Not every President of the United States has a memorable administration. And, for some of these presidents, it’s probably best that people forget their time in office. That being said, no president is trying to be remembered as the worst president of all time. They might not even be thinking about being the best of all time – many are just playing the hands they were dealt, for better or for worse. How they play that hand determines their legacy.
Some are just better players than others.
No matter what their legacy ends up being in the annals of American History, each Presidency had its high points, whether it be a moment of patriotism, like James Madison’s administration, or a moment of love of country, like Andrew Jackson’s. They might even have, simply, the less-celebrated “holding it together and not freaking out while keeping a straight face,” like John Tyler’s administration.
The point is, they all have their moments that truly embody the American spirit — and these are those moments.
Fat-president jokes are so 1880s.
Grover Cleveland #2
Cleveland is the only President of the United States to serve two non-consecutive terms. This would be like George H.W. Bush coming back and taking the White House from Bill Clinton in 1996 — unthinkable in our day and age, but technically possible. It wasn’t so improbable in Grover Cleveland’s era. The Democrat’s first term saw him get badly-needed upgrades to coastal defenses and the U.S. Navy through a Republican Congress, which was no small feat, even back in 1885. But it was his skill as Commander-In-Chief that got him re-elected in 1892.
This time, he wasn’t just thinking about the defense of the United States. He wanted American ships that could take the U.S. Navy on the offensive and commissioned five battleships and 16 torpedo boats, effectively doubling the battleship capability of the U.S. Navy. These ships would later be used to defeat Spain in the Spanish-American War.
Every photo of William McKinley makes him look like he’s disappointed in you.
The president that built the bridge to the 20th Century, William McKinley was the last Civil War veteran — and the only enlisted Civil War veteran — to ride his military service to the White House. He was elected to two terms in the nation’s highest office but was assassinated just six months into his second. It was a tragic end to a good career but, fortunately, he was able to start the American Century with a bang.
Actually, it’s more like a lot of bangs. McKinley sent the USS Maine into Havana harbor to protect U.S. interests in the middle of a Cuban slave revolt against Spanish rule. When the Maine exploded in Havana harbor, he commissioned a court of inquiry to determine if the Spanish were at fault. Even though modern evidence later revealed that an onboard accident destroyed the American ship, McKinley’s court determined a Spanish mine was at fault. McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war against Spain, which the United States won in less than a year, capturing Guam, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and for a while, Cuba as American territories.
It’s difficult to choose the most American moment from the presidency of the most American man who ever lived.
President McKinley is more often than not overlooked by history, not because he was inconsequential (he wasn’t) but rather because he’s in the shadow of one of the giants of history. In the U.S., there was only one man who could do what TR did – regulate monopolies while taking on big business, preserve national parks, and clean up our food and drugs while instituting the income tax and the inheritance tax — aka the “Death Tax.” These ideas seem counter to today’s right-left politics, but Roosevelt could do it and if you called him a flip-flopper, Teddy would have words (and probably fists) with you.
Roosevelt’s most American moment came as part of his “Big Stick” foreign policy and was an addendum — corollary, actually — to the Monroe Doctrine. When Venezuela refused to pay its foreign debt in 1902, Italy, Germany, and Britain blockaded its ports and tried to force payment through an international court. Where the Monroe Doctrine warned Europe to stay out of the United States’ backyard, the Roosevelt Corollary warned Europeans that the United States military would be the guard dog keeping them out.
At Roosevelt’s order, the U.S. Navy met the blockade around Venezuela and forced them to back down. The parties then settled into arbitration.
You see, this cat Taft is one bad mother.
William Howard Taft
Taft and Roosevelt were close friends and saw eye-to-eye on most issues facing the United States at the time of Taft’s election. Taft was pretty much Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor to the office and, even though the two men were different in tone and constitution, much of what Roosevelt started was picked up under Taft. One of the first uses of the Roosevelt Corollary was in Nicaragua, under Taft’s orders.
Nicaragua was quickly falling into total chaos. The government was facing a powerful rebellion backed by American diplomats. Meanwhile, the elected government was heavily indebted to Europeans. When the government executed two Americans, the U.S. cut ties and aided rebel forces in the capture the capital of Managua. The U.S.then forced Nicaragua to take a loan so Europeans couldn’t get their hands on a potential new canal site (the Panama Canal was under construction at the time). American troops essentially took control of the entire country for the next 20 years.
“He kept us out of war.” Lolz
As the first professor elected to the U.S. Presidency, Wilson was a far departure from the days of Roosevelt and Taft. History is beginning to question some of Wilson’s decisions regarding domestic policy, but one thing we can’t question is his resolve to protect Americans and American interests. When Pancho Villa killed Americans while raiding new Mexico, he ordered America’s premiere military man to follow him into Mexico. Then, Germany started messing with the U.S.
In the ultimate series of boneheaded provocations, Germany, in the middle of World War I kept poking the United States. After British spies intercepted a telegram from the German Ambassador to the leaders of Mexico promising an alliance if the United States entered the European War and the torpedoing of the Lusitania liner that killed hundreds of Americans, Germany sunk a number of American ships. Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war and the United States entered World War I.
He wasn’t nicknamed “The Regulator,” but it would’ve been cool.
Warren G. Harding
The United States helped win the war in Europe but was left with many, many questions in its wake. Harding’s administration was determined to get the United States back in order in the post-WWI years. Beyond the drawdown of American troops from Europe and Cuba, a reduction in the overall military, and arms reduction agreements with major world powers, Hardings most American moment has to be the rejection of the League of Nations.
The United States did not sign the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I because of the agreement to the creation of the League of Nations. Instead it conducted separate agreements with Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Harding was elected on a platform of opposing the League. In the end, the League was a failed body — but was it because of the lack of U.S presence or despite it?
Meanwhile, nothing about Calvin Coolidge’s look is all that cool… but stick around.
“Silent Cal” really believed that most things, from flood control to business, would work itself out and the Federal government wasn’t there to handle every single problem faced by the states. What Coolidge did believe in was the rights of Americans, regardless of race — a big deal for 1923. The 30th President didn’t care what color anyone was and let it be known that Americans were Americans. Period.
He granted Native Americans citizenship and used his first inaugural address to remind the government of the rights of African-Americans and that the government had a public and private duty to defend those rights. He even thanked immigrants for making the United States what it was and called for the U.S. to welcome and protect immigrants.
One of the few presidents whose major life achievements came before and after being president.
Everything great about Herbert Hoover (and there’s a lot. Seriously, look it up) happened outside of his Presidency. Hoover was a tireless, dedicated public servant who spent much of his life in service to others both before and after taking office. Unfortunately for Hoover, history will forget everything but his response to the Great Depression, which was abysmal and engulfed most of his time in office. His critics had a point.
Internationally, Hoover was the last U.S. President who didn’t really need to pay close attention to the rest of the world. His most American moment was winding down the interventionist wars in Latin America which began at the turn of the century. Troops from Nicaragua and Haiti were finally coming home.
Franklin Roosevelt ran his Presidency like he had the Konami codes to the White House.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
If only every leader could as capable as FDR, the only President to serve more than two terms. If there’s one President that had the biggest effect in shaping the United States to look like the country it is today, it would be Franklin Roosevelt. The reason new administrations are judged on their first 100 days in office is because the Roosevelt Administration implemented New Deal reforms to end the Great Depression while ending Prohibition within its first few months.
It wasn’t just his oversight of World War II that made for a great patriotic moment. There are so many moments to choose from throughout his four terms in office. The most exciting moment came in 1943 at the Casablanca Conference where he told Winston Churchill he would only accept the unconditional surrender of each Axis power. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem so powerful a statement, but in 1943, victory for the Allies was far from assured.
If you f*cked with America while Truman was in charge, he probably sent some guys after you.
Harry S. Truman
Truman prosecuted the end of World War II, the reduction in size of the U.S. Armed Forces, the rebuilding of post-war Europe, the formation of the United Nations, the integration of armed forces, and so much more. It’s hard to believe people thought so little of Truman after he left office given everything we know his administration really did.
His most American moment was the highly-unpopular move of firing General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, asserting civilian control of the military and his status as Commander-In-Chief, telling Time Magazine later,
“I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President … I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a b*tch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
The face when someone who already oversaw the destruction of global fascism threatens the Communist way of life.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Of course the man who presided over victory in Europe during World War II is going to ascend to the presidency. But when Ike took office as Chief Executive, the United States was in the middle of a bloody stalemate, leading United Nations forces against the communists in Korea. His solution wasn’t to make a speech at the UN General Assembly or take advice from others. The onetime Supreme Allied Commander would go see for himself.
Eisenhower was barely President-elect when he arrived in Korea after two brutal years of fighting there. He immediately concluded that it would forever be a stalemate no one would really win and then threatened the Chinese Communists with nuclear war if they didn’t hammer out an agreement. The Communists, rattled by Ike’s WWII reputation, believed him and concluded an agreement within 8 months.
Looking to go back in time? Check out part two.
Looking to visit the future? Part four is coming soon!