In the first of our quizzing guides, I’m going to take a look at American Presidents. The aim is to help you remember the names of Presidents and who was in office when, but also have enough information to answer some of the more likely quiz questions that might come up.
First of all, at the time of writing – February 2022 – there have been 46 Presidencies including the current President, Joe Biden, but only 45 Presidents. First fact is that Grover Cleveland is the only US President to have served two non-consecutive terms, so he was both the 22nd and 24th President of the United States.
Traditionally, we would start with the first US President, which is George Washington. Before we get on to that esteemed gentleman however, we need to talk about the forgotten American Presidents. Yes, really, there were Presidents before Washington, 14 of them in fact. Well, sort of. A quick refresher of key dates in the history of the United States highlights the omission: the USA officially began on one of three dates:
4th July 1776 – That famous date, the Declaration of Independence.
19th October 1781 – The British surrendered at Yorktown, effectively ending the American Revolution.
3rd September 1783 – The Treaty of Paris is signed, formally recognising the United States as a free and independent nation.
Whichever date you pick as the US’s start date, George Washington was not inaugurated as the first President until 30th April 1789 (though his Presidency actually started a few weeks earlier on 4th March), so there’s quite a few missing years. Who was in charge? Not Washington, as it turned out. During the war, he was commander in chief of the army, but not actually leader. After the Treaty of Paris, he resigned as commander-in-chief, something loyalists had predicted he would never do, and returned to his home at Mount Vernon. He lived there in quiet retirement for several years.
So, we’re back to the question of who was in charge before he took office in 1789? The role then was different, but 14 men before Washington had the title of President, first of the Continental Congress and then as Congress of the Confederation. They were:
Presidents of the Continental Congress: Peyton Randolph, Henry Middleton, John Hancock, Henry Laurens, John Jay, Samuel Huntington, Samuel Johnston (although he refused to take up the most when elected) & Thomas McKean.
Presidents of the Congress of the Confederation: John Hanson, Elias Boudinot, Thomas Mifflin, Richard Henry Lee, John Hancock, Nathaniel Gorham, Arthur St. Clair & Cyrus Griffin.
Anyway, on to the official Presidents now, and as noted above the 1st President is George Washington (1789-1797). He was unanimously elected for his first term, and didn’t want a second term but reluctantly agreed to avoid political strife. He stepped down in 1797 after two terms, because he felt that otherwise he could die in office which would set a precedent of Presidents serving for life, which wouldn’t be good for the new country. He retired to his home, Mount Vernon, and died two years later.
Fact about George Washington – he is to date the only US President to have commanded troops in the field while in office. This was during the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, which was an important event as it was the first time federal troops were used to uphold the law – though no fighting actually took place.
John Adams was Washington’s Vice-President for 8 years, before taking office as the 2nd President in 1797. He is one of only two Presidents who signed the Declaration of Independence. Of the first 12 Presidents, only two never owned slaves: John Adams and his son, the 6th President John Quincy Adams.
John Adams served only one term, after which the 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson took office. He served two terms, between 1801 and 1809, and is generally considered one of America’s greatest ever Presidents. Jefferson was both the author and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence. His home was Monticello in Virginia.
A fascinating fact for you – both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died within hours of each other on 4th July 1826, fifty years to the day from the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The 4th President was James Madison who is generally considered as the “Father of the Constitution” after drafting the constitution and the later Bill of Rights. He served for two terms from 1809 to 1817.
James Monroe took over in 1817 as the 5th President, serving two terms until 1825. He was a soldier in the Revolutionary War and later studied law under Thomas Jefferson. He is most famous for the Monroe Doctrine, in which he declared that the US would not interfere in the affairs of European powers, and any interference by Europe in North or South America would be viewed as a hostile act. This came to define US foreign policy for almost a century.
The 6th President was John Quincy Adams, son of the 2nd President, John Adams. He was the first son of a President to become President, and previously was Secretary of State under James Monroe, achieving significant foreign policy successes.
In 1828, Adams was defeated by Andrew Jackson, who became the 7th President in 1829. Jackson effectively founded the modern Democratic party, and was its first President. He was a boy during the Revolution, but served as a courier and was taken prisoner by the British. While a prisoner, he was scarred for life in his hands and face after a British officer slashed him when he refused to shine the officer’s boots.
Let’s pause there for a moment. There’s not much point in reading all of this information if you can’t remember it, so I’ll try to give some suggestions to help you remember. The best way is to understand the history, and how all these men fit together, but you can also use ‘tricks’ too. Of the first seven Presidents, all expect George Washington has either their first name or surname beginning with ‘J’ – John, Jefferson, James, James, John, Jackson. Even Washington almost does, as the soft ‘G’ in George sounds like a J.
Andrew Jackson served two terms, until 1837 when Martin Van Buren took over. Van Buren’s election as the 8th President was something of a watershed moment, as he is the first President to have been born an American citizen (he was born in 1782). He had previously been Secretary of State and Vice-President. He was considered very cunning and nicknamed the “Little Magician”. Only three months into his Presidency however, the US experienced economic crisis and the worst depression in its history thus far, as hundreds of banks and businesses failed.
Due to the continuing economic crisis, Van Buren was defeated at the next election and in 1841 William Henry Harrison took over as the 9th President. He was at that time the oldest person to be elected President, and didn’t last long – after only 32 days he became the first President to die in office, and has the shortest tenure in US Presidential history.
John Tyler was Harrison’s Vice-President and on his death took over as the 10th President, the first Vice-President to take over after a President’s death. This wasn’t a foregone conclusion, the constitution only said that the Vice-President would take over the powers of the President, not that he would become President. Tyler took over as President however, and lasted for the next four years despite being nicknamed “His Accidency”.
John Tyler was defeated at the next election, and James K Polk became the 11th President. He was in favour of expansion and presided over the biggest increase in the area of the United States in its history, however his legacy was also a starting a bitter quarrel between the north and south over the issue of slavery. He was considered the last “strong” President until the Civil War, though his strength didn’t last long after leaving office – his hard work undermined his health and he died a few months after leaving office.
Zachary Taylor took over from Polk as the 12th President in 1849. He was a war hero, having served in both the 1812 war with the British and as a General in the war with Mexico while Polk was President. There were strong disagreements between North and South, and he was determined to hold the Union together by force. Only a little over a year into his Presidency however he fell ill and died, only the second President to die in office.
Millard Fillmore was Zachary Taylor’s Vice-President, and succeeded to the Presidency on his death, to become the 13th President, from 1850 to 1853. He was the last member of the Whig party to be President. He was instrumental in the Compromise of 1850, a brief truce between North and South over the issue of slavery. He didn’t get on the ballot for the 1852 election, but gained the nomination for the ‘Know Nothing Party’ (effectively the Native American party) in the 1856 election, coming third.
Two more Presidents before the Civil War, the first of which was the 14th President, Franklin Pierce, from 1853 to 1857. He was at the time the youngest President to assume office, aged 48. He was a New Englander, but listened to Southern advisors, which he hoped would ensure peace, however it only hastened the onset of the Civil War.
The 15th President was James Buchanan, who was President from 1857 to 1861, the last President before the Civil War. He tried to keep the peace, but many of his policies just increased divisions. He was the only President who never married.
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President, and one of the most famous despite being born in poverty in a log cabin in Kentucky. He was the Civil War President, famous for his Gettysburg Address and Emancipation Declaration, and also, tragically for his assassination at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. just days after the end of the Civil War.
Lincoln was succeeded by his Vice-President, 17th President Andrew Johnson, who is widely regarded as one of the worst Presidents in US history. He engaged in bitter conflict with Congress, refusing to agree to the fourteenth amendment giving citizenship to former slaves (it got through anyway). He was impeached and narrowly avoided being convicted by the Senate. He is known for being the only former President to serve in the Senate, but died five months after taking office.
In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant took the oath of office and became the 18th President of the United States, aged only 46, the youngest President thus far. He was also a war hero, having commanded Union forces during the latter stages of the Civil War. He served two full terms, was widely popular but struggled with reconstruction and battled to give former slaves full civil rights. Grant and his wife are buried in New York City, in the largest mausoleum in North America.
In 1877, the 19th US President, Rutherford B. Hayes took office, however the controversy began even before he was sworn in, as the 1876 election was one of the most disputed ever in US election history. Hayes’ opponent, Democratic candidate Samuel J. Tilden, won not just the most votes, but more than 50% of the popular vote, the only losing Presidential candidate to ever do so. The dispute as to who won raged on for months, and only ended with a backroom deal where Hayes agreed to only serve one term, and also to withdraw federal support for Reconstruction in the southern states, setting back the cause of freed slaves and paving the way for the Jim Crow laws and segregation.
The 20th President, James Garfield, became President in 1881, but was assassinated 5 months later. He was shot on 2nd July 1881, but the wound was not immediately fatal and he hung on until 19th September.
Garfield’s Vice-President, Chester A. Arthur became the 21st President after his predecessor’s death in September 1881. Historians rate him as a mediocre President and one of the least memorable.
In 1884, Grover Cleveland won the Presidential election, and in 1885 took over as the 22nd President and the first Democratic President since before the Civil War. As noted earlier, he is the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms, so we’ll see more of him shortly.
In the 1888 election, Cleveland won the popular vote but lost in the electoral college, so in 1889 Benjamin Harrison was elected the 23rd President. Harrison was the grandson of the ninth President William Henry Harrison, and the great grandson of Benjamin Harrison V, who was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. Unlike his grandfather, Benjamin Harrison served a full term albeit as what historians consider to be another mediocre President.
The 1892 election was a rematch of the one four years earlier, but this time Grover Cleveland defeated Benjamin Harrison and served as the 24th President between 1893 and 1897.
In 1897, William McKinley became the 25th President. He was the last President to have served in the Civil War. He was re-elected for a second term, but a few months later was shot twice in the abdomen. His prognosis appeared promising for a while, but then he deteriorated and died a few days later.
So that’s taken us up to 1901, which seems a good point to leave this part of the guide. In Part Two, we’ll look at all the 20th century Presidents, and right up to the present day.
We’ve covered 25 Presidents, and I’m sure a few facts will stick in your mind, but how to remember all the Presidents and their order? We’ve already looked at how to remember the first few, but what about the rest? Here are some suggestions:
· Anchor points – it can be really helpful to have some Presidents you are confident on, and what number they were. For instance, Andrew Jackson is the 7th President, and was in office until 1837 – 7th in ’37. Abraham Lincoln is the 16th president during the Civil War, 1861-65 which makes him fairly easy to place. We ended the century with the 25th President, William McKinley. With this information learned, it becomes easier to fill in the gaps – you know if you’ve got someone missing.
· One or Two terms? There’s something of a pattern here. The first 7 Presidents, with the exception of the two Adams’s, served two full terms. From the 8th President (Martin Van Buren) onwards to the end of the 19th century, only Ulysses S. Grant served two full terms, 1869-1877 – though Grover Cleveland of course had two non-consecutive terms.
· Presidential terms are always 4 years, except where the Presidents died in office (with the exception of Nixon – see part 2), but even then the elections are every 4 years and have been since the very beginning.
· Word Mnemonics – use the first letter of each Presidential surname to make a rhyme or silly sentence to help you remember. The first few Presidents could be ‘William And Jane Made Motors and Jumped Very High Towards Pluto’ for Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler & Polk. Make up your own though – the more relevant and personal to you, the more likely you are to remember!
I hope this was useful, check back soon for Part 2!