What will be Barack Obama's greatest legacy? Here are a few highlights from his predecessors.
By: Linnea Crowther
12 months ago
On Presidents’ Day, there are five living U.S. presidents we can offer a salute to: Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. But what of the 38 men who have led our country and passed away? Well, they may not be able to hear our thanks, but Presidents’ Day encourages us to remember them, too. We’re doing so by focusing on one key legacy that each president left – the deeds that we remember them for, years after their deaths.
1. George Washington. He’s the easiest one, of course – we could just say “founded a nation” and move on. But it’s worth noting that as the first president, he did much to set the tone of the office for future leaders. Among other things, it was Washington who chose the title “Mr. President” for those addressing him (rejecting fancier titles like “His Excellency” and “His Highness”), and it was Washington who set the precedent for a two-term maximum, feeling ready for retirement after eight years of leading a new nation.
2. John Adams. The legacy that Adams himself was most proud of was the peace he forged with France. After the Revolutionary War, trouble began brewing with our one-time ally. Adams worked to smooth the waters, and he was so pleased with the result that he asked that his tombstone read “Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800.”
3. Thomas Jefferson. There’s much to say about our third president, but one fact that just might eclipse them all is the purchase he made that doubled the size of the United States. How many leaders can make that claim? It was the Louisiana Purchase, and it pushed the boundaries of our nation west of the Mississippi River and brought valuable ports into our control.
4. James Madison. Madison presided over the War of 1812, a conflict that was crucial in establishing the United States as truly independent – and as a rising world power. So comfortable were we with our status after the war that the remainder of Madison’s presidency began a period we called “The Era of Good Feelings.”
5. James Monroe. Our fifth president’s greatest legacy carries his name: The Monroe Doctrine. Declaring that we would intervene with any European power that tried to colonize land in the Americas, Monroe helped establish a long-standing foreign policy for the U.S.
6. John Quincy Adams. Where Monroe focused outward and shaped foreign policy, Adams looked back within our borders and worked to improve infrastructure, creating canals and roads that helped connect a growing nation.
7. Andrew Jackson. Forming the Democratic Party in order to defeat his longtime rival J.Q. Adams, Jackson did no less than create the two-party system that still reigns today. With it, many historians maintain, he ushered in the beginning of modern U.S. politics.
8. Martin Van Buren. Van Buren brought to the office of president a new melting-pot sensibility, reflecting the expanding nature of the U.S. populace. He was the first president born a U.S. citizen, the first not of British or Irish ancestry (he was Dutch and grew up speaking the language of his ancestors), and the first self-made man to become president, having been born into poverty and pulled himself up by his very American bootstraps.
9. William Henry Harrison. Only serving as president for a month before his death, Harrison had little time to leave a presidential legacy. More memorable was his campaign, in which he turned his rival’s taunts to his favor and presented himself as a down-home man of the people – the kind of president you’d like to sit and have a drink with – despite his actual wealth and power. It’s a campaign tactic that still works today.
10. John Tyler. As the first vice president to ascend to the presidency upon the death of the president, Tyler took the country into uncharted waters. Nobody was quite sure if the framers of the Constitution had intended for the vice president to become president, or to take a more passive “acting president” role. Tyler decisively led the country as president, setting a precedent for the future.
11. James Polk. Though not one of the best-known presidents, Polk left a long list of great accomplishments. Among them was the impressive collection of institutions that began during his presidency: the U.S. Naval Academy and the Smithsonian Institution opened, and the first postage stamps were issued.
12. Zachary Taylor. Though Taylor was a slaveholder, he helped set the stage for abolition – and in the process brought California into the United States. Typically, a territorial stage came before statehood. But Taylor urged California’s leaders to draft a state constitution and apply for statehood without first becoming a territory. His reasoning was that California’s constitution would not include legal slavery – and he was correct. This bypassed the ongoing political arguments between pro- and anti-slavery contingents, and it added an influential free state to the union (though California didn’t officially achieve statehood until a few months after Taylor’s death in office).
13. Millard Fillmore. Legend has Fillmore pegged as the first president to add a bathtub to the White House, but that’s a hoax invented decades after his term. More to the point was his handling of foreign policy, which led the U.S. toward expansion of trade in the Far East and helped resolve a number of brewing conflicts before they could get out of control.
14. Franklin Pierce. Not a particularly popular or effective president, Pierce set a precedent that was spurred by growing disagreement with his leadership: he became the first president to hire a full-time bodyguard. Perhaps it’s not the greatest legacy ever left by a president, but it was a notable step into the modern era.
15. James Buchanan. As Pierce proved, we’re not all remembered for our greatest deeds. Buchanan was another president who left a thorny legacy, given his unwillingness to entertain the idea of abolition and his slippery grip on seceding states. Perhaps what he is most remembered for is presiding over the beginnings of the Civil War.
16. Abraham Lincoln. If there’s one president whose legacy needs little introduction, it’s Lincoln. Who else can boast that he freed the slaves and started the United States on the path toward becoming a truly free and equal country? He’s consistently at or near the top of lists of greatest presidents, and there’s no question as to the enduring power of his legacy.
17. Andrew Johnson. Lincoln was bookended by presidents with less-than-stellar legacies. Johnson’s greatest claim to fame may well be that he was the first president to be impeached. Charged with violation of the Tenure of Office Act, Johnson was acquitted by just one vote.
18. Ulysses S. Grant. Grant’s status as a Union Army hero greatly informed both his presidency and his legacy. He brought the Reconstruction era near its close, admitting the last of the Confederate states back to the union and ensuring that none would secede again. And he championed the rights of freed slaves, giving black men the right to vote and working to prosecute Ku Klux Klan leaders.
19. Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes may be remembered less for his presidency and more for the election that got him there. One of the closest and most hotly contested elections in U.S. history, it presaged 21st century election controversy: Hayes lost the popular vote and was only awarded the presidency after an unprecedented fight between the two parties.
20. James A. Garfield. After just a few short months in office, Garfield was assassinated, leaving behind a short and tragic legacy as president. He had little time to achieve anything of note, but from the horror of his assassination came one notable advance. As he struggled for life after being shot in the heat of the summer, a system was devised to cool his room – it’s considered by many to be the world’s first air conditioner.
21. Chester A. Arthur. A champion of civil rights, Arthur worked to improve conditions for both African Americans and Native Americans. He secured better educational opportunities for Native Americans, though many of his efforts toward civil rights were blocked by resistance from Congress and the Southern Democrats.
22. Grover Cleveland. Cleveland was notable for, among other things, a series of “firsts” and “onlies.” He was the only president to serve two terms that didn’t occur back to back. As the 20th century approached, he became the first president to be filmed. And, though he wasn’t the first bachelor to be elected president, he was the first and, to this day, only president to be married at the White House.
23. Benjamin Harrison. Perhaps best-known of Harrison’s accomplishments was the Sherman Anti-Trust Act he signed into law. Designed to protect consumers from the negative effects of cartels and monopolies, it’s still important today.
24. William McKinley. McKinley took the U.S. from the 19th century into the 20th over the course of his two terms. With that step into a new century came a transition to a new political era and a legacy as an imperialist who brought new territories into U.S. control – Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines.
25. Theodore Roosevelt. At age 42 when he was sworn in, Roosevelt was the youngest president ever, but his legacy extends far beyond his age. More than any one act, Roosevelt is remembered for his charisma, which revived an office that was beginning to seem sleepy and ineffectual. He placed the office of president back at the center stage of the U.S.
26. William Howard Taft. An academic and a legal thinker, Taft was the only president who also served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Having appointed six justices to that court, he was appointed eight years after his presidential term ended, serving as a highly successful Chief Justice – one who was also very happy to make the move to the judicial branch.
27. Woodrow Wilson. Wilson brought the United States into World War I during his second term – after campaigning for reelection as the president who kept us out of war. Though WWI is misty in our memories almost a century later, it was a war of unprecedented scope at the time, shaping much of Wilson’s second term. Also memorable was the beginning of Prohibition at the end of Wilson’s presidential career – though he vetoed the Volstead Act, Congress passed it anyway.
28. Warren G. Harding. Harding signed the peace treaty that ended U.S. involvement in World War I, but that came after one singular achievement – he was the first president elected after women nationwide had gained the right to vote.
29. Calvin Coolidge. Calvin Coolidge was the only president to be born on the 4th of July, in 1872. Perhaps his flag-waving beginnings informed his work toward civil rights and equality: Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, giving full citizenship to all Native Americans, and he helped squash the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.
30. Herbert Hoover. It can’t have been easy to sit in the nation’s highest office on the day Wall Street crashed, just eight months after Hoover was inaugurated. He worked to bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression with public works projects, increased tariffs and higher taxes on top income brackets, but the economy continued to spiral out of control throughout his single term.
31. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Widely considered one of the greatest U.S. presidents, Roosevelt led us out of the Great Depression, brought us into World War II, and worked to bring a peace that he wouldn’t see, having died just a few months before our involvement in the war ended. He was, thanks to his strong leadership, the only president elected to more than two terms.
32. Harry S. Truman. Picking up where Roosevelt left off, Truman brought peace and prosperity to the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II. But he also presided over the beginnings of the next conflicts: the Korean War and the Cold War.
33. Dwight D. Eisenhower. During two highly successful terms, Eisenhower brought us the beginnings of the interstate highway system and the end of segregation in schools and the military: “There must be no second class citizens in this country.”
34. John F. Kennedy. JFK had an impressive string of firsts to his credit: the first president born in the 20th century, the first Catholic president, the first president to win a Pulitzer Prize. His term was a time of great change in the U.S. and around the world, with the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement – it’s hard to pick a single legacy he leaves. But we’ll settle on the fact that he truly brought the presidency into the modern age, rocketing to the office on the strength of the first televised presidential debate. His good looks and charisma played so well on TV that we couldn’t help but elect him.
35. Lyndon B. Johnson. Taking over the presidency after JFK’s assassination, Johnson continued the momentum his predecessor started in many ways, most notably civil rights. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, officially ending most forms of segregation. His Voting Rights Act ended discrimination in voting, and he proudly nominated the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.
36. Richard Nixon. “Tricky Dick” may be best remembered today for his crimes, but prior to Watergate, his presidency wasn’t all bad. He helped move the Vietnam War toward its end, established the Environmental Protection Agency, presided over the moon landing and, lest we forget, was elected to a second term in a landslide victory.
37. Gerald Ford. As the only president who was never voted into that office or the vice presidency (he assumed the office after both President Nixon and Vice President Agnew resigned), Ford inherited a messy situation. But he helped soothe an angry country by ending U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
38. Ronald Reagan. Another popular president with a wide and varied legacy, Reagan makes it hard for us to choose just one thing to remember him for. But if we must, it’s probably the Cold War. Reagan’s first years in office were marked by escalating tensions with Communist nations, heightening fears of nuclear war. Within a few years, he was presiding over the last days of the historic period of muscle-flexing, famously urging Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.
What legacies will the five living presidents be remembered for? We’ll give ourselves more time to mull their presidencies over, as we’ve done for the 38 profiled today. In the meantime, we offer all 43 leaders a thank-you for all they have done for our country.
Images via Wikimedia Commons. Originally published February 2013.