroad; and promoted spreading democracy and freedom around the world, focusing on concepts such as free markets, free trade, and individual liberty.
The slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina greatly affected George W. Bush’s popularity, which dropped accordingly.
Effects from the 2008 financial crisis at the end of Bush’s tenure were so long-lasting that it would take years for the U.S. economy to recover.
The fight against HIV/AIDS in Africa will likely remain as one of President Bush’s most important legacies.
Barack Obama, 2009-2017
Barack Obama campaigned on the closing of the prison complex at Guantanamo Bay and ending interrogations by torture.
Obama defeated Republican John McCain by winning over the majority of young voters in a grassroots campaign that turned many traditionally Republican states Democratic.
In 2010, when federal financing and the spending limits that accompanied that financing were formally lifted from electoral campaigns, both Obama and Republican opponent Mitt Romney spent around $1 billion each. Obama was the first president since Woodrow Wilson to be re-elected by a smaller majority than in his first election.
Barack Obama had to address a major economic crisis as soon as he was inaugurated. The economy was in free-fall due to the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
The Affordable Care Act largely survived two serious legal challenges, but remains in serious jeopardy.
The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm election brought an end to Obama’s early first term period of impressive legislative accomplishment.
When Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, the Republican-controlled Congress refused even to review a nomination by Obama.
During his second term, Obama had to rely increasingly on executive orders, regulations, vetoes, and other unilateral actions.
As social media gained enormous transparency, institutional racism as expressed in the highly visible incidents of police brutality against African-Americans became an overt political and social problem.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was an $800 billion economic stimulus package that helped the economy (especially the American auto industry) but skyrocketed the federal deficit to more than $1 trillion per year.
Congress and the president agreed to allow gay and lesbian people to serve openly in the military.
The Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 and took effect in 2013.
Barack Obama reached a bilateral climate agreement in which China and the United States agreed to substantially reduce carbon emissions. In the Climate Action Plan, the United States reduced coal plant capacity by nearly one-third.
In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the president expanded the strategic deployment of Special Forces as well as drones. Special Forces troops ultimately killed Osama bin Laden.
Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2014.
As the trailblazing, first African-American president, Barack Obama opened the presidency to become more inclusive.
Obama underestimated the danger of ISIS incursions into Syria and Iraq, likely extending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He failed to extricate the U.S. military from Iraq and transfer the responsibility of the war to the Afghan army.
Information is still being gathered for Donald Trump’s presidency and legacy, and Joe Biden’s presidency is obviously still in progress.
Originally published by Smithsonian Institution, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.