The Founding Fathers had two opposite magnetic poles that attracted American citizens. One was a group led by Alexander Hamilton, George Washington’s secretary of the treasury, who believed that the common man should not control the government. Hamilton argued that a president for life would be the best course of action, similar to the crown in England. He thought that mob rule would take over if left to the common man. The followers of Hamilton were called Federalists (federal rights).
Thomas Jefferson, George Washington’s secretary of state, led the other side, which believed that the people could rule themselves and that the Federalists would promote a dictatorship by taking away powers from the people and the states, giving them to the federal government. Jefferson wanted a nation of farmers who needed few laws governing them. The followers of Jefferson were called Republicans (citizens’ and states’ rights).
But these two parties agreed on two important items: (1) they wanted to do the right thing and (2) they wanted to serve the public. They just disagreed on how best to do that. Interestingly, the presidents during this “Founding Fathers” period of time were very independent, and did not follow their party line in all cases. They did what they believed was best for their country even if they didn’t get reelected.
The evolution of the two-party system has swapped names around so that it is a bit confusing. The Hamilton Federalists later became Republicans, and the Jefferson Republicans later became Democrats. However, today the old Republicans are the new Democrats, and the old Democrats are now new Republicans. It will make it easier if I differentiate the parties with a reference to their ideology at that particular time. For example, the Hamilton Federalists would be designated by (federal rights) while the Jefferson Republicans would be categorized as (citizens’ and states’ rights).
But because of the maverick spirit of the early presidents, it was never crystal clear about party alignments. George Washington, the first president, was a very successful independent president by setting a middle course for our young country and never affiliating with any party. John Adams, the second president of the United States was a Federalist (federal rights), but he lost favor with that party when he went with his conscience and not the edicts of the party. He was successful though because he avoided a war with France that could have destroyed our young, fragile nation. Even though Thomas Jefferson, the third president, represented the Republicans, he still followed his conscience. He was also successful by purchasing the Louisiana Territory. James Madison, the fourth president, also a Republican, did what he thought was right during his two terms, but he got wrapped up in the War of 1812, which drove the federal debt up for the first time since the Revolutionary War. He still was a success by winning the war. James Monroe, the fifth president, also a Republican, created the “Era of Good Feeling” with his expansion of territory and decrease in spending. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all only ran for two terms, believing that it was improper in our democracy for them to stay any longer. The first five presidents were both independent and successful.
John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, was independent like his father. Even though he was elected also as a Federalist (federal rights), he voted for what he believed to be right and not what the party wanted. This guaranteed one term for both men. But John Quincy Adams was not as successful as his father. He was a cold and distant person and had no abilities to compromise.
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, was elected as a Democratic Republican (citizens’ and states’ rights) over the new National Republican party (federal rights). Jackson’s party eventually became just the Democratic party, while the Republican party became the Whig party. Even though Jackson believed in states’ rights, he drew the line with South Carolina declaring that it would not comply with a federal tariff. Jackson was ready to send in federal troops to enforce the federal law. It was interesting that many of the early presidents were independent enough to ignore the ideologies of their party lines and stand up for what they thought was right. Jackson certainly fit this mold. He vetoed more bills from Congress than any president up to his time, but Jackson was very successful. The federal debt “flat lined” through Jackson’s administration and over the next thirty years. It wasn’t until 1860 that the federal debt started climbing, building up to the Civil War.
Martin Van Buren, the eighth president, a Democrat, tried to do the right thing, but he was blindsided by a deep depression caused by land speculation and liberal borrowing of money. Van Buren was unsuccessful as a president, but it wasn’t really his fault. American citizens couldn’t blame themselves, so they blamed Van Buren. William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, was elected as a Whig (federal rights), but he lived only for a few months and obtained no success during that short period. His vice-president, John Tyler, also a Whig, assumed the presidency. Tyler stood his ground and supported states’ rights even though his party did not. Tyler also was a single term president because of his independent positions, but he was unsuccessful because both parties hated him.
James Polk was elected the eleventh president as a Democrat (citizens’ and states’ rights). Even though he was involved in a war with Mexico, it was one of the few wars that did not dramatically increase the federal debt. In the peace treaty, America obtained California, Nevada, and part of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico. Polk was a very successful president.
Millard Fillmore, the thirteen president, assumed this office as a Whig (federal rights) after his predecessor, Zachary Taylor, died suddenly after contracting an illness on July 4th, a year after he was elected on the Whig ticket. Taylor wasn’t president long enough to be successful, but Fillmore was a success. Even though Fillmore was from a party that supported a strong federal government and that was against slavery, he was independent and followed what he believed. He was a big influence on the Compromise of 1850, which made California a free state and enacted the Fugitive Slave Act allowing slave owners to recapture slaves who escaped to free states. Fillmore was the last Whig president as that party disintegrated after the compromise. Fillmore also was the last successful independent president until Abraham Lincoln.
Franklin Pierce, a northerner, was elected as the fourteenth president, as a Democrat (citizens’ and states’ rights). Pierce was one of the first presidents who followed his party line and not his conscience. He started a string of presidents who followed a strict party policy. Pierce followed his party and promoted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the citizens in those territories to decide whether it wanted slavery or not. This was the tinder box that set a fire that led to the Civil War because it allowed extremists to operate and take over in those territories.
James Buchanan, the fifteenth president, was also a Democrat (citizens’ and states’ rights). He did not take a strong stand on much anything. With two weak presidents in a row, the extremists within America took over and ran us headlong into war. Buchanan did not want to make anybody angry, especially his party, so he avoided confrontation. But the country needed a strong, independent leader to avoid the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president, was elected as a Republican (federal rights and anti-slavery). Lincoln was a much more capable president than Pierce and Buchanan, but he did not have much experience, so he was polarized by his party into denouncing both states’ rights and slavery. If he had been more experienced and followed his own beliefs, he would have selected only one issue – slavery. Slavery was on its way out anyway and clearly was against America’s principle of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. If Lincoln had ignored the states’ rights issue, he, at a minimum, would have shortened the Civil War and may have avoided it altogether. Lincoln also gave in to his party when they proposed military leaders like Erwin McDowell, who was a political staff officer who should never have led the Union soldiers in the First Battle of Manassas. Other political appointments of officers led to the early years of losses to the Confederates on the battlefield. After General Ulysses Grant, who was not political, was given command of the Union army, things turned around. As Lincoln gained experience, he exercised his executive power more than other presidents had done in the past. He finally recognized the legitimate reason for the Civil War and delivered the Emancipation Proclamation speech after the Battle of Gettysburg on September 22, 1862. Lincoln had many good qualities that helped him get through a very difficult period for our country, but his inexperience hurt him in his early years of his presidency. He became a successful independent president after September 22, 1862. There was a hiatus in independent successful presidents until Theodore Roosevelt in 1901.
Of the first sixteen presidents, nine were successful independent presidents: Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Monroe, Madison, Jackson, Polk, Fillmore, and Lincoln.
The Reconstruction period paraded a series of Republican (federal rights and big business) presidents who were controlled by Congress. Andrew Johnson and Rutherford Hays should be given credit during this period for attempting to do what they thought was right, but Congress and big business were just too powerful, and these presidents were not successful in their efforts. Johnson, the seventeenth president, was impeached by Congress when he attempted to do what he thought was right. Hayes, the nineteenth president, tried to clean up politics, but Congress and big businesses had too much power as America rolled into becoming an industrialized nation. Ulysses Grant (eighteenth president), James Garfield (twentieth president), and Chester Arthur (the twenty-first president) were all weak presidents who conceded to their parties and Congress, leading to widespread corruption within the government. The Republicans became more of a party supporting big business and drifted away from promoting federal rights.
Grover Cleveland, the twenty-second and twenty-fourth president, was elected as a Democrat (citizens’ and states’ rights), who was going to bring a change along with an honest government. He also brought a change to the Democratic party, which became less focused on states’ rights and more centered on laborers and small businessmen. Cleveland made his decisions based on what he thought was right and not what his party dictated or what was popular. However, he wasn’t successful. That’s why he lost to Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third president, on the Republican (big business) ticket. But Harrison, who supported high tariffs and big business, lost the following election to Cleveland as farmers, labor, and small businessmen voted for the Democrat (small business). The pendulum continued to swing back and forth between the two parties as William McKinley, a Republican, was elected after Cleveland’s second term. All these presidents, as a general rule, followed their party line.
It wasn’t until the colorful twenty-sixth president, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican (big business), was vaulted into the presidency after McKinley was shot and killed, that successful independence returned to the presidency. Roosevelt recognized a new division within America, not between federal and states’ rights, but between the rich and the poor. Even though he was a Republican, he set out on his own to protect the small businesses and workers. Roosevelt was the first president to successfully follow his own set of values since Millard Fillmore, about a 50-year hiatus. Roosevelt busted up many of the big business trusts. He also saved the natural resources in America by establishing national parks and forests. This highly popular president easily won a second term.
William Taft, the twenty-seventh president, also a Republican, attempted to follow-up on many of Roosevelt’s programs, but he was not as aggressive as his predecessor. Although competent, Roosevelt was a tough act to follow, and Taft looked weak by comparison. He was a party man, too complacent to be labeled as an independent.
We continued the swing back and forth between parties as Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat (citizens’ and states’ rights), was elected as the twenty-eighth president. Wilson championed the rights of the people, following the party position. Wilson was in power during WWI when the federal debt escalated to about what it was during the Civil War. After Wilson, Warren Harding, a Republican (big business), became the twenty-ninth president. He was a loyal Republican who voted the party line. He died in office and Calvin Coolidge, another Republican (big business), kept things going for big business. Coolidge said, “And the business of government was to keep out of business.” Herbert Hoover, a Republican (big business), was the thirty-first president. Hoover inherited the Great Depression, but he still did not want to interfere with businesses through government regulation.
Franklin Roosevelt, the thirty-second president, a distant cousin to Teddy Roosevelt, was a Democrat (citizens’ and states’ rights). Roosevelt really was an independent and kept to himself for the most part. He was the architect for an expansive and expensive federal government. The Democrat party suddenly looked a lot like the old Federalist, Whig, and Republican parties that championed federal rights. He became the leader of a Democratic party that now represented the people through the federal government (big government). He created new federal departments and spent money at a rate never seen before in our country. He modified his party’s platform to use the full power of the federal government to champion the rights of Americans and small businesses. He created a larger federal government to get America back on its feet. The change was perhaps one of emphasis. The emphasis was on a larger government. He was elected for a fourth term, more terms than any other president, as a Democrat (big government) but he died in office.
Harry Truman, also a Democrat (big government), became the thirty-third president with the shadow of Franklin Roosevelt over him. Truman, like both Roosevelt’s, was his own man. Even though Truman had some shady political ties in Missouri, he stepped up and made the tough decisions, such as dropping the first atomic bomb. There was no passing the buck with Truman because as he said, “The buck stops here.” He was from Independence, Missouri, and he was truly independent. During the Korean War, he took on a very popular General McArthur, but Truman did not back away from making the difficult decisions, and he was generally right. Even though Truman was able to decrease the rate of federal spending, he still incurred heavy expenses in WWII and the Korean War and our government continued to grow.
Dwight Eisenhower was elected the thirty-fourth president because he was a likeable war hero. His slogan was, “I like Ike.” He was a Republican, but his party’s philosophy didn’t look that much different from the Democrat (big government) beliefs. He pretty much followed the party line and was not considered to be a strong president. However, he was able to continue a decrease in federal spending even with continued growth in the government building interstate roads and other projects.
John Kennedy was the next independent president after Truman. He also was a Democrat (big government) elected as the thirty-fifth president based on his personal charm and wealth. He attracted smart independent advisors, and he was willing to go against the military, corporate, and political powers. The Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis were both headaches for his administration. Kennedy was assassinated, but we still do not know why.
Lyndon Johnson, the thirty-sixth president, returned to the Democratic party (big government) mantra. Johnson started a group of presidents, whether Democrat or Republican, who followed their party line of increasing the size of the federal government, carrying right up to the present. The Democrats might argue for increased taxes, and the Republicans might decrease taxes, but otherwise the two parties contributed to a higher federal deficit. Johnson, unlike Kennedy, embraced big government, big business, and big military. Richard Nixon, the thirty-seventh president, was a Republican, but it was difficult distinguishing him from Johnson except that Nixon got caught. After his resignation, a very honest president, Gerald Ford, took his place, but Ford ran into an inflationary recession and didn’t have time to make his mark on the presidency. Jimmy Carter, the thirty-ninth president, was an inexperienced Democrat who struggled to find his identity and the Democrat party fared no better. Nixon, Ford, and Carter were able to maintain a reasonable federal budget, but the next president, Ronald Reagan, started the elevator rising to the giant federal debt that we have today. He didn’t initiate this with the growth of federal government as much as he did with tax decreases. The reduced taxes increased the debt.
Ronald Reagan, the fortieth president, finally defined and designed the new Republican party. Reagan was the pioneer leader of this Republican party (business/small government), modifying its big business role to embrace less federal government. The Republicans became a party that wanted to make the government smaller, making businesses less regulated and less taxed. Now, the lines were clearly drawn between Republicans (business/small government/less taxes) and Democrats (unions/large government/more taxes). Since Reagan actually formulated the new Republican party, he did not deviate from what the party line. He was independent in that he created what he believed in. And because of his firm ideological beliefs, he was able to dismantle the Soviet Union. However, the costs for the federal government were increasing under both parties now.
George H.W. Bush, the forty-first president, continued following the Republican ideological philosophy. Bush was one of our best war presidents. During the First Gulf War, he formed a coalition of nations to remove Hussein from Kuwait. Bush announced the objective and turned over the strategy and tactics of war to the military and let them do their job. It is a lost art called “delegation” that few presidents ever learned. William Clinton became the forty-second president as a Democrat, still pursuing what was best for a larger government. Clinton was lucky to see a decrease in the federal budget because of the boost in the economy, giving the government more tax revenue and better profits on its investments. George W. Bush was the forty-third president, following the Republican movement to minimize government and reduce regulations on businesses. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sent our federal debt spiraling up into the stratosphere. Bush understood neither the power of coalitions nor international law like his father did, so America lost some of its moral luster.
Barrack Obama, the forty-fourth president, was perhaps the biggest Democratic champion for a larger government. We have seen our federal debt go over $16 trillion and watch as Standard & Poor’s downgraded our country’s credit rating from AAA to AA+. With our debt increasing over $1 trillion each year, we are reaching a fiscal tipping point.
In summary, the first five presidents from George Washington to James Madison carried an aura of successful independence about them that may have carried over from being the “Founding Fathers.” Jackson, Polk, Fillmore, and Lincoln were the next four successful independent presidents, but this combination wasn’t seen again until Teddy Roosevelt came crashing onto the scene. Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan were the last presidents who exercised successful independent spirits. I believe that Lincoln fit in the category of independent successful presidents after September 22, 1862, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Also in my opinion, Reagan did what he thought was right as another successful independent, which matched the new party line that he had created.
In effect, I argue that there were only 14 out of 44 presidents who were successful at doing the right thing for their country even at the risk of not getting reelected. The most successful presidents were independent, but still knew how to build coalitions. The least successful presidents were those who just simply followed the party line or who refused to compromise or work with anybody. I think we could use another independent president, but if we have already reached the tipping point, I don’t know if they could be successful.