XIV. THE PRESIDENTS.
[Number of Presidents.]
Between 1789, when the government organized by the constitution began its functions, and 1886, the people of the United States have twenty-five times chosen a President; and of the Presidents, seven have been chosen for a second term. Four of them, having died in office, were succeeded by Vice Presidents. While the number of terms, therefore, has been twenty-five, the executive chair has been filled by twenty-two individuals. In referring to the line of Presidents, and scanning the names of those who have exercised powers more extensive than those of English royalty, we are struck by the fact that very few of our Presidents have ranked first, in point of intellect, in their own generation. It may be said, indeed, that Jefferson alone of them all was without dispute the foremost statesman of his day.
Comparing our elected chief magistrates with the various lines of hereditary sovereigns of Europe, we find that pre-eminent ability is scarcely more frequent among them than is presented by the houses of Romanoff, Hohenzollern, and Hapsburg. When, however, we consider their moral qualities as rulers - their patriotism and purity, their freedom from a too grasping ambition, the fidelity and zeal with which they have served the country as best they knew how - we are perhaps not unreasonable in judging them superior, as a line of rulers, to any royal house of which history affords record. Very rarely has it been that a President has been even suspected of craving increased power for himself, or of using his office for unworthy personal ends. Some have been weak, some perverse and obstinate; but as the clouds of party passion, which have sometimes obscured the motives and the acts of our chief magistrates, pass away, we may recognize in their action honest though now and then ill directed efforts to use their high office for the general weal.
[The Ablest Men not Presidents.]
Our intellectually ablest men have not, with the exception of Jefferson, attained the Presidency, though many of them have aspired to it. No one can doubt that Hamilton was a greater political genius than the first two Presidents. It can scarcely be questioned that Webster, Calhoun, and Clay were greater in this respect than the three Presidents who succeeded Jefferson. Madison was a man of culture, clear vision, and political learning, but he was the disciple of Jefferson, and did not reveal qualities of originality and constructiveness in statesmanship. Monroe was a man of yet more limited capacity, unless Polk be excepted, Monroe was the least able of all our Presidents. But he had a large experience in public affairs, he was judicious and cool-tempered, and thoroughly honest and simple-minded. He was personally liked, and after Washington was the only President who was the unanimous choice of the country.
[John Quincy Adams.]
John Quincy Adams, a trained statesman, who had been an ambassador, a Senator, and a Secretary of State, was still inferior in point of political intellect to Clay, his own Secretary of State, and to Calhoun, the Vice-President; and there were several others at that time who might justly be competed with him. So, although Andrew Jackson was perhaps the greatest of our Presidents in executive vigor and stern force of will, as a political figure his most devoted admirers would scarcely rank him with Clay or Webster. Van Buren was rather a shrewd politician than an eminent statesman; but he was a politician in a higher sense, and no stain of dishonor attaches to his career, while his presidential term was an honest and able one.
Many public men might be named who, living at the time of Harrison's elevation, were very much his political superiors; in his very cabinet were at least three, Webster, Crittenden, and Ewing; and John Tyler was very far from being in the front rank of American statesmen, though his political capacity has sometimes been underrated.
[Footnote 1: Monroe was chosen for his second term by every vote but one in the Electoral College. That vote was given by Mr. Hummer of New Hampshire, on the ground that it was a dangerous precedent to elect a President unanimously.]
Polk was the weakest of all our later Presidents, and he too presided over at least three secretaries who were intellectually larger men, in Marcy, Robert J. Walker, and Buchanan. The same may be said in comparing General Taylor with his advisers, and Fillmore, Pierce, and Lincoln with theirs; for while no one can fail to revere the grand moral and practical qualities which make Lincoln illustrious, in purely intellectual eminence he was excelled by Seward, Chase, and perhaps Stanton.
[A Conservative Republic.]
[Origin of the Presidents.]