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US presidents

George Washington

George Washington

Ist President of the United States, 1789–97
George Washington was born on 22nd February 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. While in his twenties, he fought in the French and Indian War (1754–63). In 1759, he resigned from the army, married Martha Dandridge Custis, a widow, and became a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon, Virginia. He also served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. Like his fellow planters, he grew dissatisfied by British regulations, and increasingly voiced his resistance.

When the Second Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in May 1775, Washington was elected Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. In July, at Cambridge, Massachusetts, he took command of his inexperienced, badly equipped troops. During the American Revolutionary War, after earlier avoiding confrontation with British troops, he went on to score notable victories against them, at Saratoga in 1777 and Yorktown in 1781. 

A portrait of George Washington at the age of 40, 1772Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention and agreed to serve as first president. He was inaugurated on 30th April 1789, in New York, the first national capital. In office, he sought to unite the nation and establish the new government’s authority. He was unanimously re-elected in 1792. He supported Alexander Hamilton's programmes to pay all debts, establish a permanent seat of government and implement an effective tax system. His policy of remaining neutral in the French Revolutionary Wars and avoiding war with Great Britain resulted in a decade of peace and profitable trade for the new nation.

George Washington left politics in 1797, but enjoyed less than three years of retirement at Mount Vernon, where he died of a throat infection on 14th December 1799.
John Adams

John Adams

2nd President of the United States, 1797–1801
John Adams was born on 30th October 1735, at Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts Bay Colony. A Harvard graduate, he turned to law and was admitted to the bar in 1758. Six years later, he married Abigail Smith. He soon became a leader in the movement for independence. Adams assisted Thomas Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and was a strong supporter of it in Congress. After helping to negotiate the peace treaty with Britain, he was elected vice president (Washington having been elected president unanimously) and was re-elected in 1792.  

In his single term as president, Adams received fierce criticism from Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, as well as a group in his own Federalist Party (which stood for friendly relations with Great Britain, while opposing revolutionary France), led by his rival Alexander Hamilton. After war broke out between France and Britain, Adams reached a peaceful settlement with France, in the face of Hamilton's opposition. 

Adams was the first US president to reside in what became known as the White House, declaring “May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” In 1800, Adams lost the presidential election to Jefferson and retired to Massachusetts. where he died in 1726, on the same day as Jefferson.
Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

3rd President of the United States, 1801–09
Thomas Jefferson was born into a wealthy family on 13th April 1743 in Albemarle County, Virginia. He studied at the College of William and Mary, then read law. In 1772 he married Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow. They lived at their mountaintop home, Monticello. At 33, he drafted the Declaration of Independence in 1776. He later wrote a bill establishing religious freedom, which was enacted in 1786. His sympathy for the French Revolution led him to assume the leadership of the newly-formed Democratic-Republican Party and brought him into conflict with Alexander Hamilton of the Federalist Party. In 1789, George Washington appointed him Secretary of State. But growing differences with Hamilton resulted in Jefferson's resignation in 1793.

By the time Jefferson had assumed the presidency in 1801, the crisis in France had passed. The purchase of Louisiana from France in 1803, which almost doubled the size of the United States, was the most notable act of his administration.
Re-elected in 1804, Jefferson tried desperately to keep his country out of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. In response to British threats to US shipping he introduced the Embargo Act in 1807, which prohibited the import of goods from Britain. After his retirement to Monticello in 1809, Jefferson developed his interest in education, founding the University of Virginia. He died in 1826.

James Madison

James Madison

4th President of the United States, 1809–17
Born on 16th March 1751, Madison was brought up in Orange County, Virginia, and attended Princeton (then the College of New Jersey). He participated in the drawing up of the Virginia Constitution in 1776, and served in the Continental Congress. In collaboration with Alexander Hamilton, he pushed for the adoption of the Constitution. 

Madison was President Jefferson's Secretary of State, and he was elected president in 1808. The continued British seizure of American cargoes, despite American protests and a trade embargo, forced Madison to take drastic measures. On 1st June 1812, he asked Congress to declare war on Britain. But the US army was weak: British forces were able to raid Washington and set fire to the White House and the Capitol in 1814. After his presidency, he retired to Virginia until his death on 28th June 1836.


James Monroe

James Monroe

5th President of the United States, 1817–25
James Monroe was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1758. He attended the College of William and Mary, but left to fight with the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, before returning to Virginia to practise law. In 1786, he married Elizabeth (Eliza) Kortright. With the backing of President Madison, Monroe was the Democratic-Republican choice for the presidency in 1816. He easily won re-election in 1820. 

Monroe avoided party politics during his time in office, which was known as the “Era of Good Feelings”. While he was in office, the United States acquired Florida and secured its border in the west along the 42nd parallel through the 1819 Adams–Onís Treaty with Spain. Monroe also supported the Missouri Compromise bill in 1820, which saw both Missouri, a state where slavery was permitted, and Maine, a "free" state where it was not, join the Union. This maintained the balance between slave and free states. At the same time, slavery was prohibited north of the parallel 36°30′ north and west of the Mississippi (apart from in Missouri).
With his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, in 1823 Monroe announced what later became known as the Monroe Doctrine: a policy of opposition to any European intervention in the recently independent countries of the Americas. At the same time, the US would not interfere with existing European colonies, nor get involved in the concerns of European countries. James Monroe died in New York City on 4th July 1831. 

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

5th President of the United States, 1825–29
John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was born in Braintree (now Quincy), Massachusetts, on 11th July 1767. In 1797, he married Louisa Catherine Johnson. In 1802 he was elected to the Senate. Serving under President Monroe, Adams became Secretary of State, negotiating with Britain for the joint occupation of the Oregon country, acquiring Florida from Spain and putting together the Monroe Doctrine.

At the presidential election of 1824, no candidate had a majority of electoral votes, so Adams was chosen by the House of Representatives. As president, he proposed that the government fund the development of highways and canals, and to take a lead in the development of the arts and sciences—but little was accomplished. Defeated in the 1828 election, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives two years later, where he served for the rest of his life. He tirelessly campaigned against slavery and was the driving force behind the creation of the Smithsonian Institution. In 1848, Adams collapsed on the floor of the House and died two days later.
Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

7th President of the United States, 1829–37
Andrew Jackson was born on 15th March 1767 in the Waxhaws region of the Carolinas. An orphan at the age of 14, he worked in a saddle-maker’s shop before studying law. He moved west to Nashville (then still part of North Carolina), where he practised as a lawyer. He married Rachel Donelson Robards in 1791 and served in the House of Representatives after Tennessee became a state in 1796. He was elected Senator in 1797, but resigned the following year. Jackson was elected to serve as a judge of the Tennessee Supreme Court. He acquired the Hermitage plantation in 1804 and became a wealthy, slave-owning planter. 

In 1812 Jackson took command of Tennessee troops sent against the Native American Creeks. He defeated them at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and went on to become a national hero by defeating the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. He led US forces in the First Seminole War, which led to Spanish Florida being ceded to the United States.

A portrait of Andrew JacksonJackson stood for President in the election of 1824, but lost out to John Quincy Adams. He stood again 1828, backed by the newly-formed Democratic Party, and this time easily defeated Adams. The first president to come from humble origins, he built his reputation as a defender of the common man over the elite’s business interests. He strongly opposed abolitionism, the movement to end slavery. In 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which relocated most Native American tribes in the South to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. This resulted in widespread death and disease amongst the Native Americans. Popular support swept him to re-election in 1832.

Jackson retired to the Hermitage, Tennessee where he died on 8th June 1845.
Martin Van Buren

Martin Van Buren

8th President of the United States, 1837–41
Of Dutch descent, Martin Van Buren was born in 1782, the son of an innkeeper, in Kinderhook, New York. As a young lawyer, he became involved in New York politics, and in 1821 was elected to the Senate. President Jackson appointed Van Buren Secretary of State in 1827, and he soon emerged as the president's most trusted adviser. With Jackson’s support, he won the election of 1836 to become president himself.

Van Buren very soon had to deal with the “Panic”, which began in 1837. It was an economic crash in which hundreds of banks and businesses failed. For about five years, the United States suffered the worst depression in its history to date. But Van Buren’s policies—he opposed not only the creation of a new bank of the United States but also placing government funds in state banks—only deepened and prolonged the depression.
Increasingly opposed to slavery, Van Buren blocked the annexation of Texas because he knew it would add to slave territory, and because it risked war with Mexico, to which Texas once belonged. In the 1848 election, Van Buren ran unsuccessfully as the candidate of the anti-slavery Free Soil Party. He supported Abraham Lincoln at the start of the American Civil War in 1861, before his health began to fail. He died in 1862.

William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison

9th President of the United States, 1841
William Henry Harrison was born into an aristocratic planter family in Charles City County, Virginia, in 1773. He began studying medicine in Richmond but in 1791 obtained a commission in the army, and moved to the Northwest Territory (most of the pre-war British colonial territory north of the Ohio River and below the Great Lakes). He married Anna Symmes in 1795. In 1801 he became Governor of Indiana Territory, serving 12 years, where he worked to acquire Indian lands so settlers could occupy them—and defend the settlements against Indian retaliation. Harrison built his reputation at the Battle of Tippecanoe (where he also earned his nickname, "Old Tippecanoe”) in which he successfully repulsed an Indian attack. At the Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie, in 1813, he defeated the combined British and Indian forces. Tecumseh, formidable leader of the Indian alliance, was killed in the battle.

As a national hero, Harrison was nominated for president in 1840 by the newly-formed Whig Party and won the election. But before he had been in office a month, on 4th April 1841 he died of pneumonia. He was the first president to die in office, and served the shortest tenure in US presidential history.
John Tyler

John Tyler

10th President of the United States, 1841–45
Born in Virginia in 1790, he attended the College of William and Mary and studied law. He married Letitia Christian in 1813. Serving in the House of Representatives from 1816 to 1821, Tyler joined the newly formed Whig Party, opposing President Andrew Jackson. He was nominated for vice president in 1840. After Harrison died, Tyler succeeded to the presidency, becoming the first vice president to do so. He failed to carry out Whig policies, however, and so was expelled from the party. By the end of his term in 1845, Tyler had replaced his original Whig cabinet with Southern conservatives. He sought election to a full term as president, but failed to gain the support of either Whigs or the opposition party, the Democrats. After his presidency he lived in retirement in Virginia until the outbreak of the Civil War. He worked to create the Southern Confederacy. He died in January 1862, a member of the Confederate House of Representatives.

James K. Polk

James K. Polk

11th President of the United States, 1845–49
James Knox Polk was born in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, on 2nd November 1795. Having graduated from the University of North Carolina, he moved to Tennessee. He married Sarah Childress in 1824. Becoming a friend of Andrew Jackson, in 1825, he was elected to the House of Representatives. In 1844 he was nominated by the Democrats for president. Despite being regarded a "dark horse”, Polk won support amongst voters in the South for favouring the annexation of Texas, and voters in the North for backing the occupation of Oregon Country. 

In 1846, President Polk reached a settlement with Britain to divide the disputed Oregon Country along the 49th parallel. Following the US annexation of Texas, tensions ran high between the United States and Mexico, which still claimed the territory. Polk sent an army led by General Zachary Taylor into Texas and offered to purchase Alta California (today's American Southwest), but no agreement was made. Mexico and the US went to war, from which the Americans emerged victorious. At the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico ceded the territory Polk wanted in return for $15 million. Polk died in June 1849, soon after leaving office.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

12th President of the United States, 1849–50
Zachary Taylor was born in Montebello, Orange County, Virginia, on 24th November 1784. He began a 40-year military career in 1808, fighting in the War of 1812 as well as in conflicts with the Native Americans, including the Black Hawk War and the Seminole War. In 1846 his forces engaged in the war with Mexico. Nicknamed “Old Rough and Ready” for his bluff, soldierly manner, the Whig Party persuaded Taylor to stand in the 1848 presidential election, despite his lack of interest in politics. Taylor won a close contest. Despite being a Southerner and a slaveholder himself, Taylor did not push for the expansion of slavery, prioritizing instead the preservation of the Union. He died suddenly of a stomach-related illness in July 1850, just sixteen months into his term, without making any progress on the slavery issue, which was causing tension in Congress.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

13th President of the United States, 1850–53
Millard Fillmore was born in Cayuga County, New York, on 7th January 1800. He worked on his father's farm, and at 15 was apprenticed to a cloth dresser. He fell in love with his teacher, Abigail Powers, who later became his wife (1826). He became a lawyer, later joining the Whig Party and serving in the House of Representatives (1833–35 and 1837–43). Fillmore became vice president in 1849 and president upon Taylor's death in 1850. He associated himself with the pro-Southern members of his party and supported what was known as the Compromise of 1850: five bills aimed at solving the dispute between slave states and free states over the status of territories acquired after the Mexican–American War (1846–48). 

Having failed to win the Whig nomination in 1852 (Northern Whigs were angered by Fillmore's support of the Fugitive Slave Act, which enforced the return of escaped slaves to those who claimed ownership), Fillmore ran unsuccessfully for president in 1856 as a candidate of the American, or "Know-Nothing", Party. He died in 1874. 
Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

14th President of the United States, 1853–57
Franklin Pierce was born in Hillsboro, New Hampshire on 23rd November 1804. He achieved rapid political advancement in the Democratic Party, serving in the House of Representatives from 1833 to 1837, then in the Senate from 1837 to 1842. He opposed anti-slavery Democrats, and so gained Southern support for the presidential nomination in 1852. He went on to defeat Winfield Scott, the Whig candidate, in the election. 

Pierce hoped to prevent another outbreak of the dispute between the anti-slavery North and pro-slavery South. But his policies hastened the break-up of the Union. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, drafted by Pierce together with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, allowed for residents of the new territories to decide the slavery question for themselves. The result was an outbreak of violence in Kansas, as Southerners and Northerners fought for control. “Bleeding Kansas" became a prelude to the Civil WarDemocrats refused to renominate him at the next election. Pierce died in 1869.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

15th President of the United States, 1857–61
James Buchanan was born near Mercersburg, Pennslyvania, on 23rd April 1791. A lawyer, he entered politics and became a Democrat. He served as Polk's Secretary of State in 1845 and was elected president in 1856. The growing crisis over slavery presented Buchanan with a challenge he was unable to meet. Called a "doughface” (a Northerner with Southern sympathies), Buchanan allied with the South in attempting to gain the admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state. This alienated both Republican abolitionists and Northern Democrats.

By 1860 the Democratic Party had split into Northern and Southern factions, each nominating its own candidate for the presidency. The split Democrat vote meant that the Republican Abraham Lincoln would be elected president. Rather than accept a Republican anti-slavery administration, the Southern states opted for secession—leaving the Union altogether. Buchanan held that secession was illegal, but that going to war to stop it was also illegal. Retiring in 1861, Buchanan left his successor to resolve what seemed an irreconcilable split. He died in 1868.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

16th President of the United States, 1861–65
Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on 12th February 1809. His father Thomas was a pioneer and farmer. In 1831 he settled in New Salem, Illinois, where he ran a small general store. He enlisted as a volunteer to fight against the Black Hawk Native Americans in 1832. Around the same time, he started a career in state politics. Having taught himself law from borrowed books, he passed his exams in 1836 and moved to Springfield, Illinois, where he became a successful lawyer. He also met Mary Todd, and married her in 1842. 

Lincoln joined the Republican Party, which had recently been formed to fight against slavery. In 1858 he ran against Democrat Stephen A. Douglas for Senator, and the two men engaged in public debates on the question of slavery. Lincoln lost out to Douglas, but he gained a reputation that later won him the nomination for president. In November 1860, Lincoln was elected the first Republican President of the United States.

Lincoln’s views on slavery caused alarm in the Southern slave states. They decided to secede (break away) from the Union in response, combining to form the Confederate States of America. Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union, even at the risk of war. Only a few weeks after he took office, the first shots were fired when Confederate forces attacked US troops at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1861. This event marks the beginning of the American Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln in February 1865, about two months before his death
Lincoln’s primary aim in the Civil War was to bring the Confederate states back into the Union, but he soon realised that the war could not be won without freeing the slaves. And so on 1st January 1863 he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in areas still under Confederate control. He imposed a blockade on Southern ports, and appointed several generals to lead the US army. But it was not until he promoted Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 that he found a general who could match his own skill in tactics and organization. 

In November 1863, Lincoln gave a short speech at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The speech is now considered to be one of the greatest in US history. Lincoln spoke of "a new birth of freedom" in the nation, and ended with the words: "…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

A painting depicting the assassination of Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln stood for president and was re-elected for a second term in 1864. He extended the hand of friendship to the Southern states, looking forward to welcoming them back into the Union: "With malice toward none, with charity for all… let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds…". The end of the war came in April 1865. A few days later, Lincoln was shot while attending a performance at Ford’s Theatre in Washington DC. He died the following morning, 15th April 1865. His assassin was John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate and a supporter of slavery.

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

17th President of the United States 1865–69
Andrew Johnson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on 29th December 1808 and grew up in poverty. Self-educated, he ran a tailor’s shop in Greeneville, Tennessee, and married Eliza McCardle. Entering politics, he championed the common man against the wealthy plantation owners. When in the House of Representatives and Senate in the 1840s and 50s, he proposed a homestead bill to provide free farmland for the poor farmers. Alone among Southern senators, he stood by the Union during the Civil War.

Although a Democrat, Johnson became Abraham Lincoln's running mate in 1864. As vice president, he succeeded to the presidency on Lincoln's death. Johnson tried to carry out Lincoln's policies, but he lacked Lincoln’s political skills. Johnson embarked on “reconstructing” the former Confederate States, pardoning all who would take an oath of allegiance. By the time Congress met in December 1865, most Southern states were reconstructed and slavery was being abolished. But already laws to regulate the freedmen were being introduced by the Southern states.

Andrew Johnson in 1875Radical Republicans (a group strongly opposed to slavery) passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, establishing African Americans as American citizens and forbidding discrimination against them. Johnson vetoed the Act, but the Radicals secured enough votes to ensure it was passed. A few months later, Congress submitted the Fourteenth Amendment, which specified that no state should "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." The former Confederate States were forced to ratify it as a condition of their regaining representation in Congress.

Finding President Johnson's weaker reconstruction policies to be insufficient, in 1867 the Radicals passed laws placing restrictions upon the president. When Johnson violated one of these, the Tenure of Office Act, by dismissing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, the House voted to impeach him. He was tried by the Senate in the spring of 1868 and acquitted (freed from the charge) by just one vote. After his presidency, Johnson was elected to the Senate once more in 1875, but died later that year.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

18th President of the United States, 1869–77
Ulysses Simpson Grant was born at Point Pleasant, Ohio, on 27th April 1822. He graduated from West Point (United States Military Academy) in 1843 and fought in the Mexican War. In 1848 he married Julia Dent. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Grant was working in his father's leather store in Galena, Illinois. He took a command of a volunteer regiment and soon rose to the rank of brigadier general. After a series of military successes, including the capture of Vicksburg in 1863, Lincoln appointed him General-in-Chief in March 1864. The following year, Grant forced the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ending the Civil War.

Elected president as Republican candidate in 1868, Grant set about the stabilizing the nation. He employed the Army to supervise new elections in the South with all men allowed the vote. He also tried to protect African Americans from violent attack by whites in the South by signing three civil rights acts into law. Although an honest man, he unwisely accepted lavish gifts from admirers, laying himself open to charges of corruption. Grant was nevertheless re-elected in 1872.
After retirement, Grant became a partner in a financial firm, which went bankrupt. Suffering from throat cancer, he wrote his memoirs to pay off his debts. He died near Saratoga, New York, on 23rd July 1885.
Rutherford B. Hayes

Rutherford B. Hayes

19th President of the United States, 1877–81
Rutherford Birchard Hayes was born in Delaware, Ohio, on 4th October 1822. After graduating from the Harvard Law School, he practised law in Lower Sandusky, then Cincinnati. In 1852 he married Lucy Webb. During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of major general. A Republican, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1865, then served as Governor of Ohio. In the 1876 presidential contest, he beat Democrat Samuel J. Tilden by a single vote in the electoral college.

Hayes pledged to protect the rights of African Americans in the South. At the same time, he withdrew troops from Southern states, thus ending the Reconstruction. But Hayes failed to persuade the South to accept racial equality, nor did he succeed in getting Congress to provide the necessary funds to enforce civil rights laws there. Hayes served only one term by his own wish. He died in 1893.

James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield

20th President of the United States, 1881
James Abram Garfield was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on 19th November 1831. He earned enough money for an education by driving canal boat teams. After graduating from Williams College, he taught classics at a college in Ohio. In 1858, he married Lucretia Rudolph. During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of major general, resigning after being elected to the House of Representatives in 1863, where he served until 1880. The leading Republican in the House, he became the presidential candidate that year, defeating Democrat General Winfield Scott Hancock in a close contest to take office. 

As president, Garfield attacked political corruption and out-manoeuvred his rival Senator Roscoe Conkling. But he was in office for only a few months before being shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a man embittered by Garfield's rejections of his various job applications, in July 1881. Garfield died of his wounds in Elberon, New Jersey on 19th September 1881.
Chester A. Arthur

Chester A. Arthur

21st President of the United States, 1881–85
Chester Alan Arthur was born at Fairfield, Vermont on 5th October 1829. The son of a Baptist preacher who had emigrated from Northern Ireland, he became a successful New York lawyer. In 1859, he married Ellen Herndon. During the Civil War, he worked for the Republican state administration. In 1871 he was appointed Collector of the Port of New York by President Grant, a position that gave him great political power. Arthur was a member of the “Stalwart” faction of the Republican Party. Becoming vice president in 1880, he stepped up to the presidency when President Garfield was assassinated in 1881. 

To the surprise of the Stalwarts, who favoured “machine politics” (in which supporters of a powerful individual received rewards or “spoils” for their efforts), Arthur set about reforming the way the civil service (government employees) worked.
Plagued by ill health, he was not nominated in 1884 for a full term. On Arthur’s death in 1886 it was written about him: "No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted, and no one ever retired more generally respected."
Grover Cleveland

Grover Cleveland

22nd and 24th President of the United States, 1885–89 and 1893–97
(Stephen) Grover Cleveland was born at Caldwell, New Jersey, on 18th March 1837. He lived and worked as a lawyer in Buffalo, New York, for more than 20 years. He was elected Mayor of Buffalo in 1881, and, in 1882, Governor of New York. In 1884 he became the first the Democrat President to be elected after the Civil War, winning with the combined support of Democrats and reform Republicans, known as "Mugwumps”.

As president, Cleveland continued Chester Arthur’s work of civil service reform. While in the White House, he married Frances Folsom in 1886. Renominated in 1888, Cleveland was defeated by Benjamin Harrison, polling more popular votes, but fewer electoral college votes. In 1892, he stood against Harrison and was this time was successfully elected. He became the only president to leave the White House and return for a second term at a later stage.
In 1893, Cleveland faced a serious economic depression that lasted four years. He attempted to solve it by borrowing $65 million in gold. His tough action in sending troops against the railway strikers in 1894, and making Britain back down over a border dispute in Venezuela won him many admirers, but his policies during the depression were unpopular. After leaving the White House, Cleveland lived in retirement in Princeton, New Jersey. He died in 1908.
Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison

23rd President of the United States, 1889–93
Benjamin Harrison was born in North Bend, Ohio, on 20th August 1833. His grandfather was William Henry Harrison, the ninth president. He practised law in Indiana and, in 1853, married Caroline Lavinia Scott. During the Civil War, he rose to the rank of brigadier general. A Republican, he was elected senator from Indiana in 1880 and won the Republican nomination for president in 1888. Though polling fewer popular votes than Grover Cleveland, he won in the electoral college.

As president, Harrison followed the Republican party policy of imposing tariffs—taxes on foreign goods entering the US. This was a measure designed to protect US manufacturers from foreign competition. Cleveland defeated Harrison for re-election in 1892, due to the unpopularity of the high tariffs and high federal spending, which reached one billion dollars for the first time in US history.
Harrison’s wife died in 1892 and Harrison married her niece, Mary Scott Dimmick, in 1896. After his presidency, he resumed law practice. He died in Indianapolis on 13th March 1901.
William McKinley

William McKinley

25th President of the United States, 1897–1901
William McKinley was born in Niles, Ohio, on 29th January 1843. After serving in the Civil War, rising from the ranks to become a major, he opened a law office in Canton, Ohio, and, in 1871, married Ida Saxton. Elected to Congress, he gave his name to the McKinley Tariff, an act passed in 1890 to raise tariffs. With the support of Mark Hanna, a shrewd Cleveland businessman, McKinley gained the Republican nomination and defeated the Democrat William Jennings Bryan in the presidential election of 1896.

McKinley led the nation to victory in the Spanish-American War. As part of the peace settlement in 1898, the United States acquired the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines; Cuba was promised independence. The US also annexed Hawaii in the same year. McKinley defeated Bryan again in 1900. On 6th September 1901, he was shot in Buffalo, New York, by Leon F. Czolgosz, an anarchist. He died of his wounds eight days later.

Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt

26th President of the United States, 1901–09
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was born in New York City on 27th October 1858 into a wealthy family. He was a sickly child with asthma, but he successfully overcame his health problems by living a healthy lifestyle. Graduating from Harvard College, he became both a learned historian and popular writer. On entering politics, he led the reforming wing of the Republican party. Following the deaths of both his wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and mother on the same day in 1884, he went to live on a cattle ranch in the Dakotas. He remarried in 1886, to Edith Kermit Carow. A hero of the Spanish-American War, he was elected Governor of New York in 1898.
Roosevelt was William McKinley’s running mate in the 1900 election, and so became vice president on McKinley’s death in September 1901, at the age of 42 (he remains the youngest president in US history).
Leader of the Progressive movement, Roosevelt championed the rights of the “little man”, taking whatever action was necessary for the public good—for example, breaking up trusts (large companies with huge market power). He made conservation a top priority, establishing many new national parks and forests. In foreign policy, he ordered the construction of the Panama Canal and expanded the US Navy. His successful efforts to bring about the end of the Russo-Japanese War won him the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize, the first American to win a Nobel, in any category.

A portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent (1903)Roosevelt was elected in 1904 to a full term and continued to promote progressive policies, although much of his agenda was blocked in Congress (conservative Republicans regarded him as the ”mad messiah”). Though he supported William Howard Taft in his campaign to succeed him as president, Roosevelt became frustrated by Taft’s conservative approach in office. After failing to win the 1912 Republican nomination, Roosevelt founded a third party, the so-called "Bull Moose” Party, which called for wide-ranging reforms. The resulting split in the Republican vote allowed the Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the White House. Following his election defeat, Roosevelt led a two-year expedition to the Amazon, where he nearly died of a tropical disease. 

During World War I, Roosevelt criticized President Wilson for keeping the country out of the war with Germany. Roosevelt's health continued to deteriorate, and he died in Oyster Bay, New York, on 6th January 1919. One of the US’s greatest presidents, Roosevelt is depicted on Mount Rushmore alongside Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. 
William Howard Taft

William Howard Taft

27th President of the United States, 1909–13
William Howard Taft was born in Cincinnati on 15th September 1857. A Yale graduate, he entered Ohio Republican politics in the 1880s and married Helen Herron in 1886. From 1887 to 1890, Taft served as a judge on the Ohio Superior Court. Demonstrating over the next 20 years his governing skills (especially during his time in the Philippines), he was selected by Roosevelt as his successor, and won the 1908 presidential election. 

Though he carried on many of Roosevelt's policies, Taft’s caution and indecision disappointed the progressive wing of his party. After his defeat in 1912—Roosevelt’s new Bull Moose Party split the Republican vote, allowing the Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win—Taft resumed his career in law, becoming Chief Justice in 1921. He was the only person to have served in both this office and the presidency. William Taft died in Washington, D.C, on 8th March 1930.
Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

28th President of the United States, 1913–21
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born in Staunton, Virginia on 28th December 1856, the son of a Presbyterian minister. A graduate of Princeton (then the College of New Jersey), he rose to become president of the university, before being elected Governor of New Jersey in 1910. A Democrat, his success putting through a reform programme gained him a national reputation. In 1912 he defeated Roosevelt and Taft in the presidential election. 

Wilson proceeded to introduce measures designed to restore competition in business by breaking up the great monopolies. Laws prohibiting child labour and limiting railway workers to an eight-hour day were enacted during his first term. When World War I broke out in Europe, despite being sympathetic to the Allied cause, Wilson insisted on maintaining the neutrality of the United States.

A portrait of Woodrow Wilson by Frank Graham Cootes (1913)After being re-elected in 1916, Wilson was forced to change his mind when, in 1917, German submarines started to sink American ships. The United States declared war on Germany on 6th April 1917, in order to, in Wilson's words, “make the world safe for democracy".
The armistice of 11th November 1918 was negotiated on the basis of Wilson's Fourteen Points. This was a statement, made in a speech Wilson gave in January, of principles for peace, including free trade, democracy and self-determination. He also called for the establishment of a League of Nations. Wilson travelled to Paris to conclude the Treaty of Versailles. Returning home, he campaigned for the treaty, presenting it to the Senate asking, "Dare we reject it and break the heart of the world?" But, by seven votes, the Versailles Treaty was rejected by the Senate.

Wilson was awarded the 1919 Nobel Peace Prize for his peace-making efforts. But in September he suffered a stroke that restricted his activities. After leaving the presidency in 1921 he lived on in retirement in Washington where he died in 1924. He was married twice: in 1885 to Ellen Louise Axson, who died in 1914, and in 1915 to Edith Bolling Galt.
Warren Harding

Warren Harding

29th President of the United States, 1921–23
Warren Gamaliel Harding was born in Morrow County, Ohio, on 2nd November 1865. After attending Ohio Central College, he became a newspaper publisher. He married a divorcee, Mrs Florence Kling De Wolfe. Entering Republican politics, he was elected to the Senate in 1914. In the presidental contest of 1920, Harding easily defeated James M. Cox, his Democratic opponent. In office, Harding sought to carry out his campaign promise: ”Less government in business and more business in government." But his term was mired in accusations of corruption and scandal, including Teapot Dome—Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was found to have leased Navy petroleum reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming to private oil companies at low rates, having accepted bribes from those companies. Warren Harding died unexpectedly of a heart attack in San Francisco on 2nd August 1923.
Calvin Coolidge

Calvin Coolidge

30th President of the United States, 1923–29
John Calvin Coolidge was born in Plymouth, Vermont, on 4th July 1872, the son of a village storekeeper. A graduate from Amherst College, he married Grace Anna Goodhue in 1905. A conservative Republican, he was elected Governor of Massachusetts. The decisive action he took to end the Boston police strike of 1919 won him the vice-presidential nomination in 1920. 

After Harding's death in 1923, Coolidge took over the presidency. He handled the scandals of the previous administration with skill. He also refused to intervene in the US economy, which was booming at the time. Coolidge called for isolation in foreign policy, opposed subsidies to farmers and supported low taxes. A popular president, he was elected to a full term in 1924. He chose not to run for President in 1928. A man of dry wit and few words (he was nicknamed "Silent Cal"), Coolidge retired to Massachusetts, where he died in 1933.
Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover

31st President of the United States, 1929–33
Herbert Clark Hoover was born at West Branch, Iowa, on 10th August 1874. He was the first president to be born west of the Mississippi River. In 1899, he married Lou Henry. A Stanford graduate and lifelong Quaker, he worked as a mining engineer in different parts of the world until he retired in 1912.
During World War I, Hoover built an international reputation as a humanitarian by leading relief efforts in Belgium and in Eastern Europe. He later headed the US Food Administration. In the 1920s he served as Secretary of Commerce, working to improve efficiency and eliminate of waste. Hoover won the Republican nomination for president in 1928 and went on to score a landslide victory over the Democrat Al Smith (assisted by anti-Catholic sentiment towards his opponent).

A portrait of Herbert HooverAfter the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which struck less than eight months after he took office, Hoover set about trying to tackle the Great Depression that followed. Despite approving large-scale government public works projects such as the Hoover Dam (named after him), and cutting taxes, the economy plummeted. Heavy industry, mining and farming bore the brunt. Unemployment rose to 25% of the workforce. Only at the end of his term did Hoover set up agencies to make emergency loans to assist businesses.
The economic crisis, together with Hoover’s support for the unpopular Prohibition policy, led to his overwhelming defeat in 1932 by Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. He spent the rest of his political life as a conservative spokesman in opposition to federal intervention in the economy. Herbert Hoover died in New York City in 1964.
Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1913

Franklin D. Roosevelt

32nd President of the United States, 1933–45
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born on 30th January 1882 into a wealthy New York family. After graduating from Harvard, he started a career in law. In 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt, the niece of Theodore Roosevelt and a distant relative. A Democrat, he was elected Senator for New York in 1910, and became assistant secretary to the US Navy, a post he held throughout World War I. In August 1921, Roosevelt fell ill with polio, causing him to lose the use of his legs. 

In 1929, the New York stock market crashed, throwing the economy into chaos and ushering in the Great Depression. Factories shut down and businesses went bankrupt. Offering the American people a strategy for economic recovery called the New Deal, Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover to become president in 1932. The New Deal provided relief to the poor and unemployed, but also encouraged people to spend and invest. Through programmes such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, a scheme to build dams and improve flood control in the Tennessee river basin, huge amounts of money were pumped into the economy.
In 1936, Roosevelt ran for president a second time, and won easily. He pressed on with more programmes, including laws to establish maximum working hours and minimum wages, heavier taxes on the wealthy and new controls over banks and public utilities.

Franklin D. RooseveltIn 1939, World War II broke out in Europe. While keeping his country neutral, Roosevelt allowed the Allies (Britain and France) to buy arms and supplies from the US. In 1941 he passed the Lend-Lease Act, by which the US provided Britain, China and later the Soviet Union with military supplies, which they could pay for at a future date. On 7th December 1941, the Japanese launched an attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This action brought the US into World War II. Roosevelt worked closely with his military leaders on battle tactics. 

At the election of 1944, Roosevelt was elected for a fourth term, something that had never happened before. In spite of failing health, he attended the Yalta Conference in the Crimea in February 1945, where he, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Russian leader Joseph Stalin discussed plans for the peace after the war, including setting up the United Nations. On 12th April 1945, Roosevelt suddenly collapsed with a cerebral haemorrhage and died soon afterwards. 

A central figure in world events of the 20th century, FDR, as he was often known, is considered by many to be one of the greatest presidents.
Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

33rd President of the United States, 1945–53
Harry S. Truman (the “S” does not stand for any single name) was born on a farm near Lamar, Missouri, on 8th May 1884. During World War I, he served in France as a captain. He married Bess Wallace in 1919. Entering politics as a Democrat, he was elected to the Senate in 1934. Vice president in 1944, he took over the presidency upon Roosevelt's sudden death on 12th April 1945, in the last weeks of World War II. Germany surrendered in May and in July Truman attended the Potsdam Conference to discuss plans for post-war Europe. To end the war with Japan, he authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. 

Truman helped found the United Nations in 1945 and he approved the $13 billion Marshall Plan for helping to rebuild Western Europe. His presidency also saw the beginning of the Cold War. In 1947 he announced measures to counter expansion by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. Called the Truman Doctrine, they included aid and support for nations threatened by Soviet communism. It led, in 1949, to the formation of the NATO military alliance.

A portrait of Harry S. Truman by Greta Kempton (1945)
Meanwhile, Truman achieved a surprise victory in the 1948 presidential election. When Communist North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, he sent US troops to support the South, triggering the Korean War. After the Chinese intervened, the conflict turned to stalemate during Truman's final years in office. 

On domestic issues, Truman introduced the first comprehensive civil rights legislation and brought about desegregation in the US armed forces. But his liberal “Fair Deal” agenda was opposed by a conservative Congress. He announced that he would not run again for the presidency in 1952. He retired to Missouri, and died there in 1972.
Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

34th President of the United States, 1953–61
Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, on 14th October 1890 and raised in Abilene, Kansas. His family was mostly of Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. Graduating from West Point military academy, he married Mamie Doud in 1916. During World War II, Eisenhower was made Supreme Allied Commander for the invasion of Europe. In 1950, President Truman appointed him as the first Supreme Commander of NATO in Europe. As Republican candidate, Eisenhower easily defeated Democrat Adlai E. Stevenson in the presidential election of 1952.

Over his two terms (he defeated Stevenson again in 1956) Eisenhower built alliances designed to resist Communist aggression in Europe, Asia and Latin America. During the Suez Crisis of 1956, Eisenhower opposed the Israeli, British and French invasion of Egypt, forcing them to withdraw. He also condemned the Soviet invasion of Hungary during the Revolution of 1956, but took no action. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower authorized the establishment of NASA, beginning what became known as the Space Race.

A moderate, Eisenhower retained most of Truman’s Fair Deal programmes. Declaring “there must be no second class citizens in this country”, he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sent troops to enforce the court orders that integrated schools in Little Rock. Eisenhower emphasized the importance of a balanced federal budget, and expressed his concerns about the dangers of excessive military spending. After his presidency, Eisenhower retired to his farm in Gettysburg, and died in 1969.

John F. Kennedy in 1942

John F. Kennedy

35th President of the United States, 1961–63
John Fitzgerald (often known as Jack) Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, on 29th May 1917, the second of nine children born to Joseph Kennedy, a wealthy banker, and his wife Rose. Graduating from Harvard in 1940, he entered the Navy. In 1943, when his craft was rammed by a Japanese destroyer during World War II, Kennedy showed great courage in leading his crew to safety by swimming to an island. He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism. 
Elected as a Democrat to the House of Representatives in 1946, he was elected Senator in 1952. He married Jacqueline Bouvier, a newspaper photographer, in 1953. Standing in the 1960 presidential election, we won a narrow victory against the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon. 

In the early 1960s, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was at its height. Fidel Castro had seized power in Cuba in 1959 and established strong connections with the Soviet Union. This was seen as a particular threat because Cuba lay close to the United States.
Kennedy gave the go-ahead to a plan to invade Cuba and spark an uprising against Castro. But the invasion, at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961, was a disaster, and Kennedy was blamed for the failure. In October 1962, Kennedy demanded that the Soviet Union that nuclear missiles it had placed on Cuba be withdrawn. For several days the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war, but a deal was struck and the missiles were withdrawn.
When the Soviet Union erected a wall across the city of Berlin, to divide the Soviet-controlled East sector from the West and stop people from leaving East Berlin, Kennedy committed the US to support the people of West Berlin. In 1963 went to the divided city and made a speech criticizing Communism.  

John F. KennedyKennedy was committed to fight the spread of Communism all over the world. In Southeast Asia, the Communist forces of Ho Chi Minh were threatening South Vietnam. Kennedy sent troops and equipment to help the South. Even space research was part of the Cold War conflict. After the Soviets successfully put a man into space in April 1961, Kennedy ordered an increase in funding for US space research to land a man on the Moon before the end of the 1960s. Kennedy called his programme for domestic policies the "New Frontier". He promised to prioritize spending on education, medical care for the elderly, help for farmers and tax reforms. He also proposed a Civil Rights Act to end discrimination against  African Americans. 

On 22nd November 1963 Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by Lee Harvey Oswald, who who himself was murdered by a local nightclub owner called Jack Ruby two days later. Kennedy was often referred to by his initials, JFK. He was the youngest man elected president; he was also the youngest to die.

Lyndon Baines Johnson in Navy uniform, 1942

Lyndon Baines Johnson

36th President of the United States, 1963–69
Lyndon Baines Johnson (often known by his initials, LBJ) was born on a farm in Stonewall, Texas, on 27th August 1908. After two years as a high school teacher, he went to Washington to work as a Congressional aide. He married Claudia "Lady Bird" Taylor in 1934. A supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937. He served in the Navy during World War II. Elected to the Senate in 1948, a heart attack threatened to end his political career in 1955, but he made a full recovery. After losing out to John F. Kennedy for the Democratic nomination in the 1960 presidential election, he accepted the invitation to be his running mate. Thus it was that when Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson became president. 

With Johnson's backing, Congress enacted civil rights and voting rights bills, the Medicare programme for the aged and measures to improve education and combat poverty. Johnson won a landslide victory in the election of 1964, defeating the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater by a massive majority.

Lyndon Baines Johnson
But Johnson faced two growing crises. Despite his efforts to ease poverty and racial discrimination, in 1964–65 rioting broke out in areas of many cities where African Americans lived. Demands for firmer "law and order" policies grew louder amongst his opponents and the public at large. Another controversial policy was Johnson’s escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War, as fighting against the Communists in the North continued. The number of American military personnel in Vietnam increased dramatically. American casualties soared, while, despite Johnson’s best efforts, peace talks stalled. The anti-war movement gained momentum.

Johnson decided to withdraw as a candidate for re-election in 1968. After he left office in January 1969, he returned to his Texas ranch where he died of a heart attack in 1973.
Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon

37th President of the United States, 1969–74
Richard Milhous Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California, on 9th January 1913. A graduate of Duke University Law School, he married Patricia Ryan in 1940 then joined the Navy in 1942. Nixon was elected to the Senate in 1950, and was Dwight D. Eisenhower’s running mate in the 1952 presidential election, after successfully defending himself on TV in an expenses scandal. Vice president until 1960, he lost the presidential contest of that year to John F. Kennedy. Nixon secured the Republican nomination in 1968 and narrowly defeated Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey.

Nixon ended the involvement of US troops in the Vietnam War, but continued the heavy use of air power until the US pulled out in August 1973. He also sought to improve relations with mainland China by paying a goodwill visit there in February 1972, and with the Soviet Union by signing agreements on arms limitations and holding joint US–Soviet space missions.

Sharing a platform with members of his family, President Richard Nixon speaks to the White House staff on his final day in...Read More >>Sharing a platform with members of his family, President Richard Nixon speaks to the White House staff on his final day in office, 9th August 1974Nixon won a landslide victory in the 1972 election. But in 1973, details of a White House cover-up emerged at the trial of six men found guilty of a burglary of Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate apartment complex in Washington. Nixon denied any personal involvement, but the courts forced him to hand over tape recordings which revealed that he did in fact attempt to obstruct the investigation. In the face of almost certain impeachment and removal from office, Nixon resigned on 9th August 1974, the first president ever to do so. 

In October 1973, his vice president, Spiro T. Agnew had also resigned—for evading taxes on alleged bribes—so Gerald R. Ford, newly appointed vice president became president. Pardoned by President Ford, Nixon died of a stroke on 22nd April 1994, in New York City.
Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford

38th President of the United States, 1974–76
Gerald Rudolph Ford was born Leslie King Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska, on 14th July 1913. His parents divorced and his mother married Gerald R. Ford. The boy was renamed after his stepfather and was brought up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Graduating from Yale Law School, he practised law before entering the Navy in 1942. He married Elizabeth (Betty) Bloomer in 1948, the same year he was elected to Congress as the Republican candidate.
In October 1973, President Nixon nominated Ford to fill the vacancy left by Spiro Agnew's resignation as vice president. After the Watergate scandals led to Nixon's resignation in August 1974, Ford was sworn in as president. He is the only person to have served as both vice president and president without being elected to either office.

Having assured the nation that “our long national nightmare is over”, Ford was widely criticized for his announcement of an unconditional pardon to Nixon for any crimes he might have committed as president. Ford was against government intervention and spending as a means of solving the problems of American society or its economy. During the 1968 election campaign, Ford was defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter. He died on 26th December 2006 at the age of 93.
Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter

39th President of the United States, 1977–81
James (Jimmy) Earl Carter, Jr., was born in Plains, Georgia on 1st October 1924, and grew up on the family farm. Baptized in 1935 in the conservative Southern Baptist Church, he spoke often in later life of being a “born again” Christian. Carter married Rosalynn Smith in 1946, the same year he graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. In 1954 he left the Navy to take over the family's flourishing seed peanut business. Elected Governor of Georgia in 1970, his term brought many successes, including improving government efficiency and the removing of racial barriers.

In 1974, Carter set his sights on the presidency. Appealing to a wide cross-section of the public, conservative and liberal, black and white, poor and wealthy, he defeated President Ford in the 1976 presidential contest.

Jimmy Carter in 2014Carter worked hard to fight inflation (rising prices) and unemployment, increasing the number of Americans in work and reducing the budget deficit. Unfortunately, inflation hit near-record highs. Perhaps his greatest personal achievement were the Camp David ageements between Israel and Egypt and the resulting treaty, the first between Israel and an Arab neighbour. There was peace throughout his term, with no American combat deaths. However, the hostage crisis in Iran, including the disastrous failure of the mission in April 1980 to free them, damaged his popularity.   

In 1980, Carter was renominated, but he lost to Republican Ronald Reagan in the election. Iran finally released the 52 American hostages the same day Carter left office. Carter has remained active in public life during his post-presidency. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2012, he surpassed Herbert Hoover as the longest-retired president in US history.
Ronald Reagan as a lifeguard, 1927

Ronald Reagan

40th President of the United States, 1981–89
Ronald Wilson Reagan was born in Tampico, Illinois, on 6th February 1911, into a poor family. Having worked as a lifeguard to pay for his college tuition, he graduated from Eureka College. He worked as a sports announcer for a radio station before, in 1937, embarking on a career as an actor in films and, later, TV. Originally a Democrat, Reagan entered politics as a Republican. Helped by his gift for public speaking, he won election for Governor of California with a pledge to cut spending in 1966. He served until 1975. Reagan won the 1980 presidental election against Jimmy Carter, gaining much of his support from former Democrats and blue-collar workers.  

Shortly after his election, Reagan was the target of an assassin's bullet. His courageous recovery won him many admirers. In office, he aimed to restore prosperity at home, while achieving "peace through strength" abroad. He pushed through his programme of tax cuts and sharp reductions in government spending. With the economy improving and inflation under control, Reagan's personal popularity soared and he won re-election in a landslide in 1984.

Ronald Reagan, 1981 In 1986 the Iran-Contra affair broke: senior government officials were found to have secretly organized the sale of arms to Iran (in order to secure Iran’s help in releasing US hostages held in Lebanon), the proceeds from which were diverted to fund the Nicaragua Contras, an anti-government rebel group. Although the White House was accused of a cover-up, Reagan’s reputation remained unharmed.

One of Reagan’s greatest achievements was securing an important missile treaty with the Soviet Union—whom he had once called an “evil empire”—following talks in Moscow with the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988. Reagan left office in 1989 with two-thirds of the population approving his performance.

Reagan married his wife, Nancy, four years after his divorce from the screen actress Jane Wyman, whom he married in 1940, in 1952. Reagan developed Alzheimer's disease and he died in Los Angeles in 2004.
George H. W. Bush

George H. W. Bush

41st President of the United States, 1989–93
George Herbert Walker Bush was born on 12th June 1924, in Milton, Massachusetts, into a wealthy family. A graduate of  the Phillips Academy, he joined the Navy, serving as a pilot from 1942 to 1945. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery in action. After completing his education at Yale, in 1945 Bush married Barbara Pierce. Instead of entering his father's investment banking business, he moved to Texas, where he founded an oil company.

In the 1960s, Bush won the Texas Republican seat in the House of Representatives, but he was unsuccessful in gaining election to the Senate. In 1980 Bush became Ronald Reagan's running mate, and served as vice president before running for the presidency itself in 1988. He easily defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis in the election. His choice of Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana as a running mate, however, drew criticism.

In 1991, President Bush led an international coalition to liberate Kuwait, following the Iraqi invasion in August 1990. The coalition forces quickly defeated Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, launched in January 1991. However, the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein remained in power and failed to comply with the terms of the peace treaty. In July 1991 the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed with Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, marking the end of the nuclear weapons build-up. But the faltering economy caused the president problems: he was forced to go back on his earlier “no new taxes” pledge. In the 1992 election, Bush was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton.
Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

42nd President of the United States, 1993–2001
William (Bill) Jefferson Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe III in Hope, Arkansas, on 19th August 1946. He was born three months after his father died in a traffic accident. His mother, Virginia Kelley, later married Roger Clinton, a car dealer, whose surname William adopted while at school. He completed his education at Yale Law School, where he met his future wife, Hillary Rodham. Clinton was elected Governor of Arkansas in 1978. Securing the Democratic nomination, he won the 1992 presidential race against President Bush and third party candidate Ross Perot.

In office, Clinton was soon faced with battles over health care—a programme put together by his wife Hillary failed to gain sufficient support—welfare reform and crime prevention, although he was successful in introducing abortion counselling and a waiting period for handgun purchases. 

Clinton scored a big foreign policy success when a peace agreement was signed at the White House in 1994 by Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Jordan's King Hussein. A peace accord in war-torn Bosnia was signed in 1995. The following year, with the economy booming, and unemployment and crime rates falling, Clinton won a second term. 

Bill Clinton in 2015
In 1998, as a result of a relationship with a young White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which he had initially denied, Clinton became the second president to be impeached. He was tried in the Senate early in 1999 and found not guilty of the charges, lying under oath and obstructing justice, brought against him. Despite publicly admitting to having had an “inappropriate relationship” with Lewinsky, Clinton's popularity among Americans remained high.

While these scandalous events were unfolding, tensions overseas demanded Clinton’s attention. In response to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein blocking a weapons inspection by the United Nations, the US and its allies responded with air strikes. US air power was also used against Serbia in March 1999 in response to reports of “ethnic cleansing” (the forced removal of an ethnic group from the territory ruled by another, more powerful, group) in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Throughout his term in office, Clinton was subjected to by allegations relating to possible wrongdoing in the Whitewater real estate deal, in which he and Hillary were involved before the 1992 election. The matter was finally settled the day before he left office in 2001.
George W. Bush

George W. Bush

43rd President of the United States, 2001–09
George Walker Bush was born on 6th July 1946, in New Haven, Connecticut, son of future President George H. W. Bush. George W. grew up in Texas. Educated at Yale and Harvard Business School, he set up his own oil business in 1975. In 1977 he met and married Laura Welch. Bush worked as adviser in his father's successful 1988 presidential campaign. In 1993, he won the Texas governorship and ran as the Republican candidate for president against Democrat Al Gore in 2000. In a tight contest, the election was decided by a Supreme Court ruling, which prevented a recount in Florida. 

President Bush embarked on a programme of tax cuts, developing an anti-missile defence system and securing the US withdrawal from the Kyoto treaty on global warming, a treaty banning germ warfare and a treaty to establish an international war crimes court. At the same time, he secured an agreement to cut both American and Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles by two-thirds. Bush also passed the No Child Left Behind Act, dedicated to improving schools across the country. 

President George Bush addresses rescue workers at Ground Zero in New York, 14th September 2001.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, carried out by the al-Qaeda terrorist organization on 11th September 2001, changed the course of the Bush presidency. His focus from then on was the war on international terrorism. Supported by allies, especially the UK, air strikes were launched against Afghanistan in October 2001, after the Taliban government refused to surrender Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban were driven from power, but bin Laden was not captured.

Bush expanded his war aims to include not only terrorist organizations, but governments hostile to the United States, branding Iraq, North Korea and Iran, as part of an “axis of evil”. The Bush doctrine stated that the US could no longer wait until a potential threat became an actual one; it needed to strike before that happened—with or without international backing.
The alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was cited by Bush as the main reason for going to war against that country, which US, along with its British ally, duly did in March 2003, despite receiving no authorization from the UN. Baghdad, Iraq’s capital, soon fell and by May, combat was declared officially over.

President George W. Bush looks out over the devastation in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina from aboard Air Force One on 31st...Read More >>President George W. Bush looks out over the devastation in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina from aboard Air Force One on 31st August 2005. Bush was criticized for his administration’s handling of the disaster. Iraq soon descended into in violence and chaos, with parts of the country coming under the control of rebels. No weapons of mass destruction were found. Bush soon faced allegations that the existence of these weapons was made up to justify an unnecessary war and a distraction from the war on terror. Bush insisted that the removal of the dictator, Saddam Hussein, had been sufficient grounds for waging war.

Bush won re-election in the 2004 presidential campaign, defeating Democratic Senator John Kerry. But, in the face of growing American casualties in Iraq, the president's approval ratings plummeted in 2005. Bush’s inadequate handling of Hurricane Katrina's emergency relief efforts also led to widespread criticism. His failure to comply with a law banning “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” of prisoners in American custody led to a Supreme Court ruling against him. In December 2007, the US entered a deep recession. Bush left office in 2009 with one of the lowest approval ratings of all presidents and returned to live in Texas.
Barack Obama

Barack Obama

44th President of the United States, 2009–17
America’s first African American President, Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Honolulu, Hawaii to a Kenyan father and American mother on 4th August 1961. His father was raised in a small village in Kenya where he herded goats before leaving to to study in America. After his parents divorced, Obama was raised by his mother in Hawaii and Jakarta, Indonesia. He later attended Columbia University, New York City, before moving to Chicago to work on improving living conditions in high-crime neighbourhoods. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Obama returned to Chicago and practised as a civil rights lawyer. Barack met and married Michelle LaVaughn Robinson, a native of Chicago, in the city.

Obama served in the Illinois Senate from 1997 to 2004, when he ran for the US Senate, becoming the only African American serving in the Senate at the time. Obama accepted the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 and went on to defeat Republican John McCain in the presidential contest.

President Barack Obama signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) at the White HouseTaking office while the US was in severe recession, Obama pushed through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a programme of spending intended to create jobs and revive the economy. Health care reform was a major campaign promise, and Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law in March 2010. The Supreme Court upheld most of the law (which came to be known as "Obamacare”), including its centrepiece, the individual mandate, requiring most Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fee, in a ruling of June 2012.
Obama gave his personal support for the legalization of same-sex marriage, and became the first president to call for full equality for gay Americans. On 16th January 2013, one month after a mass shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Obama outlined a series of sweeping proposals regarding gun control.

In October 2009, only a few months after gaining office, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."  

President Obama and members of the national security team in the White House Situation Room receive an update on the mission...Read More >>President Obama and members of the national security team in the White House Situation Room receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden, 1st May 2011One of the successes of Obama's presidency came on 2nd May 2011 when US special operations forces shot and killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. With bin Laden dead, Obama decided that the US had achieved its goals in Afghanistan and started to reduce the number of troops in the country. In May 2014, it was announced that the US would end major combat operations in December, leaving a small force in the country on an ”advise and assist" basis.

Obama also took part in discussions that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change and ordered sanctions against Russia following the invasion in Ukraine (and again after it was discovered Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election). He negotiated a deal with Iran, announced in July 2015, to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, and normalized US relations with Cuba, also in July 2015. Obama left office in January 2017 with plans to open the Obama Presidential Center, a presidential library, in Jackson Park, Chicago.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

45th President of the United States, 2017–
Donald John Trump was born in the New York City borough of Queens on 14th June 1946. Graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he ran the family real estate company (later, the Trump Organization) from 1971 until his inauguration as President in January 2017. His company specialized in office towers, hotels, casinos and golf courses. He also hosted the television show The Apprentice for 12 years. 

Running as the Republican Party nominee, Trump won the presidential election in 2016, defeating Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. He became the oldest and wealthiest person ever to become president, as well as the first never to have served in the military or in government. His election and policies have sparked many protests.

The log cabin has been a symbol of humble origins in US politics since the early 19th century. Seven United States presidents were born in log cabins: Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and, the last, James Garfield. Although William Henry Harrison was not one of them, during the 1840 presidential election he was the first to use a log cabin as a symbol to show Americans that he was a man of the people.


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