Politics in the United States can be an incredibly divisive topic of conversation, if recent news is any indication. Still, no matter how you feel (or felt) about any Commander-In-Chief, there’s one thing we can agree on for all of them: each loved this country and cared about doing a good job. No one wants to be remembered as the the “worst president of all time” — and no matter whether you hate or love the current president or the last, I can guarantee you that neither will hold that title.
But even the now-reviled James Buchanan didn’t set out to become the worst President ever. Even the Pierce Administration thought it was doing what was right for the United States. And, in Warren G. Harding’s defense, things were going really well in America during the 1920s. Let’s take a moment to forget party divisions and just remember the good times.
(And if you’re wondering, President Trump isn’t on here because his term isn’t over yet — his most ‘Murica moment might be yet to come)
George Washington accepting Lord Cornwallis’ sword at Yorktown in 1781.
What was George Washington’s most “‘Murica” moment? Making everything about this country happen. The original Commander-In-Chief trapped the British Army under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown with the help of the French Fleet. With nowhere else to go, Cornwallis surrendered, breaking the will of the British to keep fighting in North America.
The United States was born two years later and George Washington set the standard for how every democratically-elected President should act in office. It was his will that set these precedents and allowed the American experiment to continue. We would not have our democratic traditions were it not for how Washington conducted himself during and after his time in office.
He even warned us about political parties. Just saying.
“The Directory is a stupid name for a ruling body. France is dumb.” — John Adams, probably.
In many ways, the way John Adams conduct in office was as important as George Washington’s. Adams’ continuation of precedents set by Washington meant that successive Presidents would do the same. But that wasn’t Adams’ most patriotic moment.
That came when Revolutionary France demanded a bribe from the United States in order to accept diplomatic envoys. Rather than quietly pay up, Adams read the letter to Congress — who promptly printed it. Adams also commissioned ships for the U.S. Navy and raised a provisional army as reports of armed actions from France mounted. Instead of going to war, the French relented when American ships started clearing sea lanes and accepted American diplomats.
This is a face that says, “I’m sick of your sh*t.”
Jefferson’s finest American hour came when he launched the nascent United States’ first war on terror. For decades, countries paid the North African Barbary States for the right to not get attacked by pirates in the Mediterranean. Corsairs from Tripoli and Algiers would raid foreign shipping and enslave entire crews, often even if the ransom was paid.
When Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801, the Barbary States got no more money from the United States. What they got instead was Stephen Decatur stealing their ships and burning their harbors as United States Marines under Lt. Presley O’Bannon captured their cities from the rear. When they Barbary Pirates tried the same stuff again a few years later, Decatur returned and this time, Algiers paid the U.S. to stop.
James Madison is one of our more overlooked Founding Fathers, and it’s probably because the war his administration oversaw ended in a stalemate — and the burning of Washington, D.C. But what was Madison supposed to do? Sit there and let Britain steal American sailors and tell the United States with whom who it could and couldn’t conduct trade just because they were the world’s dominant power? If your answer is ‘hell no,’ then you know why Madison took America to war, despite having very little to fight with.
It was the first time the United States declared a war against anyone and declared to the world that we were here to stay.
“Back. The Hell. Up.” – James Monroe (paraphrasing)
For almost the entire lifespan of the United States, our policy in the Western Hemisphere was that any European meddling in the affairs of states in North and South America would be seen as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States” and be dealt with accordingly — this became known as the “Monroe Doctrine.” Recolonization of the Western Hemisphere was not gonna fly.
Basically, he told the world that the West was an American Hemisphere and if you f*ck with free and independent Latin America, you’re f*cking with the United States. And they all listened.
That is what a game face looks like.
John Quincy Adams
Adams wasn’t just the progeny in the first Father-Son Presidential legacy, he was also the first “America First” President, opting to maintain good relations with Europe but focus any military and economic might right here in the Western Hemisphere. Under John Quincy’s administration, infrastructure projects created a marvelous system of roads and canals across state lines.
Unfortunately, while this was good for the young country’s development in the long term, the short term effect caused Adams to lose after his first administration, being accused of “public plunder” and federal overreach by his detractors.
“The Era of Good Feelings is over. Daddy’s home.”
Andrew Jackson came into office like a wrecking ball — literally. His inauguration party nearly destroyed the White House. But as Jackson pledged his respect for the right of the states’ self-governance, he also had a deep respect for the law of the land. So, when uppity U.S. states thought they could nullify federal laws they just didn’t like, President Jackson had to remind them that the the Constitution of the United States was in charge.
Even lowering the so-called “Tariff of Abomination” didn’t placate the South. So, Jackson sent the U.S. Navy into Charleston Harbor and threatened to hang anyone who even said the word “nullification.” He considered states defying federal law to be in full rebellion. And secession — another word Jackson hated — was not something he would tolerate either. You might say Andrew Jackson’s fury at Southern intransigence held the Union together for another decade.
He was also the first President born in the United States.
Martin Van Buren
This one… this one was a tough one. There’s no doubt President Van Buren did what he thought was right, even if it meant disagreeing with his political patron and idol, Andrew Jackson. But Martin Van Buren’s greatest accomplishment seems to be keeping the United States out of wars at a time when it couldn’t really pay the debt a war would cause — and it cost Van Buren the office of President.
It’s not as if there weren’t reasons to go to war. The newly-freed Republic of Texas was clamoring to be annexed by the United States, but it would lead to a war with Mexico. Canadian freedom fighters begged for help from the Van Buren Administration in liberating our northern neighbor from British rule. The British were even close to invading Maine. But after the Panic of 1837, the finances of the U.S. were weak and a war, though good for his approval rating, was not something they could afford.
He came from a time when a popped collar meant something.
William Henry Harrison
Harrison, the General and hero of Tippecanoe and the War of 1812, was propelled to the Presidency by popular demand. Everything about Harrison was America. Sadly, he famously died in office after 30 days and a long bout with pneumonia. As the oldest President ever elected at that time (only Reagan and Trump were older at their elections), it’s a surprise no one saw that coming.
On a cold, wet day in March, he delivered the longest inaugural address in history and he got there riding a horse without a coat and hat. The guy was practically begging for pneumonia. But the most American thing about Harrison was his dedication to bipartisanship — every time someone tried to force him to do something unethical, he reminded them that William Henry Harrison was the President of the United States and he’ll do what he damn well wants.
A full, four-year Harrison Administration would have been quite the sight.
If ever there was a face that said, “I didn’t ask for this, leave me alone,” it was John Tyler’s.
Tyler took over for Harrison after his death, assuming office amidst a number of terrible crises for the still-young United States. Tyler’s most American moments just might be weathering all of these crises in line with the Constitution, as he believed the Founders would have intended.
Known as “His Accidency” for being the first unelected President of the United States after Harrison died, Tyler moved into the White House and assumed the duties of President. At the time, Presidential succession was not outlined in the Constitution as it is today. He was the first President to have a veto overridden by Congress, the first President against whom the House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings, and the first President to be expelled from his own party. He took all of it in stride and when the time to step down came, he did.
The first Presidential Mullet says, “Manifest Destiny, b*tches.”
James K. Polk
After three very lackluster Presidencies, there’s no doubt the people were excited to have a President like Polk. James Polk promised he’d only serve one term and he kept that promise — but not before achieving every single goal he said was a priority for his administration.
James Polk’s most American moment came when he pretty much created or settled the borders of the mainland United States as we know it today. With the exception of a strip of New Mexico and Arizona purchased from Mexico in 1853, Polk annexed Texas for the United States, negotiated with Britain for what is now Oregon and Washington, and sent the Army and Navy to a war with Mexico, securing the Rio Grande as the southern border and acquiring what is today California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Arizona and Colorado — exactly what he said he was going to do in his inauguration address.
The list continues in part two.