Between 1789, when the government organized by the constitution began its functions, and 1886, the people of the United States have twenty-five times chosen a President; and of the Presidents, seven have been chosen for a second term. Four of them, having died in office, were succeeded by Vice Presidents.
While the number of terms, therefore, has been twenty-five, the executive chair has been filled by twenty-two individuals. In referring to the line of Presidents, and scanning the names of those who have exercised powers more extensive than those of English royalty, we are struck by the fact that very few of our Presidents have ranked first, in point of intellect, in their own generation. It may be said, indeed, that Jefferson alone of them all was without dispute the foremost statesman of his day.
Comparing our elected chief magistrates with the various lines of hereditary sovereigns of Europe, we find that pre-eminent ability is scarcely more frequent among them than is presented by the houses of Romanoff, Hohenzollern, and Hapsburg. When, however, we consider their moral qualities as rulers--their patriotism and purity, their freedom from a too grasping ambition, the fidelity and zeal with which they have served the country as best they knew how--we are perhaps not unreasonable in judging them superior, as a line of rulers, to any royal house of which history affords record. Very rarely has it been that a President has been even suspected of craving increased power for himself, or of using his office for unworthy personal ends. Some have been weak, some perverse and obstinate; but as the clouds of party passion, which have sometimes obscured the motives and the acts of our chief magistrates, pass away, we may recognize in their action honest though now and then ill directed efforts to use their high office for the general weal.
Our intellectually ablest men have not, with the exception of Jefferson, attained the Presidency, though many of them have aspired to it. No one can doubt that Hamilton was a greater political genius than the first two Presidents. It can scarcely be questioned that Webster, Calhoun, and Clay were greater in this respect than the three Presidents who succeeded Jefferson. Madison was a man of culture, clear vision, and political learning, but he was the disciple of Jefferson, and did not reveal qualities of originality and constructiveness in statesmanship. Monroe was a man of yet more limited capacity, unless Polk be excepted, Monroe was the least able of all our Presidents. But he had a large experience in public affairs, he was judicious and cool-tempered, and thoroughly honest and simple-minded. He was personally liked, and after Washington was the only President who was the unanimous choice of the country.
John Quincy Adams, a trained statesman, who had been an ambassador, a Senator, and a Secretary of State, was still inferior in point of political intellect to Clay, his own Secretary of State, and to Calhoun, the Vice-President; and there were several others at that time who might justly be competed with him. So, although Andrew Jackson was perhaps the greatest of our Presidents in executive vigor and stern force of will, as a political figure his most devoted admirers would scarcely rank him with Clay or Webster. Van Buren was rather a shrewd politician than an eminent statesman; but he was a politician in a higher sense, and no stain of dishonor attaches to his career, while his presidential term was an honest and able one.
Many public men might be named who, living at the time of Harrison's elevation, were very much his political superiors; in his very cabinet were at least three, Webster, Crittenden, and Ewing; and John Tyler was very far from being in the front rank of American statesmen, though his political capacity has sometimes been underrated.
Polk was the weakest of all our later Presidents, and he too presided over at least three secretaries who were intellectually larger men, in Marcy, Robert J. Walker, and Buchanan. The same may be said in comparing General Taylor with his advisers, and Fillmore, Pierce, and Lincoln with theirs; for while no one can fail to revere the grand moral and practical qualities which make Lincoln illustrious, in purely intellectual eminence he was excelled by Seward, Chase, and perhaps Stanton.
Ours has always been a conservative Republic. The French Republicans of '93 and '48, the Communards of '71, did not derive their wild and visionary fanaticism from our example, although there can be no doubt that our Revolution had not a little influence in hastening that of France. When the people have been called upon to choose a chief magistrate, therefore, they have not sought men of extreme views, nor have humble birth and limited education often been recommendations of candidates. It is notable that the first six Presidents were selected from the class which in England is called the "gentry." Washington, indeed, belonged to the high rural aristocracy of Virginia; Mount Vernon was as much a patrician manor-house as are the "halls," "priories," and "manors" of rural England; and he lived there in the style of a country magnate, John Adams belonged to the sturdy New England yeomanry sprung from the Pilgrims, and, as the descendant of John Alden, had some reason to pride himself upon good blood. The three succeeding Virginia Presidents were sons of gentlemen-farmers, and belonged to the cultivated gentry of the Old Dominion. Jackson was the first of the plebeian Presidents, and then came Van Buren, of the gentry by birth; Harrison, the son of a signer of the Declaration, and thus well born, and Tyler, another Virginia gentleman, the lord of Sherwood Forest. Polk belonged to the same rural condition. Fillmore was the next President of humble beginnings, and Lincoln the third; while Andrew Johnson, who learned to read after he was married, and began life as a country tailor, was the most lowly born of all our chief magistrates.
Those young men who, having a taste for and ambition in politics, adopt the law as a stepping-stone to political honor, may derive some encouragement from the classification of the Presidents by their professions; for out of the twenty-two Presidents, no less than eighteen were at some period of their lives practising at the bar. The four who were not lawyers were the four military Presidents, Washington, Harrison, Taylor, and Grant. Three other Presidents, however, derived something of their fame from military careers--Monroe, Jackson, and Pierce. Monroe was a revolutionary colonel, Jackson the hero of New Orleans, and Pierce a brigadier in the Mexican War. But Monroe owed his political eminence to diplomatic successes and the friendship of Jefferson and Madison: while Pierce certainly did not win the presidency by his Mexican exploits.
No man has ever yet passed directly from the United States Senate to the White House. Of the Presidents, Monroe, J.Q. Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Pierce, Buchanan, and Johnson had been senators; while John Adams, Jefferson and Van Buren held the Vice-Presidency just before their elevation by election to the higher office. The custom of succession from the one office to the other, which prevailed in the earlier years of the Republic, was broken when Madison was preferred to George Clinton in 1808; and was revived only in the single instance of Van Buren, whom the irresistible will of Jackson imposed upon the Democrats as his successor. Washington, before becoming President, had held the office of President of the Constitutional Convention. Polk had only served in the lower House of Congress, over which he had presided as speaker. Neither Taylor nor Grant ever held a state or national office before being raised to the Executive Chair. Lincoln had served a few years, with but little distinction, in the national House of Representatives. The same may be said of Hayes, and of Fillmore before he was chosen Vice-President.
Virginia has had five Presidents, four of them having served in the first quarter of a century of the national existence. Tennessee has had three; Ohio, three; Massachusetts, two; New York, four; Illinois, two; and New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Louisiana, each one. But Harrison, though elected from Ohio, and Taylor, elected from Louisiana, were both born in Virginia; and Lincoln, elected from Illinois, was born in Kentucky. Therefore Virginia gave birth to seven of the Presidents. In point of years, the ages of the Presidents have ranged from sixty-eight, which was Harrison's age on his accession, to forty-six, which was Grant's age when he became President; the average age being about fifty-seven.