To the Best of My Ability: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

To the Best of My Ability: THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTS

by James M. McPherson (Editor)


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ISBN-13: 9780789481566
Publisher: DK Publishing, Inc.
Publication date: 09/01/2001
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.90(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

James M. McPherson: General Editor, Introduction, Abraham Lincoln James M. McPherson is George Henry Davis '86 Professor of American History at Princeton University, where he has taught since 1962. He is the author of a dozen books, mostly on the era of the American Civil War. His Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1989, and his For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War won the Lincoln Prize in 1998. Gordon S. Wood: George Washington Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History at Brown University. He is the author of The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969) and The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), among other books. James M. Banner, Jr.: John Adams James M. Banner, Jr. is an independent historian in Washington, DC He is the author most recently of "The Capital and the State: Washington, DIC, and the Nature of American Government" in Donald R. Kennon, ed., A Republic for the Ages (1999). Banner is now at work on a history of the origins of the American national state. Joseph Ellis: Thomas Jefferson Joseph J. Ellis is Ford Foundations Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of six books on American history, including American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, which won the National Book Award in 1998. His forthcoming book Founding Brothers: Stories from the Early Republic focuses on the clash of personalities and ideologies within the political leadership of the revolutionary generation. Jack N. Rakove: James Madison, James Monroe Jack N. Rakove is Coe Professor of History and American Studies (and Professor of Political Science) at Stanford University, where he has taught since 1980. Among the books he has authored are James Madison and the Creation of the American Republic (1990) and Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (1996), which received the Pulitzer Prize in History. His edition of James Madison: Writings was published by the Library of America in 1999. John Patrick Diggins : John Quincy Adams John Patrick Diggins is Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His latest books include Foundations of American History (2000), a Lincolnesque reinterpretation of America, and a forthcoming study of Eugene O'Neill, in whose play More Stately Mansions the antagonism between Jackson and John Quincy Adams reverberates. Robert V. Remini: Andrew Jackson Robert V. Remini is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His three-volume biography of Andrew Jackson won the 1984 National Book Award. He has also written biographies of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and his latest book is The Battle of New Orleans (1999). Richard M. Pious: Martin Van Buren, John Tyler Richard M. Pious, Adolph and Effie Ochs Professor of American Studies, is chair of the Department of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of The American Presidency (1979), The President, Congress, and the Constitution (1984), and The Young Oxford Companion to the Presidency (1996). He is a member of the editorial boards of Political Science Quarterly and Presidential Studies Quarterly and has served on panels to rate presidential performance organized by the New York Times Daniel Walker Howe: William Henry Harrison Daniel Walker Howe is Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University; he has also taught at UCLA and Yale. The author of The Political Culture of the American Whigs (1979), among other books, he is currently writing a narrative history of the United States between 1815 and 1848. Thomas Fleming: James K. Polk Thomas Fleming writes both history and historical novels. His most recent work of history is Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America (1999). His recent novel The Wages of Fame (1998) deals with the intricacies of James Polk's war with Mexico. Catherine Clinton: Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison Catherine Clinton is Weissman Visiting Professor of History at Baruch College, City University of New York. Among her works on American history are The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century (1984), Tara Revisited: Women, War and the Plantation Legend (1995), and Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars (2000). Jean Harvey Baker: Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan Jean Harvey Baker is Professor of History at Goucher College. Among her publications are Affairs of Party: The Political Culture of the Northern Democrats in the Nineteenth Century (1983), Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography (1987), and The Stevensons: Biography of an American Family. She is currently writing a book on the American suffragists. James A. Rawley: Franklin Pierce, Rutherford B. Hayes James A. Rawley is Carl Adolph Happold Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Nebraska -- Lincoln. His books include Turning Points of the Civil War (1966), Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War (1969), and The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History (1981). He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the recipient of the University of Nebraska's Outstanding Research and Creativity Award, as well as its Pound-Howard Award for his distinguished contributions to the university. Hans L. Trefousse: Andrew Johnson Hans L. Trefousse is Professor Emeritus of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he taught from 1961 until 1998. His areas of special expertise are the Civil War and Reconstruction, and his publications include biographies of Andrew Johnson, Carl Schurz, Benjamin Butler, Benjamin Wade, and Thaddeus Stevens, as well as books on the Radical Republicans, Lincoln's decision to emancipate, and diplomatic history. Michael Les Benedict: Ulysses S. Grant Michael Les Benedict is Professor of History at Ohio State University. He is the author of A Compromise of Principle: Congressional Republicans and Reconstruction (1975) and many articles and essays on legal and political issues of the Reconstruction era. Ari Hoogenboom: James A. Garfield Ari Hoogenboom is Professor Emeritus of History at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author of Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865-1883 (1961), the Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes (1988), and Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (1995). Hoogenboom has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright Professor (while serving as George Bancroft Professor of American History at the University History at the Gottingen). Bernard A. Weisberger: Chester A. Arthur Bernard A. Weisberger taught American history at Wayne State University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Rochester before undertaking a full-time writing career in 1968. He has written extensively for American Heritage, has been a historical consultant and scriptwriter for Ken Burns and Bill Moyers, and is the author of numerous books, including The Age of Steam and Steel (1964) and The New Industrial Society (1969). He has just completed a book on the election of 1800. Vincent P. De Santis: Grover Cleveland Vincent P. De Santis is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame, where he has taught for many years. He is the author (or coauthor) of numerous books, including The Republicans Face the Southern Question (1959) and The Shaping of Modern America, 1877-1920 (1973). He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and a Fulbright Professor to Italy, Australia, and India. Morton Keller: William McKinley, Warren G. Harding Morton Keller is Spector Professor of History at Brandeis University. Among his books are Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America (1977). He has also recently completed a history of modern Harvard. Allen Weinstein: Theodore Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman Allen Weinstein is founder and president of The Center of Democracy, a nonprofit foundation created in 1985 to promote and strengthen the democratic process. He chaired the American Studies Program at Smith College from 1966 until 1981 and later taught as a University Professor at both Georgetown (1981-84) and Boston University (1985-89) . In 1986, he won the United Nations Peace Medal for "efforts to promote peace, dialogue, and free elections in several critical parts of the world." His books include Perjury: The Hiss Chambers Case (1978), which was nominated for an American Book Award and The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America -- The Stalin Era (1999). Mark C. Carnes: William Howard Taft Mark C. Carnes is Professor of History at Barnard College, Columbia University. He is the author of Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America (1989), Mapping America's Past (1996), and (with John A. Garraty) The American Nation (1999). Carnes has also edited Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (1995) and (with Garraty) the twenty-four-volume series American National Biography (1999). James Chace: Woodrow Wilson James Chace is Paul W. Williams Professor of Government and Public Law at Bard College. He is the editor of World Policy Journal and author of Acheson: The Secretary of State who Created the American World (1998), among other books. Robert Cowley: Calvin Coolidge Robert Cowley is the founding editor of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History. He is (with Malcolm Cowley) the editor of Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age (1966) and an authority on the 1920s Robert Dallek: Herbert Hoover, Lyndon Baines Johnson Robert Dallek is currently Professor of History at Boston University, having taught for thirty years at UCLA. In 1994-95, he was Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford. An elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Dallek is the author of numerous books on American diplomatic and presidential history, including a two-volume life of Lyndon B. Johnson. Susan Ware: Franklin D. Roosevelt Susan Ware has written extensively on the New Deal and 1930s America. She is currently affiliated with the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where she is editing Volume Five of the biographical dictionary Notable American Women. Herbert S. Parmet: Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Bush Herbert S. Parmet is Professor Emeritus of History at the City University of New York. He is the author Eisenhower and the American Crusades (1972) and, most recently, George Bush: the Life of a Lone Star Yankee (1997), among other books. Richard Reeves: John F. Kennedy Richard Reeves, the author of President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1993), writes a syndicated newspaper column and teaches at the Annenberg School for Communications at the University of Southern California. Tom Wicker: Richard M. Nixon Tom Wicker was a political columnist for the New York Times from 1966 until 1991. He is the author of fourteen books, including One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991). Laura Kalman: Gerald R. Ford Laura Kalman, Professor of History at the University of California -- Santa Barbara, is the author of Legal Realism at Yale, 1927-1960 (1986), Abe Fortas: A Biography (1990), and The Strange Career of Legal Liberalism (1996). She is presently at work on Years of Transformation: The United States, 1974-1981. Douglas Brinkley: Jimmy Carter Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. He is the author of The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter's Journey Beyond the White House (1998). James T. Patterson: Ronald Reagan James T. Patterson is Ford Foundation Professor of History at Brown University, where he has taught modern US history since 1972. He has also held visiting appointments as Harmsworth Professor of History at Oxford University, John Adams Professor of American Civilization at the University of Amsterdam, and Pitt Professor of American Institutions at Cambridge University. His publications include Mr. Republican: A Biography of Robert A. Taft (1972), America's Struggle Against Poverty: 1900-1994 (1995), and Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (1996), which won the Bancroft Prize. Evan Thomas: Bill Clinton Evan Thomas is assistant managing editor of Newsweek. In addition to coauthoring (with Walter Isaacson) The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986), Thomas has written The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams (1991) and The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA (1995). His current project is a biography of Robert F. Kennedy.


Princeton, New Jersey

Date of Birth:

October 11, 1936

Place of Birth:

Valley City, North Dakota


B.A., Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN) 1958; Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University, 1963

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

George Washington

1st President · 1789-1797

Gordon S. Wood

Although Light-Horse Harry Lee famously eulogized George Washington as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," it is most important that Washington was the first president of the United States. As the first president, he faced circumstances that no other American leader would ever face, and he was probably the only person in the country who could have met the challenge they posed. Reared in monarchy, the American people had never known a chief executive who was not a king, and Washington somehow had to satisfy their deeply rooted yearnings for patriarchal leadership while creating a new republican presidency.

    Because the United States had never had an elected chief executive like the one created by the Constitution of 1787, Washington had virtually no precedents to follow. Not only did he have to justify and flesh out the new office, he also had to bind the new nation together and prove to a skeptical world that America's grand experiment in self-government would succeed. That he accomplished all this in the midst of a world at war—and did it without sacrificing the country's republican character—is an astonishing achievement, one that the successes of no other president can match.

    The delegates to the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia in 1787 would never have created such a powerful executive office had they not been certain that Washington would become its firstholder. Not that he sought the office; no one could have expressed more reluctance. Yet he felt an obligation to serve because no one had been more responsible than he for getting the Constitution ratified. "Be assured," James Monroe, an opponent of the Constitution, told Thomas Jefferson, "his influence carried this government." In 1789, Washington received every electoral vote, the only president in history so honored.

He was the only American in 1789 who possessed the dignity, patience, restraint, and reputation for republican virtue that the untried but potentially powerful office required. With his imposing tall figure, Roman nose, and thin-lipped stern face, the former general was already, at age fifty-seven, an internationally famous hero, less for his military exploits during the Revolutionary War than for his moral character. At times during the war, he could probably have become a dictator, as some wanted him to be, but he resisted these blandishments. Washington always respected civilian authority over the army, and at the moment of his victory in 1783, he had unconditionally surrendered his sword to Congress. He promised not to take "any share in public business hereafter" and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon. This self- conscious retirement from public life, a virtually unprecedented refusal to accept political rewards commensurate with his military achievements, had electrified the world and immediately established his international reputation.

    Having previously promised the nation that he would seek no political office, Washington entered the presidency with everything to lose and little to gain. Only his virtuous concern for the nation's welfare overcame his hesitation—a wariness appreciated by the American people, who were aware that he was risking his fame in taking on the presidency. In 1792, when his initial term in office was up, only the most earnest entreaties kept him from returning home. This sincere willingness to surrender power is what gave Washington his remarkable moral authority.

    Although some Americans in 1789 wanted to turn the presidency into an elective monarchy, Washington resisted these efforts and was relieved when senatorial attempts to give him a royal-sounding title failed. Nevertheless, like other high-toned Federalists, he believed in a social hierarchy and consequently often acted as though he were an elected king. He initially favored "His High Mightiness" as an appropriate title and in public pronouncements referred to himself in the third person. He accepted the presence of kingly iconography everywhere and made public appearances in an elaborately ornamented coach drawn by six horses and attended by four servants in livery. He established excruciatingly formal levees in emulation of European royal courts; and, like the English kings, he went on progresses throughout the country, welcomed by triumphal arches and ceremonies befitting royalty. In fact, Washington was the only part of the new government that really caught the imagination of the American people.

No one did more than Washington to make the presidency the powerful national office it became. Having led an army, he well understood how to exercise authority. Indeed, he had more people working for him at Mount Vernon than initially in the new federal government. A systematic and energetic administrator, he kept careful records and communicated regularly with his department heads, to whom he delegated considerable authority. Yet he always made it clear that they were merely his assistants and responsible to him. Many of them, including Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, were brilliant men, yet Washington was always his own man and insisted that the government speak with a single voice. Lacking the genius and the intellectual confidence of his advisers, he consulted with them often, typically moving slowly and cautiously to judgment; but when ready to act, he acted decisively and, in the case of controversial decisions such as his acceptance of Hamilton's Bank of the United States and his 1793 Proclamation of Neutrality, never second-guessed himself.

    Washington especially knew that whatever he did would set precedents. "We are a young Nation," he said, "and have a character to establish. It behooves us therefore to set out right, for first impressions will be lasting." He was particularly concerned with the relationship between the president and the Senate, which he believed should advise and consent to appointments and treaties in the manner of a council. Expecting an arrangement similar to that he enjoyed as commander in chief, he assumed that much of the Senate's advice and consent, if not concerning appointments then at least with regard to treaty making, would be delivered orally.

    In August 1789, President Washington went to the Senate to obtain its advice and consent regarding a treaty he was negotiating with the Creeks. However, rather than offering their opinions as Washington's senior officers had during the Revolutionary War, the senators began debating each section of the treaty—despite the president's impatient glares. When one senator finally moved that the treaty be submitted to a committee for study, Washington jumped to his feet in exasperation and cried, "This defeats every purpose of my coming here!" He calmed down, but when he finally left the Senate chamber, he was overheard to say that he would "be damned" if he ever went there again. The advice part of the Senate's role in treaty making was thus more or less permanently forgotten. When the president issued his Proclamation of Neutrality regarding the war between England and revolutionary France, he didn't even bother to ask for the Senate's consent, thus establishing the executive's nearly sole authority over the conduct of foreign affairs.

    In the great struggle over Jay's Treaty with Great Britain (negotiated by John Jay in 1794 and ratified by the Senate a year later), Washington made a series of courageous decisions. With the United States and Britain on the verge of war because of British seizures of neutral American ships, sending Jay to England in the first place was one, signing the treaty amid an outcry of popular opposition was another, and standing up to a March 1796 attempt by the House of Representatives to scuttle the ratified treaty (by refusing to vote funds for its implementation) was a third. Washington thus refused to recognize for the House a role in the treaty process. To do so, he said, not only "would be to establish a dangerous precedent" but also would violate the Constitution, Which allowed only the president and the Senate to make treaties.

    Realizing only too keenly the fragility of the new nation, Washington devised a number of schemes to foster a stronger sense of nationhood. Because he understood the power of symbols, he was willing to sit for long hours having his portrait painted. With American nationalism not yet developed, popular celebrations of Washington during the 1790s often became a substitute for patriotism; indeed, commemorations of his birthday rivaled those of the Fourth of July. It's not too much to say that for many Americans he embodied the Union.

    As president, he was particularly sensitive to the diverse interests of the new country and fervent in his efforts to prevent its fragmentation. He undertook his two extended tours of the country, in 1789 and in 1791, so that he might personally bring the government to the farthest reaches of the land and reinforce the loyalty of people who had never seen him. He promoted roads, canals, the post office—anything and everything that would bind the different states and regions together. He spent an enormous amount of time considering appointments because he wanted not only to choose the best men available but also to build broad local support for the new federal government. He thought constantly about the future of the nation and those he called the "millions unborn." Never taking the unity of the country for granted, he remained preoccupied throughout his presidency with creating the sinews of nationhood. Even in the social life of the "republican court" in New York City and (after 1790) in Philadelphia, he and his wife, Martha, acted as matchmakers, consciously bringing together couples from different parts of the United States. In these and other ways, Washington, more than anyone, promoted the sense of Union that Lincoln and others would later uphold.

The decade of the 1790s was not a time of ordinary politics. The parties that emerged during this period, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, were not modern parties. The Federalists never even considered themselves a party but rather the beleaguered legitimate government beset by those seeking to destroy the Union. Although the Jeffersonian Republicans did reluctantly describe themselves as a party, they believed that their own organization was a temporary one, designed to prevent the establishment of a Federalist-led monarchy. Because neither the Federalists nor the Democratic-Republicans accepted the legitimacy of the other, partisan feelings ran very high and made the period one of the most passionate and divisive in American history.

    With the leaders of these two hostile factions—Hamilton and Jefferson—both in his cabinet, Washington was able to use his immense prestige and good judgment to restrain fears, limit intrigues, and stymie opposition that otherwise might have escalated into violence. In 1794, he delicately combined coercion and conciliation and avoided bloodshed in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, an antitax uprising of hundreds of farmers in western Pennsylvania. Despite the intensely partisan feelings, Washington never entirely lost the respect of the party leaders—a circumstance that enabled him to reconcile, resolve, and balance their clashing interests. Jefferson scarcely foresaw the half of it when he remarked as early as 1784 that "the moderation and virtue of a single character ... probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish."

    Although many thought that Washington could serve as president for life, he retired to Mount Vernon in 1797 at the conclusion of his second term, thus establishing a precedent unbroken until 1940. His hortatory Farewell Address became a sacred part of the American faith until well into the twentieth century. In it, he stressed above all the value of the Union, warning against extreme partisanship within the nation and passionate attachments or antagonisms to any foreign nation.

In 1799, six months before his death, some frightened Federalists urged the former president to come out of retirement and stand once again for the presidency. He refused, declaring that new political conditions in the country made his candidacy irrelevant. Democracy and party politics had taken over, and personal influence and distinctions of character no longer mattered. The parties could now "set up a broomstick" and get it elected, he ruefully observed.

    Although Washington wrote this out of anger and despair, he was essentially correct. The political world had changed, and parties, not great men, would soon become the objects of contention. To be sure, the American people have continued to long for great heroes, and right up through Dwight Eisenhower they have periodically elected Washingtons manqué to the presidency. But democracy has made great heroes no longer essential. Although Washington had aristocratic predilections and never meant to popularize politics, he nonetheless performed a crucial role in creating that democracy. He was an extraordinary man who made it possible for ordinary men to rule.


February 22, 1732


Pope's Creek, Virginia


December 14, 1799

Party Affiliation




* * *


March 4, 1789

The First Congress
convenes in the temporary
federal capital of New
York City. However, with
only eight senators and
thirteen representatives
present, neither house is
able to muster a quorum.

September 25, 1789

Congress submits to the
states twelve proposed
amendments to the
Constitution. Of these,
only the first ten will be
approved. When they are
ratified in December
1791, they become the
Bill of Rights.

July 10, 1790

The first part of a deal
worked out between
Alexander Hamilton
and Thomas Jefferson is
enacted when the House
of Representatives votes
to locate the permanent
federal capital on the
Potomac River. The deal
is completed on July 26,
when the House agrees to
assume Revolutionary War
debt held by the states.

February 25, 1791

President Washington
signs a bill chartering the
Bank of the United States.
Jefferson has opposed the
bank, arguing that it falls
outside the constitutional
powers specifically granted
to Congress. According to
Hamilton's doctrine of
"implied powers," however,
Congress's power to collect
taxes and regulate trade
implies the power to
charter a national bank.

August 3, 1795

In the Northwest Territory,
Gen. Anthony Wayne
signs the Treaty of
Greenville with the twelve
Ohio tribes he defeated at
the August 1794 Battle
of Fallen Timbers. The
Indians cede much of
their land, after which a
boundary is set between
the remaining Indian land
and that belonging to
white settlers.

Table of Contents

Introduction The Presidents George Washington John Adams Thomas Jefferson James Madison James Monroe John Quincy Adams Andrew Jackson Martin Van Buren William Henry Harrison John Tyler James K. Polk Zachary Taylor Millard Fillmore Franklin Pierce James Buchanan Abraham Lincoln Andrew Johnson Ulysses S. Grant Rutherford B. Hayes James A. Garfield Chester A. Arthur Grover Cleveland Benjamin Harrison William McKinley Theodore Roosevelt William Howard Taft Woodrow Wilson Warren G. Harding Calvin Coolidge Herbert Hoover Franklin D. Roosevelt Harry S. Truman Dwight D. Eisenhower John F. Kennedy Lyndon B. Johnson Richard M. Nixon Gerald R. Ford Jimmy Carter Ronald Reagan George Bush Bill Clinton The Campaigns and Inaugural Addresses About the Contributors Index Photo Credits

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To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
DBJones on LibraryThing 10 months ago
A great introduction to the men who have held the office of President of the United States. Some great biographers have contributed to this book and it is a great reference guide. The main details and events in the life of each President are listed and when you are finished you will want to go out and find more information about each man.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the most informative, yet easy to read book I have been able to find on this subject. It doesn't go into great detail, but it does give you a vary valuable history lesson. A big bonus for me was that every igaugural address full text was included. If you have an interest in Presidential history, or just want to know more about the people that have ruled our country, read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I would recommend this book to anyone with a vast interest in presidential politics. McPhereson not only provides a well written and illustrated index of every President from Washington to Clinton, but more importantly provides information on events that have shaped the lives of millions of Americans throughout the past 42 administrations. I have bought one for myself and one for a friend. I plan to buy a couple more as Christmas presents this year.