Military Era – 1789 to 1865
Symbolic Era – 1865 to 1901
Leadership Era – 1901 to 1963
Partisan Era – 1963 to Present
In this piece, I will be going over the history of the United State’s Presidency, and how I organize the historical territory. I will be reviewing not just the most prominent Presidents in our history, but also the general trend in the overall job of the office of the Presidency. I have divided the history of the Presidencies into four loose eras: the Military Era, where the job of the President was focused on being Commander in Chief of the military, and when generals and other military personnel commonly won the seat; the Symbolic Era, where the job of the President was just to represent the American people and assist the Congress of the United States. Presidents in this era are often forgotten about; the Leadership Era, when most Presidents focused on moving the country forward and helping the entire country. Most Presidents during this time were liked and respected by both sides of the aisle, and worked for progress; and finally, the Partisan Era, where most President’s focus on legislative gains for their personal party. Most President’s in this era didn’t get a lot done when their Congress was lead by the opposition, but they brought change when they had majorities.
Official Duties Of The Presidency
While actual performance and interpretation of duties may differ based on who is in the office, the Presidency has a clear set of Constitutional duties and authorities. As stated in Article II of the Constitution, “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” The President is the head of the executive branch of government, and therefore is in charge of the enforcement of laws. The President is also the Commander in Chief of the military and can order them with the advice of his cabinet. A controversial power of the President is the power to pardon. The President may pardon any person of their offenses against the country. With the help of Congress, the President may also make treaties, appoint court justices, and appoint all other offices of the United States. The President also has the power to give executive orders, to the extent of being unlawful as considered by the current Congress. Finally, the President must give a State of the Union address to the Congress “from time to time.”
Military Era – 1789 to 1865
The Military Era kicked off with our nation’s first president, George Washington. The Military Era is defined as the era in the Presidency when the job as President was focused on being Commander in Chief and leading the military. Most Presidents during this time had a military background. The Presidents in this era lead our military in some of the most important times in history, including during the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War. Out of the 16 Presidents in this era, 14 served in the Military, if you include John Adams, who served as the chairman of the Continental Congress’ Board of War. This is a trend we see throughout the history of the United States, but is especially prominent during this era.
The reasoning behind the interpretation of the President of this time is most likely because of greater geopolitical conflicts. If we look at colonialism on the world scale, we can see two main waves of colonization, the first being from 1500 to 1775, the next being from 1825 to 1925. Between these two waves, many countries attempted to gain independence, often violently. The entire world was still getting used to post-Westphalia political organization, and conflicts were bound to happen. This era is also home to the Civil War, creating one of the biggest centrifugal forces in US history. Under the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln, the Union fought and defeated the Confederate opposition. It was after this war that the duties of the President shifted away from a military standpoint.
Important Presidents in this era include George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. George Washington, the first President of the United States, set many standards for the presidency, including stepping down after serving two terms. Washington opposed political parties, and thus was unaffiliated during his term. In his influential farewell address, Washington voiced his opposition to partisan politics.
John Adams, the second President and first to live in the White House, kept most of Washington’s cabinet, including the highly controversial Alexander Hamilton. Adams oversaw America’s role in European conflicts and the French revolution. Again, the duty of the President at this time was mainly being Commander in Chief. Adams only served one term, losing in the Election of 1800, one of the most popular elections in American history. This election results in a tie, with neither Thomas Jefferson nor Aaron Burr, both from the same party, getting a majority of electoral votes.
Thomas Jefferson, the third President, took the office while America had $83 million in debt. Jefferson actively tried to undo the financial system put in place by Alexander Hamilton. Jefferson created the United States Military Academy at West Point. He also served during the First Barbary War, the first foreign war fought by the United States. The Barbary War was a series of conflicts with pirates off the coast of the Barbary States. One of the biggest events in Jefferson’s presidency was the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson purchased nearly 830,000 square miles from France. When negotiating with Napoleon, Jefferson wanted 40,000 square miles in exchange for $10 million. Napoleon unexpectedly countered by offering to sell 827,987 square miles of land for only $5 million more. Jefferson accepted this deal, thereby doubling the size of the United States.
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President, is one of the most influential and most known Presidents. He led the Union during the Civil War and set America on a path towards equal rights and justice. With his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln promised to free Confederate slaves if they fought for the Union. Under his outstanding leadership, the Union defeated the Confederate States in one of America’s worst wars. Lincoln’s presidency ended tragically, as he was assassinated just days after the Confederacy surrendered. With his assassination came the end of the Military Era in America.
Symbolic Era – 1865 to 1901
The Symbolic Era in US History is one of the strangest eras I’ll talk about. There was no real job for the President, they were just a symbolic figure for Americans. Presidents of this time mostly relied on Congress to pass laws. Because these Presidents were the least important in the composite of all Presidents, many of them have been forgotten. For example, most people don’t know about President Hayes, President Arthur, or President McKinley. However, this era is home to the only time a President has been elected to two non-consecutive terms, and the first time a President was impeached.
The reasoning behind this perceived lack of importance is fairly weak, but is really the only thing to point to when explaining this era: the Civil War had just ended, and the country was still deeply divided and trying to rebuild itself. Take this from a local scale – if your city was just burned down and you have no place to live, the last thing you want to think about is the President’s new healthcare bill. Presidents at this time had no job because the citizens gave them no job. While Presidents didn’t do much to lead the country, many things happened during this era in historical territory. Western expansion was prominent at this time, and a new cultural sense of place in America was beginning to emerge. America was becoming the country of freedom and self-governance. The turn into the 20th century defined one of the most growth provoking time in the country scale. Much of modern America was shaped during this era.
While the job of the Presidency was somewhat uneventful, this era did see a few historic moments in the story of American politics. Grover Cleveland was the first and only President to be elected in two nonconsecutive terms; that is to say, he was elected to his first term, was not reflected, and then won another term following Harrison’s time in office. This era also saw the first time in our history that a President was impeached. Andrew Johnson, the first President to serve in this era, was impeached for his poor actions and leadership during Reconstruction. John remained in office, however, because he was not convicted in the Senate.
The only somewhat well known President during this era was Andrew Johnson. Andrew Johnson took the Presidency following Abraham Lincoln’s death, and was largely in charge of Reconstruction. Johnson considered African-American suffrage to be a distraction from the rebuilding of states, and thus did not actively pursue allowing African-Americans the right to vote. During Reconstruction, Johnson attempted to secure political power for Reconstruction opposition groups. In 1866, Johnson broke with the Republican Party, the liberal party at the time.
This era ended with William McKinley, who died in office in 1901 and handed the office to President Theodore Roosevelt, beginning the Leadership Era.
Leadership Era – 1901 to 1963
The Leadership Era can be defined as the era in the Presidency when most Presidents focused on bringing the country forward, working on both sides of the aisle for progress. This era encompasses much of the American Progressive Era. This is the first era wherein a President brought substantial forward progress not related to military achievement. However, this Era also holds a lot of military advancement. Both World Wars took place during this era. Therefore, this era shows a trend of both domestic social progress, economic progress, and international military progress. Capitalism dominated communism in this era, while capitalism simultaneously became more progressive, leaning towards socialism. This era is home to the longest sitting President, Franklin D Roosevelt.
America changed substantially during this era. The 1929 Stock Market Crash occurred in this era and sent a reminder to America to stay grounded, while the slow economic growth and social progress that followed demonstrated the unblocked forward motion of the country in whole. Both World Wars showed both America and the world what global forces can do, both in the positive by stopping hatred and bringing justice, and in the negative by costing so many lives and coming to a place where hatred must be stopped physically in the first place. Also, women finally got the right to vote in 1920.
Nearly all President’s in this era were important and well-known, but the most prominent were Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt, and John F Kennedy.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first President in this era, taking the office after the death of William McKinley. Roosevelt was faced with caution and hesitation when the notion of becoming President came to be. He was opposed by many in his own party, but he insured them that he would continue McKinley’s legacy. However, in 1904, he won the election for President of the United States, on his own policies. Roosevelt was a conservationist in the sense that he created the National Parks System and preserved many National Forests and animal species. When it comes to foreign policy, Roosevelt was an imperialist and supported Asian expansion, as well as America’s authority in the Caribbean, and the creation of the Panama Canal. In his second term, Roosevelt moved to the left when calling for reforms, many of which didn’t pass Congress due to their left-of-Republican ideology. Roosevelt decided not to run for a third term, unlike his distant cousin FDR.
FDR was one of the most known and most popular President in the history of the US Presidency. He famously broke common tradition when he ran for and won a third term and a fourth term. Roosevelt was inaugurated during the worst depression in American history. With his New Deal, a series of relief programs and growth stimulates, and with the help of World War II, Roosevelt brought the country out of depression. Roosevelt also played a major role in World War II, working with Winston Churchill to bring the Allies to victory. Roosevelt also brought the United States into what would become a series of Asian wars after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. He would later authorize the Manhattan Project, which ultimately led to the United States dropping two nuclear bombs on civilians and military in Japan. FDR died in office at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. This nearly ended the Leadership Era, if not for the emergence of John F Kennedy.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” These were the famous words of John F Kennedy at his inauguration in 1961. Kennedy was President in the middle of the Cold War. He was fierce on foreign policy and was popular in his negotiations. He also successfully neutralized the Cuban Missile Crisis. The economy reversed under Kennedy and grew 15.8% while he was in office. Kennedy was also a powerful figure during the Civil Rights Movement. His more liberal viewpoint brought hope to those fighting, and he had personal talks with Martin Luther King, Jr. on multiple occasions. He helped greatly in the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which was signed by his successor, Lyndon B Johnson. Finally, Kennedy brought the United States to space during the Space Race with Russia, not by supporting the US’s involvement, but by deferring to Johnson, who was in favor of manned space flight. Kennedy was famously assassinated on November 22, 1963, while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas. With Kennedy’s death came the end of the Leadership Era.
Partisan Era – 1963 to Present
The current era of the Presidency is the Partisan Era, when most President’s focus on legislative gains for their party. This is different than the Leadership Era due to the partisan focus – Presidents normally required a majority in Congress to pass meaningful legislation. This Era began with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. This finally brought an end to legal discrimination based on skin color. Then, President Richard Nixon was inaugurated. This partisanship is clear with Nixon, as he resigned after breaking into the Democratic National Committee. Later, in 1981, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. He helped pass conservative legislation that would affect America for decades to come. Under his Republican Congress, Reagan passed major tax overhauls and created “Reaganomics.” He implemented trickle-down economics, which is an economic system in which benefits are given to corporations and the wealthy, in hopes that this will help the middle and lower class in the long term. One of the clearest examples of partisanship in this Era is the rate of impeachment and resignations. There are currently 10 Presidents who fall into this era, and 2, so far, have been impeached or resigned before impeachment. That’s a 20% impeachment rate, which can only happen in a partisan age such as this.
Some of the most prominent Presidents from this era include Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama.
Richard Nixon was a famous President when he was serving. He still is famous, but for very different reasons. Nixon took the office as the Vietnamese War was losing public support. Hundreds of American soldiers were dying every week, and the press had begun to uncover secrets of the war, create large-scale opposition. Nixon did, however, make progress on US-Soviet Union relations. He negotiated multiple times, but never made any real breakthroughs. Nixon also supported Israel and was the first American President to visit Israel. Nixon wanted “New Federalism,” and gave many powers to state and local governments during his tenure. Nixon was President during the first moon landing, but was opposed to funding NASA at the same levels seen in the 1960’s. Nixon won reelection in a landslide in 1972. Then came Watergate. In short, Nixon had instructed aides to break into Watergate, the DNC Headquarters. When caught, Nixon insisted he committed no crimes. However, a series of tapes emerged, which many thought proved the guilt of Nixon. After a long battle over the tapes, the “Smoking Gun” was released, and Nixon apologized for misleading the country and accepted the blame. Facing certain impeachment and conviction, Nixon resigned in 1974.
Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in one of the biggest landslides in history, beating President Jimmy Carter 489 to 49. Reagan supported for individual freedom. He thought that the National Government shouldn’t interfere in citizens lives, and that citizens should be able to govern themselves. He proposed an amendment to bring prayers into schools, although the amendment never became part of the Constitution. Reagan also expanded the US Military and helped end the Cold War. One of the most memorable aspects of Reagan’s Presidency was the economic growth that took place. Under Reagan, unemployment dropped and the stock market rose. Reagan and Congress passed a number of tax bills, including major tax cuts, and subsequent tax hikes to limit the deficit. Reagan also implemented his trickle-down economics, which was highly controversial for the assumption that helping the wealthy would, in turn, help the poor. Reagan also appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. One of the only scandals in Reagan’s Presidency, the Iran-Contra affair occurred in 1986. Reagan’s administration had used money from weapons sales to Iran to fund the Contra rebels, a group fighting the Nicaraguan government. This violated international law, according to a ruling by the International Court of Justice. Reagan stated he had no knowledge of the wrongdoings, and opened his own investigations. Reagan lost most of his popularity after this affair, dropping to under 50%. George H.W. Bush succeeded him in 1989.
Barack Obama made history when he was elected in 2008, becoming the first black President. One of Obama’s first moves as President was to order the withdrawal of many troops Iraq. He also quickly revoked Reagan’s Mexico City Policy, allowing funding once again to international family planning organizations. Obama also stood up for LGBTQ rights and expanded the hate-crime law to include crimes motivated by the victim’s gender, sexual orientation, or disability. Obama also ended the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and allowed transgender, gay, and lesbian troops. He was the first sitting President to support gay marriage, and the Supreme Court ruled to allow gay marriage in all states under Obama. Economically, Obama and his Congress passed many reforms and funding bills which successfully pulled the US out of the 2008 depression. The economy grew tremendously under President Obama. Obama also introduced and helped pass the Affordable Care Act and other healthcare reforms, commonly referred to as Obamacare. The ACA expanded Medicaid and Medicare, introduced the individual mandate, and made healthcare more affordable for poor Americans. Under Obama, the United States joined the Paris Agreement, meant to fight climate change worldwide. Obama supported major gun control, which was brought to life after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. While Obama was President, the United States was involved in multiple ongoing wars and conflicts in the Middle East. Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al-Qaeda and the man responsible for the 9/11 attacks, was killed due to a US operation led by President Obama. Obama had many legislative victories and moved the country far forward during his Presidency. He left office in 2017 after President Trump was elected.
These four eras of the Presidency are fairly loose, and every President was important to the defense and progression of the United States. While categorizing these President’s, I noticed an unexpected and unintentional trend: every era ended with a President dying in office. The Military Era ended when Lincoln was shot and killed. The Symbolic Era ended when McKinley died in office. The Leadership Era nearly ended after FDR died, but then continued until the death of JFK. Will this trend continue into the Partisan Era? Most likely not. Both security and health care have improved tremendously in recent years, so the probability of a President dying in office seems relatively low. Also, the Partisan Era nearly ended in 2009, when Bush left office still alive. However, due to the election of President Trump, and his divisive and controversial policies, the era continued. This brings me to my next point: which Presidents would I move if I could? Obviously, not all Presidents perfectly fit into their era. I would place President Abraham Lincoln between the Military Era and the Leadership Era. I would place President Obama in the Leadership Era, or possibly a new Modern Era. Finally, I would place some lesser known Presidents into the Symbolic Era. In conclusion, each President has their own unique qualities which have shaped the United States, and all eras are loosely defined and not completely accurate. In the future, we may see an extension of the Partisan Era with a Trump reelection. Or, we could see the third impeachment of the Partisan Era and a transition into a Modern Era. If that happens, you can expect to see plenty of coverage on our site.