*Note: This article was originally written in April, 2016.
CONTENT WARNING: the following may contain some mild language, crude humor, alcohol, and commentary on American politics.
As I’m typing this, it’s an election year here in the states. In fact, 2016 is probably shaping up to be one of the most intense and divisive elections in this country’s history! (It was.)
While tensions run high in today’s polarized climate, (especially with social media echo chambers) I think we sometimes forget that no one’s perfect and that even goes for American Presidents. I think it’s important, now more than ever, to point out that EVERY Commander-in-Chief in our history has had their successes and failures.
When you get down to it, the job of an American President is probably one of the toughest positions of all time. No matter what you do, someone will hate you for it.
It’s also worth noting that the President of the United States is not a dictatorship as some seem to forget. Regardless of how much you may not like a candidate, there’s only so much damage that one can do from that position (well… hopefully), because (luckily) the Founding Fathers put some checks and balances in place.
*Note from 2020: well, it turns out that those “Checks and Balances” only work if the other branches of government and their elected officials actually held each other accountable, but I digress…
If (like me), you’re worried about corruption in the American government, you should be far more worried about who gets voted into the Senate and House of Representatives, gerrymandering, and whose getting paid by which lobbyists, than who the smiling figure head is. After all, we the people do have a say in the democratic process, don’t we?
Sure our government is far from perfect, but then again it IS run by people. Just remember, it could always be worse… and it has been before! (Take the Roman Emperors for example!)
So without further ado, here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of every American President in history… so far…
1 – GEORGE WASHINGTON
Presidential Years: 1789-1797
Political Party: None
Vice President: John Adams (future Prez)
Ran Against: John Adams
First Lady: Martha Dandridge Custis Washington
Quote: “We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.”
Best known for: Being the first President, crossing the Delaware, fake teeth…
Random Fact: Never chopped down a cherry tree. (It’s all a lie!)
Bio: George Washington came from a super rich colonial family in Virginia and inherited his family’s entire fortune, like a 18th century Tony Stark. He fought in the British militia during the Seven Years War, but despite his success against the French, he was turned down for an officer’s commission and held a grudge from that day forward. After dropping out of the militia, he married a wealthy widow, Martha – making them one of the richest families in the country.
Unlike many of the other, more extreme Founding Fathers, Washington was at first a bit reluctant to take a stand against the British, but when rubber hit the road, he led the Continental Army to its first victory in Boston! George Washington lost battle after battle, but eventually he won the war (with the help of the French) – all thanks to guerrilla tactics and fighting dirty.
One of General Washington’s first major victories came on December 26th, 1776 when he personally led a covert operation across the Delaware River early in the morning, in the dead of winter. The sneak attack at Trenton, New Jersey was enough of a victory to pump up the troops for the next seven years. From Valley Forge to Yorktown.
The man was the first and only President to be elected unanimously by the electoral collage. Unlike the Presidents that followed, Washington actually operated in New York rather than the current capitol, (Washington DC). From the start, he was very adamant about having neutral foreign policy and not getting involved in the business of other countries, which is pretty funny considering just how much we didn’t take his advice over the years.
Most of his presidency was spent attempting to maintain the peace and establishing precedents for future Presidents. When the Whiskey Rebellion rose up in Pennsylvania, he led the military in to quell the insurgency. Luckily the protesters disbanded before things got ugly.
By far the most impressive thing about Washington though is that instead of using the Presidency to rule as a King-for-life, the man turned in the keys after his time was up. He retired to his farm at Mount Vernon where he focused on his real passion: brewing moonshine, no joke!
2. JOHN ADAMS
Presidential Years: 1797-1801
Political Party: Federalist
Vice President: Thomas Jefferson (future Prez)
Ran Against: Thomas Jefferson (I’m sensing a pattern here)
First Lady: Abigail Smith Adams
Quote: “Liberty cannot be preserved without general knowledge among the people.”
Best known for: Being the father of John Quincy Adams
Random Fact: Was a patriotic lawyer who represented the British soldiers of the Boston Massacre.
Bio: John Adams first gained attention following the Boston Massacre, when he stepped up to act as legal defense for the accused British soldiers, firmly believing in the right of all to a fair trial. He served the Continental Congress during the American Revolution, helped to draft the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson and served as the Vice President to George Washington.
Adams only served one term as President and faced constant opposition from all angles, even from those within his cabinet! Attack ads in the newspapers of the time falsely claimed that he imported mistresses from Europe and was attempting to marry off his sons to royalty.
During the following election, Adams’s rival, Jefferson started the first mud-slinging campaign, name-calling Adams as “a hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” A tradition that carries on today.
Despite all this turbulence he still managed to avoid a full-scale war with France, a war we would’ve surely lost at the time. The French Revolution put America in an awkward position. The previous regime had helped us win our independence from the British, but seeing as that government had just been overthrown, the US decided it no longer had to pay off that loan. This led to French vessels harassing American ships.
It was during this time of political unrest that Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts into law in an attempt to quell the anti-government sentiments brewing from the XYZ Affair with France. While these policies were in response to growing tensions, they also targeted immigrants (especially French-Americans) and blatantly violated the First Amendment rights of every citizen.
An unofficial naval conflict (The Quasi-War) broke out between America and France. In response, John Adams poured the country’s resources into beefing up its naval powers with six new state-of-the-art frigates. The President immediately began working towards a peaceful resolution, sending diplomats to negotiate with France. Despite rampant opposition to his methods, his plan worked. Unfortunately news of its success didn’t reach voters prior to the election.
3. THOMAS JEFFERSON
Presidential Years: 1801-1809
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
Vice President: Aaron Burr / George Clinton
Ran Against: Aaron Burr, John Adams (former Prez) / Charles C. Pinckney
First Lady: Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson
Quote: “History, in general, only informs us of what bad government is.”
Best known for: Quotes… and stuff
Random Fact: Owned 6487 books!
Bio: Like Washington, Thomas Jefferson came from a wealthy family and even married a rich widow also named Martha! He became a lawyer before joining up with Thomas Paine, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of the extremists known today as the Founding Fathers. After being elected to the Continental Congress, Jefferson was chosen by John Adams to write the Declaration of Independence.
After the American Revolution, Jefferson served as Washington’s Secretary of State and then as John Adams’s Vice President, after losing the election to him. He became the nation’s third President after a virtual tie with Aaron Burr, but the House of Representatives chose Jefferson with Burr as his VP (because back then the one who got the second most votes became Vice President).
Jefferson and Adams were on opposing sides of a schism between the American people. Jefferson as a Democratic-Republican, sided with rural Americans as a strict constructionist. He vehemently believed that Federal powers should be limited, whereas Federalists like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton were strong advocates of the Constitutional authority of the Federal Government.
As such, Jefferson was consistently the target of numerous smear campaigns perpetrated by the media and his long-time rival, former President John Adams who during the Election of 1800 referred to him as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.”
Jefferson, claiming to be ‘above such tactics’ instead hired a guy, James Callendar, to do the mud slinging for him. He was so effective at lying that he convinced voters that President Adams actually wanted to start a war with France, when in fact he prevented one! However, Callendar’s slander landed him in prison and Jefferson washed his hands of the whole affair… which would later come back to haunt him.
In response to Callendar’s mud-slinging, the anti-Jeffersonian rhetoric ramped it up to 11, claiming that if Jefferson was elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes!”
I guess not much has changed.
Things continued to heat up between the two parties and in 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel where he shot and killed him before nonchalantly heading out for brunch, like a boss. The VP was found guilty by both New Jersey and New York, but somehow avoided jail. Burr was later arrested for treason in 1807 for completely different reasons, found not guilty and then fled the country.
Despite a politically-divided country, TJ managed to accomplish far more than most Commanders-in-Chief. He chopped the nation’s debt in half, sicked the Navy after pirates, bought the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon (for super cheap) and then sent Lewis and Clark to check out the new territory.
President Jefferson was also a champion of education, science and the pursuit of knowledge and even donated thousands of books from his personal collection to the Library of Congress. Perhaps most importantly of all though, Jefferson was a strong advocate for the Separation of Church and State, as well as Freedom of Religion or from it.
On the other hand, Jefferson was a bit of a hypocrite – he claimed to be against slavery, yet owned slaves. Furthermore he had an ongoing extramarital affair with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, who had six of his children! When James Calendar was released from prison, he got back at Jefferson by revealing the affair. Over the years this was considered nothing more than gossip, that is until DNA evidence proved its validity nearly 200 years later.
He was also allegedly a terrible public speaker, was often described as unkempt and disorderly, and was quite possibly an alcoholic. His most disastrous policy was the Embargo Act of 1807 which was a factor that led to the War of 1812.
Thomas Jefferson is one of the most influential, controversial and enigmatic Presidents of all time. Love him or hate him, the United States would probably be very different without him. He was a free thinker, possibly even a closeted atheist according to some, an avid drinker and evidence suggests he also quite likely had high-functioning autism.
Adams and Jefferson – The Best of Frenemies
In their later years, after decades of heated debate and outright hate on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams began writing one another and quickly became close friends, much like Batman and Superman they stopped punching each other long enough to realize that they weren’t all that different after all. The dynamic duo kept in touch as the closest of pen pals regardless of their opposing viewpoints.
Both Adams and Jefferson, life-long frenemies, died on the same day – July 4th, 1826 – on the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
To be continued in Part 2: Madison, Monroe, John Quincy Adams, and Jackson!
Thanks for reading! If you’re a fan of the blog, be sure to listen to the Epik Fails of History podcast and check out my all new “EPIC FAILS” book series – available now wherever books are sold! “EPIC FAILS: Not-So-Great Presidents” hits shelves on January 15th, 2019!
The War of 1812: America vs England – Round 2
“Heroes of History” by Winston Churchill
“The World Book of America’s Presidents” by Dale W. Jacobs
thank you so much this helped me understand more about them 🙂
Aww, thank you for the response! (I’m glad it still holds up) I actually decided to tackle this 10-parter, because I wanted an excuse to dive in and learn more about each of the Presidents and illustrate how none of them were perfect, but also point out some of the mistakes that have been made that we should learn from, and use it as a way to keep things in perspective when viewing modern politics.
In fact, I enjoyed researching and writing about the presidents so much that I ended up writing the third ‘Epic Fails’ book on the subject: “No So Great Presidents”! 😉
[…] shady cabal of forward thinkers included famed inventor, Benjamin Franklin, historical badass George Washington, future president, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, author of ‘Common Sense’, as […]
This was quite the educational, informative background I always liked to know about our first range of US Presidents. Very eager to re-read through these articles about who stood out as the absolute best and worst Presidents in American History. Thank you for the cool exploration (which I presume to be all truthful in your research about each one of these presidents), Erik!