Aside from John Adams, no presidential candidate had a more established and impressive resume before being elected to the nation's highest office than George Herbert Walker Bush. As a decorated veteran, successful businessman, legislator, bureaucrat, diplomat, political leader, and Vice President of the United States, the elder Bush lived a life of steady, reliable service to his country. His vast experience prior to his time in the White House led to a presidency that was measured, moderate, and, despite only lasting a single term, ultimately successful.
George Bush's life of service began in 1942 not long after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He enlisted in the Navy and became a pilot. Bush participated in multiple engagements in the Pacific during the Second World War. In September 1943, while on a bombing mission, Bush's aircraft was shot out of the sky by Japanese defenses. Bush managed to eject and parachute into the sea where he was later rescued by an American submarine several hours later. Bush remained in the Navy until the end of the war when he was honorably discharged.
When it became clear that President Nixon had engaged in a criminal cover-up and had abused his power as President of the United States, Bush did something unthinkable in today's Republican Party: he placed the good of the country (and the long term health of a party) above dedication to the president. In the summer of 1974, George Bush, on behalf of the Republican Party, formally asked Nixon to resign.
After his tenure as a legislator and the leader of a political party, Bush would go on to become bureaucrat. President Gerald Ford appointed him director of the CIA in 1976. He would remain in this role for two years before briefly returning to the private sector.
In 1979, George Bush wanted back in the game and decided to seek the 1980 Republican nomination for President. The crowded field featured a who's who of 1970s GOP politics, however few of the competitors possessed the breadth of experience of George Bush. Unfortunately for the moderate, cautious, establishment Bush, his campaign ran into a political phenomenon in the form of California Governor Ronald Reagan. The former movie actor turned politician was tough-talking, inspirational, and railed against the bigness of a federal government that spend much of the past decade in disarray. Despite some early primary success, Bush couldn't keep up with the momentum of Ronald Reagan who would go on to win the nomination and the presidency.
Numerous administration officials were indicted and later convicted for crimes associated with the scandal, the most famous of which was future Fox News host and NRA President Oliver North, although his charges were later dismissed. Later, during his own presidency, George Bush would pardon 5 of the former Reagan administration officials convicted as a result of Iran-Contra, bringing to an end the most scandalous and controversial aspect of Bush's time in public service.
Speaking of his presidency, Bush ran to succeed Reagan in 1988. This time around, Bush campaigned further to the right than he had in the past, particularly on social issues. A conservative Christian himself, Bush tried to appeal to the growing evangelical vote within the Republican ranks. Perhaps this was a necessary move considering that one of his opponents in the primary was televangelist Pat Robertson. Bush won the primary and would go on to face Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in the general election. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign is remembered for two things: a campaign promise and a controversial ad.
Bush made the phrase "Read my lips: no new taxes" the centerpiece of his campaign, promising to maintain the Reaganomic policies of his popular predecessor. The campaign promise was popular, energized the Reagan coalition, and made Bush appear to be a decisive leader. It would also prove to contribute to his undoing in 1992.
Bush's controversial campaign ad centered around an individual named Willie Horton a convicted murderer who was temporarily released from a Massachusetts prison as part of a weekend furlough program while Dukakis was governor. Rather than reporting back to prison, Horton ran and months later, while evading capture, assaulted a man, raped his fiance, and stole their vehicle. The Willie Horton ad was meant depict Michael Dukakis as weak on crime for supporting "weekend passes" for violent criminals. To many in the black community however, the ad wasn't about criminal justice, it was about playing on racial stereotypes and designed to scare white voters. According to political science-professor Claire Jean Kim "the insinuation is, if your elect Gov. Dukakis as president, we're going to have black rapists running amok in the country." The ad was effective. And, intentional or not, set the stage for decades of disgraceful campaign ads using racial dog whistles to stoke fear, anger, and resentment within the white electorate.
On January 20, 1989, George Herbert Walker Bush was sworn in as the 41st President of the United States. With his victory the previous November, Bush had become the first sitting Vice President to win the presidency since Martin Van Buren in 1836. With the election behind him, Bush faced looming economic problems, a Democrat majority in Congress, and a number of international crises that would come to define his presidency.
From the closing days of the Second World War until the late 1980s, the United States had been engaged in a Cold War against the Soviet Union. As a result of the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union had come perilously close to nuclear war on multiple occasions. In West Berlin and the Korean peninsula, the two superpowers had risked igniting a third world war. In Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East, the two rivals engaged in a battle for influence in the world. The Soviet Union was America's great enemy in the 20th Century. However, by 1989, major changes were happening in the Soviet Union and its many satellite states in Eastern Europe. Suffering from the economic ruin of communism and under the leadership of a reformer like Mikahil Gorbachev, the Soviet Union was failing. One by one, the communist regimes Eastern European nations were overthrown by citizens seeking a better life. In 1989, borders once closed between democratic and communist nations in Europe were opened creating holes in the Iron Curtain. In the past, the Soviet Union would have sent in tanks to quell the uprising, however overcome with troubles at home, Gorbachev did not act. In the ultimate sign of a changing times, the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989. With communism falling by the wayside in Europe, Bush made the decision to engage with strategic partners and with the Soviet Union to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition toward democracy for the region. In the coming months, the various republics that made of the vast Soviet state would also declare their independence. In December 1991, the Soviet Union officially dissolved. With the defeat of the Soviet Union, the Cold War had officially come to an end. President Bush was criticized for maintaining a less than jubilant mood. Many American politicians wanted to spike the football and celebrate the end of the defining conflict of the latter half of the 20th Century. Bush, ever the internationalist, knew better. Rather than bragging about the moral, military, and economic superiority of the United States, the president worked the phones. The collapse of the Soviet Union, could spell economic disaster for the region if not handled properly. There was concern about a potential Civil War that might break out in Russia further destabilizing the region. Stockpiles of weapons, including the nuclear material, were now located throughout various sovereign nations with new unproven governments. The potential for such weapons to fall in the hands of terrorist organizations or stateless actors was a real threat. In the coming months, Bush worked with his counterparts in Europe and the new Russian Federation to effectively manage the crisis. In the end, the Cold War ended with a whimper instead of a bang. Although most of the credit belongs to the brave men and women within the Soviet Union who struggled to bring an end to communism in Europe, the world was lucky to have a internationalist in the White House. The United States was the only superpower in the world. The international burden of such stature is great and George Bush, with his vast international experience, was uniquely suited lead the nation, and the free world, through such a tremendous period of change.
While all of these things were true, there were more pragmatic reasons to for the United States to be concerned about the invasion of Kuwait. Iraq's occupation of Kuwait threatened to destabilize the region and prevent western countries from having access to the vast oil reserves of the Middle East. The United States, and its allies, would go to war to protect those oil reserves. However, once again, Bush demonstrated his diplomatic skill. Rather that going into Kuwait with guns ablaze, the Bush Administration, spent months assembling an international coalition to address the crisis. Bush worked through the United Nations, with our NATO allies, and with Muslim partners in the region. In total, Bush had formed a coalition of 34 countries committed to expelling Iraq from Kuwait. Although, the overwhelming number of troops came from the United States, many countries, including Arab partners, contributed soldiers to the cause. After four weeks of aerial bombardment, the ground war began. Within hours, the Iraqi army was in full retreat. By the end of February 1991, the war was over. Iraq had been expelled from Kuwait. Bush made the controversial decision to leave Saddam Hussein in power. He understood that in order to remove Saddam, American soldiers would have had to invade Iraq and occupy Baghdad. Such a move would have cost the United States the support of its allies and partners and made the U.S. responsible for a costly and deadly regime change. Years later, the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 ordered by President George W. Bush, revealed the wisdom of his father's decision in 1991.
One example of Bush's willingness to compromise was in the budget negotiations with Congress. Following years of Reaganomics, the federal government faced record deficits. While many in the Republican Party demanded deep cuts to federal programs, hoping to cut their way out of the financial hole that had been created, Bush compromised with Democrats and allowed for an increase in taxes for high income earners. For a man who made "no new taxes" the centerpiece of his campaign, this was a stark reversal. The move was unpopular with conservatives, but no doubt helped lead to the financial strength that supported the economic expansion and federal surpluses of the 1990s. Such moderation was falling out of favor with the GOP.
At the same time, the U.S. economy was falling into recession. While the overall economy was retracting unemployment rate began to steadily and stubbornly grow. For all of President Bush's international success, there was a growing feeling that he was ill equipped to deal with the kitchen table issues facing everyday Americans. This opened the door for the Democrats.
The dynamic, smooth talking Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton won the nomination of the Democratic Party in 1992. Clinton focused on economic struggles of middle class Americans in an attempt to win back the kind of voters that had abandoned the party in the 1980s. His campaign correctly argued that the 1992 election was about one issue: "It's the economy, stupid."
Next to Clinton, President Bush looked old, cold, and out of touch. Perhaps, Bush would have been able to defeat Clinton had it not been for an outsider who played the role of spoiler. Texas billionaire Ross Perot entered the race in 1992 running as an Independent focused on deficits and economic growth. Perot would go on to win 18.9% of the vote, the best showing for a third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. The three way race helped to pave the way for Clinton to win overwhelmingly in the Electoral College despite winning only 43% of the popular vote.
George Bush left office in 1993 stinging from his unlikely defeat, but ready to embark on a post presidential career of public service. In 2004, Bush and Clinton put away past differences and traveled to Asia to help raise money for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami that had killed tens of thousands. The trip would be a turning point for Bush and Clinton as the ex-presidents went on to become partners and close friends. The two would join forces again to raise money to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2009, a U.S. Naval aircraft carrier was commissioned as the USS George H W. Bush in his honor. In 2011, he was awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
In the end, George Herbert Walker Bush proved to be a capable, principled, leader who led the United States and the western world through a tremendous period of international transition. More statesman than politician, his life of public service was of tremendous benefit to the United States, even if he was unable to rally the American public to his domestic agenda. He was perfectly suited for the diplomatic and military challenges of his day, just as he was a victim of the economic circumstances of his presidency. When he died in 2018, he was eulogized as a true patriot by Republicans and Democrats alike. George Bush was one of the last of the so-called "Greatest Generation" that spent their youth fighting fascism before going on to build the United States into the superpower it would become. It was a generation more dedicated to principle than to politics. More dedicated to country than to party. George Bush would be out of place in the modern political world and would have no place in the Republican Party of 2019. He was a moderate, an internationalist, a man of genuine faith and principles. He and his generation might be all but gone, but there is still much to learn from their example of public service.
When evaluating a presidency, there are many factors that one must consider. Was the country in a better place economically, diplomatically, and socially after 4 years of leadership? Did life improve for the average American? How did the president respond in times of crisis? Did he demonstrate moral leadership? Did he look out for the interest of all Americans or just those that supported him at the ballot box? These are all important questions and I've asked myself all of them as I've assembled this list. However, some would argue that the most basic question when evaluating a person's job performance is "Did they do what they said they were going to do?" If using this standard, there are few presidents who can surpass James Knox Polk.
James K. Polk was a protege of Andrew Jackson. Like Old Hickory, he was a from Tennessee; which was considered the "west" during much of his life. Fittingly, he was an advocate of what would become known as Jacksonian Democracy: the aggressive expansion of voting rights for the average white man and an emphasis of policies that benefited the economic interests of those same white men. It goes without saying that such an agenda often times stood in conflict to the interests of many other groups such as women, slaves, Native Americans, and Mexicans.
Polk had a long and distinguished career. He entered politics as a member of the Tennessee state legislature before being elected to Congress. As a legislator he excelled and was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives. To date, he is the only former Speaker of the House to ever be elected President of the United States. He returned to Tennessee and served one term as governor.
Polk announced that his agenda consisted of several ambitious goals: settling the border dispute with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory, lowering the federal tariff, the establishment of an independent treasury to replace the Bank of the United States, purchasing California from Mexico, and annexing the Republic of Texas. In only four years, Polk achieved everything he set out to accomplish.
The Republic of Texas was an independent nation populated by American immigrants. Texas gained its independence from Mexico in 1836. It initially hoped to join the United States, but Presidents Jackson and Van Buren objected out of fear that adding another southern state would reignite the debate over slavery (they were right), leaving Texas to remain an sovereign nation for 9 years. Polk, a die-hard expansionist, was elected partly on his support of annexation. He considered it a gift when, before he was even sworn into office, the outgoing president John Tyler, pushed a joint resolution through Congress supporting the annexation of Texas. All that was left was for the people of Texas to ratify the annexation bill before President Polk signed the paperwork. In less than a year, with very little effort, President Polk accomplished something that had confounded presidents for the better part of a decade. Texas, was now a state. However, there was disagreement surrounding the southern border of the Lonestar State. This debate would become critical in the years to come.
Next on the agenda were fiscal and economic issues. Polk's political hero Andrew Jackson had killed the Bank of the United States in the 1830s. Since that time, the nation's finances were a mess. Without a national bank, funds were kept in various state banks. The Democrats and Whigs disagreed about how best to move forward leading to no permanent solution. With a new Democratic majority in Congress, Polk was able to win passage of bill creating an Independent Treasury to manage taxpayer dollars, bringing much needed stability to the economy. Following this victory of fiscal policy, the president now focused on economic policy. In a close vote, Polk was able to get Congress to pass a law reducing a federal tariff leading to improved trade relation with Great Britain.
In the end, cooler heads prevailed. The United States and Great Britain negotiated a compromise, dividing the territory along the 49th parallel, establishing a peaceful border between the United States and Canada that remains to this day.
It was on America's southern border where Polk would take his most impactful and controversial steps. Mexico was much larger in 1846 than it is today. Northern Mexico consisted of the huge area that now makes up New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, as well as portions of Texas, Colorado and Wyoming. The Mexican government exercised very little control over the territory but viewed it as rather valuable. Furthermore, they insisted that the southern border of the United States ended at the Nueces River rather than the Rio Grande. For several years, the United States had its eye on acquiring the Mexican territory of California. Its fertile soil and massive coastline would be of incredible economic benefit to any nation. In 1846, Polk offered to buy California from Mexico and urged them to accept the Rio Grande River as the southern border of the United States. Mexico refused. This put Polk in a predicament. The United States wanted something from a sovereign nation and that nation refused to give it up. This didn't leave many options. Certainly, the US would not go to war simply to capture territory. To do so would be anathema to our founding principles. The United States would only go to war to protect American interests. In short, the US would only go to war out of self-defense. How then could the US go to war in order to acquire territory in the name of self-defense? Polk had a plan.
Northern Whigs were more measured in their response. A young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln demanded to know where exactly was the "American soil" Polk claimed was the site of the attack. Former President John Q. Adams, then a member of the House of Representatives was unconvinced. He and other northerners understood that such a conflict would lead to a land grab that would reignite the debate over slavery. In the end, despite some opposition in Congress, the war hawks carried the day and the United States declared war on Mexico.
The Mexican-American War was a one-sided affair. The United States, while certainly not the world power that it is today, still vastly overpowered the Mexican army. While Zachary Taylor's forces penetrated deep into Mexican territory, eventually occupying Mexico City, other American forces invaded California. Despite some early struggles, the American army dominated the Mexicans and in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed officially ending the war. Mexico ceded much of its northern territory to the United States and the US paid a mere $15 million to Mexico as compensation.
In 1848, at the end of a single term as America's Chief Executive, President Polk had accomplished every goal he had outlined during his candidacy. The United States was in a more secure place financially than before he took office. The northern and southern borders of the country had been codified by international treaties. With victory in the Mexican War, Polk had acquired enough territory to make the United States a continental nation. America now spread from sea to shining sea. With his goals met, his work complete, and in poor health, Polk honored a campaign pledge and declined to run for a second term as president. Without a standard bearer, the Democrats struggled to rally around a candidate in 1848 opening the door for the Whigs to nominate an outsider as their candidate. Zachary Taylor, the hero of Mexican War, was elected President in 1848. Polk left office disappointed with the outcome of the election but ready to step out of the spotlight. Sadly, the ex-president did not have long to enjoy retirement. A tour of the south left him exhausted and most likely suffering from cholera. Shortly after settling in a new home in Tennessee, Polk's health continued to fail and he died; a mere 3 months after leaving office.
One of the harshest critics of the Mexican-American War was by a future president who served as a officer in the conflict: Ulysses S. Grant. As a young soldier, Grant struggled with the justification of the war. He knew that the United States had provoked Mexicans into a conflict so that it could justify taking a land from a weaker neighbor. He would write in his memoir:
“For myself, I was bitterly opposed to the measure [Mexican-American War], and to this day regard the war, which resulted, as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation. It was an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory."
The territory acquired caused many problems for the people who called it home. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Native Americans living in the region now faced an uncertain future in the face of a land hungry American government. For Native Americans, that future would be a tragic one. Just as significantly, the acquisition of so much territory did exactly what previous presidents had feared, it reopened the debate about slavery. Northern members of Congress attempted to ban slavery in the newly acquired Mexican Cession via the Wilmot Proviso, but their efforts were unsuccessful. The debate about how the United States would populated its new territory exposed deep divisions within the country. Northern states, once fairly neutral on the issue of slavery were now electing leaders who identified slavery for what it was: a sin. The disease of slavery could not be allowed to spread to new territory. Meanwhile, the planter aristocracy of the South and the millions of non-slaveholding whites they represented had an almost religious devotion to what they called their "peculiar institution." Their culture, wealth, and their power was hopelessly intertwined with slavery and they knew that if they didn't actively work to spread it, they would risk losing all of those things. Both North and South wanted to settle the west in their own image. The debate that followed would lead to the greatest conflict the nation had ever seen. President Grant summed it up nicely when he wrote:
“The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
James Madison is the shortest man to ever be elected President of the United States. A thin man standing 5 feet 4 inches tall, the 4th President wasn't an imposing figure. However, his legacy vastly overshadows many of the other men to hold the office of Chief Executive.
Much like John Adams, James Madison's time in the White House was not his most lasting contribution to the nation. Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution. He was arguably the most significant delegate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. His "Virginia Plan" became the framework, with significant changes, for our Constitution. After the convention he joined with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers, a thorough and detailed defense of the Constitution that proved critical in the fight for ratification. Madison's thoughts on government are now required reading for Advanced Placement Government students and political science majors throughout the country.
After ratification, Madison was elected the House of Representatives and proved to be an extremely influential member of the 1st Congress (1789 - 1791). It was during this time that he became a key adviser to President Washington and, most notably, the primary author of the amendments that would come to be known as the Bill of Rights. James Madison would remain in Congress through the remainder of Washington's presidency.
In 1797, Madison left Congress, but did not leave politics. Together with Thomas Jefferson, Madison formed and became a leader of the new Democratic-Republican Party. Advocating for a strict constructionist view of the Constitution, limited federal power, and positive relations with the French, Madison helped to undermine John Adams' administration and bring an end to Federalist rule.
When Thomas Jefferson was elected President in 1800, he brought his trusted adviser Madison to Washington with him. Madison would serve as Secretary of State during the new era of Democratic-Republican rule and face the many foreign policy challenges of the Jefferson Administration. When Jefferson left office after two terms, Madison was the logical choice for the Democratic-Republicans.
Madison's time in the White House will forever be defined by conflict. He entered office with two confounding problems: the war between Napoleonic France and Great Britain, as well as the increasing hostilities between white settlers and Native American tribes of the Midwest. Throughout the first decade of the 1800s white encroachment into the Old Northwest, present day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, was steady and violent. The white settlers staked their claim to land based upon treaties secured by the Washington administration following the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794) which ceded vast tracts of land to the United States. Unfortunately for the United States, many Indian tribes refused to recognize the legitimacy of such treaties because they were signed by tribal leaders that did not have a right to speak for all Indians.
Had Tecumseh been successful, it would have drastically changed the course of the Madison presidency and the history of the United States. We will never know if a unified Native American front could have ultimately stopped the flow of white settlers into their lands, however with the support of more tribes, particularly in the south, perhaps Tecumseh could have forced Madison to the negotiating table and won more favorable treatment by the United States government. However, the confederacy ultimately fell apart when Tecumseh left his Indiana stronghold "Prophetstown" in search of more allies. Leadership fell to his brother, who foolishly ordered the warriors in Prophetstown to attack an American military detachment led by future president, General William Henry Harrison. The warriors, despite having caught the Americans by surprise, exhausted their ammunition against the well-armed Americans and suffered a devastating defeat. The Battle of Tippecanoe, as it was known, proved to be a mortal wound to the confederacy from which it never recovered.
The defeat of Tecumseh's confederacy would not bring an end to Madison's foreign policy problems. Many Americans, particularly those in the western states of Kentucky and Tennessee blamed the British, in Canada, for inciting violence against white settlers by Native Americans such as Tecumseh's confederacy. Had it not been for British weapons and supplies, the Indians never would have possessed the capability to oppose the Americans. Now, with the defeat of Tecumseh, westerners wanted to rid North America of the root cause of Indian violence: The British. If Great Britain could be dislodged from their colonial possessions in Canada, Americans would be free to seize all territory in North America east of the Mississippi River; including Canada itself. Such thinking was misguided at best.
Americans had an additional reason to resent their former colonial mother country: impressment. Impressment is the act of forcing men unwillingly into military service. Life in the British military, particularly the navy, was miserable. History books spend a lot of time talking about the power of the British military, but not much time discussing the day-to-day realities of military life. British soldiers and sailors spent years away from home working for little money, eating little food, and living in shameful conditions. Throughout years of seemingly endless war with the French, many sailors gave up, and at the first possible chance while in port, deserted their posts. Equipped with all the skills necessary for a life at sea, many found work aboard American merchant vessels. Already angry that the U.S. wanted to trade with her enemy, France, the British navy began seizing American merchant ships at sea. Once they had stopped a ship, the British would then force the sailors on board into military service for the British. Some of these sailors were British deserters, other were Americans.
Angry at Great Britain for supporting Indians who opposed white settlement, infuriated by the disrespect being shown to the United States on the high seas, and filled with an over-inflated sense of self-confidence, influential members of Congress howled for war. A group of Congressmen, including famed Kentuckian Henry Clay, formed a faction known as the War Hawks and pressured President Madison to support war with Great Britain. In June of 1812, the United States Congress, for the first time in history, and with a less than overwhelming majority, passed a declaration of war against a foreign power. Madison supported the effort and the War of 1812 began.
One area of the nation that was not at all happy about the war was New England. In the streets of Boston, the conflict was known simply as "Mr. Madison's War." The economy of the northeast was depended upon foreign trade. If New England merchants could not trade with Britain due to the outbreak of war, it could mean financial ruin for an entire region. Furthermore, New England was the last stronghold of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Party. Opposition to the war was so strong that a group of Federalist leaders held a convention in Hartford to discuss how to best react the war. The issue of secession was briefly, if not seriously, discussed. The delegates came up with a list of moderate proposals designed to prevent the outbreak of future wars based upon the wishes of one party or region of the nation. News of convention was attacked in the press as treasonous. The conservative, pro-trade, pro-British Federalists would soon to come to be viewed as traitors for their opposition to the war. What Aaron Burr's bullet had been it's founder, the War of 1812 would prove to be to the Federalist Party; a mortal wound.
Federalist criticism of the war was not unwarranted. The British army was the best in the world, the American army was little more than a militia. The British navy consisted of hundreds of well armed ships, the American navy had a few dozen. As they had during the Revolution, the British relied upon Native American allies, unlike the Revolution, the United States couldn't look to France for guns, ships, and money. The war proved to be unwinnable. Fortunately for the United States, Great Britain was far too preoccupied battling Napoleon in Europe to devote significant resources to the American theater.
One of the primary American war aims was seize territory in Canada from the British an dislodge Great Britain from the continent. On multiple occasions, American forces attempted to invade Canada. Each time they were repelled and sent limping back across the boarder. On the high seas, the American navy proved to be no match for the British. The British blockade brought international trade to a halt. The war was not going well.
In what as probably the most crucial moment of the war, British forces invaded the Maryland and began their march toward Washington D.C. After easily defeating an American militia at the Battle of Bladensburg, nothing stood between the British and the nation's capital. The government officials and ordinary citizens alike quickly fled without a moment to spare. President Madison was forced to flee the White House. Just before the British arrived, First Lady Dolley Madison famously ordered the White House staff to save the portrait of George Washington (below) to save it from being destroyed. President Madison briefly attempted to take command of a artillery battery, but soon had to retreat, making him the only sitting president to face enemy fire.
As mentioned earlier, the British never devoted all of their resources to fighting in North America because they were so focused on defeating Napoleon in Europe. In 1814, Napoleon abdicated the throne of France and was, temporarily, exiled to the island of Elba. With the French threat subdued, the British became focused on reestablishing conservative control in Europe. The British government, their European allies, and the British taxpayers had tired of war. The defeat of Napoleon brought an end to impressment of American ships and sailors hoping to trade with European countries. By 1814, both sides were tired of fighting and there was no strategic end in sight. Britain's European allies encouraged it to seek an end to the war so it could focus on rebuilding post-Napoleon Europe. Peace negotiations began in the late summer of 1814. Finally, a series of late victories improved American morale and public opinion of the war. In fact, the most famous battle of the war, which was also the most one-sided American victory, came after the peace treaty had been signed in Europe. The Battle of New Orleans, though unnecessary and having no impact on the outcome of the war, ended the war on a high note. It was like a 6-6 football team convincingly winning a bowl game over a historic powerhouse.
The United States did not win the War of 1812. It accomplished none of it's goals. It was beaten on land and on sea. Its capital was burned. No territory changed hands. The British maintained their presence in Canada. The Treaty of Ghent, which formally ended the war, was little more than an agreement to stop fighting. However, the Americans felt like they won the war. Like Rocky Balboa, Americans felt like they stood up to the best in the world. They didn't leave with the title, but they left with their heads held high. They went the distance.
What the war did unintentionally accomplish was to create a sense of nationalism within the young United States. Still far from truly united, the eighteen states of America began to share some sense of commonality in their identity as Americans. As a result of the British blockade, an infant manufacturing industry developed in an overwhelmingly agrarian nation. Politicians like Henry Clay began to propose legislation that would unite the country economically through the establishment of banks and the building of national roads and canals. American authors replaced British authors on American book shelves. American artists began to celebrate the natural beauty of the continent. American history became an area of study that was seen as valuable. Perhaps the most lasting patriotic reminder of the War of 1812 was a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the assault of Fort McHenry: The Star-Spangled Banner.
Perhaps that is because Madison's legacy overshadows any shortcomings his presidency might have had. No, the War of 182 was not a success. However, the sense of pride and patriotism that it created has endured for generations. Though he was far from the greatest executive the country has ever had, the branches of government he helped to create in drafting the Constitution, have given us the framework in which we can settle our political differences in way that has allow our republic to endure unrest, depression, and even civil war. Madison's legacy is with us every time we exercise our freedom to speak our mind, attend a religious service, or demand due process in our justice system. His thoughts on government still guide our students and scholars alike. James Madison was a short man. But his contributions to American civic life tower over those of nearly all of those that have come since.
How does one prepare to serve as President of the United States? What qualifications should we look for when choosing a Chief Executive? If an election is a job interview, then what should voters expect to see on a candidate's resume? Does an impressive list of credentials guarantee success? And finally, how does a country go about replacing a leader that was arguably the greatest to ever hold the job? In 1796, the electors who cast their votes for President chose the man who they believed had the most impressive resume, John Adams.
John Adams' resume was built upon a lifetime of public service to his country. It is a lifetime of service that, regrettably, most Americans don't know enough about. In the pantheon of American patriots who helped to found the United States of America, few individuals contributed more than Mr. Adams. However, he is easy to overlook. There are no towering monuments to him as there are with Washington. His words are no embedded in our collective memory like Jefferson's Declaration. His legacy is not filled with witty sayings, bits of advice, romantic indiscretions, and scientific discovery like Franklin. Unlike Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda did not turn his story into a cultural phenomenon. Except for a passing reference or two, Adams doesn't even play a role in the smash Broadway hit about our first Secretary of the Treasury. In fairness, HBO and Paul Giamatti did give us the outstanding miniseries John Adams, but I won't be listening to its soundtrack on my drive home. Nevertheless, John Adams' story needs to be told.
John Adams was born into a Puritan family in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1735. At the age of 16 he enrolled in Harvard University and went on to become a successful lawyer. It was in 1765 that his political star began to rise as he was an outspoken critic of the hated Stamp Act which the British had imposed upon the American colonies. Though the British ultimately backed down and repealed the Stamp Act because of widespread colonial protests, the King and Parliament were not done imposing their will on the colonists. If British tyranny would not stop, neither would Adams' opposition to it.
The same dedication to political and legal rights that allowed John Adams to defend British soldiers in 1770, also drove Adams to defend the rights of all citizens of Massachusetts in 1774 when he was selected to be a delegate to the First Continental Congress. The purpose of the Congress, the first step toward any semblance of a unified voice representing all colonies, was to address growing British tyranny particularly in Boston whose economy was in ruins and whose citizens were being denied basic rights. It was at the First Continental Congress that John Adams, together with his cousin Samuel, became the most vocal opponent to British oppression. Although independence was not seriously discussed at the first meeting, it was obvious to all observers that the situation in New England was worsening and drastic actions may be needed to address the crisis.
When the delegates met again in 1775 hoping to hear the King's response to their grievances. The situation had changed significantly. By the time the delegates met in Philadelphia, Patriot and British blood had been spilled on the battlefields of Lexington and Concord. New England was at war with Britain and they waited to see if the other colonies would join their cause. It was John Adams who moved to create a new Continental Army to join the band of militiamen in Boston and nominated Col. George Washington to lead them. The selection of Washington and his willingness to serve in spite of insurmountable odds proved to be one of the most crucial moments of the war.
It was Adams who became the most vocal proponent of independence during the Congress. He was partly responsible for forming the committee that would serve along side Jefferson in crafting the Declaration of Independence. When in independence was declared, Adams went to France to assist Benjamin Franklin in securing French aid for the war. When French military aid was secure, Adams then traveled to The Netherlands in hopes of receiving financial assistance from the Dutch. He was successful. When peace did come, it was Adams, along with Ben Franklin and John Jay, who negotiated the treaty with Great Britain that brought the war to a end and secured American independence. Though he never marched with troops into battle and only once faced the enemy fire while sailing for Europe, John Adams political and diplomatic service during the Revolution was indispensable and rivals the contributions of any founding father. This series however, is about the Presidency. John Adams tenure in that role is a bit more debatable.
There is an entire period of American history that is often forgotten and overlooked by Americans. It is a period dubbed the Critical Period by historians. It consists of the years between 1781 - 1789. During this period, the United States was anything but united. Held together by a weak confederation established during the war, the United States government had no executive branch, no judicial branch, and a very weak unicameral Congress. Rivalries between social classes threatened its economy and peace. Rivalries between states threatened the very existence of the young nation. It was this unrest that the decision was made to hold a convention that would ultimately lead to the creation of the Constitution which created the union and federal republic we enjoy today. During all of this time Adams remained in Europe representing the interests of the United States. He became Ambassador to Great Britain where he was tasked with repairing the broken relationship between the U.S. and its former mother country. During this time he came face to face with King George III. An awkward encounter to say least. Though willing to continue serving his country abroad, Adams longed for home. Luckily, his country needed him back as well.
Adams endured 8 miserable years as Vice President. In his role as the President of the Senate, he often times tried to participate in debate. Not known for being a man of few words, the Senate quickly passed a resolution silencing the Vice President, reminding him that his only role was to cast a vote in the event of a tie, nothing more. He would not be allowed to participate in debate. Washington and Adams were not particularly close. As a result of this and the fact that all parties involved were still figuring out their new roles, Adams often times was not included in Cabinet discussions. After all, the Vice President wasn't in charge of anything. Dutiful but miserable, Adams served as Vice President for two terms. He hated the job and longed to return to his farm in Peacefield, MA. Though most politicians today would consider serving as Vice President a tremendous honor, Adams considered the office pointless. He referred to the vice presidency as "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man [...] or his imagination contrived or his imagination conceived."
When Washington retired after two terms he issued a Farewell Address in which he warned the country of two issues he believed could prove fatal to the young republic: political parties and foreign alliances. While Washington had a done a decent job of operating above politics and remaining neutral in regards to European affairs, Adams would not be so lucky. Rivalries between two new political parties would dominate Adams' four years as President. The Federalists, followers of Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic-Republicans, headed by Thomas Jefferson, would wage rhetorical war over issues such as the role of the federal government, the influence of banks, state power, civil liberties, and America's response to the French Revolution.
No sooner had John Adams been sworn into office, than the very issues that Washington had warned about threaten to undermine his administration and unravel the nation. Great Britain and France were at war, a result of the French Revolution. Despite years of neutrality by the Washington administration, the United States was quickly being drawn into the conflict by proxy. Because the U.S. was more closely tied to Britain economically, Washington had signed Jay's Treaty, an agreement that allowed for continued economic relations with the British, while still remaining neutral in their conflict with France. Outraged by what they viewed as a betrayal by their former revolutionary allies, the French began seizing American merchant vessels on the high seas to prevent them from trading with Britain. Such an assault on American sovereignty could not be tolerated and the Federalists hungered for war with France. The Democratic-Republicans meanwhile, felt a kindred spirit with France. They despised the British and their monarchical system. Jefferson believed that the French Revolution was nothing more than a continuation of the American Revolution and that the United States was duty bound to support the French in their fight for freedom. The French question would come to define the Adams presidency.
To his eternal credit, John Adams did not listen to his party, the Federalists, and sent a peace envoy to France to negotiate an end to the hostilities with Revolutionary government. When the peace commissioners arrived, they were treated with disrespect. The French foreign minister refused to negotiate with the Americans until they paid a massive bribe, or tribute, to the foreign minister himself and the French government.
Outraged by the request, the American envoys left and reported news of the event to President Adams. In the correspondence, the 3 French government officials who demanded the money were referred to as "X, Y, and Z". The X,Y,Z Affair as it has come to be known began the Quasi War with France in which America was sharply divided as it prepared for a possible war with its former ally.
The Democratic-Republican newspapers attacked Adams relentlessly. They accused him of being pro-British and an monarchist. After all, this was a man who, as Vice President, encouraged Congress to give the President a title of nobility. The pro-French Democratic-Republicans claimed that Adams and his Federalist Party had betrayed the spirit of the revolution by refusing to support the revolutionary government of France. They were more interested in enriching themselves, and their northern banks, through trade with England than they were fighting for the rights of men. All of the accusations were applauded and encouraged by their leader, the Vice President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Adams was infuriated by the actions of his Vice President and former close friend, Jefferson. The revolutionary partners would now become bitter enemies.
Outraged at the insults, the Federalists in Congress passed a series of bills known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. The goal of the legislation was clear: silence opposition to the government. The acts labeled any criticism of the government as "seditious" which would therefore undermine the safety and security of the nation. They empowered the President to prosecute the publishers of any seditious material. Furthermore, it empowered the President to arrest and remove any foreign alien that might be deemed a threat without due process. Who were these aliens, these immigrants that supposedly posed such a danger? French immigrants. Many of them refugees from the unrest in revolutionary France and the slave uprising in Haiti. There were tens of thousands of French nationals in America at the time. These immigrants were viewed as a threat, not to the country, but to Federalist power. The Bill of Rights were less than 10 years old. The ink had barely begun to dry when the Alien and Sedition Acts threatened to trample on the liberties for which so many had fought and died just a few decades earlier. Weakened by the insults, infuriated by his vice president, and concerned for the nation, Adams reluctantly signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law. It was the greatest mistake of his otherwise remarkable career.
So why then is Adams ranked so highly on this list? It is because of his other actions during the Quasi War with France. If Adams gave into his party over the Alien and Sedition Acts, he stood up to them in their quest for war with France. Adams was dedicated to peace. He knew that a full scale war against a European power was something that the young country could not survive. In the face of immense pressure from his own cabinet and federalist leaders in Congress, Adams refused to pursue war with France.
Adams initially did give in to Federalist demands for the creation of army (American had no standing army to speak of in those days) to guard against a potential invasion with George Washington as a ceremonial leader. However, the person actually commanding the army, the inspector general of the United States, was none other than Washington's right hand man, the former Secretary of the Treasury, the leader of the Federalist Party, and Adams nemesis, Alexander Hamilton.
In 1800, when it became obvious that the French had no real intention of invading the United States, and that the preparations for war had more to do with maintaining Federalist political power than it did national security, John Adams, against the wishes of his party, again sent diplomatic envoy to France to seek an end to the unrest. The mission was successful as the diplomats agreed to cease hostilities via the Convention of 1800, bringing a peaceful end to the Quasi War. Sadly for Adams, the diplomatic success, though wonderful for the nation, did nothing to save him politically.
Shortly before the Election of 1800, John Adams moved into the President's Mansion (later renamed the White House) becoming the first president to live in Washington. The building was unfinished, cold, and dreary; an atmosphere that mimicked the final days of the Adams Administration. When the Electoral College met to cast their votes, Adams who had alienated many in his own party by standing up to them, finished third in the election. Angry, bitter, and defeated, John Adams left Washington before dawn on the day of Thomas Jefferson's inauguration. Though he was not gracious in defeat, Adams left the presidency without protest, allowing power to peacefully transfer from one political party to another for the first time in the nation's history. Such smooth transitions were very rare in the world at the time.
Unfortunately for Adams, he lacked the political skills and personality traits needed to play the political games necessary for great success in the White House. His pride and sense of superiority caused him to sign the Alien and Sedition Acts, the one black eye on an otherwise extraordinary career. However, it is his handling the Quasi War with France, particularly his willingness to stand up to his own party and put the best interests of the nation first that will be the lasting legacy of his time in office. For that, and his leadership during the years of the Revolution, Adams deserves his rightful spot in the pantheon of America's Founding Fathers.
Not everyone wants to be the President of the United States. As a kid I used to claim that I wanted to grow up and be the President. Then I started studying what exactly presidents do and I changed my mind. Now I think Vice President sounds like a pretty sweet gig. It's hard to imagine that anyone would actually become the Chief Executive without truly wanting the job. However, that's exactly what happened when William Howard Taft was sworn into office in 1909.
William Howard Taft's life was one of a dedicated public servant. Taft was a lawyer by trade. He loved practicing law and was regarded to have possessed one of the most gifted legal minds of his time. He served as Solicitor General for President Benjamin Harrison before being appointed as a federal judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was during the McKinley Administration that he moved into the Executive Branch. Following the Spanish American War, the United States took control of the Philippines and Taft was chosen to serve as Governor-General. Later, during Theodore Roosevelt's time in office, Taft served as a provisional governor in Cuba and finally Secretary of War. Taft served his country in many roles and performed admirably in all of them. If a job needed to be done, it seemed that William Howard Taft was always on the short list of capable administrators.
Taft had never run for public office prior to 1908. It probably would have stayed that way had it not been for his good friend, President Theodore Roosevelt. It's difficult to understand Taft's time in office without understanding Roosevelt's. I'll discuss TR's presidency when the time comes, but it's important to know that Roosevelt was not happy to be leaving the White House. He could have legally served another term as president (the 22nd Amendment had not been added to the Constitution), however he had publicly declared that he wouldn't run for re-election after his victory in 1904. Wanting to ensure the survival of his progressive policies, the overwhelmingly popular Roosevelt handpicked Taft to carry on his agenda. Taft probably would have declined had it not been for the pressure placed on him by his wife, Neelie. Driven by a sense of duty to family, country, and party, Taft reluctantly agreed. All parties involved would regret the decision.
Roosevelt had gained a reputation has a 'trust buster' who aggressively enforced the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to break up monopolies and prevent the concentration of wealth and power into the hand of wealthy robber barons. Roosevelt has rightly been praised for his role in standing up for the working men and women of America. However, in truth, Roosevelt was a trust regulator, not a trust buster. Roosevelt only destroyed trusts that he thought were bad for the consumer, not all corporate mergers that constituted a monopoly. Taft's Justice Department actually brought more monopolies to court in four years than Roosevelt did in seven. This included destroying a number of trusts that Roosevelt had allowed to survive. Progressives rarely give the conservative leaning Taft the credit he deserves for standing up to corporate power and greed. Such consistent enforcement of the law only further demonstrates the judicial perspective that Taft brought with him to White House. If his job was to enforce the law, he would enforce that law as it was written, without regard to personal preference. Such conservative action strained his relationship with his former friend Theodore Roosevelt.
The friendship between Roosevelt and Taft was further hindered because of Taft's removal of several Roosevelt appointees within the Department of the Interior. Conservation and land management were passions for Roosevelt. To have his handpicked administrators removed by Taft was a blow to the former President. After nearly 18 months abroad, Roosevelt returned home and began making preparations to run for President again. He missed the job. He missed the excitement. And he was disappointed in the job his former friend, and handpicked successor, was doing.
Taft meanwhile, hated the presidency. His personality was not suited to the demands of the job. He had pursued the office out of an obligation of duty rather than personal ambition. His depression began to take its toll on his physical health. Like so many Americans, Taft's unhappiness led to overeating, a lack of physical activity, and restless nights.
The Election of 1912, is one of the most hotly contested in American history. Three candidates, each with a legitimate chances of winning, battled for White House. The Republican: President William Howard Taft, the Progressive: Theodore Roosevelt, and the Democrat: the progressive-minded, self-righteous Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson. Complicating matters further was the Socialist Eugene Debts, who garnered an impressive 6% of the popular vote. In the end, as one may have predicted, Roosevelt and Taft, representing two wings of a divided Republican electorate, split the Republican vote and cleared the way for Woodrow Wilson to win the electoral collage despite winning less than 42% of the popular vote. Taft finished third with only 8 electoral vote.
William Howard Taft left the White House after four years having accomplished a fair amount. Though he lacked political skill and hated the job, he proved to be a capable and respectable administrator. Unburdened by the stress of the presidency, Taft lost weight and returned to private life accepting an offer to become a Professor of Law and Legal History at Yale University. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Taft became the chairman of the National War Labor Board. He soon reconciled with Theodore Roosevelt, not long before TR's death. In 1921, he fulfilled a life long dream when he was appointed to the Supreme Court and became the Chief Justice of the United States. To date he is the only former president to have served on the nation's highest court.
Though often overshadowed by his predecessor, the charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, and his successor, the wartime president Woodrow Wilson. William Howard Taft contributed greatly to his country. For this many contributions, as a bureaucrat, federal judge, diplomat, cabinet secretary, President, and finally Chief Justice, William Howard Taft exemplified what it means to be a true public servant.
The Election of 1824 was a turning point in American history. With the retirement of President James Monroe, the Revolutionary Generation was officially stepping aside. The United States of America was approaching it's 50th birthday. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton had all been gone for decades. Only three signers of the Declaration of Independence were still living. A mere six men who had signed the Constitution were alive in 1824. The fierce political battles of the early republic had given way to a period known as a "Era of Good Feelings" in which there was only one political party. A new generation of leaders, men who had been boys during the American Revolution, were ready to assume their place as leaders of the Republic. 1824 was also significant because it was the first time in American history that the national popular vote in the Presidential Election was counted. To this point in history, few states allowed common white men the right to cast a vote for the highest office. Of those that did, few kept a record of such votes. The decision as to who would occupy the White House, in line with the Framer's intentions, was completely decided by the members of the Electoral College. 1824 revealed a flaw with the system.
Because no candidate received a majority of the electoral vote, the Constitution requires that the top 3 be sent to the House of Representatives who would choose among them. Bronze medalist William Crawford became ill and was no longer under consideration. No doubt many were expecting a long debate between the political insider Adams and the overwhelmingly popular Jackson. However, to the shock of the nation, the House, under the leadership of Speaker Henry Clay, awarded the presidency to John Quincy Adams on the first vote. Shortly thereafter, President Adams appointed Henry Clay the new Secretary of State; the most prestigious of all cabinet positions. The Jackson camp screamed collusion. They claimed their candidate was the victim of a "corrupt bargain" between Adams and Clay. Regardless of the outrage, Adams was the president and the appearance of corruption would haunt him during his four beleaguered years in office.
John Quincy Adams was not a skilled politician, but he was without question a statesman. Adams was a man who, often times reluctantly, dedicated his entire life to the service of his country. During the Revolutionary War, young John Quincy accompanied his father, John Adams, during his diplomatic missions to Europe. The younger Adams had a front row seat to witness his father and others obtain crucial recognition and assistance from various European powers. After completing his education and travels abroad, Adams returned home to begin practicing law. After ratification of the Constitution and the election of George Washington, the new administration, and indeed the nation, was in desperate need of wise council and skilled diplomats. Washington appointed John Quincy minster to the Netherlands. At 26 years old, John Quincy Adams had already proven to be a valuable asset to the new Republic. When his father was elected President in 1796, John Quincy continued to serve the nation in a diplomatic role. He returned home and was quickly elected to the Senate during the Jefferson administration.
It wasn't long before Adams was once again called abroad. President James Madison, who was a member of the rival Democratic-Republican Party chose Adams, a Federalist, to serve as the United States' first minister to Russia. Being appointed to serve in such an important position illustrates how respected Adams was by people of all political persuasions. However, it was during the administration of James Monroe where Adams made perhaps his greatest contribution. Many scholars consider John Quincy Adams to be the finest Secretary of State the United States has ever had. While serving in the Monroe administration, Adams negotiated the end to hostilities between the U.S., Spain, and Great Britain over Florida, successfully adding the territory to the Union. He further negotiated to create clear and defined boundaries between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. In fact, it was Secretary Adams who was the primary architect of the Monroe Doctrine, which guided American foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere for the next century. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had all served as Secretary of State prior to becoming President of the United States. Secretary Adams was the logical choice for many in Washington, however it appears the White House didn't quite suit the principled (stubborn) Adams.
John Quincy Adams came to the White House with lofty goals. He proposed a nationalistic infrastructure program aimed at building canals and roads to connect the eastern states to those in the west. It didn't happen. He wanted the federal government to focus on education, establish a national university, and support the study of math and science. It didn't happen. In fact, Adams left the White House after four years with no significant legislative or foreign policy achievements. Why? Most presidents, even the bad ones, can claim to have advanced at least one policy goal. Why was a person accustomed to as much success as John Q. Adams, so unsuccessful as the nation's Chief Executive? Politics. A large percentage of Congress was loyal to Andrew Jackson and felt that he had been robbed of the presidency by Adams and Henry Clay. To put it in a modern terms, Adams represented the establishment and Jackson represented the people. Jackson's supporters essentially waged a war of obstruction against President Adams refusing to allow any of his agenda to pass. No doubt a more politically skilled president would have been able to negotiate with the opposition and reach a compromise. Not Adams. Like his father before him, the younger Adams was stubborn, arrogant, and convinced he was right.
In 1828, Jackson came back with a vengeance. In what would become one of the dirtiest campaigns in history, the Adams and Jackson camps attacked the personal character of opposing candidates. Frankly, it was far easier to attack Jackson than Adams because, as discussed in an earlier post, Andrew Jackson was a bad person. This didn't stop the Jackson people from relentlessly attacking the President and spreading lies about him. And yes, even in the 1820s, Russia was a topic of presidential politics. The Jackson people claimed that Adams, while serving as a diplomat in Russia, provided a young American virgin as a gift to the Czar. The accusation was false, but sometimes in politics the truth doesn't seem to matter. Andrew Jackson won in a landslide.
Following his defeat, Adams did something unthinkable for any modern ex-president: he ran for Congress. From 1831, until his death in 1848, John Quincy Adams represented the people of Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. In this role, Adams thrived. The former president played a crucial role in many of the important issues facing the nation throughout the 1830s, however, he will always be remembered for being the foremost Congressional champion in the fight against slavery. In additional to speaking out against the slave powers of the south and opposing the spread of the sinful institution, Adams personally argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the African slaves in The United States v. The Amistad securing their freedom.
John Quincy Adams served his country until the very end of his life. In fact, after rising to speak in the House of Representatives in 1846, Adams collapsed and fell to the House floor. He died two days later in the Capitol. A young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln served on the committee that handled Adams' final arrangements.
John Quincy Adams' role in American history is unique. For most politicians, serving as President of the United States is the ultimate achievement, the ultimate goal, and the position of the most influence. However, Adams' four years in the White House were certainly not the most significant of his distinguished career. His presidency has largely been overlooked and forgotten. Yet, from the international borders that still define our country, to the eloquent words of abolition still studied by students today, John Quincy Adams' legacy is secure.
In my hometown, there is a statue of Ulysses S. Grant. The former President and Civil War General Grant spent his boyhood years in Georgetown, OH, just a few blocks away from my childhood home. However, it wasn't until fairly recently that the people of Georgetown erected a statue to their favorite son. It stands as a tribute, however long overdue, to an American hero. If any person deserves to be immortalized as a statue, then Ulysses S. Grant is one such person. We build statues to honor those men and women who left the world a bit better than they found it; usually at heavy personal cost. We build statues to men and women who children can look up to, cities can take pride in, and future generations can use as a source of inspiration. We don't build statues to men and women, because they are perfect. On the contrary, usually they are far from it. However, mortal as they might be, those we choose to honor with a place of prominence in our parks and squares, are generally there because when faced with the defining issues of their time, they tried to do what was right. For all of his faults, Ulysses S. Grant, both as general and President, tried to do what was right.
As an student at Alverda Reed Elementary, I remember taking an across town field trip to visit Grant's boyhood home. I remember learning that his father's tannery was once located nearby the house. I don't remember learning what a tannery was. A few blocks away was the Grant schoolhouse where the future president once attended. In fact, much of the surrounding area is often referred to as the "Land of Grant." In celebration of General Grant's service to our country during the Civil War, the first annual U.S. Grant Days celebration was organized in Georgetown in 1997. However, as a child I don't remember hearing much of anything about the fact that Ulysses Grant was once President of the United States. A quick review of usgrantboyhoodhome.org makes few references to his 8 years in the White House. The reason is simple: Grant's presidency was a failure. This is what I remember learning in high school. This was the predominate view of our 18th President for many years. However, as the decades have passed, the longstanding view of U.S. Grant as one of our worse presidents has been challenged. The truth is, Grant is finally getting the credit he rightfully deserves.
The years of 1854 - 1860 are some of the most difficult and trying times in American history. Slavery was spreading. A massive economic recession crippled the nation. There were riots in the streets of Northern cities as slave catchers from the South began to round up runaway slaves. Shameful legislation such as the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, emboldened the slave powers and Southern radicals. A miniature Civil War broke out in Kansas over the issue of slavery. A radical Christian terrorist named John Brown murdered numerous people and tried to lead a slave rebellion against the U.S. government. A Southern Congressman, Preston Brooks, nearly beat Senator Charles Sumner to death with a cane on the Senate floor for besmirching the character of Dixie. The nation was falling apart. Congress was filled with a mixture of extremists, ideologues, and a severe lack of courage. The White House was home to over matched, weak, southern apologists. Ulysses Grant was experiencing hardship as well. He attempted to become a farmer. He failed. He started businesses. They failed. It seemed that the only life that suited him less than the military life, was the civilian life.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, southern states began to secede from the Union and the Confederate States of America was formed. When southern soldiers opened fire on Fort Sumter, Grant made the decision that was change the course of his life; he volunteered to, once again, enlist in the army. To Grant, there was no debate; the cause of the Union was just, and the war must be won. Grant made his feelings clear when he wrote his father "There are but two parties now, Traitors and Patriots."
Those who know much about the Civil War, know that the early day of the war saw a series of victories by the Confederacy and a series of military blunders by the Union. President Lincoln promoted a host of generals, only then to fire each one after devastating losses and displays of timid leadership. In the eastern theater of war, the weaker Confederacy, under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, was threatening to actually win the war. There were those in the North who were ready to negotiate with the South, end the war, and allow the slavery to endure for generations.
The West was a different story. In Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi the Union was showing promise and Grant was moving up the ranks. Grant understood, what Lincoln knew, the North was far stronger than the South and this fact needed to be made known on the battlefield. Grant was willing to send wave after wave of Union soldiers at the Confederate lines in order to overwhelm the rebels and win the day. Such an aggressive fighting style led to heavy casualties, leading many in Washington to call for Grant's dismissal. Lincoln's response was simple: "I can't spare this man - he fights!"
In early 1864, Lincoln gave Grant command of all Union armies. Grant traveled east to face Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Lincoln expected Grant to destroy Lee, break the South, and end the crisis with the same tactics that had earned him the nickname "Unconditional Surrender" Grant. The General would not disappoint. Grant dispatched General William Tecumseh Sherman to wage total war on the Confederacy's ability to make war. Meanwhile, Grant relentlessly pursued Lee throughout the Virginia wilderness. By early 1865, southern cities were crumbling. Once grand plantations were overgrown, if not burned to the ground. Southern railroad lines had been pulled from the ground and twisted around trees. General Lee's army was beaten, starving, and desperate. Lee sent word to Grant that he was ready to talk.
Grant and Lee met at McLean house in Appomattox Court House. When Grant wrote the terms of surrender, as ordered by Lincoln, Lee was shocked at the generosity. In short, Grant ordered Lee to stop fighting, turn over their weapons, and go home. There would be no punishment, no vengeance, just peace. Grant even let Lee's men keep their horses and mules. These were no longer weapons of war, now they would return to the southern farms to rebuild lives. The Confederate soldiers were granted parole, fed, and sent on their way. The war was over.
As soon as the guns fell silent on the battlefield, the nation was thrust into a new crisis: Reconstruction. The final casualty of the Civil War and first casualty of the new conflict was President Abraham Lincoln; killed by a southern extremist on April 15, 1865. The next decade of Reconstruction would prove to be the only event in American history to rival the Civil War in terms of divisiveness.
For his part, Grant favored amnesty for most Confederate leaders, but also believed that the South must be remade economically and socially. He favored legal protections for recently freed slaves (freedmen) and generally sided with the Republicans in Congress by supporting their Reconstruction Acts. Congress promoted Grant to the rank of General of the Army of the United States, making him the highest ranking military officer in American history to that point.
Grant had a very uneasy relationship with President Johnson following Lincoln's assassination. Johnson's leniency toward the South, lack of support for freedman, and hostility toward Congress made it difficult for Grant to remain supportive of his Commander-in-Chief. Eventually, Grant privately supported the efforts by the Republicans in Congress to impeach the embattled President.
In 1868, Grant was nominated overwhelmingly by the Republicans to be their presidential candidate. In the North, Ulysses Grant was viewed as a war hero and savior of the Union. In the South, he was viewed as a conqueror and butcher. Grant benefited from tremendous support in the North, but also nearly unanimous support from African Americans in the South who were able to vote for the first time. It also helped that several Southern/Democratic states had not yet been readmitted to the Union and therefore could not vote. Grant won in landslide. At 46 years old, he became the youngest person ever elected President to that point in history.
As President, Grant tried to do the right thing. His campaign slogan was "Let us have peace" and he meant it. This meant peace between the North and South, between whites and blacks, between the U.S. government and Native Americans. The degree to which he succeeded is still a matter of debate, but he should be given credit at least for trying to be on the right side of history.
Grant was a strong supporter of the proposed Fifteenth Amendment which would prevent discrimination at the ballot box on the basis of race, ethnicity, or previous condition of servitude. He took steps to ensure that the voting rights of blacks were protected, but also that former slaves were represented in southern legislatures. When the newly formed Ku Klux Klan began terrorizing blacks in the South, Grant, working with Congress, empowered his Justice Department to prosecute Klansmen. In regards to civil rights and equal protection under the law, President Grant was quite progressive for his time. Members of the Klan would disagree.
Grant also pursued a policy of peace toward Native Americans in the western frontier. For decades the American government had signed hundreds of treaties with dozens of Native American tribes. The majority of Native American land hand been unfairly seized and tens of thousands of people had been forced onto reservations. Administration of reservations was overwhelmed by corruption and greed. Grant hoped to clean up the corrupt administration by pointing a member of the Seneca tribe as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Unfortunately for Grant, decades of mistrust, broken promises, and mistreatment by the U.S. government proved to be too much for any administration to overcome. Settlers and the U.S. Army came into repeated conflict with Plains Indians. Often times this conflict arose from white settlers encroaching on land promised to various Indian tribes. In response, the Indians fought back and were in turn often slaughtered by the U.S. Army. It was during Grant's tenure in the White House that General George A. Custer's cavalry was massacred on the banks of the Little Bighorn River. This Indian victory was an exception to the overwhelmingly one-sided, devastating military campaign by the U.S. government aimed at taking land away from Native tribes. Despite his early ambitions, Grant's administration was simply one in a long line of administrations that slowly stripped American Indians of their homes, land, and way of life.
Grant's time in office also suffered from a financial disaster known as the Panic of 1873. A banking collapse on Wall Street led to the bankruptcy of dozens of railroads, high unemployment, and foreclosures. This, combined with low agricultural prices which were hurting western farmers created a recession that would last the better part of the next decade. Grant, like all politicians at the time, had little idea what to do and had little success instilling in confidence in the American worker. Boom and bust economies was a hallmark of the United States in the 1800s and Grant's administration was no immune to the instability of our nation's financial system.
Grant left office in 1877, politically wounded from his 8 years in the White House. He and his wife Julia set out on a world tour that would last nearly 3 years. Grant visited with nearly every leader in Europe. He dined with Queen Victoria, met with Otto Von Bismark, and discussed politics with the Czar of Russia. The Grants toured the Middle East and concluded their travels in China and Japan. Grant returned home in 1879 to a hero's welcome. Much of the Republican Party had forgiven Grant for his lackluster Presidency and were nostalgic for the days when their party, led by Lincoln and Grant, had saved the Union. His political reputation having been repaired, Grant became the first person in American history to seek a 3rd term as President. Unfortunately for Grant, his nomination cam up a bit short at the Republican convention as the GOP nominated former Civil War General, Congressman James Garfield of Ohio.
Years after leaving public life, Grant invested his savings in an investment firm started by his son and his business partner Ferdinand Ward. It wasn't long before the firm went bankrupt due to unwise and illicit business practices by Ward. The firm failed and Grant lost everything. The former President was essentially penniless. In an attempt to save the family from financial ruin, Grant began writing articles for a magazine. The articles became so popular that the magazine asked Grant to write his memoirs. The magazine didn't offer much money, but luckily for Grant, Mark Twain stepped in and offered Grant far more money if he would allow Twain's company to publish the memoir. Grant agreed.
Around the same time, Grant's received devastating news. The ex-President had throat cancer. Considering that Grant was known to smoke as many as 20 cigars a day, this came as no surprise. For the better part of a year, Grant's health deteriorated. Despite being in almost constant agony, Grant was determined to finish his memoirs in hopes of providing for his so-to-be widowed wife. Grant finished his memoir in mid-July 1885; days later he died.
Grant's memoir went on to be a critical and commercial success. The proceeds provided a comfortable life for his late wife for years to come. The book is still widely read and highly regarded today, setting a precedent that many former presidents have followed. Grant was laid to rest in New York City and was remembered a the savior of the Union for his service in the Civil War. No doubt the years of 1861-1865 were the the ones in which U.S. Grant contributed the most to our nation. However, as the years pass and we are able to see the progressive stances President Grant took, particularly in the area of civil rights, his presidency is being viewed in a new light. Though he certainly was mediocre at many aspects of governance, President Grant tried to stand on the right side of history. For that, and his selfless leadership during the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant deserves that statue in Georgetown, OH.
A few weeks ago, I read a headline that said that former President Jimmy Carter had to receive medical treatment after suffering from dehydration while helping to build a Habitat for Humanity house. The 39th President recovered and went right back to work serving others. No one should be surprised that Jimmy Carter was spending his time helping a wonderful organization like Habitat do meaningful work providing homes to families in need. No one should be surprised that a few times a month, Jimmy Carter voluntarily teaches Sunday School at his home church in Plains, Georgia. No one should be surprised, because Jimmy Carter's life as been one of public service. Now, at 92 years old, the ex-President still seeks to be an advocate for those in need, pursue social justice, and set an example of dignity. Jimmy Carter is an international statesman, a veteran, and a true public servant. However, he achieved most of his acclaim after 4 trying years in the White House.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter appeared to be the perfect candidate for the perfect time. For the past, 8 years, the United States was a political and social mess. The economy was in decline. Race relations were far from ideal. The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal created a mistrust of government never before seen in American history. Despite the efforts of a good and decent man, President Gerald Ford, Americans wanted a break from business as usual in Washington. Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia offered something new. He was not part of the swamp of Washington. He was an outsider. Furthermore, Carter, an outspoken born again Christian, carried himself with a level of integrity, humility, and honesty, not often seen on the banks of the Potomac. In a close election, Carter defeated the incumbent Ford and became the 39th President of the United States.
Critics of President Carter regard his presidency as one of the true failures of the 20th Century. He was a weak leader that accomplished nothing and diminished our standing in the world. These charges, serious as they may be, are overstated. Yes, Cater was a weak President. He lost the confidence of Congress, and more importantly, the American people. However, for all of his presidential shortcomings, Carter had several significant achievements that help to balance out the struggles.
First and foremost, Jimmy Carter is a good person. He conducted himself and his administration with decency and respect. While this is far from a guarantee of strong leadership, it is significant because of the aforementioned political disgraces of early 1970s. It is important that Americans trust and respect their president, even if they don't agree with him. Carter made the presidency respectable again. A process started by his predecessor Gerald Ford. His sincere religious faith, while off putting to some, served as an asset in the early days of his administration. However, some of the support he enjoyed from the emerging evangelical movement began to evaporate when conservative religious leaders realized that Carter wasn't going to use the office to further their worldview. Nevertheless, Carter was and is well respected for his character.
Finding real domestic achievements is a challenge when studying Jimmy Carter. One of the main reasons for this is that Carter had terrible relations with Congress. Carter had no relationships with the leaders on the Hill, and generally refused to play the quid pro quo games necessary to move legislation forward. As much as Americans claim they want a Washington "outsider" to shake things up in D.C., the truth is that the ability to cultivate, maintain, and benefit from relationships with Congress are often times the most important qualities in a successful presidency. Carter was a true outsider, this played well on the campaign trail, but hindered him once he attempted to govern.
For all of his struggles with Congress, Carter did have significant achievements on the world stage. The President improved relations with China, Latin America, and signed a significant arms limitations treaty with the Soviet Union. However, it will be his efforts in the Middle East that will be the crowning achievement of the Carter presidency.
The state of Israel was established in 1948, following the end of World War II. From the very beginning of its existence, Israel was under nearly constant attack. Several declared wars and multiple armed conflicts between Israel and its Arab neighbors occurred between 1948 - 1976. Israel's largest and strongest enemy was Egypt. Often times, when conflicts would arise in the region, Egypt was leading the charge against the Jewish state. Hoping to establish some sort of peace in the troubled area, Carter invited President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minster Menachem Begin to Camp David to hammer out a peace agreement. After days of arguing and intensive negotiations, Carter personally brokered peace between the two historic enemies. In return for territorial concessions, Egypt recognized Israel's right to exist. While there are many other aspects of the accords that had long lasting effects, the important part is that Carter successfully championed the most significant step toward peace in the Middle East ever taken in the twentieth century.
If the Middle East was the source of Carter's greatest triumph, it was also the cause of his greatest challenge in November 1979, the American embassy in Tehran, Iran was stormed and 52 Americans were taken hostage. The new Islamic leaders of Iran, were unwilling to release the hostages, it was payback for years of American support for the oppressive regime of the former Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Months and months of negotiations and a failed rescue attempt yielded no results. Meanwhile, images of blindfolded American diplomats appeared on American news channels on a nightly basis.
In addition to the hostage crisis, an oil shortage and energy crisis began to take its toll on the American economy. The United States' over reliance on foreign oil was proving to be a reality as an embargo led to long lines at gas stations across the nation. With prices rising, Carter proved to more of a lecturing parent and less of a leader. The President traded in his suit jacket for a sweater and encouraged Americans to do the same in an attempt to reduce energy consumption. When he gave a speech about the crisis on national television, the President's tone was less than inspirational and was met with ridicule and anger.
Jimmy Carter returned home to Georgia before embarking on a career as an international advocate for human rights. His work to ensure safe, fair, and free elections around the world has earned him international praise. His support for organizations like Habitat for Humanity has earned him the respect of even his harshest critics. In many ways, Jimmy Carter will be remembered more for his groundbreaking post presidency than for his tremulous four years in the White House.
I can't imagine what was going through Gerald Ford's head on August 9, 1974 as he solemnly took the oath of office to become the 38th President of the United States. Ford wasn't elected President, he never asked for the job. Ford wasn't even elected Vice President. Less than one year earlier, Ford was serving his 13th and perhaps final term as Congressman from Michigan's 5th district. Yet here he was, being sworn in to become the most powerful person in the world in the midst of a national constitutional crisis. How did this happen?
Gerald Ford had an interesting road to the presidency. He wasn't a child of privilege. Ford's mother Dorothy fled an abusive marriage when Gerald, then named Leslie King, was only days old. After seeking safety with family, Dorothy eventually met and married Gerald Rudolff Ford. The elder Ford provided, what the President later described as a "superb family upbringing." As a child, young Leslie King officially changed his name to Gerald Rudolph Ford Jr. Making Gerald Ford the only former King to ever become President of the United States.
Ford excelled academically and athletically. He attended the University of Michigan where he played for the Wolverines football team, helping to lead them to two national titles in 1932 and 1933. After college, he moved to New Haven, CT where he enrolled in Yale University to study law. He graduated in 1941, but like so many other young Americans his life plans changed on December 7, 1941. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ford enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war, Ford ran for Congress. He won his first race and would serve in the House of Representatives continuously until 1973. Then everything changed.
Congress overwhelming supported his nomination and Ford became the 40th Vice President of the United States in December 1973. He convinced his wife, who was tired of politics, to support the idea by assuring her that the Vice President is more of a ceremonial position that doesn't really do anything. The next few years, he believed, would be easy as compared to the rough and tumble world of Congressional politics.
When it became evident that Richard Nixon was going to be impeached for his role in covering up the Watergate break-in and interfering with the instigation, Ford must have known that his life was going to become much more complicated than he ever could have imagined when he agreed to accept the nomination as Vice President. Facing tough midterm elections, Congressional Republicans turned on Nixon. Party leaders urged the President to resign immediately. They were prepared to join with Democrats to impeach the President for crimes against the United States. Nixon wisely listened and Gerald Ford, a man who didn't run for the office, was now President of the United States.
It is within this context, that President Ford made the most important and controversial decision of his presidency: he pardoned Richard Nixon. Ford, who in no way condoned the secretive illegal actions of the Nixon administration, wanted to move on from the issue. There was an uneasy cease fire in Vietnam. Inflation was wrecking the American economy. The US was pursuing a policy of detente toward the Soviet Union. The trial of a former president, that may drag on for more than a year, could prove to be a dangerous and painful distraction from the issues of the day. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon, an affirmative statement that he had committed a crime, put the nation was going to move on.
Moving on from Nixon might have been done with the stroke of the President's pen, but moving forward with the business of the nation would not prove to be so easy. Because Ford did not run for the office, Ford had no clear agenda. He was a Congressman, and a good one, but he had not spend months crafting policy statements and laying the groundwork for domestic agenda or foreign policy. He was thrust into the administration by the 25th Amendment and became President as a result of Nixon's crimes. He didn't ask for this. He had to put together a new cabinet, introduce himself to the nation, work with Congress, and even move his family into the White House all in a matter of weeks. Ford was hamstrung from the beginning.
The midterm elections of 1974 were a disaster for the Republican Party. The GOP broke from Nixon when they realized that he put their electoral prospects in jeopardy in 1974. Even though Nixon was gone, the damage to the Republican brand was done. Democrats strengthened their control of both houses of Congress; essentially making any legislation they passed veto proof. Throughout the remainder of his term, Democrats had very little to gain politically by working with the President.
Ford's lack of an agenda hampered him when dealing with the issues of the day. When South Vietnam fell to the communist North, Ford could do nothing to help stop the crisis. When the economy worsened, Ford introduced a policy that proved to be little more than a public relations stunt. The W.I.N (Whip Inflation Now) campaign, encouraged Americans to reduce their spending. It didn't help. Over the course of the recession Ford urged Congress to raised taxes to fight inflation and then reduce taxes to combat unemployment. The message was messy, confusing, and did little to inspire confidence in the Ford administration.
We've entered that part of the countdown that gets really tough. The reason being is that on the next few Presidents could all be characterized as "fair". Not good. Not bad. Just fair. Any one of the next few entries could swap places with another and you wouldn't hear an argument from me. It is also difficult because finding real legislative or diplomatic, achievements for our next group of leaders is quite a challenge. So, lets start with some fun facts:
Grover Cleveland is the only President to be elected to two non-consecutive terms. He served four years, before being defeated in 1888 by Benjamin Harrison. Cleveland went home for four years before returning to the White House in 1892. Making Cleveland both our nation's 22nd and 24th President.
As President, Grover Cleveland, age 49, married the 21 year old Francis Folsom. Cleveland had served as Francis's legal guardian after her father died when she was a child. Though their marriage is considered odd by today's standards (and very creepy by my students) in her day Francis Cleveland became an adored celebrity by the American public.
During his second term, Cleveland took a "vacation" aboard a friend's yacht. The true purpose of the expedition on the Long Island Sound was so that a doctor could secretly remove a cancerous tumor from the President's mouth without the press or Congress learning about the illness. Surgery was tricky in the 1890s. Surgery aboard a yacht was downright dangerous. Cleveland survived, the surgery remained a secret for years, and the tumor is on display to this day.
Cleveland had developed a reputation for hard work and honesty throughout his legal and political career. Known as Grover "The Good" for his character, he was difficult to attack during the campaign. However, his opponents pounced on claims that he had fathered a child out of wedlock. Despite the wishes of his advisers, Cleveland came clean. Yes, he had a child with a woman that wan't his wife. Yes, he had taken responsibility for his son. This kind of honesty was well received by the voters and should serve as a lesson for all politicians embroiled in an embarrassing scandal. Tell the truth. In November 1884, Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat in a generation to be elected to the nation's highest office.
During his time in Albany, Grover Cleveland became known for his strong and sincere belief in limited government. If his legislature passed laws he thought were frivolous, unnecessary, inappropriate for the government, or simply a waste of money, Cleveland had no problem vetoing them. His tendency to use such executive power earned him the name the "veto governor." As President, Cleveland brought the same by-the-book prudence to Washington. Not only would he veto bills he thought were wasteful, regardless of their intention, he encouraged Congress to take actions to limit the government's ability to grow.
A good example of this was his campaign against the federal tariff. Protective tariffs were a favorite tool of northern industrialists and Republicans. Many Democrats thought the increased prices created by taxes on imports were bad for the consumer. Cleveland agreed, but also felt that the federal government was simply bringing in too much money. The government was regularly running a surplus (what a problem to have) and Cleveland believed it was unfair to the people to take more of their money than was absolutely necessary. Furthermore, having so much extra treasure in the federal coffers would lead to wasteful spending on unnecessary programs. Cleveland successfully negotiated a lowering of the tariff.
Cleveland's support of a lower tariff was certainly based upon principle, but it probably cost him the election on 1888. The focus of the Republican campaign was tariff. They claimed that reducing the tariff hurt industrial workers in the North. Furthermore, they wisely chose a vice presidential candidate from New York in an effort to steal votes from President Cleveland's home state. Cleveland's association with an unpopular New York Governor, no doubt hurt as well. The plan worked and the Republican Benjamin Harrison won the election. Cleveland actually narrowly won the popular vote, but did not secure the necessary electoral votes. This fact hindered Harrison's presidency and would serve Cleveland well when he ran again in 4 years. On inauguration, Cleveland, gracious in defeat, held an umbrella over President Harrison while he took the oath of office. Francis Cleveland, meanwhile, instructed the White House staff to take good care of the place until they returned.
Four years, after a less than inspiring, largely ineffective Harrison administration, the Democrats nominated Grover Cleveland once again. In 1892, the economy was beginning to show signs of decline. A new political movement, populism began to take hold in western states. The populists called for greater government involvement in the economy. They advocated for policies that would protect workers, limit the power of monopolies, and give a greater voice to average Americans in the electoral process. Though Cleveland was far from a populist (certainly not economically), but he was more preferable to most Americans than the Republican Harrison. In 1892, Grover Cleveland became the first (and only) person to be elected President after previously being defeated as an incumbent.
Cleveland's lack of responsiveness to calls for action by the American people would come to define the President's second term. What was becoming evident in the 1890s, was that Americans expected more from their government The seeds of Progressivism were being sown in state capitols of the Midwest, big cities in the East, and farmer's organizations of the West. The hands-off, laissez-faire approach to governance that had come to symbolize the Gilded Age was ending and a new era of democratic activism was rapidly approaching as the nation prepared to enter the 20th century. Grover Cleveland was an decent, respectable, capable administrator. He served the United States with honor, but it appears he was unable to adjust to changing political climate of his second term. In the end, he proved to be Grover "The Good"...enough.
Derek Trent Ashcraft
A place to discuss, among other things, politics, culture, food, faith, and nonsense.