Updated: Apr 24
(Note to high school and college students: If you are surfing the web, looking for an essay to plagiarize, I don’t recommend this one…at least not if you want to get a passing grade.)
In elementary school (full disclosure: we’re talking the 1950s), I learned about the Caesars, Charlemagne, Washington, Napoleon and the other ‘great men’ (sic) who made what we then called ‘history’. When I got to high school and college, however, I was taught that ‘great men’ (and women) are not the authors of history but its product. Ideology, technology, and most especially, economics, were held to be the drivers of world events.
I don’t disagree with that! Yet, as I look back over the 230 year history of the American republic, I cannot help but notice the outsized roles that a very few presidents have played. In fact, I propose that the entire life span of the republic can be divided into 4 epochs, each inaugurated by a different president who defined the tone of public policy for decades to come.
1789 – George Washington. No one individual had greater impact on early American history than Washington…and that didn’t begin with his inauguration as the country’s first president. His imprint begins with his role in the so-called “French and Indian War” (1754 -1763)…you know the rest of the story. Nevertheless, Washington became president at a time when the republic was new and, like all newborns, fragile. The direction the country would take, the future of the republican form of government, and even our survival as an independent nation were still very much in play. Washington steered a careful course, avoiding hazardous extremes both foreign and domestic, and left office with the nation’s future very much more secure.
For the next 72 years, presidents governed in the shadow of Washington. Democrats, a National Republican and the Whigs all more or less perpetuated Washington’s legacy. Even as they vehemently disagreed with each other and with certain specific policies of the Washington administration, they colored within the lines that Washington had drawn. The political and social issues that had roiled the Constitutional Congress of 1787 (e.g. the sovereignty of states vs. the federal government) remained the focus of political debate until the 1860’s.
1861 – Abraham Lincoln. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected as the nation’s first Republican president. During his shortened two terms, Lincoln prosecuted a great civil war that ultimately led to the abolition of slavery. As importantly, Lincoln’s presidency settled once and for all the issue of state sovereignty. While certain powers would remain in the hands of the states, the supremacy of the federal government and the inviolability of the Republic were now firmly established.
For the next 72 years, presidents, Republicans and Democrats alike, governed in the shadow of Lincoln. The status of the South, the social integration of African-Americans and our response to the promises and perils of the Industrial Revolution, dominated policy debate.
1933 – Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If Washington secured the survival of the Republic and Lincoln established the supremacy of federalism, FDR ushered in the era of ‘activist government’. No longer just an economic bystander, content to insure unbiased application of the law, Roosevelt’s government became a full scale participant in the economic process: CCC, FERA, PWA, CWA, WPA, etc., and of course, Social Security. Oh, and in the meantime, he played a major role in winning a world war!
For the next 48 years, presidents governed in the shadow of FDR. Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s New Frontier, Johnson’s Great Society and the Republican reactions to same (Eisenhower & Nixon) were really just a series of footnotes on Roosevelt’s New Deal.
1981 – Ronald Reagan. The New Deal and its legacy came to a crashing end with the wave election of 1980. Ronald Reagan promised to take the country in a new direction…and he did. Friend or foe, it would be hard to argue that his program did not work. 10 years later, the tax code had been fundamentally re-written, the stock market had risen 300% and Communism was in retreat worldwide.
Since Regan left office, presidents have continued to govern in his shadow. Both Presidents Bush, and Presidents Clinton and Obama, all clearly governed in the context of what RR built.
So now comes the hard question: where are we today? Is Donald Trump’s administration a further continuation of the Reagan legacy or is it perhaps the beginning of a brand new era, the Trump era. Or is it a prelude to the end of the Reagan era and the inauguration of some other new era, the Sanders era perhaps? Only history will answer that question!
(What, that’s it? To quote Walter Mondale, “Where’s the beef?” I recognize that this essay is short, very short, on details; but it was not my intention to write a comprehensive history of the Republic. Someone else can do that! My goal was simply to outline a new framework that some such future enterprise might adopt.)