Outstanding presidents of USA
THE AMERICAN PRESIDENCY
More than two hundred years have passed since George Washington left his home at Mount Vernon, Virginia, to travel to New York City to be sworn in as President of the United States. The ceremony took place April 30, 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall, with the oath administered by Robert Livingston, Chancellor of the State of New York.
According to a contemporary news report, the event was "animated and moving beyond description", with throngs of spectators filling the streets below, as well as the windows and rooftops of neighbouring buildings. Washington took the oath, said observers, with "devout fervency", after which Chancellor Livingston turned toward the assembled crowd and called out: "Long live George Washington, President of the United States!"
It was one of those electric moments in history when an idea is transformed into reality. Until that ceremony, the American Presidency had been only a concept developed by the new Nation's Founding Fathers at the Constitutional Convention that was held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. It remained to George Washington to define the role of the Chief Executive of the new Nation, not simply in legal but also in symbolic terms.
From the modern perspective, this task might not seem to be so difficult. Article II of the Constitution spelled out the President's powers and responsibilities; but beyond that, the concept of the Presidency was so vague that, even as Washington took the oath of office, a debate raged as to what he ought to be called.
There were traditionalists in Congress who thought the President should be addressed as "His Elective Majesty". Others argued in favor of "His Elective Highness". Yet others felt that the only proper way to refer to the Chief Executive was as "His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of the Rights of the Same".
Fortunately, these suggestions were all rejected and it was decided that Washington should be called simply "President of the United States". It was a straightforward manner of address that met President Washington's approval, though in other areas of protocol he felt it important to stress the unique nature of his office.
In 1789 the United States was not long removed from operating under the Articles of Confederation — a document that reflected the strongly held view that the sovereignty of States ought not to be diminished by a national government. Thus, when President Washington visited Massachusetts, the Governor, John Hancock, felt it appropriate to invite the President to call on him. Washington replied in a formal note: "The President of the United States presents his best respects to the Governor, and has the honor to inform him that he shall be at home till 2 o'clock".
Looking back, this seems to be a minor matter of protocol. Yet Washington was establishing an important principle — that the Presidency was the single office in the land embodying the hopes and aspirations not simply of some but of all citizens of the United States. There were many governors, but there was only one President.
In such ways — in matters of substance as well as of protocol — George Washington helped to define the office of President of the United States. It was a task that has been taken on by each of his successors, in turn. Every man taking the oath, Washington took in New York more than 200 years ago, has understood, as historian Bruce Catton wrote, that "he was acting for something much bigger" than personal ambition. He was acting for the Presidency.
GEORGE WASHINGTON: FIRST PRESIDENT (1789-1797)
On April 30', 1789, George Washington, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. "As the first of every thing in our situation will serve to establish a precedent", he wrote in one of the letters, "it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles".
Born in 1732 into a Virginia planter family, he learned the morals, manners, and body of knowledge requisite for an 18th-century Virginia gentleman.
He pursued two intertwined interests: military arts and western expansion. At the age of 16 he began his military career. In 1755 he escaped injury although four bullets ripped his coat and two horses were shot from under him.
From 1759 to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Washington managed his lands around Mount Vernon. Married to a widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, he devoted himself to a busy and happy life. But like his fellow planters, Washington felt himself exploited by British merchants and hampered by British regulations. As the quarrel with the mother country grew acute, he moderately but firmly voiced his resistance to the restrictions.
When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775, Washington, one of the Virginia delegates, was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. On July 3, 1775, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he took command of his ill-trained troops and embarked upon a war that was to last six grueling years.
He realized early that the best strategy was to harass the British. He reported to Congress, "We should on all Occasions avoid a general Action, or put anything to the Risque, unless compelled by a necessity, into which we ought never to be drawn". Ensuing battles saw him fall back slowly, then strike unexpectedly. Finally in 1781, with the aid of French allies, he forced the surrender of the British troops at Yorktown.
Washington longed to retire to his fields at Mount Vernon. But he soon realized that the Nation under its Articles of Confederation was not functioning well, so he became a prime mover in the steps leading to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. When the new Constitution was ratified, the Electoral College unanimously elected Washington President.
He did not infringe upon the policy-making powers that he felt the Constitution gave Congress. But the determination of foreign policy became predominantly a Presidential concern. At the time of a major war between France and England, Washington refused to accept entirely the recommendations of either his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who was pro-French, or his Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who was pro-British. Rather, he insisted upon a neutral course until the United States could grow stronger.
To his disappointment, two parties were developing by the end of his first term. Wearied of politics, feeling old, he retired at the end of his second. In his Farewell Address, he urged his countrymen to forswear excessive party spirit and geographical distinctions. In foreign affairs, he warned against long-term alliances.
Washington enjoyed less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon, for he died of a throat infection on December 14, 1799. For months the Nation mourned him.
George Washington's integrity set a pattern for all other Presidents to follow.
THOMAS JEFFERSON: THIRD PRESIDENT (1801-1809)
In 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a private letter, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man". These words, now inscribed in the memorial to Jefferson in Washington, D. C, might be called the heart of his political and social thinking. His opposition to tyranny in all its forms was repeatedly voiced. In the Declaration of Independence it appears' in his famous phrase "that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness".
This powerful advocate of liberty was born in 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia, inheriting from his father, a planter, some 5000 acres of land, and from his mother, a high social standing. He studied at the College of William and Mary, then read law. In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, and took her to live in his partly constructed mountain-top home, Mount Vernon.
Freckled and sandy-haired, rather tall and awkward, Jefferson was eloquent as a correspondent, but he was no public speaker. He used to contribute his pen rather than his voice to the patriot cause. As the "silent member" of the Continental Congress, Jefferson was chosen by his colleagues to draft the Declaration of Independence. At the age of 33, he was younger than many of his fellow delegates, but they readily put their trust in his ability to draft this important document, which expressed their resolve to form a new Nation.
In years following, Jefferson labored to make the words of the Declaration a reality in Virginia. Most notably, he wrote a bill establishing religious freedom, enacted in 1786.
Jefferson was Secretary of State in President Washington's Cabinet, but his sympathy for the French Revolution led him into conflict with Alexander Hamilton. So, in 1793 he resigned.
Sharp political conflict in the country developed, and two separate parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began to form. Jefferson gradually assumed leadership of the Republicans, who sympathized with the revolutionary cause in France. Attacking Federalist policies, he opposed a strong centralized Government and championed the rights of States.
In 1796 Jefferson became Vice President and in 1801 he assumed the Presidency. By that time the crisis in France had passed. Jefferson slashed Army and Navy expenditures, cut the budget, eliminated the tax on whisky so unpopular in the West, yet reduced the national debt by a third. He also sent a naval squadron to fight the pirates harassing American commerce in the Mediterranean. Further, although the Constitution made no provision for the acquisition of new land, Jefferson suppressed his qualms over constitutionality when he had the opportunity to acquire the immense Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803.
During Jefferson's second term, he was increasingly preoccupied with keeping the Nation from involvement in the Napoleonic wars, though both England and France interfered with the neutral rights of American merchant men.
Jefferson retired to Monticello to ponder such projects as his grand designs for the University of Virginia. A French nobleman observed that he had placed his house and his mind "on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe".
Thomas Jefferson died on July 4, 1826.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: SIXTEENTH PRESIDENT (1861-1865)
Abraham Lincoln warned the South in his Inaugural Address: "In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you... You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while / shall have the most solemn one to 'preserve, protect, and defend' it".
Lincoln thought secession illegal, and was willing to use force to defend Federal law and the Union. When Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter and forced its surrender, he called on the States for 75000 volunteers. Four more slave States joined the Confederacy but four remained within the Union. The Civil War had began. Abhorring war, Abraham Lincoln accepted it as the only means to save the Nation.
The son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln had to struggle for a living and for learning. Five months before receiving his party's nomination for President, he sketched his life:
"I was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families — second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks ... My father ... removed from Kentucky to ... Indiana, in my eighth year. ... It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up. ... Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher ... but that was all".
Lincoln made extraordinary efforts to attain knowledge while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping store at New Salem, Illinois. He was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. His law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest".
He married Mary Todd, and they had four boys, only one of whom lived to maturity.
In 1858 Lincoln ran for Senator. He lost the election, but in debating with his rival he gained a national reputation that won him the Republican nomination for President in 1860.
As President, he built the Republican Party into a strong national organization. Further, he rallied most of the northern Democrats to the Union cause.
On January 1, 1863, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation that declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy.
Lincoln never let the world forget that the Civil War involved an even larger issue. This he stated most movingly in dedicating the military cemetery at Gettysburg: "... we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth".
Lincoln won re-election in 1864, as Union military triumphs heralded an end to the war. In his planning for peace, the President was flexible and generous, encouraging southerners to lay down their arms and join speedily in reunion.
The spirit that guided him was clearly that of his Second Inaugural Address, now inscribed on one wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D. C:
"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds. ..."
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theater in Washington by John Wilkes Booth, an actor, who somehow thought he was helping the South. The opposite was the result, for with Lincoln's death, the possibility of peace with magnanimity died.
FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: THIRTY-SECOND PRESIDENT (1933-1945)
Assuming the Presidency at the depth of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped the American people to regain faith in themselves. He brought hope as he promised prompt, vigorous action, and asserted in his Inaugural Address, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Born in 1882 at Hyde Park, New York— now a national historic site — he attended Harvard University and Columbia Law School. On St. Patrick's Day, 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt.
Following the example of his fifth cousin, President Theodore Roosevelt, whom he greatly admired, Franklin D. Roosevelt entered public service through politics, but as a Democrat. He won election to the New York Senate in 1910, and he was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1920.
jth the summer of 1921, when he was 39, disaster hit— he was stricken with poliomyelitis. Demonstrating indomitable courage, he fought to regain the use of his legs, particularly through swimming. At the 1924 Democratic Convention he dramatically appeared on crutches. In 1928 Roosevelt became Governor of New York.
He was elected President in November 1932, to the first of four terms. By March there were 13 million unemployed, and almost every bank was closed. In his first "hundred days", he proposed, and Congress enacted, a sweeping program to bring recovery to business and agriculture, relief to the unemployed and to those in danger of losing farms and homes, and reform, especially through the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
By 1935 the Nation had achieved some measure of recovery, but businessmen and bankers were turning more and more against Roosevelt's New Deal program. They feared his experiments, were appalled because he had taken the Nation off the gold standard and allowed deficits in the budget, and disliked the concessions to labor. Roosevelt responded with a new program of reform: Social Security, heavier taxes on the wealthy, new controls over banks and public utilities, and an enormous work relief program for the unemployed.
In 1936 he was re-elected by a top-heavy margin. Feeling he was armed with a popular mandate, he sought legislation to enlarge the Supreme Court, which had been invalidating key New Deal measures. Roosevelt lost the Supreme Court battle, but a revolution in constitutional law took place. Thereafter the Government could legally regulate the economy.
Roosevelt had pledged the United States to the "good neighbour" policy. He also sought through neutrality legislation to keep the United States out of the war in Europe. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt directed organization of the Nation's manpower and resources for global war.
Feeling that the future peace of the world would depend upon relations between the United States and Russia, he devoted much thought to the planning of a United Nations, in which, he hoped, international difficulties could be settled.
As the war drew to a close, Roosevelt's health deteriorated, and on April 12, 1945, while at Warm Springs, Georgia, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
JOHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY: THIRTY-FIFTH PRESIDENT (1961-1963)
On November 22, 1963, when he was hardly past his first thousand days in office, John F. Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullets as his motorcade wound through Dallas, Texas. Kennedy was the youngest man elected President; he was the youngest to die.
Of Irish descent, he was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on May 29, 1917. Graduating from Harvard in 1940, he entered the Navy. In 1940, when his PT boat was rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy, despite grave injuries, led the survivors through perilous waters to safety.
Back from the war, he became a Democratic Congressman from the Boston area, advancing in 1953 to the Senate. He married Jacqueline Bouvier on September 12, 1953. In 1955, while recuperating from a back operation, he wrote "Profiles in Courage", which won the Pulitzer Prize in history.
In 1961 John F. Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic President. His Inaugural Address offered the memorable injunction:
"Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country".
As President, he set out to redeem his campaign pledge to get America moving again. His economic programs launched the country on its longest sustained expansion since World War II; before his death, he laid plans for a massive assault on persisting pockets of privation and poverty.
Responding to ever more urgent demands, he took vigorous action in the cause of equal rights, calling for new civil rights legislation. He wished America to resume its old mission as the first nation dedicated to the revolution of human rights. His vision of America extended to the quality of the national culture and the central role of the arts in a vital society.
Kennedy did a lot to solve the Cuban crisis during which the world trembled on the brink of nuclear war. He realized that both sides had a vital interest in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and slowing the arms race. The months after the Cuban crisis showed significant progress toward the goal of "a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war". This progress led to the test ban treaty of 1963.
John F. Kennedy's administration thus saw the beginning of new hope for both the equal rights of Americans and the peace of the world.