Being an election year, the above title will give some the wrong idea right off the bat. While I have my political opinions, it has been a cardinal rule of mine to not spend time trying to convince anyone else that what I think about politics is ‘right’ while their opinions are ‘wrong’. When I was a newly minted voter and space geek, a big pulling point for a presidential candidate was a plan for funding the space program. Good, bad, or indifferent, my views of our past Presidents in my younger years were heavily influenced by the sanitized versions presented in History classes. Textbooks tended to buff up the good points and gloss over the bad presidential characteristics. At the very least, texts minimized the damage done by the Chief Executives who performed poorly. Before I got sidetracked into a teaching career in Geography – Earth Science, I had seriously toyed with the idea of becoming a History teacher.
When election time would roll around during my teaching days, some of my students would inevitably ask me who I was going to vote for. After reminding them that it was none of their business, I would ask them a question: “How many Presidents have there been in YOUR lifetime? Can you name them?” While they thought it over, I would start at Ike and rattle off the twelve who held the office in my lifetime (up through my retirement in 2018). It is too bad they no longer seem to distribute those ‘Presidents of the United States’ calendars that regularly adorned classrooms – they made a great visual aid when having this discussion with my classes.
When my birthday rolled around last fall, I was given a book entitled Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents – What Your Teachers Never Told You About the Men of the White House (Cormac O’Brien – Quirk Books – 2009). As I read through the first chapters, some of my public school knowledge base (about sanitizing past presidential accomplishments and failures) was confirmed by O’Brien’s description of the Office of the President of the United States of America. For example, the Senate wanted George Washington’s title to be “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and the Protector of Their Liberties.” Whew, that is quite a mouthful. Washington himself wanted no part of being associated with a more or less royal title, preferring to just be called ‘Mr. President’. The highlights of his military and political career are the things, as O’Brien states, “[That] get your face on a quarter, but there’s another side of the coin. The Father of Our Country had just as many flaws as any other dysfunctional dad.”
Delving deeper into these entertaining factoids about George and the other Mr. Presidents who followed him, I began focusing on the twenty six presidents who did not serve more than one term. Through Andrew Jackson (#7), five of our earliest Chief Executives served two terms. The next seventeen were all ‘One and Done’ presidents. All of our presidents have brought their own unique attributes to the office. While some were great war heroes, intelligent business men, skilled politicians, and likable people . . . others were not. Space here does not allow for me to get into the whole roster of Presidents, nor even all of the ‘One and Done’ Executives. With that said, let us go back and examine some of the high and low lights of our one term Presidents. Maybe we can look back and see what factors may have kept them from being elected for a second term.
President John Adams (#2 – served 1797-1801) had the unpleasant task of replacing “The Father of Our Country.” Until the electoral process was modified in 1804, the person who came in second in the presidential sweepstakes was named to the Vice-Presidency. Part of Adams undoing was his relationship with his own VP, Thomas Jefferson. So insecure was Adams about his second in command, he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts which made speaking out or printing libelous opinions about the government a crime. According to O’Brien, “[signing this act fed] the widespread feeling that [Adams] had delusions of kingship” (even though he only signed the bill that had been crafted by others in Congress). Still, his detractors thought him pompous and began calling him ‘His Rotundity’. The following quotes give a little more background as to how Adams was perceived: (Thomas Jefferson) – “He is vain, irritable, and a bad calculator of the force and probable effect of the motives which govern man.” (Benjamin Franklin) – “[Adams is] sometimes absolutely mad.” (Secretary of War James McHenry (at least until he was fired by Adams) – “Actually insane.” (and finally Abigail Adams (his wife)) – “[You have] a certain irritability which has sometimes thrown you off your guard.” Enough said?
Oddly enough (or perhaps not), the next ‘One and Done’ president was John Quincy Adams (#6), John Adams’ son. JQ Adams spent twenty years of his life outside of the United States, spoke seven languages, and was known as ‘Old Man Eloquent’ for his time in Congress. He is the only Commander in Chief to serve in Congress after his presidential term, but that did not help him much when he was elected President. In a strange twist, none of the four candidates in that election year were able to gain a large enough majority to win, so he buddied up with one of the four (Henry Clay). Clay supported JQA who then became president. In return, Clay was named Secretary of State, angering fellow candidate Andrew Jackson and his cronies. They vowed to, ”Do everything in their power to make JQA’s presidency impotent.” Adams had an ambitious set of public projects in mind, but the hostile Congress made sure that his was one of the most ineffectual administrations in the history of the United States. As Adams summed it up, “The four most miserable years of my life were my four years in the presidency.” Andrew Jackson would replace Adams beginning in 1829, but his would prove to be the last two term presidency (from 1837 to 1885) for many, many years The next ‘One and Done’ proved to be Old Hickory’s second term VP, Martin Van Buren.
Van Buren (#8 1837-1841) was the first president to be born after the Declaration of Independence. Old Hickory (Jackson) may have symbolized the emerging Democratic Party, but it was Van Buren who built the party from behind the scenes. As skillful as he was at building coalitions, his own presidency was rocked by more troubles than successes. While President Jackson’s actions were the primary cause of the financial panic of 1837, it was Van Buren who earned the nickname ‘Marty Van Ruin’. He made some amends by creating a strong and independent treasury that would limit future presidential meddling (ala Andrew Jackson). His term also witnessed the continuation of the program to resettle Native American groups, the infamous Cherokee Trail of Tears taking place under his watch. He did manage to avoid yet another war with the British during a rebellion in Canada. ‘The Little Magician’ stated, “As to the presidency, the two happiest days of my life were those of my entrance upon the office and my surrender of it.”
Following on the heels of Van Buren was William Henry Harrison (#9 – served 1841). Harrison described his election as follows: “Some folks are silly enough to have formed a plan to make a president of the U.S. out of this Clerk and Clod Hopper.” He was the last American president born an English subject and his father was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Prior to Harrison, presidential candidates did not involve themselves with campaigning for the office. The Whig party unseated the incumbent Van Buren with garish parties, banners, and bands with the hope that they could push the ‘Clod Hopper’ into office and then have him do their bidding. Soon after the election, Harrison began ignoring their suggestions, thus setting up a showdown between the president and his party. No showdown actually occurred, however, after Harrison gave the longest inaugural speech on record (one hour and forty five minutes) on a cold and blustery day. He refused to dress for the occasion and became sick the next day. Harrison recovered, but he had severely weakened his system. After coming down with a bad case of the chills on March 27, he passed away on April 4, 1841.
John Tyler (#10 – served 1841-1845) thus became the first VP to gain the office via a presidential death in office (another first). Did this make Tyler the actual president or was he merely the sitting president? His opinion was established firmly when he returned all mail addressed to him as ‘The Acting President of the United States’ unopened (with ‘addressee unknown’ marked on the envelope). Tyler was the former governor of Virginia and had served in both houses of Congress. He got in trouble with the Whig-dominated Congress for not voting with them on their pet projects (like reestablishing the Bank of the United States that had been disassembled by Jackson and Van Buren). The Whigs banished the president from his own party and five of his six cabinet members resigned. Previous friction with the Democrats left him adrift for a gloomy four years. He collected death threats almost daily and his first wife died of a stroke in 1842.
Of the three things that Tyler did manage to accomplish as president, two were political and one was personal. Tyler’s administration settled the Canada-Maine border issue and also began the annexation of Texas. His personal triumph? He remarried Julia Gardiner, thirty years his junior. Including the children he had with his first wife, Letitia, he sired a remarkable 15 offspring, the most of any president. Tyler himself was born during Washington’s presidency and his youngest daughter, Mary (who was born when Tyler was 70), died during Harry Truman’s administration – a span of thirty-two presidents and more than 150 years.
Tyler’s successor, James Knox Polk (#11 – Served 1845-1849) swept into office because he firmly stood behind the idea of Manifest Destiny (the idea that the United States should expand its borders from sea to sea). Tyler may have started the ball rolling, but it was Polk who caused a true border crisis. He ordered troops under General Zachary Taylor south of the acknowledged US-Mexican border, the Nueces River to ‘keep an eye on the Mexicans’ (Polk had made the dubious claim that the true border was farther south at the Rio Grande River). When the Mexicans defended their territory, Polk accused them of shedding, “American blood on American soil” and got Congress to pass a declaration of war. By the time he was done (two years later), he had added California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, and Arizona to the fold.
Polk was described as, “A humorless workaholic who believed that public servants, especially the president, had no business indulging in anything as frivolous as private time.” Indeed, he was away from the capital just six weeks during his four year term in Washington. Most historians think that his untimely death (some three months after his term ended) was a result of Polk’s preposterously long working hours having weakened his system. Polk had entered the office at age 49, the youngest president to that point and was only 53 when he died. Yes, many think he worked himself to death.
In Part 2 of One and Done, we will pick up the story with the next General turned president, Zachary Taylor.
Top Piece Video: Billy Joel writes a musical history lesson for us all!