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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Historical Background

ONE of the principal instruments Americans have always relied on to guide their destiny in an often precarious and troubled world, the Presidency is a bulwark of the Republic. Through turmoil and tragedy—world wars, a major civil conflict, depressions and panics, riots and upheavals—to the many peaks of national triumph and achievement, the 38 men who have occupied the office have not only directed and stabilized the course of the Nation, but also have exerted a major influence on global affairs.

Pres. Washington
George Washington, who launched the Nation on its Course to greatness, takes his oath of office on the balcony of New York City's Federal Hall on April 30, 1789. (Color print, 1906, by Moatbaron and Gautschi, New York Historical Society)

The Presidents have ranged from strong and distinguished individuals, sharply attuned to the times in which they served, to average men who coped as best they could with the problems of their eras. Some were rich, some were poor; some intellectuals, some poorly educated; healthy and infirm; bold and vacillating; outgoing and reserved; compromising and unyielding; revered and scorned. Some seemed ideally suited for the position, some miscast; some enjoyed personal happiness, some suffered tragedies. They have been men of diverse talents, backgrounds, strengths, and limitations.

Yet, facing solemn responsibilities, carrying heavy burdens, and taking advantage of the opportunities history has presented, all the Chief Executives have provided national leadership. As custodians of the country's trust, they have striven to represent the entire populace, regardless of party or sectional differences. And, by his own particular attitude toward the Presidency and the stamp of his own character and personality, each one has contributed to its stature and evolution.

SINCE the Founding Fathers created the office at the Constitution al Convention in 1787, it has evolved into one of the most awesome world. In 1789, when the Constitution went into effect, then was a small, rural Republic of but 13 States nestled along the eastern seaboard. Its inhabitants totaled only 4 million, and it carried slight weight in international affairs. During the ensuing span of time, it has grown into an urbanized, industrial country of 50 States extending as far westward as Alaska and Hawaii. The population exceeds 215 million, and the Nation ranks as a leading global power.

Paralleling that growth, especially in the 20th century, has been a tremendous increase in the scope and influence of the Presidency. This has occurred for a variety of reasons. To accomplish desired national ends, some Chief Executives have vigorously exerted powers that are implied but not stated in the Constitution. The unique talents of certain Cabinet members and special assistants and advisers have also strengthened the Presidency. Demands for the Government to provide various public services have swelled the executive branch. Then, too, the complexities and expansion of the economy have brought about the creation of a number of major regulatory agencies.

Pertinent also is the increased role of the Nation in international affairs, particularly during the nuclear age, in which the President's functions as commander in chief of the Armed Forces and as chief diplomat give him exceptional power and visibility. Also enhancing the strength of the office are all the tools of modern technology.

Washington's inaugural address
Washington's first inaugural address (page one), in his own band. (National Archives)

UNTIL about the end of the 19th century, the Government was relatively small and easy to administer. The Presidents received little secretarial-clerical assistance, and many of them personally drafted and even penned state papers in longhand. If special help were required, a few clerks or specialists might be borrowed from the various agencies and departments of the executive branch. For advice, the incumbent relied mainly on his Cabinet and friends or colleagues.

A few men guarded the Chief Executive, who did not begin to receive any sort of Secret Service protection until after Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865, and he was quite accessible to the public. His principal direct communication with the people was through speechmaking tours of the country.

Political party mechanisms were simple. Campaigns required relatively small amounts of funds; and State organizations, supplemented by a few congressional managers, performed most of the work. Some nominees, such as William McKinley, conducted "front-porch" campaigns, during which the people came to the candidate instead of vice versa.

Pres. Eisenhower
Presidential duties include representing the Nation on social and ceremonial occasions. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip of Great Britain greet President and Mrs. Eisenhower on their arrival at the British Embassy. (National Park Service, Special Collection)

Also, before 1828, from George Washington through John Quincy Adams, Presidential campaigns in the modern sense were not even conducted, and the Chief Executives were largely freed from the need to be popular politicians as well as statesmen. Congressional caucuses and State legislatures chose Presidential candidates. For these reasons, early Chief Executives mainly sought the approval of Congress and the legislatures rather than that of the masses of the voters, who played only an indirect role.

By 1828, however, all the States but Delaware and South Carolina had instituted popular selection of electors, Thus, in 1829 Jackson became the first President to be elected popularly in the modern sense. He opened the White House to his backwoods supporters and shared with them the political spoils of victory. Further democratization occurred in 1832, when political parties held their first national conventions to nominate candidates for President.

Then, in 1840, the elections became even more popularly oriented. The Whigs appealed to the common man by portraying their candidate, William Henry Harrison, as a national hero who had lived in a log cabin. The use of campaign slogans and songs, as well as torchlight parades, brought far more voters to the polls than in earlier elections. For this reason, political parties subsequently began to choose their nominees in part for their popular image.

Pres. Coolidge
Public appearances, though they sometimes burden the Secret Service, provide the principal opportunity for Chief Executives to maintain their contact with the people. President and Mrs. Coolidge arrive to dedicate Wicker Memorial Park, Hammond, Indiana, on Flag Day, June 14, 1927. (Library of Congress)

election banner
Presidential election campaigns are the lifeblood of our political processes. An 1848 Whig banner. (Lithograph, 1848, by Nathaniel Currier, Library of Congress)

SINCE the beginning of the 20th century, the President's political, military, diplomatic, and economic powers have expanded immensely. At the same time, the size of the executive branch has mushroomed. The complexities of the office—especially in the era of electronic communication—require an array of special advisers. Television and radio, as well as extensive coverage in newspapers and periodicals, almost instantaneously bring the President's latest acts and opinions to the attention of the world. Jet aircraft allow him to fly speedily to any part of the globe. Since 1901, when William McKinley was assassinated, the Secret Service has progressively tightened its vigilance in protecting the President. As a result, he is less accessible to the public than in earlier decades.

Campaigning is hectic and exhausting. Even before the blossoming of the jet age, Harry S Truman, traveling more than 31,000 miles on a "whistle-stop" campaign in 1948, delivered 356 speeches during a 35-day period. The funds required, especially because of television costs, have soared into the millions of dollars. The diversity and ever-changing nature of the electorate dictate huge and specialized campaign staffs.

Party machinery and organization are intricate. Scheduling demands the careful allocation of the candidate's time in relation to speech and other appearances, transportation arrangements, and press coverage. Coordination of national, regional, and local efforts requires special skill. The standard, set speech is no longer as acceptable; increased platform and media exposure requires fresh and varied approaches.

Pres. McKinley
Until the turn of the 20th century, Presidential administration was relatively simple. President McKinley (1897-1901) dictates to his secretary, John A. Porter. (Library of Congress, Olinedenst)

TODAY, the President bears many responsibilities, some of which have gradually evolved over the years. In one elective office he combines a panoply of roles that in parliamentary countries are shared by a monarch or largely ceremonial head of state and a prime minister or premier.

As Chief Executive, the President supervises one of the largest administrative complexes in the world, the executive branch of the U.S. Government. This involves continual awareness of the activities of the legislative and judicial branches, with which he participates in the checks and balances system established by the Constitution. As commander in chief of the Armed Services, representing the supremacy of civil over military authority in the United States, he exercises awesome power, particularly in times of war or national emergency.

election banners
The spirited partisanship that prevails during Presidential campaigns even stimulates the writing of songs. Here are two, from 1936 (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and 1952 (Dwight D. Eisenhower). (Smithsonian Institution, Ralph E. Becker Collection)

As chief diplomat, the President helps formulate and executes foreign policy, appoints and supervises a huge diplomatic corps, negotiates treaties with other nations, administers foreign aid, officially receives world rulers and dignitaries, attends international meetings and peace conferences, and as a good will ambassador of the United States visits various foreign countries. Especially since the beginning of the 20th century, as one international crisis after another has risen, he has become the prime defender of democracy at home and abroad.

The President also enjoys the somewhat contradictory distinction of being the leader of his party and at the same time bipartisan spokesman for the American people as a whole. In addition, he makes recommendations to Congress concerning legislation, seeks to maintain a stable and prosperous economy, assures domestic tranquillity, and provides relief during disasters. Finally, as chief of state, he participates in a wide range of ceremonial activities.

Kennedy and Nixon
During the 1960 campaign, Senator John F. Kennedy (left) and Vice President Richard Nixon (right) answer questions from a panel of newsmen during a series of televised "debates"—a historic first. These were more like press conferences than actual debates. (National Park Service, Special Collection)
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Last Updated: 04-Feb-2004