Major crises during every US presidency
George Washington presided over an experimental and fledgling government when he took office 231 years ago. Today, his portrait hangs in the White House, where President Donald Trump is dealing with three major crises at the same time. In between were 43 presidents—if you count Grover Cleveland twice—who each had to manage and navigate their own emergencies, disasters, wars, scandals, blunders, upheaval, revolts, and crises of all stripes.
Serving as the leader of the free world is a tough gig, and the American presidency is believed to be the hardest job in the world. Even those presidents who serve only one term appear to have aged well beyond their years when they come out the other end. The position comes with extraordinary stress, pressure, and responsibility, and that's when things are going well.
Every generation of Americans has faced its own era-defining challenges and struggles, and the president of the United States is called upon to meet those challenges, manage those struggles, and to lead, soothe, console, and reassure the nation that its people are in good hands.
This is not easy work.
Some presidents rise to the challenge, and others are consumed by it. All, however, are shackled to the crises of their day, and their legacies are defined by how they led during times of uncertainty and danger.
Using a variety of sources, including presidential biographies and historical records, Stacker created a list of crises that defined every American presidency. It's important to note that many presidents endured and managed several crises—often simultaneously—during their time in office. Many were so consequential that it's difficult to choose just one.
From Washington to Trump, people find out what their leaders are made of when the going gets tough. These are the crises that made—or broke—every one of America's presidents.
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George Washington (1789–1797)
The father of the Revolution, George Washington was America's first president, and his presidency's true crisis was exactly that—the fact that no one else had come before. Although the Constitution offers a loose outline of the president's duties and powers, Washington had to build the office from the ground up without any precedent or prototype for what it means to hold the highest position in an experimental government. That included what bills to veto, how to interact with lawmakers and other officeholders, both domestic and foreign, how to wield executive privilege, how to manage a Cabinet, how to host events, and even how to dress and present himself.
[Pictured: A painting of President George Washington riding into New York.]
John Adams (1797–1801)
The entirety of John Adams' one term in office was consumed with continuously escalating tensions with France and Britain. In the wake of the French Revolution, the British monarchy was terrified that the same thing could happen there and eventually went to war with France. Adams attempted to maintain friendly relations with both nations, a move that pleased neither and enraged both, while also causing intense friction between his young country's staunchly pro-British and pro-French factions.
[Pictured: A political cartoon depicts the XYZ Affair that occurred during the John Adams presidency—in the painting, America is a woman being plundered by Frenchmen.]
Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809)
Like Adams, Jefferson also faced daunting foreign policy challenges that started with trouble on Africa's Barbary Coast, but the real crisis was rising tensions with the British that would ultimately lead to the War of 1812. Great Britain was now at war with Napoleonic France, and America profited handsomely by selling goods and materials to both sides. This compelled Great Britain to seize American ships, impress U.S. sailors into British service, and even launch a deadly attack on a U.S. Navy frigate, a move that stirred cries for war among the American public.
[Pictured: A painting of The Corps of Discovery (an established unit of the United States Army that Jefferson formed) meeting Chinooks on the Lower Columbia, October 1805.]
James Madison (1809–1817)
Adams' and Jeffersons' chickens came home to roost during the presidency of James Madison in the form of the War of 1812, which is considered to be America's second war of independence. At the start of the 19th century's second decade, the British continued to seize U.S. ships, impress American sailors, and arm Native American tribes to attack settlers. When Madison responded with embargoes and other punitive measures, it wasn't long before Redcoats were once again landing on America's shores. The U.S. eventually drove the British out after decisive battles in New Orleans and Baltimore, but not before the British wreaked havoc across the young country, including torching the White House, which sent Madison—a sitting U.S. president—scrambling into the wilderness for cover.
[Pictured: A painting of the British Raid On Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.]
James Monroe (1817–1825)
The hallmark crisis of James Monroe's presidency was the Panic of 1819, a major depression that was worse than any economic downturn since the 1780s—although Monroe was mostly powerless to stop it, the buck stopped with him, and much of the nation held the president accountable. It's important to note, however, that Monroe dealt with another simmering crisis that would go on to shape America's future much more starkly than any recession. When Missouri attempted to enter the Union as a slave state, Monroe punted on the heated issue of the expansion of slavery with the Missouri Compromise, a move that would force the next generation to answer the question—to disastrous consequences.
[Pictured: Portrait of James Monroe.]
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John Quincy Adams (1825–1829)
Domestic politics were the bane of John Quincy Adams' single term in office—his crisis was one of legitimacy. George W. Bush and John Quincy Adams are the only presidents in history to follow their fathers into office, and also like the younger Bush, the younger Adams is one of only five presidents to gain the office without winning the popular vote. When the Electoral College failed to produce a winner, a shady back-room deal led to the House of Representatives electing Adams president even though he had received 84 electoral endorsements to Andrew Jackson's 99.
[Pictured: Portrait of John Quincy Adams.]
Andrew Jackson (1829–1837)
The hero of the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, Andrew Jackson's biggest presidential crisis was that tens of thousands of Native Americans were still living in the Southeast—and they were in the way of the rapidly expanding country. In response, Congress passed, and Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which brutally forced several tribes to unsettled land west of the Mississippi River in what has come to be known as the Trail of Tears—many historians consider it an act of genocide. The misery wasn't limited only to Native Americans—the move opened up the land that would give rise to the Deep South's booming cotton economy and a massive expansion of slavery.
[Pictured: Andrew Jackson talks with Muscogee Chief William Weatherford (Red Eagle) in this drawing.]
Martin Van Buren (1837–1841)
Martin Van Buren was limited to one term in office, mostly because of a crushing depression known as the Economic Panic of 1837. British banks were the primary source of America's previous economic expansion. They cut off the flow of cash to the U.S. to deal with economic problems of their own. That compelled U.S. banks to call in loans to hordes of American borrowers, all of which was complicated by Jacksonian economic policies that favored "hard" money like gold and silver over cash.
[Pictured: An 1837 caricature depicting the depressed state of the American economy, particularly in New York, during the financial panic of 1837.]
William Henry Harrison (1841)
Previous presidents grappled with political, economic, and foreign crises, but a health crisis doomed William Henry Harrison's presidency. The 68-year-old Harrison delivered the longest inaugural address in history when he was sworn into office—it took him nearly two hours to read his more than 8,000-word address on that cold and rainy day. A few days later, he came down with pneumonia and died after just 31 days in office, the shortest presidency in American history.
[Pictured: Lithograph of the presidential inauguration of William Henry Harrison in D.C., 1841.]
John Tyler (1841–1845)
Like John Quincy Adams before him, John Tyler struggled from the outset with a crisis of legitimacy after Harrison's death propelled him to the presidency. As Harrison's vice president, many Americans assumed Tyler would play the role of placeholder, but Tyler took the full mantle, had himself sworn in immediately, and refused to behave as a temp who was waiting for the next election. Although his actions received widespread criticism, they later served as a template for the smooth transition of power down the road when Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy died in office.
[Pictured: A drawing of John Tyler.]
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