The United States has witnessed the peaceful transition of presidential power among 45 presidents, which is a remarkable feat any way you look at it. Not all residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were remarkable, but it’s interesting to look back on some of the more influential and important presidents.
General George Washington, the first President of the United States, is probably the most revered and respected leader, some 200 years after he left office. Washington did many important things for the US, including leading the colonial forces during the Revolution, but his most revolutionary act was not seizing power for himself after the war was over. The world did not know how the former colonies would govern themselves, but Washington could have easily taken control of the government from his position as head of the military. Instead, he took a step back from public life, let other Founding Fathers create a lasting structure of government, and only took power given him through free and fair elections by the people.
After only two terms as president, he retired from public life, establishing a precedent for the regular peaceful transition of power that is a hallmark of American government today. When he retired, he returned to his beloved Mt. Vernon in Virginia, where he is buried alongside his wife Martha and other family members.
Thomas Jefferson served as the third president of the United States, but his greatest contribution to the success of the county came long before, when he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This document officially declared the colonies free from British rule and helped rally people to the cause of the Revolution. Even in 1776, it was not certain the colonies would leave Great Britain, or if they would stick together if they won the war, but Jefferson’s words helped create a sense of unity among people from the 13 colonies.
Indeed, Jefferson considered this one of his most enduring accomplishments, as indicated by the inscription of his tombstone, which reads:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom
& Father of the University of Virginia
For some reason he chose not to mention being the third president of the United States. Visitors can see this for themselves when they tour his plantation home Monticello outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
One of the country’s most well known and well regarded presidents, Abraham Lincoln’s early years were spent in poverty in the frontiers of Kentucky and Indiana. After serving one term as a US Representative from Illinois, Lincoln served in the state’s government and then became the national face of the new, anti-slavery Republican Party. From this position, Lincoln was elected President in 1860, initiating actions that led to the Civil War in 1861.
Lincoln’s many accomplishments include enacting the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed many slaves and demonstrated the country’s commitment to equality, giving profound speeches including the Gettysburg Address, and carrying the country through the crisis of the Civil War. During his second inaugural speech, Lincoln implored the two sides to come together and find unity and lasting peace.
However, Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865, five days after the war ended. After a long tour by train so mourners could pay respects to his body, he was laid to rest at his home in Springfield, Illinois.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt, like Lincoln, navigated the United States through difficult times, including the Great Depression and World War II. He was the only president to serve more than two terms, being elected to four terms and dying in office in 1945, near the end of World War II.
FDR was reelected to an unprecedented third and fourth terms during World War II, providing continuity during the global struggle. Before that, during the Great Depression, FDR established many government programs that provided jobs for out of work Americans and established many social safety nets including a national minimum wage, Social Security and financial regulations intended to limit or prevent another Great Depression. His most important contribution was his longstanding involvement with other Allied leaders before and during World War II. America’s eventual involvement and FDR’s commitment turned the tide and led to an Allied victory shortly after Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. He was buried in the family’s Springwood estate in Hyde Park, New York. However, his death in office after four terms led to the ratification of the 22nd Amendment, limiting presidents to two terms in office.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was possibly the most charismatic president of the 20th century, and his administration was filled with Cold War era politics that spilled over from World War II. His diplomatic interactions with Soviet as well as other world leaders helped deescalate Cold War situations and create back channels of communications between the world leaders to help avoid future political crises. He also had positive impacts in domestic policy and culture, furthering civil and gender equality, encouraging civic engagement, and motivating an entire generation to shoot for the stars, as he ramped up the US space program.
Kennedy’s greatest legacy will always be his persona, providing a youthful, dynamic and engaging image of the presidency. His beautiful wife Jacqueline and young family helped bolster the image of the presidency. His life was cut short when he was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas Texas. An X marks the spot on the street where he was killed.
His funeral was a national event, and he was laid to rest at Arlington Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
The residents of the White House always aim to do their best, and it’s fascinating to look back on their varied legacies and see whether their legacies hold up to history. These five presidents left a great impact on the presidency and the country.