From a nation divided during the Civil War to its position as a powerful player on the world stage by World War Two’s end, America saw immense change between 1861 and 1945. Here are the 17 presidents that shaped its future.
1. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
Abraham Lincoln served as president for 5 years until his assassination by John Wilkes Booth on 15 April 1865.
In addition to signing the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 that paved the way for slavery’s abolition, Lincoln is known primarily for his leadership during the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), including his Gettysburg address – one of the most famous speeches in American history.
2. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
Andrew Johnson took office during the closing months of the Civil War, quickly restoring Southern states to the Union.
His lenient Reconstruction policies towards the South angered Radical Republicans. He opposed the Fourteenth Amendment (giving citizenship to former slaves) and allowed rebel states to elect new governments – some of which enacted Black Codes which repressed the former slave population. He was impeached in 1868 for violating the Tenure of Office Act over his veto.
3. Ulysses S. Grant (1869–1877)
Ulysses S. Grant was the commanding general that led the Union Armies to victory in the Civil War. As president, his focus was on Reconstruction and attempts to remove slavery’s remnants.
Though Grant was scrupulously honest, his administration was tainted with scandal and corruption due to people he appointed who were ineffective or had an unsavory reputation.
4. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
Hayes won a controversial election against Samuel Tilden, on condition he withdraw remaining troops in the South, ending the Reconstruction era. Hayes was determined for civil service reform and appointed Southerners to influential posts.
Whilst he was pro racial equality, Hayes failed to persuade the South to accept this legally, or to convince Congress to appropriate funds to enforce civil rights laws.
5. James Garfield (1881)
Garfield served nine terms in the House of Representatives before being elected President. Just six and a half months later, he was assassinated.
Despite his short tenure he purged the Post Office Department of corruption, reasserted superiority over the US Senate and appointed a US Supreme Court justice. He also proposed a universal education system to empower African Americans, and appointed several former slaves to prominent positions.
6. Chester A. Arthur (1881-85)
Garfield’s death rallied public support behind civil service reform legislation. Arthur is most known for the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act which created a merit-based system of appointment for most positions in the federal government. He also helped transform the US Navy.
7 (and 9). Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897)
Cleveland is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms in office and the first to be married in the White House.
In his first term, Cleveland dedicated the Statue of Liberty, and saw Geronimo surrender – ending the Apache wars. Honest and principled, he viewed his role as primarily to block legislative excesses. This cost him support following the Panic of 1893, as did his intervention in 1894’s Pullman Strike.
8. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
President between Cleveland’s two terms, Harrison was the grandson of William Harrison. During his administration, six more states were admitted to the Union, and Harrison oversaw economic legislation including the McKinley Tariff, and Sherman Antitrust Act.
Harrison also facilitated the creation of the national forest reserves. His innovative foreign policy expanded American influence and established relations with Central America with the first Pan-American Conference.
10. William McKinley (1897-1901)
McKinley led America to victory in the Spanish-American War, acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. His bold foreign policy and raising of protective tariffs to promote American industry meant America became increasingly active and powerful internationally.
McKinley was assassinated in September 1901.
11. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt remains the youngest person to become US President.
He enacted ‘Square Deal’ domestic policies, including progressive corporate reforms, limiting large corporations’ power and being a ‘trust buster’. In foreign policy, Roosevelt spearheaded the construction of the Panama Canal, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating to end the Russo-Japanese War.
Roosevelt also set aside 200 million acres for national forests, reserves and wildlife, and established America’s first national park and national monument.
12. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
Taft is the only person to have held offices as both President and later as Chief Justice of the United States. He was elected as the chosen successor of Roosevelt to carry on the progressive Republican agenda, yet defeated when seeking re-election through controversies over conservation and antitrust cases.
13. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)
After his initial neutrality policy at World War One’s outbreak, Wilson led America into war. He went on to write his ‘Fourteen Points’ for the Treaty of Versailles, and became the leading advocate for the League of Nations, earning him the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize.
Domestically, he passed the Federal Reserve Act 1913, providing the framework that regulates US banks and money supply, and saw the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the vote. However, his administration expanded the segregation of federal offices and civil service, and he has received criticism for supporting racial segregation.
14. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Harding was keen for a ‘return to normalcy’ after World War One, embracing technology and favouring pro-business policies.
After Harding’s death in office, scandals and corruption of some of his cabinet members and government officials came to light, including Teapot Dome (where public lands were rented to oil companies in exchange for gifts and personal loans). This, plus news of his extra-marital affair, damaged his posthumous reputation.
15. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
In contrast to the Roaring Twenties’ dynamic social and cultural change, Coolidge was known for his quiet, frugal and steadfast demeanor, earning him the nickname ‘Silent Cal’. Nevertheless, he was a highly visible leader, holding press conferences, radio interviews and photo ops.
Coolidge was pro-business, and favoured tax cuts and limited government spending, believing in small government with minimal intervention. He was suspicious of foreign alliances and refused to recognise the Soviet Union. Coolidge was in favour of civil rights, and signed the Indian Citizenship Act 1924, granting Native Americans full citizenship while allowing them to retain tribal lands.
16. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
Hoover gained a reputation as a humanitarian in World War One by leading the American Relief Administration providing hunger-relief efforts in Europe.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 occurred soon after Hoover took office, ushering in the Great Depression. Although his predecessor’s policies contributed, people began to blame Hoover as the Depression worsened. He pursued a variety of policies to try and aid the economy, but failed to recognise the situation’s severity. He opposed directly involving the federal government in relief efforts which was widely viewed as callous.
17. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
The only president elected four times, Roosevelt led America through one of its greatest domestic crises and also its greatest foreign crisis.
Roosevelt aimed to restore public confidence, speaking in a series of ‘fireside chats’ by radio. He greatly expanded the powers of the federal government through his ‘New Deal’, which led America through the Great Depression.
Roosevelt also led America away from its isolationist policy to become a key player in a wartime alliance with Britain and the Soviet Union which won World War Two and established America’s leadership on the world stage. He initiated the development of the first atomic bomb, and laid the groundwork for what became the United Nations.