After the Declaration of Independence in 1776, thirteen British colonies emerged to form a new nation. From the role’s creation in 1789 by its Founding Fathers until the eve of the Civil War, America saw 15 Presidents – each of whom helped shape the country’s history and define the presidential role.
Here are America’s first 15 Presidents in order:
1. George Washington (President from 1789-1797)
Washington became a national hero after commanding the Continental Army and leading it to victory over the British during the American Revolution (1775-1783).
After presiding over the convention that drafted the US Constitution, Washington was unanimously elected President – astutely aware of the precedent he’d set.
2. John Adams (1797-1801)
John Adams’s presidency was largely taken up with foreign affairs as Britain and France were at war, which directly affected American trade.
3. Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)
Thomas Jefferson was America’s first Secretary of State and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence (1776).
As President, Jefferson stabilised the US economy and successfully brokered the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, buying 800,000 square miles for $15 million, which doubled the size of the US.
4. James Madison (1809-1817)
James Madison co-wrote The Federalist Papers, earning him the nickname ‘Father of the Constitution’, which ratified the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
The controversial War of 1812 against Britain was fought during his presidency.
5. James Monroe (1817–1825)
James Monroe was America’s last President from its Founding Fathers, and best known for his ‘Monroe Doctrine’ opposing European colonialism in the Americas.
His first term became known as the ‘Era of Good Feelings’ following his tour of the country, his seeking to unite Republicans and Federalists in a common cause, and the beginnings of international relief.
6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
Adams was the first US President who was the son of a President. Although a highly influential diplomat, hostile opposition from the Jacksonians meant many of his initiatives were either considered overambitious, failed to pass legislation or were badly underfunded.
7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
Andrew Jackson, known as the “people’s president”, was the first to wield his veto power as a matter of policy. He founded the Democratic Party, destroyed the Second Bank of the United States (which he saw as corrupt), and instituted the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which forced the migration of Native Americans.
Jackson was also the target of the first presidential assassination attempt – and the first president to ride on a train, in 1833.
8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
Martin Van Buren – the first president born as a US citizen – had been known as the ‘Little Magician’ after his reputed skill as a politician. However, his time in office was dominated by the financial panic of 1837 and resulting economic depression. His popularity further waned after he blocked the annexation of Texas.
9. William Henry Harrison (1841)
William Henry Harrison was a military officer and politician. On his 32nd day as President, he became the first to die in office after developing pneumonia, and the shortest-serving president in US history.
10. John Tyler (1841-1845)
Nicknamed ‘His Accidency’, John Tyler was the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency after the death of his predecessor. He was also the first president to have his veto overridden by congress, and the first to marry while holding office.
After vetoing bills aimed at reestablishing a national bank, Tyler was ostracized by congressional Whigs, becoming a president without a party.
11. James K. Polk (1845-1849)
During Polk’s presidency, the annexation of Texas as a state was concluded, resulting in the Mexican-American War which caused a bitter disagreement between the North and South over the expansion of slavery. Vast territories were also acquired in the Southwest and along the Pacific coast, along with the establishment of America’s northern border.
The stress of his presidency took a toll on Polk, and he died just 3 months after leaving office.
12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
Zachary Taylor had served in the US Army for nearly 40 years and was seen as a hero from the Mexican-American War.
After California’s population expanded following the Gold Rush, there was pressure to resolve the issue of its statehood. Though a slaveholder himself, Taylor’s time in the army had given him a strong sense of nationalism and he opposed the creation of new slave states. This incensed some southern leaders who threatened secession.
In early July 1850, he suddenly fell ill and died.
13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Millard Fillmore was a member of the Whig party – the last President not to be affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican parties.
Fillmore passed the Fugitive Slave Act (1850), making it a crime to support slaves trying to escape to free territories, and helped create the Compromise of 1850. Increased settlement in the west had led to clashes with Native Americans, and Fillmore approved one-sided treaties that forcibly moved them onto government reservations.
14. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
Pierce hoped to ease North/South divisions but by signing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers of a territory to decide whether slavery would be allowed within the new state’s borders, he hastened the disruption of the Union. Anger around this Act turned Kansas into a battleground for the country’s conflict over slavery, setting America on its path to civil war.
15. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
It was hoped Buchanan could avert a national crisis but his refusal to take a firm stand on either side and inability to halt southern states’ moves toward secession led to the Union breaking apart. By February 1861 seven Southern states had seceded. Civil war became increasingly inevitable.