Presidents who shaped US history

Updated: Nov 04, 2012, 00:46 AM IST

Shafey Danish

Of late the American presidency and the presidential race – especially the one just being run – has turned into a global spectacle. This is only partly due to the power and prestige that the US enjoys in the world, it is also due to the uniqueness of the characters who have occupied the office; where else would you have George W Bush as the head of a state? Of its 44 presidents, there have been some who have served as lodestones for the world at large, while others, including the present incumbent, are lessons in how not to run a state.

If this history has a Lincoln, it also has a Nixon. It has presidents who were participants in shaping the world post the first and the second World War. Here is a look at five of the most prominent US presidents.

Abraham Lincoln: Perhaps the greatest of America’s presidents, Lincoln is remembered as the man who saved the country from breaking into two nations during the bloody civil war. He is also known as the orator who delivered some of the finest speeches in history, and credited with ending slavery in the United States.

Lincoln was born on Feb 12, 1809 to a Kentucky frontiersman. Lincoln came from that vast majority of undistinguished lineage, in which according to Mark Twain, most of the great men of history are born.

He was a self taught man, scratching together an education even as he worked as a farmhand, labourer and storekeeper to make a living. But dint of sheer perseverance, and an ambition that never flagged (“his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest," his law partner said) he was able to enter the Illinois legislature where he spent eight years.

Lincoln married Mary Todd with whom he had four sons, but unfortunately only one survived to maturity. He came to the national stage in 1858 when he ran against Stephen A Douglas for the Senate. He lost; but his debates won him a national reputation which contributed to his getting the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1860. He won the presidency the same year.

The next year, in 1861, the American Civil War broke out. Lincoln refused to compromise with the confederacy although it comprised almost half the states of the Union and went to war to stop it from seceding.

Lincoln issued the proclamation of emancipation in 1863, as a first step towards freeing the slaves and ending slavery in America. It was also during his term as the president that he delivered the famous Gettysburg address, in which he laid down what has become the definition of elected government all over the world; ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people.’

The Civil war neared to a close in 1864, the year in which Lincoln won the presidential election for the second time. But he was not destined to see the end of the second term; he was assassinated on April 14, 1865 at Ford`s Theatre in Washington by John Wilkes Booth.

Thomas Jefferson: One of the founding fathers of the US, Thomas Jefferson was probably the most gifted. He was, apart from being the author of the declaration of Independence (with the famous words ‘all men are created equal’), a horticulturist, statesman, architect, archaeologist, palaeontologist, author, inventor, and founder of the University of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Virginia. His father was a planter from whom Jefferson inherited some 5000 acres of land. From his mother, who came from the Randolph family, one of most notable families of America, a high aristocratic bearing. Jefferson married Martha Wayles Skelton and took her to live with him in his self designed house Monticello.

Though talented in so many ways, he was not given to public speaking, he therefore earned the sobriquet of the ‘silent member’ of the Congress. It was in later years that he emerged as a major political figure serving as the governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781.

In 1785 he succeeded Benjamin Franklin to the post of Minister for France. He served as first secretary of state under the first US president George Washington from 1789 to 1793, and immediately fell out with Alexander Hamilton over fiscal policy. He resigned from the cabinet in 1793.

Political differences with Hamilton led to the formation of the Republican party led by Jefferson on the one and the Federalists led by Hamilton on the other.

Jefferson became the president of the United States in 1800. A champion of small government, he slashed government expenditure on the Army and the Navy and eliminated the tax on Whiskey, even then he was able to reduce the national debt by one third. He was the first president to send a naval squadron to the Mediterranean to fight the Barbary pirates, to prevent them from harassing American merchant ships.

But by far the most notable achievement of his presidency was the Louisiana purchase. He brought the entire area, which is now a full state of the US, from Napoleon for 60 mn francs.

His second term as President was spent in keeping America out of the French English wars, which had broken out in Europe. But American mercantilism suffered due to interference by both the French and the English.

This, and Jefferson’s solution, an embargo on American shipping made him unpopular. He removed himself from the presidency in 1809 and went to work on one of his most cherished dreams, the setting up of an institution of higher learning.

This dream took the shape of the University of Virginia in 1819.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826.

Ronald Reagan: He has become as something of a hero to the current breed of US Republicans, who refer to his period in office with wistfulness reserved for history’s golden ages.

Reagan was an established actor before he entered politics. Initially he registered himself as a democrat, but later changed sides and joined the Republican Party just after Kennedy’s election. He was a strong supporter of the free market, and delivered a speech in which he argued that the economy cannot be controlled without controlling the people, and people cannot be controlled without the use of force and coercion. Therefore, he said, the nation has come to a time of choosing.

This speech, known as his Time of Choosing speech launched his career as a popular politician.

He took the governorship of California in 1967, and was elected the president of the US in 1980. Reagan brought in deregulation of the economy and made substantial cuts in the tax in 1981. His economic policies, which have been copied to a large extent by the Bush administration, took on a name of its own: Reaganomics.

Reagan left office in 1989. In 1994 he disclosed he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He died 10 years later at the ripe old age of 93.

Franklin D Roosevelt: The ‘New Deal’ president is remembered for presiding over the economic revival of the US after the Great Depression. Urging Americans to regain faith in themselves, he famously said, "The only thing we need to fear is fear itself.”

He took office in 1932 for the first of the four times (the only president to hold office for more than two terms), when the great depression was in its worst phase. Almost every bank was closed, and more than 13 lakhs people were unemployed. Roosevelt abandoned the tight fiscal policy till then followed and embarked upon a plan of expanding government expenditure. He also took the dollar out of the gold standard and allowed budgetary deficit to increase.

Although it was only slowly that the reforms started taking effect, and that too not completely till the US entered into the Second World War, his reforms had far reaching effect in providing a new direction to the economy. One of the lasting reforms that he was responsible for was the Social Security System. A system which provides insurance cover for old age, unemployed and needy sections of the society apart from providing medical help under various schemes.

FDR as he is popularly called, was also the president of the US during the second World War. It was under him that the US transformed itself from a largely isolationist state to a major player on the world stage. The US during the war years became the ‘arsenal of Democracy.’

After the war, he devoted his energy to forming a successor to the League of Nations, which saw fruition in the form of the United Nations.

Roosevelt died in 1945

John F Kennedy: JFK may not be the greatest US president in terms of achievement, but he was certainly the most charismatic. With his beautiful wife Jackie Kennedy, he ushered in an era of great popularity of the presidency.

He was the youngest president to be elected to the office, and barely 1000 days in to office, he was assassinated, becoming the youngest president to die in office.

JKF is remembered for his tough stance over the Cuba missile crisis, which brought the World almost to the brink of a nuclear holocaust with the two superpowers hovering at the edge of war. Good sense prevailed and the issue was resolved with the USSR agreeing to dismantle its bases on Cuba.

JKF’s other major decision was to commit the US to a space programme which saw the country getting ahead of USSR in landing the first man on the moon.

The Kennedys enjoyed popularity that is more a hallmark of famousculture figures rather than US presidents. Their period came to be dubbed as the ‘Camelot’ after a famous Broadway play.

On November 22, 1963 he was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, in Dallas, Texas.