Presidents of the United States (12 – 22/24)

12 – Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

Born in Virginia, Zachary Taylor grew up in Kentucky. Early on, he pursued a military career, earning the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for his willingness to fight alongside his troops. Taylor gained fame from battling Native Americans and his victories in the Mexican-American War. Unlike most who came before and after him, Taylor did not realize he had been nominated for President and did not pursue victory. It came to him anyway, and as President, he mostly let Congress call the shots. In one area, though, he tenaciously exerted his leadership. Although Taylor became the last President to own slaves, he vigorously fought the spread of slavery into the territories. In 1850, he died just 16 months into the presidency after eating cherries and milk believed to have been contaminated with cholera. One of his daughters, Sarah Knox Taylor, married Jefferson Davis who became the president of the Confederacy.

“I have no private purpose to accomplish, no party objectives to build up, no enemies to punish-nothing to serve but my country.”

13 – Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

A native of upstate New York, Millard Fillmore, who came from a poor family, started out as a clothmaker’s apprentice but ended up working his way through law school. Politically, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, then as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee which led to his appointment as New York’s comptroller and ultimately drew him into becoming Taylor’s running mate. At Taylor’s sudden death, Fillmore assumed the presidency. Fillmore did not believe in slavery but felt that compromise held the only way forward for the nation. Hence, the Compromise of 1850, passed early in his tenure, attempted to address the slavery issue, resulted in a brief truce, but pleased no one.
Fillmore was never elected to the presidency and did not run for a second term.
“God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil, for which we are not responsible, and we must endure it, till we can get rid of it without destroying the last hope of free government in the world.”

“It is not strange… to mistake change for progress.”

14 – Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

Franklin Pierce from New Hampshire served as a representative and a senator in the U.S. Congress and fought in the Mexican-American War. He was commissioned a Col. in the Army and quickly promoted to general serving under Gen. Winfield Scott on the march to Mexico City.

The country, deeply divided, settled on Pierce, a relatively unknown candidate for the presidency. A pro-slavery northerner, Pierce angered abolitionists because of his controversial decisions and his appointment of Jefferson Davis as secretary of war. He undid the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, giving territories, regardless of location, the right to choose their slavery stance, a decision leading to violent confrontations. Through the Gadsden Purchase, he acquired the southern part of New Mexico and Arizona, establishing the U.S. southern border. At 49 years old, Pierce was the youngest president to serve up to that point in history and with the untimely death of his three children, he struggled with alcoholism and spent his post-presidential years caring for his grieving wife.

“You have summoned me in my weakness. You must sustain me in your strength.”

15 – James Buchanan (1857-1861)

Buchanan was born in a log cabin at Cove Gap, Pennsylvania on April 23, 1791 . As a boy he worked in his father’s store and also received a good education. He graduated from Dickinson College in 1809 and then studied law in Lancaster Pennsylvania. He entered politics as a supporter of the Federalist party.

The only Pennsylvanian to become president, James Buchanan had previously served as a U.S. representative and senator, in foreign ambassador positions, and as secretary of state in Polk’s cabinet.
Buchanan believed that slavery was a state issue. The capture and hanging of John Brown, an abolitionist who killed pro-slavery settlers in Kansas, and ongoing controversies in Kansas over the slavery issue dominated his presidency. Then, after Lincoln’s victory in 1860 and while Buchanan was still in office, South Carolina and six other states seceded from the United States. Buchanan made no move to stop them and the stage was set for the Civil War.

He was the only lifelong bachelor to serve as president.

“I am the last President of the United States.”

16 – Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

With his birthplace being Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln, the first president born outside the original thirteen states, taught himself law, briefly served in the military fighting Native Americans, and became a representative in the U.S. Congress. In 1858, he unsuccessfully ran against Stephen Douglas for a senate seat from Illinois. The debates between the two men catapulted Lincoln to fame for his anti-slavery stance and belief that this country could not continue divided on the slavery issue.

Lincoln led this troubled nation through the Civil War, which broke out a month after he assumed the presidency. Midway, he released the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free.

Despite the ongoing war and the possibility that he might not win a second term, Lincoln insisted that elections be held in 1864. Shortly after starting his second term, Lincoln became the first president to be assassinated and never saw the war’s end.

Standing at 6 foot 4 inches, he was our tallest president, one of nine presidents lacking a college degree, and the first one to grow a beard. He is the only president to hold a patent for a device to help boats stay afloat in shallow water.

Lincoln, who suffered from melancholy, survived malaria and smallpox but may have had a serious genetic disease like Marfan syndrome or related disorder.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them
the real facts.”

17 – Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

From North Carolina originally, Andrew Johnson began his career in a Tennessee tailor shop. He lacked formal education and learned to read from his wife Eliza.

Politically, he held several local and state positions including governor of Tennessee. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives and was a senator when Tennessee seceded. Instead of resigning like other southern senators, Johnson supported Lincoln and eventually became his running mate for the second term.

Johnson attempted to carry out Lincoln’s reconstruction plans but met with resistance in Congress and vetoed much of their legislation. Because of his contentious relationship with Congress, the House of Representatives impeached Johnson and the Senate came within one vote of removing him from office, making him the first president to be impeached.

During his administration, the 13th and 14th amendments, which prohibited slavery and granted citizenship to former slaves, were added to the U.S. Constitution. Secretary of State, William Seward purchased Alaska from Russia during Johnson’s term in a transaction jokingly referred to as “Seward’s Folly.”

“I feel incompetent to perform duties… which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”

18 – Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)

A native of Ohio, Ulysses Grant loved horses and studied at West Point. His real name was Hiram Ulysses Grant, the “S” being due to a clerical error and not representing a real name. After fighting in the Mexican-American War, Grant seemed aimless until the Civil War broke out. He won the first major Union victory, rose in the ranks, becoming general of the armies and a war hero. At 46, Grant was the youngest president elected up to that time and he had no political experience. Despite a struggle with alcoholism and his political appointments of friends who later proved corrupt, Grant managed to pass the 15th Amendment, giving voting rights to citizens regardless of their race. He worked to improve the plight of Native Americans but could accomplish no lasting change and was sympathetic to women achieving the right to vote.

Grant weathered the Panic of 1873 and subsequent depression using a conservative fiscal approach and continued to struggle with reconstruction issues. During his administration, Grant created the Weather Bureau; the Department of Justice; and the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone National Park. Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) helped him write his memoirs.

“I leave comparisons to history, claiming only that I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”

19 – Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

His father having died ten weeks before his birth, Rutherford Hayes spent most of his life in Ohio practicing as a lawyer, serving in their infantry and as their governor. Hayes assumed the presidency amid controversy, losing the popular vote but achieving the electoral vote. He ended the reconstruction, returned the nation to a gold standard, established civil service reforms to ensure government positions were filled by merit rather than political favors, and addressed the corruption and scandal that had flourished during Grant’s administration. He handled the Great Railroad Strike in 1877 by sending troops, establishing a precedent. As for Native Americans, he provided education and attempted to acclimate them to white-American culture, a move considered progressive during this time. His wife Lucy, a staunch supporter of the temperance movement, became the first First Lady to possess a college degree.

“My task was to wipe out the color line, to abolish sectionalism, to end the war and bring peace. To do this, I was ready to resort to unusual measures and to risk my own standing and reputation with my party and the country.”

20 – James Garfield (1881-1881)

His father having died while he was still a baby, James Garfield also hailed from Ohio and was the last president to be born in a log cabin. Working his way through school by varied jobs—canal employee, teacher, janitor, and carpenter, he studied for the law exam independently and passed it. A staunch abolitionist, Garfield joined the Union Army during the Civil War, rising up in the ranks to a Major General. He served 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives where he gained expertise in budgets and finance. In his short 4-month tenure, Garfield recalled and refinanced government bonds to save the government millions and appointed cabinet and other government officials, most notably Robert Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, to secretary of war. Charles Guiteau, who felt he had been unfairly denied a government position, shot and killed Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington, making him the second president to be assassinated.

“The finances of the government shall suffer no detriment which it may be possible for my administration to prevent.”

21 – Chester Arthur (1881-1885)

Born in Vermont and raised in upstate New York, Chester Arthur was the son of an Irish preacher and their family moved about for different pastorates during his childhood. An established lawyer, he gained administrative experience while serving in the Civil War, as an employee of the New York Tax Commission, and as a collector for the Port of New York. As Garfield’s Vice President, Arthur differed in some political views. When Garfield suddenly died, he was thrust into the presidency with limited political experience.

Known for a keen sense of fashion, Arthur loved to change clothes several times a day to fit the task or the event. He hired the most famous designer in New York to remodel the White House making it a showplace.
As president, he addressed corruption through the Civil Service Act that limited kickbacks and ensured promotion by merit and built up the navy with the addition of modern steel ships, the establishment of the Naval War College, and creation of the Office of Naval Intelligence. A widower during his entire time of presidential service, Arthur did not seek a second term probably because of a serious kidney ailment that took his life shortly after leaving office.

“I have learned that Chester A. Arthur is one man and the President of the United States is another.”

22 & 24 – Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)

Born in New Jersey and growing up in central New York, Grover Cleveland paid for someone to serve in his place during the Civil War. The son of a Presbyterian minister and a lawyer by trade, he worked his way up through various local positions to become governor of New York where he drew national attention. He is the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms. Cleveland believed that the government should not be involved in social issues so there was little progress in domestic causes during his tenure. His administration showed strength in foreign affairs by enforcing the Monroe Doctrine when English ships threatened Venezuela and by negotiating disputes within Samoa, Hawaii, and Venezuela. His reliance on a bank to restore gold reserves in the midst of a depression caused public tide to turn against him.

Cleveland is the only president to marry in the White House with his bride Frances at age 21 being the youngest woman to become first lady.

“A government for the people must depend for its success on the intelligence, the morality, the justice, and the interest of the people themselves.”

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