There are people who can name all the presidents, some forward and backward. I can do pretty well from George Washington through Andrew Jackson (1-7), but once you get to Tylers and Taylors things get a little murky. And I can count backward from Joe Biden to Herbert Hoover (46-31), but then I start second guessing myself about Coolidge, Pierce and the two Harrisons, not to mention the two nonconsecutive terms of Grover Cleveland. I’m planning this spring to write about some of the less well-known presidents, in hopes of educating myself and giving you a sense of how many varieties of leadership we the people have honored with the presidency.
Taxonomies: A Class Of Their Own
It helps to subdivide these 46 men — and all of them have been men to date — into manageable groups. Four presidents have been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy).
Four more died in office of natural causes: William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Warren G. Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
That’s 17 percent, one in six. Of these, Harrison had the most interesting demise. He also had the shortest tenure of any president. On the day of his inauguration, March 4, 1841, he gave the longest inaugural address in American history. It was an inclement day in Washington, D.C., and Harrison caught a cold that soon turned into pneumonia. He died 31 days later. Be that as it may, Harrison had one of the few memorable campaign slogans in American history: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” John Tyler was his running mate, soon to become the 10th president of the United States. Harrison was famous for leading U.S. troops in the Battle of Tippecanoe, fought in Indiana on Nov. 7, 1811, against the Shawnee, who were, of course, merely trying to protect their homeland from the invasion of European Americans.
Speaking of campaign slogans, we’ve had some good ones and some forgettable ones. Among the worst, Franklin Pierce in the campaign of 1852: “We Polked you in ’44, we shall Pierce you in ’52.” Barry Goldwater (1964) chose, “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right.” Warren Harding (1920) promised a “Return to Normalcy” after World War I, and Jeb Bush (2016) promised that “Jeb Can Fix It.” Among the most memorable slogans: Woodrow Wilson, “He Kept Us Out of War” (but not for long). Theodore Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” FDR’s “New Deal,” and JFK’s “New Frontier.” Jeb’s father, George H. W. Bush gave us a “thousand points of light.”
Also powerful were Ronald Reagan’s “It’s Morning Again in America” and George McGovern’s “Come Home America” (1972).
One Term Only
There have been 13 one-term presidents: George H.W. Bush, Donald Trump, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Harrison, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk, Martin Van Buren, John Quincy Adams and his father, John Adams. Only one of these, James K. Polk, exited by his own choice. He promised during the campaign of 1844 that, if elected, he would serve only a single term. He kept his promise (a rarity).
Adams father and Adams son were both so determinedly high-principled and independent, so sure that popularity was a fatal flaw in a republic, that the public turned them out after a single term. William Howard Taft was shouldered out of the presidency by his old friend, now enemy, Theodore Roosevelt, in the 1912 Bull Moose campaign.
In all lists of the worst presidents in American history, James Buchanan wins hands down, perhaps because he did nothing in four years to address the intensifying North-South crisis that brought on the Civil War just after he left office in 1861. Hoover and Van Buren were swept away by economic crises, the Panic of 1837 for Van Buren and the Great Depression for Hoover. Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon. Jimmy Carter was unable to extricate the 52 Americans held hostage in Iran. Franklin Pierce is the only president in American history who failed to receive his party’s nomination for re-election.
Because Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock, he was subjected to one of the most unkind campaign jingles in American history: “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa, went to the White House, Ha Ha Ha.” Cleveland, who was just 47 when he entered the White House, married a 21-year-old woman named Frances Folsom two years into his term. Cleveland remains the sole president to have been married in the White House, and Folsom remains the youngest first lady in American history.
Youth and Age
The youngest president was Theodore Roosevelt. He was still just 42 years old at the time he took the oath of office in Buffalo, N.Y., following William McKinley’s assassination in September 1901. John F. Kennedy was the youngest “elected” president at 43. The oldest president at the time of his inauguration was Joe Biden, who was 78 in 2021. The president who lived longest was and is Jimmy Carter, now 98 (born Oct. 1, 1924). He left the presidency in 1981 at the age of 56. Carter is also the writingest president with more than 40 books to his credit, including “The Art of the Fishing Fly“ (2018), “The Virtue of Aging“(1998), “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid” (2006) and his campaign autobiography, “Why Not the Best?“(1975) The second writingest president was Theodore Roosevelt, who not only wrote all of his own books (about 35, depending on how you count), but was arguably the best intellectually prepared president in our history, and that includes Jefferson and John Adams.
The Consequential and the Caretakers
Perhaps a better way to categorize them is to separate what might be called consequential presidents from caretaker presidents. Inconsequential presidents abound. It would be a mistake to try to name them all. Most of them have a small legion of loyal advocates. But the list surely includes Gerald Ford, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison and William Howard Taft.
Among the most consequential: George Washington, “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen,” who helped to define the presidency during his two terms (1789-1797); and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), who did more than anyone else to redefine the presidency. Roosevelt was the first modern president and one of his nicknames, Theodore Rex, seems appropriate. In some respects, he carried the American people, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 20th century. TR’s fifth cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt led the United States through two existential crises, the Great Depression and World War II. Roosevelt was the only president elected to a third and then a fourth term. On Jan. 20, 1945, he gave the second shortest inaugural address in American history, at just 550 words. Translation: if you don’t know me by now …
Other consequential presidents include Andrew Jackson, our first true populist; Harry S. Truman, who desegregated the U.S. military; Woodrow Wilson, who shepherded in a range of progressive reforms; Lyndon Johnson, who somehow found a way to push the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through a hidebound Congress, then misread the Kennedy legacy to propel us into the tragic quagmire of the Vietnam War; and Ronald Reagan, who cheered the American people up after the Nixon-Ford-Carter years, and helped to win the Cold War.
Dead Presidents Memorialized in Stone
The Rushmore Four — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt — were all consequential. It may be worth noting that the only one of these four who ever set foot in today’s South Dakota was Theodore Roosevelt, who played rancher and cowboy in Dakota Territory between 1883 and 1890. Any list of great presidents must include Lincoln, the 16th president, who invariably ranks first in polls of historians, as well as in popular surveys of the American people. Lincoln may also have been the greatest prose stylist of all presidents. On March 4, 1865, he delivered perhaps the finest inaugural address in American history (“with malice towards none”), just weeks before his assassination.
Among this quartet, Jefferson — America’s Renaissance Man — is perhaps the least consequential “as president.” He devoted his two terms to reducing the size of the Army and Navy, reducing the federal bureaucracy and eliminating as much as possible of the national debt (37 percent). Oh, but he doubled the size of the republic with a single stroke of his pen in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase brought in 828,000 square miles of new territory at 3 cents per acre. So Jefferson may not have visited South Dakota, but he was the one who bought it!
The Fallen and the Scandalous
Four presidents have been impeached, one of them twice. But none have been convicted in the subsequent Senate trial. None has been removed. The first president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson (1868). He was acquitted by a single vote in the U.S. Senate. Then came Bill Clinton, who lied under oath about his sex life. And then the 45th president was the first to be impeached twice but was never convicted or removed from office. Richard Nixon would certainly have been impeached and most historians agree that he would have been removed from office by the Senate. Knowing this, he resigned from the presidency Aug. 9, 1974. He remains the only president to resign.
Scandals gravitate more to recent presidents than those of the first 150 years, perhaps because there is much greater media scrutiny now, because we no longer give presidents a sexual hall pass — think of JFK — and because the intense idealism associated with the Founding Fathers and a republican form of government has long since faded away. The most memorable presidential scandals swirl around the 18th President Ulysses S. Grant (Credit Mobilier, et al.), the 29th Warren Harding (Teapot Dome), the 35th Richard Nixon (Watergate), the 40th Ronald Reagan (Iran-Contra), and the 42nd William Jefferson Clinton (Monica Lewinsky, et al.).
Does this help? My goal over the next months is to explore some of these presidencies, with a particular focus on administrative style and the wide variety of leadership styles of that extraordinary 46-member club.