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Who Were the Presidents

Page history last edited by mberry 14 years, 4 months ago

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Presidency

The Transformations of Our Nation's Most Powerful Office


The office of the Presidency has been far from a static environment. A flurry of leaders with different ideals and goals have served this position. In addition, the roles of the President have greatly expanded. Here we take a look at the most prominent trends in our Presidential history.



¥ou are now abroad the Air Force One (imaginary edition). Buckle up as we journey back in time to 1789... this will be a long flight, so some chips and salsa would be good. 



The Early Years


     As contemporary Americans, we tend to have an inflated idea of the powers of the President. However, when the constitution was written, the Framers were much more preoccupied with the control given to the Legislature and thus only broadly defined the Executive, which was assumed to play a lesser role. This intent did not fall on deaf ears; the first president of the United States, George Washington, did little policy making in his two terms as president. He felt that such measures were the duty of Congress. Nonetheless, he was a force in foreign affairs, a division of the government that still resides predominantly in the Executive branch.

     Washington’s approach to the Presidency was momentous in that he set the examples. In fact he is quoted to have told James Madison, “As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent. It is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles." It is no wonder, then, that we always associate our first president with benevolent traits, including honesty and bravery. He was indeed a role model.

     One of the most important of Washington’s precedents was in international affairs, where he promoted neutrality. The rationality behind this choice is fairly overt. Nonetheless, given the United States’ mighty presence in world affairs today, it doesn’t hurt to clarify that during the late 18th century, our country was economically unstable and contained deep sectional divisions within. Meddling with the issues of more powerful European countries was, in short, ludicrous.

     In fact, for much of the 19th century, America was still getting her act together and, consequently, neutrality became an established principal. Washington set other precedents as well, including the use of a cabinet and the delivery of the State of the Union address given to Congress. [1]


     The next two presidencies made the Executive office a much more dynamic position. An influx of love/hate drama entered Washington, as the two rival factions at the time, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, gradually became polar opposites, fighting for their ideals of big versus small government. America was finally developing the early stages of her robust political identity. In this fashion, the presidencies of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were shaded with political fervor. Jefferson’s two terms were a bit more significant with respect to the powers of the President. One of his most famous actions, the Louisiana Purchase that doubled the size of the United States overnight, was also the first well-documented breach of the constitutional authority given to the president. Nowhere in our founding document does it say the President can purchase land without Congressional consent. From this standpoint, the executive branch gained more influence as it took an assertive stance. Ironically, Jefferson happened to be a big Anti-Federalist, a group that generally opposed increased central power.


Adams and Jefferson did not always bicker. They had respect for each other.



Did you Know? On July 4, 1826, John Adam’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” speaking volumes about their rivalry. Ironically, Jefferson had died in Monticello, Virginia only a few hours earlier the same day.[2]


     In the years following Jefferson, the presidency remained a fairly stable role that possessed importance, but not the intense glamour we see today. It is worthy to note, however, that issues in foreign policy continued to be of importance to the Executive Branch. In 1821, James Monroe framed the Monroe Doctrine; it stated that European powers had no right to interfere on the Western Hemisphere, including the US and Latin America. This policy turned out to be a tenet of American international affairs for nearly a century.



The Growth of the Political Spectrum


     Andrew Jackson is the next great figure as we journey through the Presidential history. The seventh president revolutionized his office in many ways. Just the way he was elected was indicative of his dynamic character. In the late 1820’s and 1830’s, popular participation in elections and democracy was increasingly robust. Parades, hangouts, and other concoctions helped spur white males to take advantage of their “universal male suffrage.”

     Jackson, and his belligerent attitude and war-hero status, fed off this enthusiasm. This marked the first time in our history when a President won largely by appealing to the public, or even attempted to appeal to the public.  The culmination of his election was a rockstar-like inauguration party similar to what we would now expect from with the Obamas.

     Old Hickory, as he was so nicknamed, was resolute on his command of the executive office. Unlike his predecessors, Jackson did not fear policy-making and used his veto power more frequently than all the previous presidents combined (12 times). This forced Congress to always pay heed to the president’s views because he wanted things done his way (one of those “if you don’t listen to me, I ain’t listening to you” relationships).


Jackson was not afraid of challenges.


     Perhaps most important of Andrew Jackson’s ideals was his desire to form a national identity. He once said, “the first principle of our system [is that] the majority is to govern.” By saying this, he was attacking the politicians who only thought about sectional goals and not the country as a whole. As a result, Jackson’s political choices were very nonconformist; he attacked the privileged elite who held official positions but did little to change the country with their authority. It is no wonder that Jackson became engrossed in many controversial issues, including the Nullification Crisis and the Bank Wars of the 1830’s.

     The new, vibrant presidential persona that Andrew Jackson engendered forever changed the role of the President. He was now a national icon and had to account for all the citizens, especially those eager to take advantage of their voting rights. The Executive Office gained great prestige.[3]


President James Polk


     Andrew Jackson’s influence on later presidents was overt; although this may have not always been a good thing. One of the successors he actually supported was James K. Polk, Polk was arguably one of the most belligerent of our presidents. His campaign slogan, “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight” summed up his goals fairly well. Polk thrived off the virtues of “manifest destiny” and sought to increase land – Texas and the northern border with Canada in Oregon were the two primary subjects. When in the oval office, he did not disappoint. However, most historians agree that the reasons he gave for entering war, especially with Mexico, were somewhat erroneous. Polk was thus our first president to manufacture public support by misleading the citizens and taking advantage of their desires (expansion).  We have had many later presidents do things like that…including one not all that long ago. [4]



And then….slavery


The excitement Jackson bought to the White House was greatly diminished after his departure because our country was torn over the conflict of slavery. Indeed, the sectional politics Jackson abhorred were very much viable factors in promoting the wedge between Northern and Southern populations. The Executive Office was directly affected, as now elected presidents had to try to please two polar opposite groups; those wanting abolition versus those in favor of slavery. You can imagine that this just didn’t fly well, and not surprisingly, one of the presidents during this time period, James Buchanan, was elected partly because he never took a stance on the Kansas-Nebraska Act – one of the most divisive legislations of slavery ever passed (Buchanan was an ambassador to Great Britain at the time). Hence, the presidents, presiding over a divided nation, were largely ineffectual.


Did You Know? James Buchanan was the only president never to marry.


But wait, you may say, what about Abraham Lincoln? The iconic figure, the man who got rid of slavery, the skinny, tall guy did indeed change the Presidency. But we will discuss him in a later section…. Stay tuned.



The Gilded Age


So the presidents just keep on coming. However, in the decades after the Civil War, the Executive Office was not profoundly changed. The Gilded Age represented a time when the United States was growing rapidly and soon threatened other nations with her industrial might. Naturally, industrial growth translated into economic growth, which means…money. And with money comes wealthy people who take advantage of the poor people, and use their money to bribe other elites. Good stuff, isn’t it?

It is only a fair assumption that politicians during the Gilded Age did not influence money matters, but rather were influenced by them; most legislation made during these years dealt with financial issues. The Presidency was not the strong office that it had been previously or was to be in the coming years. If we can take anything away from this time period, it is that the Executive branch is not a corrupt-free division of government. Constitutional duties can be neglected and misused. The fact that the president is one, easily identifiable person, just makes the situation worse. [5]


Did You Know? Grover Cleveland was the only president elected to two disjoint terms. He was also the only president to marry in the White House (to 21 year-old Francis Folsom). Cleveland was not the corrupt official like some of his contemporaries, but his actions were not necessarily the most effective. [6]





Ok, now our flight is halfway over. We can take a short pitstop. Check out the funsies:Fun Fun Fun

If you want to keep going into the 20th century, let’s go.





Imperialism and World War I


The Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era in which a variety of social improvement ideals permeated through the country. This naturally had an influence on the Presidents and redefined their duties, both domestically and abroad. Aiding this transition were some of the more prolific leaders in America’s history.


The cute and cuddly teddy bears are named after Theodore Roosevelt. However, Roosevelt was not exactly cute or cuddly when it came to the Presidency. His opinion on presidential power was explicit; once he wrote, “I did not usurp power, but I did greatly broaden the use of executive power." [7]

Teddy Roosevelt



Teddy was willing to push the limits of his Constitutional duties. He acted as a ‘trustbuster’ by breaking down monopolies. In international affairs, he finally led the United States to take a more domineering role in the world, actions that greatly tightened foreign policy to the Executive office.  The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine essentially stated that the US would use military force to maintain stability in the Western hemisphere, while maintaining that no other nation had a right to intervene. Roosevelt took a very aggressive stance on politics, and this would influence later presidents to do the same. America was no longer a bumbling baby; it had the power to begin imposing its will.


Got Woodrow Wilson?? Wilson led the United States into her first world war. Wartime greatly expands presidential power because in moments of emergency, strong leadership is immediately required. Wilson worked diligently to mobilize the troops and ensure that they received adequate supplies from home. Wartime industry greatly inflates production of all commodities, and Wilson ensured that the whole system was running well.

In international policy, Wilson supported the creation of a League of Nations, so America could take a complementary role in foreign affairs and prevent future wars. This was big. The president did not seek to isolate the country from the world, but rather coincide with it. Behind Wilson’s leadership, the United States was shaping into its present-day form.

But wait! This is the progressive era after all, and it seems ridiculous if the Executive doesn’t have social implications. Well, Wilson did promote progressivism and in so doing, helped spur increased involvement between the President and social welfare groups. Particularly, Wilson pitched his support for women’s suffrage although it was done reluctantly. The status of the president as “Chief of State” was beginning to take form.





And then the later years….



We now reach the conclusion of our journey. By now, you probably understand how different personas helped bolster the office of the Presidency. As a recap, Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson each expanded the influence of the President as a Chief Executive, Chief Legislature, Chief Diplomat, and perhaps most important, Chief of State.



The implications that more modern presidents, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama, have followed suit in this manner. Rather than inundate you with more facts, it is more appropriate to highlight the main points (besides the plane’s fuel tank is running low).



Perhaps the critical idea of modern presidency is the larger role played by the Chief of State. With modern technology and the intense world atmosphere in recent decades, information has been readily available to all citizens. The more “connected” citizens, in turn, are passionate on several issues. To represent their views, they turn to the one nationally elected official – the President. What does this imply? Well, suddenly Jackson’s idea of a truly national government comes to fruition. The President must respond to all the people, in addition to his personal groups.


This has been done through many ways. First of all, current-day elections are massively publicized. Back in the 19th century, it was considered improper for candidates to physically gather support; they did this through their aides only [8]. However, now, great presidential debates flood the election scene. Inauguration addresses are a big national event; who among us has not heard John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” and other presidential quotes? Now take a moment to think about other statements you have heard from presidents before this era…. Stumped, huh? You will undoubtedly learn more about the publicized role of political figures in later chapters (see Media).


While in office, the presidents have kept connecting to the public. FDR had his famous “fireside chats” to inform his constituents of the many steps he was undertaking to relieve the Depression, while successive presidents have utilized the radio, tv, and now internet (with the Obama administration) to constantly establish the bond between the President and his people. This is indeed monumental, as it redefined not just the Presidency, but politics in general.


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Chats by Franklin D. Roosevelt


Historian Sidney Milkis gives a comprehensive overview of this dramatic shift in the duties of the president. His argument centers on the fact that the globalized definition of the President has forced the officeholder to transcend party politics and govern to the people. This, as you will discover in the next section, also increases presidential power.


On Roosevelt, who was the biggest catalyst for the new era of politics, Milkis writes that he wanted the localized party system “to be transformed into a national, executive-oriented system organized on the basis of public issues” [9].  This essentially meant the president should define his party, not the other way around. How could this be done? Well, Roosevelt sought to do this through the Executive Reorganization bill in 1937 which would allow the Executive Branch to restructure itself to have greater power over the people…without needing approval for every action from Congress. The importance of the bureaucracy will be discussed in the next chapter, so you will better understand its influence then.


Milkis continues his argument by mentioning that Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” was an extension of FDR’s New Deal. Here, Johnson formulated his own ideals of how society should be restructured, with rights for all people. Party goals were second-hand consideration. This becomes a reoccurring theme, and by now you should be comfortable with this concept – presidents have turned to addressing the public rather than the party, and consequently, renovating the party itself.

Interestingly, there have been extremes of presidents going the solo route. During his reelection campaign, Nixon enlisted the support of CREEP (Committee for the Re-election of the President) over the traditional Republican support base.[10]


Presidents were indeed becoming a more individualistic figure. In doing so, they achieved almost dictatorial status…well as much of a dictatorial status they can have under the checks and balances system.




And with that, the Air Force One is landing. Thanks for accompanying us on this wild adventure. Bet you want to get in line for a second trip, dontcha?




















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  1. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/georgewashington
  2. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/johnadams
  3. John Faragher, Mari Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan Armitage. Out of Many: A History of the American People (Upper Saddle River, NJ; Pearson Education Inc. 2007). Pages 356-360
  4. John Faragher, Mari Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan Armitage. Out of Many: A History of the American People (Upper Saddle River, NJ; Pearson Education Inc. 2007). Pages 466-472
  5. http://us.history.wisc.edu/hist102/lectures/lecture04.html
  6. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/grovercleveland22
  7. http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/theodoreroosevelt
  8. John Faragher, Mari Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan Armitage. Out of Many: A History of the American People (Upper Saddle River, NJ; Pearson Education Inc. 2007). page 357
  9. Milkis, Sidney. "The Presidency and Political Parties." American Government: Readings and Cases. 7th ed. Ed. Peter Woll. US: Pearson Longman. 2008. Page 283
  10. Milkis, Sidney. "The Presidency and Political Parties." American Government: Readings and Cases. 7th ed. Ed. Peter Woll. US: Pearson Longman. 2008. Pages 285-286

Comments (2)

mberry said

at 3:04 pm on Nov 5, 2009

can you tell label this graph a little better? It's hard to read the data when the coordinates are not more explicitly labeled.

Answer Blip said

at 8:14 am on Feb 12, 2010

Can someone help our student community answer these presidential questions http://www.answerblip.com/faqabout/presidents

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