Early American Presidents

The Basic Facts About America's Earliest Presidents

The first eight American presidents stepped into a job for which the world had no precedent. And the men from Washington to Van Buren thus created traditions which would live on to our own time. The basic facts about the presidents who served before 1840 tell us a lot about the United States when it was still a young nation.
George Washington
George Washington. Library of Congress

As the first American president, George Washington set the tone that other presidents would follow. He chose to serve only two terms, a tradition that was followed throughout the 19th century. And his behavior in office was often cited by presidents who followed him.

Indeed, the presidents of the 19th century often spoke of Washington, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the first president was venerated as no other American throughout the 19th century.

President John Adams
President John Adams. Library of Congress

The second president of the United States, John Adams, was the first chief executive to live in the White House. His one term in office was marked by troubles with Britain and France, and his run for a second term ended in defeat.

Adams is perhaps best remembered for his place as one of America's Founding Fathers. As a member of the Continental Congress from Massachusetts, Adams played a major role in leading the nation during the American Revolution.

His son, John Quincy Adams, served one term as president from 1825 to 1829.

President Thomas Jefferson
President Thomas Jefferson. Library of Congress

As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson secured his place in history before his two terms as president at the beginning of the 19th century.

Known for his curiosity and interest in science, Jefferson was the sponsor of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. And Jefferson increased the size of the country by acquiring the Louisiana Purchase from France.

Jefferson, though he believed in limited government and a small military, sent the young U.S. Navy to fight the Barbary Pirates. And in his second tern, as relations with Britain frayed, Jefferson tried economic warfare, with such measures as the Embargo Act of 1807.

James Madison
James Madison. Library of Congress

James Madison's term in office was marked by the War of 1812, and Madison had to flee Washington when British troops burned the White House.

It's safe to say that Madison's greatest accomplishments occurred decades before his time as president, when he was heavily involved in writing the United States Constitution.

James Monroe
James Monroe. Library of Congress

The two presidential terms of James Monroe were generally referred to as the Era of Good Feelings, but that is something of a misnomer. It is true that partisan rancor had calmed down following the War of 1812, but the United States still faced serious problems during Monroe's term.

A major economic crisis, the Panic of 1819, gripped the nation and caused great distress. And a crisis over slavery arose and was settled, for a time, by the passage of the Missouri Compromise.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams. Library of Congress

John Quincy Adams, the son of America's second president, spent one unhappy term in the White House in the 1820s. He came to office following the election of 1824, which became known as "The Corrupt Bargain."

Adams ran for a second term, but lost to Andrew Jackson in the election of 1828, which was perhaps the dirtiest election in American history.

Following his time as president, Adams was elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts. The only president to serve in Congress after being president, Adams, preferred his time on Capitol Hill.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson. Library of Congress

Andrew Jackson is often considered the most influential president to have served between the presidencies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Jackson was elected in 1828 during a very bitter campaign against John Quincy Adams, and his inauguration, which almost destroyed the White House, marked the rise of the "common man."

Jackson was known for controversy, and governmental reforms he put in place were denounced as the spoils system. His views on finance led to the bank war, and he made a strong stand for federal power during the nullification crisis.

Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren. Library of Congress

Martin Van Buren was known for his political skills, and the wily master of New York politics was called "The Little Magician."

His one term in office was troubled, as the United States faced a severe economic crisis following his election. His greatest accomplishment may have been the work he did in the 1820s organizing what would become the Democratic Party.