Cold War, the president of the United States was often referred to as the "leader of the free world." This connotes an image of someone with an unsurpassed amount of power and responsibility. From 1861 to 1969, the role of President of the United States progressed from being that of the leader of a moderately powerful, factious republic to being one who was almost singularly responsible for the defense of most of the world's population against Communist tyranny. To understand this evolution requires an broader inquiry into the nature of these leaders and the constantly changing polity that they were elected to represent.
Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt bear the distinction of having lead the country into its largest conflicts during this time frame, which makes them among the most intriguing to historians. Although McKinley, Lyndon Johnson and Truman were also 'wartime' Presidents, their respective conflicts were more controversial and had a lesser bearing on geo-political affairs. It is difficult to see Lincoln outside the context of the Civil War, but his leadership played a key role in the preservation of the country independent of the military's exploits on the battlefield.
Like the Founding Fathers, Lincoln acted as statesman and president in a time of crisis when the meaning of the nation's fundamental law was called into question. The framers intended the Constitution as a permanent instrument of government for the American people. Lincoln's historic responsibility, as he believed, was to perpetuate the institutions of the Founding as expressed in the organic law. (Belz, Pg. 1997)
When Lincoln had been a Congressman during the Mexican-American war, he had openly questioned James K. Polk's annexation of parts of Mexico, arguing that he was not authorized to take such liberties as they were technically the responsibility of the legislature. As a result, it was his explicit intention during his Presidency to take all military actions with the express consent of the legislature. Incidentally, many of the hawks dominating the legislature at that time were more militaristic than the President, something that was not to change until the end of reconstruction. This almost lead to Johnson's impeachment by the end of the decade as the Republican Party thought him too sympathetic to southern interests.
Grant, like Truman and Eisenhower, was a war hero President who was ill-equipt to handle the role of Chief Executive. With the military occupation of the American South, the political apparatus of the United States was primed for rampant corruption. There main dilemma was over how the South should be re-integrated into the United States government; Congressional Republicans wished to limit the influence of Democrats and knew that if Southern states were allowed autonomy, the newfound freedoms of the black population would all but evaporate. The federal government also faced myriad claims from veterans of the war and the administration of their benefits opened the government up to more opportunities for corrupt civil service administrators to profit.
The Presidents of the 'Gilt Age:' Hayes, Arthur, Cleveland, and Harrison, are never thought of as having been particularly dynamic. Many were from states such as Ohio for the sole reason that the party apparatus of the Republicans and Democrats both realized that Ohio was a bellwether state. Hayes was a Republican whose election was hotly contested; it was believed that the Democrats may have won Florida and the election. He was allowed to succeed Grant on the condition that reconstruction ended. One of the chief issues of the day was that of the Civil Service, which at the time was dominated by nepotism. Chester Alan Arthur was one of the most vocal defendants of the Spoils System. Grover Cleveland, who was the first to experience opposition from the populist candidate William Jennings Bryan, refused to carry out the desire of Congress and agitators in the media to declare war on Spain. He wisely countered that we could merely buy the island from Spain, as it had offered to let us do.
President McKinley, was to be the one to declare war on Spain and invade Cuba, using the matter as a convenient excuse to annex the Phillipines, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. Man contend that this was done at the behest of interests who wished to procure a coal refueling station for steamers en route to the new markets of the Orient, that were thought to be promising future markets for American products. However, others believed the annexation of islands populated with people whose societies were structurally unfit for American statehood to be an act of imperialism and were against such matters on principle. Their number included Andrew Carnegie. For his warring proficiencies, McKinley was to die by an anarchist's bullet.
Theodore Roosevelt was a favorite among progressives, who saw the United States as catering exclusively to the interests of large-scale manufacturers and railroad shipping magnates. A war hero with a 'no-nonsense' attitude from the New York City area, Roosevelt was thought to be a tough, no-nonsense politician whose exploits in the west and in Cuba made him legendary. Roosevelt was also unafraid to question the pervasive influence of American monopolies that had quickly come to dominate American industry. He quickly set about 'trust-busting'; breaking up several large companies such as Standard Oil. Roosevelt also set about creating the national parks, and began construction on the Panama Canal, which would facilitate shipping between the east and west coast. In foreign policy, Roosevelt had the distinction of mediating the Russo-Japanese war. Taft, who aspired to be a Supreme Court Justice, was expected to carry on Roosevelt's progressive Republican tradition but failed to cut tariffs. This alienated progressives, driving them to vote instead for Roosevelt's progressive "Bull Moose" party and ensure Wilson's Democratic victory. Taft's legacy was to entrench his family in Ohio politics: one of his descendents is the current governor of Ohio.
Wilson's conduct during and independent of the First World War was a testament to the caprice of an ideological leader who embodied many of the sentiments common to progressive idealists in the first decades of the 20th century. Wartime taxes on the wealthiest Americans jumped to above 60%, prompting most of them to put their money into tax-free municipal bonds. The reigning issues of the day were the direct election of Senators, women's suffrage, temperance, and international policy. Wilson, a former college professor and devout Presbyterian, was against allowing women the vote:
The President's understanding of feminine psychology cautioned him against giving the ballot to women. It seemed to him that they thought too directly to be enfranchised en bloc. They might refuse to recognize obstacles and to circumvent them wisely. (Walworth, Pg. 326)
Unlike Lincoln, FDR, McKinley and other Presidents, Wilson was often at odds with the Senate, and was unable to win fiscal support for the League of Nations, an idea the Europeans attributed to him. Wilson was considered one of the most idealistic Presidents; he defended the idea of a civil service as president of Princeton and was able to compel the American people that a prolonged foreign war was in America's best interests. Wilson was very sick during the last year of his Presidency, leaving the control of the United States to the Attorney General Nathaniel Greene, known as the 'Fighting Quaker'. Fears of bolshevists and anarchists, real or imagined, drove domestic policy during this period of time, leaving the League of Nations to fall entirely into European hands.
It was left to Harding to officially end the war with Germany and normalize relations with the new European powers. Harding, who lacked Wilson's finesse, operated in traditional circles and, like Grant, was known for his incestuous dealings with business. Although he was eventually to be blamed for the Teapot Dome scandal, it was later to be found that he hadn't any knowledge of this. One of Harding's more successful initiatives was to lower taxes on the highest income bracket to less than 30%, which encouraged the country's business moguls to invest their money in equities. Harding was blessed with a legislature that was dominated by conservatives and progressives. The former group was successful in limiting the number of immigrants coming into the United States.
Calvin Coolidge reigned over the prosperity that was to characterize the 1920's. He was what we would call a conservative, and was characterized by a laissez faire attitude towards political action. He felt content to provide moral authority to the Presidency as a stern New England Calvinist rather than pursue an activist Presidency. Walter Lippmann commented in 1926, that Coolidge's chief strength was in that he was effective at doing nothing: "This active inactivity suits the mood and certain of the needs of the country admirably. It suits all the business interests which want to be let alone.... And it suits all those who have become convinced that government in this country has become dangerously complicated and top-heavy...." (www.whitehouse.gov)
Hoover was to leave the White House one of the least popular presidents of the 20th century, largely…