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THE PRESIDENTS of the United States
Historical Background

early turnpike
Early turnpikes, predecessors of modern expressways, linked the Nation. Scene in 1827 at the Farview Inn, near Baltimore along the Frederick Pike, which ran from Baltimore to Cumberland. (Watercolor, 1889, by Thomas C. Ruckle, Maryland Historical Society.)

WHEN George Washington took his oath of office at New York's City Hall in 1789, he became the political equal of kings, emperors, and czars. Yet, though always an aristocrat, he chose to shun the exalted status and arbitrary power such monarchs enjoyed. If he had not accepted the position, had faltered in his leadership, or had soon died, our gamble in constitutional Government might have failed. Yet, devoted as he was to the principles of republican Government and fully aware of his precedent-making capabilities as the first President, during his two terms he sharply defined the office that the Constitution had only broadly delineated.

At the same time, Washington smoothly launched the new Republic—plagued by internal jealousies, economically unstable, and endangered by the rivalries of far more powerful nations—on its uncharted quest for a workable Government of the people. In the process, he helped formulate the national structure that the Constitution had created.

Five major political protagonists, two of whom were to ascend to the Presidency, attend a reception. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (right) held it for Senator and former General Andrew Jackson (middle) on January 8, 1824, the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. Also pictured are (left to right) John C. Calhoun, Daniel Webster, and Henry Clay (between Jackson and Adams). President Monroe did not attend. (Engraving, Library of Congress)

Providing what the Articles of Confederation lacked, a strong Executive independent of the Legislature but integrated into the constitutional structure, Washington asserted authority in fields where the Constitution did not specify whether the Congress or the President was to act. Yet he respected Congress and maintained amicable relations with it.

Washington's immediate successors John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams further shaped the Presidency and the national political system. Just as important, they steered the Nation through its early, crisis-ridden years on the course Washington had set and perpetuated the Union—though they were unable to avoid the foreign entanglements he had feared. During Madison's administration, the War of 1812 with Britain broke out.

Although that conflict ended in more of a stalemate than a victory, the national effort involved and the reaffirmation of independence that resulted, created an upsurge in nationalism. Democracy also flowered, except for those blacks who were victims of the slavery system and certain other groups. The population tripled. Millions of pioneers surmounted the Appalachian barrier and pushed the frontier to the Mississippi and beyond—doubling the national bounds. From an alliance of 13 virtually autonomous States during the War for Independence, the Nation melded into a strong Federal Union of 24 States.

The Presidents from Andrew Jackson through James Buchanan faced fundamentally different problems. As the country matured and mastered obstacle after obstacle—internal political strife, international crises, and war—it gained in strength and confidence. But sectionalistic debate persisted over the character of the Union and over whether sovereignty resided in the States or in the National Government. This debate was central to the slavery issue, over which the North and South clashed bitterly—the most persistent and critical problem posed to the Chief Executives of the era. Particularly explosive was the question of whether western areas should be admitted to the Union as free or slave States.

Civil War
The Civil War, which tragically pitted the North against the South. scarred the national consciousness. Portrayed here is the Battle of the Crater (1864). Petersburg, Virginia. (Oil, 1869, by John Elder, Commonwealth Club, Richmond)

An interrelated phenomenon was the continuing westward surge of the Nation—at the expense of the Indians, who were shoved aside. Ten new States in the South and West joined the Union. Reflecting the new trend, Jackson was the first westerner to occupy the White House, and three others who served in the period were all elected from the same region: William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor.

Polk, who won office by advocating sweeping expansion, realized by war and diplomacy the American dream of pushing the national boundaries to the Pacific. Other Presidents grappled with western problems and their ramifications. The question of Texas plagued Martin Van Buren and John Tyler. Besetting Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore were the Territorial quarrels that erupted in the wake of the Mexican War. Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were hard put to quell the turmoil in "bleeding Kansas."

Elsewhere, too, no permanent or peaceful solution to the slavery question could be found. Finally, after Lincoln's inauguration, the Nation fell into fratricide. Lincoln led the North through the Civil War and preserved the Union. Upon his assassination, Andrew Johnson felt the first brunt of the long acrimony that was to be engendered by Reconstruction—the difficult task of attempting to heal the rift between the North and South as well as to restore the Union on terms equable to the defeated South and the black people.

Pres. Lincoln
Lincoln and key military advisers discuss the prospects for peace in February 1865 at City Point, Virginia, aboard the River Queen, which had carried the President down the Potomac from Washington and up the James. Left to right: Gens. William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant, Lincoln, and Adm. David D. Porter. (George P. A. Healy, White House Collection)

The Presidents from Grant to McKinley, supported by Supreme Court decisions, gradually restored relative amity between the North and the white South, but at the expense of equality for blacks. These Chief Executives presided over other profound changes in the Nation, which by the end of McKinley's term had grown to 45 States. An industrial revolution, stirring in the North before the Civil War, created a massive industrial complex and transformed living patterns. Also helping to reshape the country were inventors such as Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas A. Edison, and Henry Ford, as well as industrialists like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.

steam thresher
Mechanization of agriculture not only multiplied food output but also sped the growth of industrial technology. Steam thresher at work. (Engraving, after an oil, undated, by William R. Leigh, Library of Congress.)

Seeking economic opportunities, millions of immigrants came to America; and millions left rural areas for the cities. The standard of living rose, but such problems as child labor, inadequate industrial safety, absence of workmen's compensation laws, and substandard wages became rampant. In time, labor was to organize unions to correct these evils.

Settlers continued to pour into the West, driving back the Indians and destroying their way of life. The region boomed, however, and many prospectors, cattlemen, and wheat farmers enjoyed bonanzas. Many others, though, found disillusionment. Rail networks crept across the continent to the Pacific and further bound the Nation together.

In 1898 the United States triumphed in the Spanish-American War, asserted its will in Cuba, and annexed other erstwhile Spanish possessions in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico. This represented a foray into imperialism that continued well into the 20th century, when the country became an industrial colossus and major world power. In 1912 the last two of the contiguous 48 States came into the Union, and in 1959 they were to be joined by the two detached ones.

Taft and Wilson
Outgoing President William Howard Taft greets his successor, Woodrow Wilson, just before his inauguration on March 4, 1913. (Library of Congress)

During the first two decades of the century, "progressive" Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson strove at home to reform the American way of life within the framework of the free enterprise system. Their aims included major improvements in political democracy, economic-social justice, restraint of corporations, and conservation of natural resources. The means were vigorous Government action and a scientific approach to social problems. Abroad, the progressives aimed for a more powerful role in world order. At the same time, as Wilson phrased it, they sought to make the world "safe for democracy"—a goal World War I did not attain.

Meantime, earlier in the century, the automobile and airplane had come into widespread use. These two new modes of transportation, along with an ascendant technology, were to revolutionize the entire American socioeconomic system. Mass production of automobiles would put the Nation on wheels. The growth of air transport would further integrate it and tie it closer to other peoples of the world.

Meanwhile, after the domestic prosperity of the 1920's, the Great Depression had struck. President Herbert Hoover, who advocated only enough Government intervention in the affairs of the citizenry to insure the free working of the economy, at first sought solutions in voluntary cooperation rather than compulsory Government actions. Although he eventually proposed legislation to counter the economic decline, most people favored more drastic measures and in 1932 they elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. Expanding the powers of the Federal Government, he took substantive steps to help pull the Nation out of the depression.

Roosevelt and Eisenhower
One Chief Executive and a future one during World War II. President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower at Castelvetrano, Sicily, in December 1943. Gen. George S. Patton is at the far left. (United States Army)

At the same time, however, the worldwide economic distress was helping bring into power Adolf Hitler and other aggressors, who fomented World War II. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 brought the United States into the global conflict. Before Germany was crushed in May 1945, it proved to be incredibly costly in terms of lives and resources. Some 3 months later, America used the devastating force of the atomic bomb to induce the surrender of Japan. To foster collective security and prevent the recurrence of world war, in 1945 the United Nations was founded.

Nevertheless, subsequent developments, including the "Cold War," the Korean and Viet-Nam conflicts, and the proliferation of nuclear weaponry, led to a long period of international tension. Principally for this reason, the Presidents who served in the middle decades of the 20th century—Harry S Truman through Jimmy Carter—have borne crushing responsibilities. Their principal tasks have been to maintain the peace in a turbulent world and to foster domestic stability and prosperity.

For the latter purpose, these leaders have utilized the resources of the Federal Government to prevent recessions from turning into depressions and to restrain the inflation that resulted from three decades of unprecedented prosperity—as the Nation advanced into an unparalleled era of industrial-scientific-technological activity spurred by the taming of the atom and initiation of the space program.

New York City
National growth has been synonymous with urban growth. New York City skyline from the root of Rockefeller Center. (New York Convention and Visitors Bureau)

Not all citizens shared in this prosperity, nor enjoyed all the benefits of our society. During a series of urban riots in the late 1960's and in other ways, black people vented their rage at the social and economic discrimination that have been inflicted on them. Indians, other minorities, and women expressed similar complaints. Recognizing their validity, the Government and private industry undertook comprehensive programs that were intended to alleviate injustices.

The Chief Executives from Truman through Carter have also marshaled the economic capabilities and armed power of the Nation to aid poor and threatened countries or to contribute to the progress of mankind and the pursuit of world peace. Harry S Truman fostered the Marshall Plan to rehabilitate the European economy, stricken by World War II. Dwight D. Eisenhower proposed his Atoms for Peace program to the United Nations. In 1961 John F. Kennedy established a national goal of landing a man on the moon within the decade, which was achieved in 1969. Both he and Lyndon B. Johnson furthered international cooperation.

Richard Nixon pursued detente with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China; and ended U.S. participation in the long Viet-Nam War, which had been opposed by a large segment of the American people. Coming to office in 1974 after Nixon resigned because of the "Watergate Affair," Gerald R. Ford took over the critical responsibility of maintaining global leadership and advancing the cause of peace, as well as restoring confidence in Government. Among Jimmy Carter's domestic goals were the furthering of social justice, restoration of economic vigor, and reorganization of the Government. Abroad, he planned new initiatives toward disarmament and international cooperation.

As the country entered the last quarter of the 20th century, it looked back on two centuries of progress and girded itself for the challenges of the future. As always, the Presidents will direct their solution and help fulfill the Nation's destiny.

Apollo 15
Manned lunar exploration, which began with the first landing by Apollo 11 in 1969, marked a new epoch in world history. Here, James B. Irwin, on the fourth landing (Apollo 15) in 1971, salutes the flag. The lunar module is on the left, and the lunar rover on the right. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

ALL the occupants of the White House, despite their accomplishments, have faced multitudinous problems. How well they have solved them and how successful their administrations were has depended to a considerable degree on their characters and talents, as well as their ability to gain public support for their goals and programs.

What sort of men were the Presidents, collectively and individually? What has motivated them? How have their background, education, qualifications, and experience differed from or been similar to those of other men? How did they rise to such an exalted position?

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2004