American Presidency

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Grolier’s “American Presidency” Series
The First Five Presidents

George Washington 2

John Adams 5

Thomas Jefferson 8

James Madison 10

James Monroe 12

George Washington

First president of the United States (17891797)
Born: February 22, 1732, in Westmoreland County, Virginia
Died: Mount Vernon, Virginia, December 14, 1799
Political Party: None

George Washington is called the "father of our country." He came out of retirement to take the reins as leader of the new republic. Thomas Jefferson said of Washington: "He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good, and a great man." During his eight years in office, Washington defined the role of the president for all others who followed.

Early Life

Washington came from a family of farmers and landowners. He had little education but showed an aptitude for mathematics. He used this talent to become a surveyor. At 15, Washington took a job as assistant surveyor on a team sent to map the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia. In his early 20s, Washington joined the Virginia militia, a citizen army that fought on the side of the British in the rivalry between the French and the British over the Ohio territory. He commanded a troop that was sent to guard a British fort at the head of the Ohio River. In 1754, Washington's men confronted a French scouting party in southern Pennsylvania, killing 10 of the enemy. Expecting retaliation, the militiamen took refuge in the hastily built Fort Necessity. They were soundly defeated by a French and Indian force, giving the French control of the Ohio valley. This incident was the beginning of the French and Indian War (17541758) between Britain and France.

After the war, Washington returned to Virginia to become a tobacco planter in 1758. The following year, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow with two children. The couple never had any children of their own.

The Revolutionary War

After winning the French and Indian War, the British had to find a means to pay their war debts. They did so by passing tax laws that hurt the colonists. These burdensome laws levied taxes on nearly everything: tea, paper, stamps, books, glass, and so on.

The colonists sent representatives to the Continental Congress, where members protested the British tax laws. Washington served as a member of the Virginia delegation to the congress (17741775). In 1776, the congress issued the Declaration of Independence. The colonies were soon at war with Great Britain, fighting for their freedom.

The Revolutionary War began when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in April, 1775. Washington was chosen to lead the Continental Army. But his troops were poorly trained, poorly supplied, and ill prepared for war. As a result, they lost many of the early battles against the British. For much of the war, Washington's troops were in retreat. But he held his army together, and eventually the tide turned. In 1781, with the aid of the French, Washington defeated the British army at Yorktown, Virginia, in the final battle of the war. Washington was hailed as a national hero.

Our First President

In 1787, Washington was chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. In 1789, he was unanimously elected president by the newly created Electoral College. As president, Washington faced many challenges. The country was new, and setting up a new government was demanding. In addition, Washington wanted to arrange treaties with Native Americans living along the western frontier (Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee). The country needed a monetary system and a national bank. Last but not least, it was important to establish friendly relations with Great Britain so that the new country had a market for its goods and raw materials.

Many of Washington's ideas about government still prevail today. He believed that a president, unlike a king, should hold office for a limited period of time. (The only president to serve more than two terms was Franklin D. Roosevelt.)

Washington selected a group of advisors to help him run the country. Today, these advisors are known as the Cabinet. One of Washington's advisors was Alexander Hamilton. He served as the first secretary of the treasury and set up the first monetary system. Hamilton also borrowed money to pay off the country's staggering war debt. One way to raise money to pay off the national debt was to levy taxes. In 1794, Washington approved a tax on liquor. Pennsylvania farmers, who turned their rye crop into whiskey, refused to pay the tax. This led to the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington sent 15,000 troops to Pennsylvania to keep the peace and put down the rebellion. This firm action helped establish the authority of the federal government.

To the west of Pennsylvania, the Northwest Territory (Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin) were opened for settlement. Washington sent General Anthony Wayne to deal with any problems that might arise with the Native Americans living there. A series of forts were built to protect white settlers from attacks by Indians, who were unhappy about losing their land. Eventually, many of the Native American people were forced to sign away their lands and move west of the Mississippi.

Jay's Treaty

In 1794, Britain and U.S. found themselves on the brink of war. The British were interfering with U.S. ships and trade. In 1795, President Washington sent John Jay to England to negotiate a treaty. The pact with Great Britain came to be called Jay's Treaty. Not everyone was pleased because the treaty failed to secure neutrality for American ships on high seas. The British were allowed to seize American ships if they suspected them of carrying supplies to Britain's enemies. But the treaty narrowly avoided going to war again with Great Britain, which would have been a financial disaster to the new nation.

Leaving Public Office

Upon retiring from the presidency, Washington returned to his estate, Mount Vernon. In 1799, he suddenly became very ill and died. In Congress, Henry Lee, one of Washington's former officers, remembered his leader with these words: "To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

John Adams

Second president of the United States (17971801)
Born: October 30, 1735, in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts
Died: July, 4, 1826
Political Party: Federalist

John Adams played a key role in the birth of the United States. He represented the colony of Massachusetts in the First and Second Continental Congresses and helped Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. After the United States was founded, Adams served as both vice president and, later, president of the new country. Because he was independent and tough-minded, Adams was not popular, but he was a courageous patriot.

Early Life

By the time John Adams was born in 1735, the Adams family had been farming the same land in Massachusetts for almost 100 years. John began his education in the village, at a school taught by a local woman. He learned reading, writing, and simple arithmetic. Adams then studied at a Latin school (high school) and at Harvard University. His early plans to be either a farmer or a minister gave way to new interests in law, science, and teaching.

Adams taught school during the day and studied law at night. In 1758, he set up a law office in Braintree. But Adams often traveled to other towns as part of his work. On one such trip, he met Abigail Smith, a bright and knowledgeable young woman, whom he married in 1764.

Patriot Leader

The 1760s were difficult times for the colonists. Great Britain passed laws that taxed everything from postage stamps to playing cards, food, cloth, furniture, and tea. John Adams was among the many people who opposed these taxes. He wrote, "No free man can be separated from his property but by his own act or fault."

Adams' outspoken objection to Great Britain's tax laws soon placed him in the public eye. In 1774, he represented Massachusetts at the First and Second Continental Congresses. A skillful writer, he helped Thomas Jefferson write the Declaration of Independence. This document declared the colonies to be free from British rule. From 1778 to 1783, while the colonists fought for their freedom, Adams served as an American diplomat in France. He became the first U.S. minister to England in 1785.

Adams was glad to return home in 1788 after ten years in Europe. That same year, in the first election for president of the United States, he was chosen as George Washington's vice president. This was not a job that Adams felt was very important. In a letter to his wife, Abigail, he said, "My country has in its wisdom contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived."

The Presidency

After eight years as president, George Washington retired. In the 1796 election, John Adams became president, and Thomas Jefferson became vice president. Adams served only one term as president, and his presidency was not very successful.

In 1796, the friendship between the United States and France was coming apart. The French were angry because the United States had signed a treaty with Great Britain (Jay's Treaty). The French believed this treaty favored Great Britain over France.

President Adams sent Charles Pinckney, John Marshall, and Elbridge Gerry to Paris to speak with the French. The French foreign minister, Talleyrand, would not see the Americans. Instead, he sent three representatives to tell the Americans what he wanted. But the three Frenchmen demanded a bribe of $250,000 before they would even speak with Adams' men. The three Americans wrote letters to Adams telling him about the Frenchmen's demand for bribes.

President Adams refused the French request for money. Thomas Jefferson, the vice president at the time and a political rival of Adams, claimed that Adams had exaggerated the French demands. To let everyone know the truth, Adams published the letters from his men in France, changing the names of the Frenchmen to X, Y, and Z.

Problems over what came to be known as the XYZ Affair continued for more than two years. Some politicians wanted to go to war with France. However, President Adams worked to bring about a peaceful solution to the problem. By doing so, he prevented a costly war with France.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were laws signed by President Adams in 1798 as a result of the problems with France and England. These laws made it more difficult for immigrants to become United States citizens. They also imposed fines or prison terms on people who spoke out or wrote articles against the government.

These laws were very unpopular. By 1802, the laws had either been reversed by Congress or had reached the end of their time limits and were not renewed. But people continued to blame Adams for them.

Living in the White House

John and Abigail Adams were the first people to live in the newly built president's home in Washington, D.C. The building was not called the White House then, as it is now. Instead, it was referred to as the President's Palace. The Adamses moved into the home before it was completed. Abigail Adams hung laundry to dry in the unfinished East Room. President Adams said, "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."

Leaving Public Office

In 1800, the next presidential election was held, and Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson. Adams retired to his farm in Massachusetts. He lived long enough to see his son, John Quincy Adams, become president in 1825. John Adams, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of that documentJuly 4, 1826. Thomas Jefferson died that same day.

Thomas Jefferson

Third president of the United States (18019)
Born: April 13, 1743, at Shadwell, Goochland County (now Albemarle County), Virginia
Died: July 4, 1826
Political Party: Democratic-Republican

Thomas Jefferson is the author of the Declaration of Independence, which begins with these words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Jefferson, a Virginia lawyer, drafted the document in 1776 to explain why the American colonies wanted freedom from British rule. He was a man of many talentswriter, philosopher, politician, architect, and inventor. Jefferson also played the violin to entertain guests and cultivated exotic plants in his garden.

Early Career

Jefferson was born on his father's farm in Virginia. He attended the College of William and Mary, where he studied law. In 1769, when he was just 26 years old, Jefferson joined the Virginia colonial legislature. In 1772, he married a well-to-do widow, Martha Wayles Skelton. She died in 1782, and Jefferson never remarried.

Jefferson represented the state of Virginia at the Continental Congress in 1776. A deep thinker and an eloquent writer, he was given the task of drafting the document that declared America's intention to break away from England. Between 1776 and 1801, Jefferson held a number of government posts. In 1779, he was chosen as the governor of Virginia and reelected the next year. He was author of the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. In 1785, Jefferson replaced Benjamin Franklin as U.S. minister to France, a post he held for five years. Between 1789 and 1793, Jefferson served as the nation's first secretary of state under President George Washington. When John Adams was elected as the second president, Jefferson became vice president (17961801).

President Jefferson

In 1800, Jefferson ran for president, along with fellow Democratic-Republican Aaron Burr. The Democratic-Republicans believed that the rights of the states and individuals should be protected. They wanted to curtail the powers of the federal government. The Federalists, the opposing political party, were in favor of a strong central government. Jefferson referred to them as "monarchists in principle."

Jefferson and Burr received an equal number of electoral-college votes, throwing the election into the House of Representatives. Alexander Hamilton, with whom Jefferson had battled while both served as members of Washington's cabinet, stood behind Jefferson. In 1801, Jefferson became the third president of the United States. Recognizing that he had won by a narrow margin, Jefferson encouraged the Republicans and Federalists to work together. The day he was sworn into office, Jefferson said, "We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists."

The Louisiana Purchase

One of Jefferson's major accomplishments during his first term was purchasing the Louisiana region from France in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. The vast territory stretched from New Orleans north to the Canadian border and from the Mississippi Valley west to the Rocky Mountains. Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the western territories and search for a route to the Pacific Ocean.

A Second Term

During his second term in office, Jefferson worked hard to keep the United States out of a war between England and France. The two European countries often blockaded each other's ports and seized American ships that happened to be nearby. In 1807, Britain attacked the U.S. ship Chesapeake because four British sailors who had deserted from the Royal Navy were on board. In response, Jefferson passed the Embargo Act, barring U.S. trade with European nations. Businesses criticized Jefferson for costing them millions of dollars in trade. The embargo was lifted in 1809.

At Monticello

Jefferson refused to be nominated for a third term as president. He returned to Monticello, the Virginia home that he had designed and built. "I resume with delight the character and pursuits for which nature designed me," he wrote. A longtime champion of education, Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in 1819.

Jefferson died at Monticello on July 4, 1826. Like John Adams, Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

James Madison

Fourth president of the United States (18091817)
Born: March 16, 1751, in Port Conway, Virginia
Died: Montpelier, Virginia, June 28, 1836
Political Party: Democratic-Republican

The oldest of 12 children, James Madison was born in Port Conway, Virginia. A small, sickly child, he never weighed more than 100 pounds (45 kilograms) during his life. Madison was highly intelligent, well respected, and politically savvy. As president, Madison guided the United States through the War of 1812, which was often called "Mr. Madison's War."

A Career in Public Service

Madison grew up on his family's Virginia plantation. He graduated from the College of New Jersey, which later became Princeton. Madison was just 25 years old when he helped write the state of Virginia's first constitution in 1776. After they declared independence from England, the states were like small countries, each with its own separate government. If the country was to prosper, Madison knew the states needed one, united government.

In the summer of 1787, delegates met at the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to discuss the issue of a strong central government. Madison worked tirelessly, leading debates and discussions about the powers of the president, the congress, and the courts. In September, the document was ready for signing. Many people regarded Madison as the "Father of the Constitution."

In 1789, Madison won a seat in Congress, where he worked hard to pass the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments, or changes, to the Constitution, which defined specific rights of the people. In 1796, while a member of Congress, Madison married a charming widow, Dolley Payne Todd. She was well liked and proved to be a strong asset to his career in politics.

The Road to the Presidency

When Thomas Jefferson became president in 1800, he named Madison his secretary of state. The two men worked closely on many issues and became lifelong friends. After Jefferson retired, Madison was easily elected the fourth president of the United States in 1808. He was the last of the Founding Fathers to serve as president.

Mr. Madison's War

One of the many problems facing President Madison was the war between France and England. The United States often found itself caught in the middle. Both countries preyed on U.S. ships. England would capture American ships to prevent them from doing business with France. It also seized American seamen and made them serve on British ships (a practice called impressment). France, in turn, tried to stop U.S. ships from trading with England.

In June 1812, at the urging of fellow Republicans, Madison asked Congress to declare war against England. The War of 1812 (18121815) was not popular with New England shipbuilders since it hurt their business. Several northern states even refused to send troops to fight.

Much of the war was fought at sea. Although U.S ships won a few battles, they proved no match for England's experienced fleet. In August, 1814, the British captured Washington, D.C., and burned the White House and the Capitol. Madison's wife Dolley waited until the last possible minute to evacuate the White House, and she is credited with saving a portrait of George Washington and other important papers. The stress of the presidency was so hard on the sickly Madison that he almost died. Nevertheless, he won a second term in office.

In 1815, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, but it took two months for the news to reach the United States from Europe. The biggest battle of war was actually fought after peace had been declared. Led by General Andrew Jackson, the Americans defeated the British at the Battle of New Orleans. This final victory made Americans feel they had won the war. Madison received the credit and became more popular. He retired to Montpelier, Virginia, at the end of his term and spent the remainder of his life working to end slavery.

James Monroe

Fifth president of the United States (18171825)
Born: April 28, 1758, in Westmoreland County, Virginia
Died: New York City, New York, on July 4, 1831
Political Party: Democrat-Republican

James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, was the last chief executive who had personally fought for independence from Britain. A tall and stately man, Monroe was a popular president; the eight years of Monroe's administration were called the "Era of Good Feeling."

Soldier, Lawyer, Statesman

James Monroe was born in Virginia in 1758. As a young man, he attended the College of William and Mary and fought with George Washington's Continental Army during the Revolutionary War (17751783). Monroe studied law under Thomas Jefferson, and the two became good friends. In 1786, Monroe married 17-year-old Elizabeth Kortright of New York. The couple had two daughters, Eliza and Maria, and a son who died as an infant.

Monroe served in many political offices during his career. He represented Virginia in the Continental Congress, in the U.S. Senate, and as governor of Virginia. Monroe also served the federal government as minister to France and England, U.S. Secretary of State, and U.S. Secretary of War. Monroe was minister to France during the French Revolution. His broad political experience helped prepare Monroe for the presidency.

The Fifth President

Monroe was elected president in 1816 and easily reelected in 1820. In 1820, he received all but one vote in the electoral college. During Monroe's administration, the 49th parallel was set as the border with Canada. In the southeast, the United States acquired Florida from Spain, and U.S. troops fought against the Seminole Native Americans there.

The Missouri Compromise

One bitter controversy during Monroe's presidency concerned the expansion of slavery. Generally, Northerners were against the spread of slavery, while Southerners wanted to extend slavery to new states and territories. To satisfy both the North and the South, Monroe supported the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Under that legislation, Missouri entered the Union as a slaveholding state, while Maine entered as a free state. In the future, the Compromise stated, there would be no new slave states north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitude.

The Monroe Doctrine

Foreign affairs were one of Monroe's major strengths as president. Monroe and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, developed a policy that later became known as the Monroe Doctrine. In this policy statement, Monroe said that European countries must stop colonizing the Americas. He also said that the United States would not interfere in European affairs. He stated that any European involvement in the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as a hostile act against the United States. During the early history of the United States, the federal government often used the Monroe Doctrine as a reason to control actions in the Western Hemisphere.

Retirement and Death

After his second term as president, Monroe retired to Oak Hill, Virginia. He had gone into debt while serving in various government offices, so Congress repaid him for some of his expenses. In 1831, Monroe died at the home of his daughter, Maria, in New York City. Like presidents Jefferson and John Adams before him, Monroe died on the Fourth of July.

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