Five greatest presidents in the history of the United States

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Of the number presidents of the United States who have served their countrymen memorably in critical periods, none experienced so full a measure of public esteem as George Washington.

Washington, the first American to be elected President of the United States, assumed the notable position of commander and chief of the American colonists during the American Revolutionary War. He was instrumental in establishing the foundation of American democracy.  Even with the opportunity to be appointed “King” of the United States, Washington established the two-term tradition in the presidency until it became law.  “Washington believed that his political and military background gave him unique insight into the nation’s future.” (Kennedy et al. 1989) George Washington’s view of the nation’s political parties was expressed his inaugural address, “…you cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heart burnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection. . . .”  No chief executive has entered office better known to his contemporaries. “From New England to Georgia in 1789 Washington was celebrated as the American Atlas, the American Hannibal, akin to the Roman general and statesman, Cincinnatus of the Western Hemisphere; for almost a decade now he had heard references to himself as Father of his Country.” (Morton Borden, 1971 p. 2)

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Analysis reveals that Washington was largely responsible for the executive role of the presidency in government and was decisive during his administration.  He gained executive and legislative precedents, appended a Bill of Rights to the Constitution, established its credibility at home and abroad, fostered manufacturing and encouraged commerce. “Washington survived a serious insurrection in the mountains of Pennsylvania, secured the frontier against Indian depredations, effected the removal of British troops from the Old Northwest, checked Spanish encroachments in the Old Southwest and obtained transit rights on the Mississippi, forged a policy for the disposition of public lands, and avoided involvement in the vortex of European wars.” (Morton Borden, 1971 p. 5)

Of the numerous achievements of Washington’s administrations, perhaps the most significant is less dramatic.  What the Federalists did between 1789 and 1797 was a major moment by their efforts to keep the United States out of the wars of the French Revolution. In general agreement, American participation in the wars which erupted in Europe in 1793 would have proven disastrous. The American Union, then just four years old, scarcely could have survived such an experience. “No man in the United States saw this more clearly in 1793 than George Washington. “And in no instance during his tenure as chief executive did Washington demonstrate his role in the government so abundantly, or his greatness in statecraft so dramatically, as in the decisions he made–and in the manner he made them–early in that year. The preservation of American neutrality was Washington’s mightiest personal achievement as President of the United States.” (Morton Borden, 1971 p. 7)

The image of the 16th President United States, Abraham Lincoln, is without parallel in American history. Lincoln experienced personal and political heights, depths, contrasts, paradoxes and ironies, and was the ultimate recipient of its reversals of power and influence.

“The popular image of Lincoln most Americans have from schooldays, the media, and popular literature is of a kindly, honest, fatherly man–a man who, though he could enjoy a joke and might at times have a twinkle in his eye, was, particularly as president, a man of sorrows and sadness. He is perceived also as a man who hated slavery and wanted freedom and justice for all.” (William C. Spragens, 1988, p.67)  Lincoln was largely self-educated. As Lincoln himself put it, his total amount of formal education did not total a full year; and referring to his legal training, when it was customary to apprentice under a practicing attorney, Lincoln said he studied with nobody. “Despite that background, Lincoln became a prominent Illinois attorney “with a reputation as a lawyer’s lawyer–a knowledgeable jurist who argued appeal cases for other attorneys. He did his most influential legal work in the Supreme Court of Illinois, where he participated in 243 cases and won most of them.” (William C. Spragens, 1988, p. 68)  The elements of the Lincoln image emerge as the intertwined themes of the common, self-made, honest man. Lincoln himself had a hand in its creation. In his first major political speech, he stated; “I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.”( Roy P. Basler, 1953-1955, p. 8)

Lincoln faced tremendous issues with means uncertain and inadequate. Basically, Lincoln had to keep what was left of the Union together while at the same time ensuring that slavery was not extended… “to hold his own newly formed party together while at the same time appealing beyond party to all who might support the Union; to face a growing secessionist military capability without adequate forces of his own; to deal with a hostile chief justice, a troublesome Congress, and a critical press; and to do all this with the help of a cabinet which included some of his main rivals for the presidency, several of whom regarded themselves as better qualified than Lincoln, and with the help of government employees whose loyalties were often open to question.” (William C. Spragens, 1988, p. 72)

Of the presidents in the twentieth century the 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, was a historian and naturalist.  “By the twentieth century learning had become much more specialized and less conveniently accessible, so that it is not as likely Theodore Roosevelt could have been a first-rate historian while remaining an active public man.” (David H. Burton, 1988, p. 12)  No president before Theodore Roosevelt exhibited either in his preparation for public life or in his policies whiles in office the effects of these new and creative modes of thought. America throughout the nineteenth century continued to be a nation focused with the foundations of the nation, farm and factory and frontier.

Theodore Roosevelt. He saw Western man’s history, especially since 1500, as an evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest and mastery by the superior races. He also believed that the mainspring of the evolutionary mechanism was character in individual men, and that the aggregate of this individual moral sense accounted for the superior race. Furthermore, the outcome of the evolutionary process was progress, invariably judged by him according to the norms of traditional ethics (David H. Burton, 1988, p. 43)

The United States under the leadership of the 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson, accomplished an objective that England, France, Spain, Portugal, and Holland had desired for more than a century — unfettered commerce in the Mediterranean. “Here is a totally different and possibly unknown Thomas Jefferson, not an exponent of states’ rights and strict interpretation of the Constitution, but an American nationalist of the first order.” (Morton Borden, 196, p. 62)  Perhaps the most frequently cited example of Jefferson’s chameleon quality, however, was on the question of whether the United States should or should not purchase the Louisiana Territory from France. On this question the fundamental issue was squarely before Jefferson, and a choice could not be avoided. The purchase would more than double the size of the United States. Yet the Constitution did not specifically provide for such acquisition of foreign territory. Further, the treaty provided that this area would eventually be formed into states, full partners in the Union. Again, the Constitution did not specifically cover such incorporation. (Morton Borden, 196, p. 62)

32nd President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt was arguably a great politician, innovator, humanitarian and possessed natural talent for dramatic presentation. He was a skillful judge of talent and people.  He instilled his administration with exceptional advisors and support. He was a master communicator and sensitive to the use of words to convey ideas and to stir pathos in his listeners. His confidence, his optimism, and his determination were important to a nation beset first by economic depression and then by global war. Using aggressive presidential leadership, he initiated sweeping social and economic reforms, revitalized the American economic system, and then put it to work in the struggle against totalitarianism. (Tim H. Blessing, et al. 1994, p. 115)

Roosevelt believed that a man with the essential qualities of leadership had the potential of a great president. But the potential could be realized only through effective relationships and associations. Most important in the long pull were relations with the legislative branch and with the voters. He became exceedingly skillful in these and left some guidelines for his successors — especially those who would be “strong” presidents. (Thomas H. Greer, 1958, p. 212)  The host of Americans who shared Roosevelt’s battle against depression and tyranny rendered their own judgment of his role. “Their verdict, given over a period of twelve years, surprised many political observers. Before the election of 1936, William Allen White reviewed the accomplishments of Roosevelt’s first term; he approved what had been done but predicted a negative popular reaction. The President, he wrote, may have sacrificed his career for the New Deal program.” (Thomas H. Greer, 1958, p. 212)

Against the backdrop of global revolution and war, the results of Roosevelt’s leadership are seen almost visionary. At the time of his death the United States stood as vanguard as the surviving nation of capitalism and democracy. The entire world has been impressed by the resiliency of our system largely due to the gate keeping of Roosevelt.


David M. Kennedy, Lizabeth Cohen, Thomas A. Bailey Mel Piehl, 1989 The Brief American Pageant (vol. 1, 2nd ed.), p. 27. Lexington: D. C. Heath.

Morton Borden, 1971, America’s Eleven Greatest Presidents. Publisher: Rand McNally. Place of Publication: Chicago. Page Number: 2, 5, 7

William C. Spragens, 1988,  Popular Images of American Presidents. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of Publication: New York. Page Number: 67.

Roy P. Basler, 1953-1955, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols. plus index, ed. ( New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press,), 1:8, 9

David H. Burton, 1988,  The Learned Presidency: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson. Publisher: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. Place of Publication: Rutherford, NJ. Page Number: 12.

Morton Borden, 1961, America’s Ten Greatest Presidents. Publisher: Rand McNally. Place of Publication: Chicago. Page Number: 62.

Tim H. Blessing, Robert K. Murray, 1994, Greatness in the White House: Rating the Presidents. Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press. Place of Publication: University Park, PA. Page Number: 115

Thomas H. Greer, 1958, What Roosevelt Thought: The Social and Political Ideas of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Publisher: Michigan State University Press. Place of Publication: East Lansing, MI. Page Number: 212.


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