Many of today’s teens are familiar with only a handful of U.S. presidents. From long ago days, they know Washington and Lincoln of course, a Roosevelt or two, and maybe Thomas Jefferson. Some of them think Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin were presidents. After all, their pictures are on money, so they must have lived in the White House, right? Wrong.
I’m certainly no presidential scholar, but I’ve always been fascinated by this exclusive club. Only 44 men have held the job in a 228-year period. One of them, Grover Cleveland had the job, took a few years off, and got it again. (That’s why Donald Trump is #45.)
With a group of that size, you’re going to have a few standouts, a few duds, and lots of guys in the middle. There’s a reason those men in the first paragraph are remembered more than the others. Washington gets a lot of love because he was number one. Poor John Adams was a big deal in his own right, but he’ll always be number two in our hearts and minds. To be fair, Adams was Washington’s vice president, so he does have bragging rights about being our first number-two.
Thomas Jefferson, who came next, gets credit for doubling the nation’s land size, with the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory. However, in more recent times, his standing has fallen because of his views and actions regarding slavery.
Numbers 4 and 5, James Madison and James Monroe, have always been overshadowed by their predecessors. They got some things done, though. Madison is primarily responsible for the checks and balances that are possible with our three branches of government. Monroe is the man behind the doctrine that basically kept European countries from interfering with our business, and kept us from interfering with theirs. And in an ironic historical footnote, Monroe died on the 4th of July, becoming the third of our first five presidents (along with Adams and Jefferson) to do so.
Number 6, John Quincy Adams was best known for being the son of Number 2, John Adams. They had their own exclusive club until the Bushes came along. JQ was fluent in six languages, and you can also thank him for purchasing Florida from Spain. Unless of course, you think that was a bad idea.
Next came “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson who dismantled the national bank, yet somehow ended up on the $20 bill. Some believed he was a war hero (others had their doubts), and he believed the earth was flat. He lowered the national debt, which may have helped him win a second term.
Numbers 8 through 15 are largely forgotten, for various reasons. Martin Van Buren led the nation into an economic depression, and failed to win another term. William Henry Harrison caught pneumonia on his inauguration day, giving a two hour speech in freezing weather, and died a month later.
Harrison’s VP John Tyler was the first man to assume the presidency following the death of an incumbent, and accomplished little. He mostly vetoed the bills Congress had passed, and ended up getting kicked out of his own party.
James Polk was another one-term president, but that’s all he wanted. He came to office with a handful of goals, and achieved them all. His policies helped fix the economy, and he expanded the nation westward into several states. Three months after happily leaving office, he died at 53 from intestinal issues.
“Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor fought in several wars, supported Native American causes, and tried to keep a divided nation together, but died less than two years after taking office. He was succeeded by his vice president, Millard Fillmore. It turned out that he and Taylor were total opposites, and Taylor’s entire cabinet resigned when Fillmore took over. It is widely believed he helped accelerate the tensions that would lead to the Civil War.
When Number 14, Franklin Pierce took over in 1853, the slavery issue was heating up, and he too fanned the flames. He was also arrested for running over a woman with his horse, while he was president. He’s lucky cable news wasn’t around back then.
He was followed by James Buchanan, the final president in this largely forgotten, and forgettable category. Historians have a hard time finding anything positive to say about his one term (1857 to 1861) in office. While Buchanan was president, seven states (Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana) seceded from the Union. Buchanan looked the other way.
Abraham Lincoln’s presidency has been well documented in books and movies, and certainly he was faced with challenges like no other president before him. In Part 2, we’ll pick up after the Civil War with more presidential studs and duds.