1789–1797 “I walk on untrodden ground,” George Washington observed in 1789. As the first president of the United States, he faced an enormous challenge. The way that he filled the office would set a precedent for every U.S. president who followed him. Washington knew that he had to inspire respect and admiration. He also was aware that Americans were suspicious of leaders with too much power.
In addition to defining the role of president, Washington had other goals. He wanted to strengthen the new country’s finances, repair its relationship with Great Britain, and develop its western frontier. Washington’s secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, made the case for a strong central government and came up with a plan to help manage the country’s war debts.
The biggest international crisis of Washington’s time in office came in
Washington’s policies were tested at home, too. To raise money, the government put a federal tax on whiskey. That move seemed too similar to the British taxes on tea and other goods before the Revolutionary War. In August 1794, farmers in western Pennsylvania staged the Whiskey Rebellion to protest the tax.
Washington sent almost 13,000 militiamen to Pennsylvania to enforce the tax. The rebellion had subsided by the time the troops arrived, but the display of force demonstrated the intention of the government to use its authority to enforce the nation’s laws.
Defining the status of Native Americans was another important issue for Washington. He viewed native people as fighting for their own independence, just as the American colonists had done. Washington signed a treaty with Native American leaders establishing “homelands” under tribal control that protected native territorial borders. It was reinforced by the Proclamation of 1790, which forbade private or state encroachment on any land guaranteed by the treaty.
Washington did not want to serve a second term in office, but he was persuaded to continue as president for the good of the country. When he retired at the end of his second term in March 1797, he published a farewell address to the nation.
In his address, he advised Americans to be fair and just to all nations and to avoid political party alliances and involvement in the political affairs of Europe. He reminded his fellow citizens: “You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the Independence and Liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts, of common danger, sufferings, and successes.” Washington’s presidency established a sense of integrity and strong leadership for all who followed him.
The White House Historical Association acted as consulting editors for the March 2015 and April 2015 issues of Cobblestone magazine. These issues, entitled “Hail to the Chief,” contain brief biographies of all 44 presidents, including this one on George Washington by Marcia Amidon Lusted. (c.) 2015 Carus Publishing Company,www.cricketmedia.com
1801–1809 Thomas Jefferson referred to his presidential election in 1800 as a “bloodless revolution.” The election signified a shift away from the Federalist policies supporting a strong federal government. As president, Jefferson was committed to shaping a government representative of and responsive to the needs of the people. To him, that meant keeping most government decisions at the local and state levels.
The 1800 election revealed a bitter split between the Federalists and the Democratic–Republicans—the party of which Jefferson emerged as the leader. Americans feared a difficult transition of power, but Jefferson’s inaugural address emphasized harmony and good will. He said, “We are all republicans: we are all federalists,” meaning that all U.S. citizens were Americans first and were bound by the same founding principles. He showed how to bring about an orderly and stable change from one political party’s administration to another’s administration.
Jefferson kept the United States free of “entangling alliances” at a time when Europe was engulfed in costly wars. Jefferson also cut taxes and was able to pay off much of the national debt. He made sure freedom of speech was protected, and he loosened restrictions on immigration.
The most important event of Jefferson’s presidency was acquiring the vast Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 and sending the Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore it. The territory measured more than 800,000 square miles and included everything south of Canada and north of Mexico, running from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains. Without bloodshed and at the price of about $15 million (about three cents an acre), the United States gained control of the mighty Mississippi River as well as the land from which 11 states would be carved. Jefferson worried about the constitutionality of the purchase, but most Americans were pleased when the nation nearly doubled in size.
The White House Historical Association acted as consulting editors for the March 2015 and April 2015 issues of Cobblestone magazine. These issues, entitled “Hail to the Chief,” contain brief biographies of all 44 presidents, including this one on Thomas Jefferson by Janine Richardson. (c.) 2015 Carus Publishing Company,www.cricketmedia.com
1861–1865 When Abraham Lincoln left his home in Illinois to begin the long journey to his inauguration as president, no U.S. president before or after faced a graver crisis or emerged with a greater reputation.
By the time Lincoln took his oath of office on March 4, 1861, seven southern states had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. It was the most severe challenge to national authority in the country’s brief history. In April, when Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, Lincoln called for volunteers to defend the Union. The Civil War (1861–1865) had begun.
Lincoln called the struggle “a people’s contest.” He was determined to preserve majority rule, warning that if democracy was defeated in America, it would surely never rise again anywhere in the world. Over the course of the four-year war, he rejected suggestions that he abandon the cause and allow the South to leave the Union in peace.
The 16th president also focused on internal issues. The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant schools, formed the basis for many state university systems. Also in 1862, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, which offered Americans up to 160 acres of free land. The law helped encourage the settlement of the West.
Before Lincoln became president, the United States lacked good communication and transportation systems. But during his term in office, the country introduced its first free mail delivery service and its first coast-to-coast telegraph operation. And enormous progress was made in linking the nation together by rail.
In late 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. If the Confederates did not stop fighting by January 1, 1863, the proclamation declared all enslaved people in Confederate areas to be free. But as 1863 drew to a close, Lincoln ranked as one of the most unpopular presidents in history.
That November, however, Lincoln gave a two-minute speech at Gettysburg. He rallied the North to what he called a “new birth of freedom” for America, vowing that government “of the people, by the people, for the people” would not “perish from the earth.” It remains one of the greatest presidential speeches ever given.
Lincoln made two important, often-overlooked decisions in 1864. First, he allowed the presidential election to proceed—something unheard of in countries torn by rebellion. Lincoln also decided to run again for the presidency. No president since Andrew Jackson had been reelected to a second term. Lincoln believed that he would lose the election. He even asked his own Cabinet to sign a pledge to cooperate with the next president. But two months before Election Day, Union victories turned the tide of the war, and Lincoln won reelection.
At his second inaugural on March 4, 1865, Lincoln again inspired the nation with an address. He defended the sacrifice of lives that had been necessary to rid America of the evil of slavery and called for an era of “malice toward none” and “charity for all” to “bind up the nation’s wounds” and create “lasting peace among ourselves.”
Before the fighting ended in April 1865, Lincoln had plans for how to reconstruct the devastated Union. He even hinted publicly that he would extend the right to vote to those black Americans who had fought to preserve the Union. Before Lincoln could enjoy his moment of triumph, he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, an embittered Confederate sympathizer. He died on April 15, 1865.
The White House Historical Association acted as consulting editors for the March 2015 and April 2015 issues of Cobblestone magazine. These issues, entitled “Hail to the Chief,” contain brief biographies of all 44 presidents, including this one Abraham Lincoln by Harold Holzer. (c.) 2015 Carus Publishing Company,www.cricketmedia.com
1901–1909 On September 14, 1901, just six months after becoming vice president, 42-year-old Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as president of the United States—the youngest thus far. His predecessor, William McKinley, had died that day after being shot a week earlier.
Despite the tragic circumstances that brought him to the presidency, Roosevelt redefined the office and expanded its powers, leading many to consider him the first modern U.S. president. He showed how the power of the president could lead the way to address important issues that faced the nation.
At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was becoming a major industrial nation under the control of a handful of rich and powerful men. Roosevelt’s successful efforts to break up monopolies and create fair business practices earned him the nickname “Trust-Buster.” He also used the power of his office to help settle a coal mine strike in Pennsylvania.
When Roosevelt ran for president in his own right in 1904, he won by a landslide. He continued his work against unfair business practices by supporting the 1906 Hepburn Act, which imposed new regulations on the operation of railroads. When unhealthy conditions in the meatpacking industry were brought to Roosevelt’s attention, he pressured Congress into enacting the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 and a meat inspection law.
In foreign affairs, Roosevelt wanted to expand the influence of the United States as a global power. He believed that the best course of action was to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” In December 1902, Germany and England sent warships to Venezuela to force repayment of European loans. When Roosevelt moved the U.S. fleet nearby, Germany and England backed down. Roosevelt’s 1904 corollary to the Monroe Doctrine warned that the United States would “exercise . . . international police power” if any nation attempted to take over any Latin American nation.
In addition to being a decisive man of action, Roosevelt also became known as a man of peace. In 1904, Russia and Japan were engaged in a war. Roosevelt helped bring together representatives from both nations to negotiate an end to the Russo–Japanese War. He earned the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
Throughout the 19th century, American and European leaders had tried to find a faster way to ship goods between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. After he became president, Roosevelt supported the building of a canal through Panama in Central America. By 1904, construction was underway and the canal was completed in 1914. Roosevelt visited the Panama Canal in 1906, becoming the first president to travel abroad while in office.
Roosevelt also established the “White House” as the official name for the President’s House. In 1902, he oversaw an extensive renovation of the site.
The 26th president’s greatest legacy may have been his determination to preserve and protect America’s natural resources for the public good. Beginning in 1902, he fought for conservation legislation, protecting millions of acres of land from development.
Roosevelt’s presidency made foreign leaders recognize that the United States would be a force to reckon with in the 20th century, and it paved the way for future U.S. presidents to further expand the office’s powers.
The White House Historical Association acted as consulting editors for the March 2015 and April 2015 issues of Cobblestone magazine. These issues, entitled “Hail to the Chief,” contain brief biographies of all 44 presidents, including this one on Theodore Roosevelt by Shari Lyn Zuber. (c.) 2015 Carus Publishing Company, www.cricketmedia.com w.cricketmedia.com
William Howard Taft
1909–1913 As President Theodore Roosevelt’s time in office began to wind down, he made a decision: He wanted his secretary of war, William H. Taft, to become the next president. With Roosevelt’s support, Taft won the 1908 election in a landslide, and he promised to continue Roosevelt’s progressive policies to help the working class and the poor.
Taft’s administration introduced 80 antitrust suits, and it directed the Interstate Commerce Commission to take control of railroad rates. Congress passed two amendments to the Constitution: The 16th Amendment established a federal income tax, and the 17th Amendment allowed for the direct election of U.S. senators.
Some of Taft’s policies were unpopular. He supported an act to continue high tariffs, and he defended his secretary of the interior after he was accused of failing to maintain Roosevelt’s conservation policies. Ultimately, Taft did not agree with Roosevelt’s interpretation of presidential powers, and he did not relish politics or the office of president as much as Roosevelt had. Still, Taft sought the Republican nomination again in 1912, but so did Roosevelt. When Taft won their party’s nomination, Roosevelt decided to run independently and formed the Progressive, or “Bull Moose,” party. The situation caused a split in the Republican party, and allowed the Democratic candidate, Woodrow Wilson, to win easily.
The White House Historical Association acted as consulting editors for the March 2015 and April 2015 issues of Cobblestone magazine. These issues, entitled “Hail to the Chief,” contain brief biographies of all 44 presidents, including this one on William Howard Taft by Elizabeth Howard. (c.) 2015 Carus Publishing Company,www.cricketmedia.com