The U.S. Presidents and Their Era

When They Served and What They Dealt With

Vintage poster of the first 23 U.S. presidents.
Vintage American history print of the first 23 presidents of the United States of America. (Photo by John Parrot/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images)

Learning the list of U.S. presidents -- in order -- is an elementary school activity. Most everyone remembers the most important and best presidents, as well as those that served in wartime. But many of the rest are forgotten in the fog of memory or vaguely remembered but can't be placed in the right time frame. So, quick, when was Martin Van Buren president? What happened during his tenure? Gotcha, right?

Here's a refresher course on this fifth grade subject that includes the 45 U.S. presidents as of January 2017, along with the defining issues of their eras. 

U.S. Presidents 1789-1829

The earliest presidents, most of whom are considered to be Founding Fathers of the United States, are usually the easiest to remember. Streets, counties and cities are named after all of them across the country. Washington is called the father of his country for good reason: His ragtag Revolutionary army beat the British, and that made the United States of America a country. He served as the country's first president, guiding it through its infancy, and set the tone. Jefferson, writer of the Declaration of Independence, expanded the country tremendously with the Louisiana Purchase. Madison, father of the Constitution, was in the White House during the War of 1812 with the British (again), and he and wife Dolley had to famously escape the White House as it was burned by the British.

 These early years saw the country carefully begin to find its way as a new nation.

U.S. Presidents 1829-1869

This period of U.S. history is marked by the searing controversy of slavery in the Southern states and compromises that tried -- and ultimately failed -- to solve the problem.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 all sought to deal with this issue, which inflamed passions both North and South. These passions ultimately erupted in secession and then Civil War, which lasted from April 1861 to April 1865, a war that took the lives of 620,000 Americans, almost as many as in all other wars fought by Americans combined. Lincoln is, of course, remembered by all as the Civil War president trying to keep the Union intact, then guiding the North throughout the war and then attempting to "bind up the nation's wounds," as stated in his Second Inaugural Address. Also as all Americans know, Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth just after the war ended in 1865.

  • Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
  • Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
  • William H. Harrison (1841)
  • John Tyler (1841-1845)
  • James K. Polk (1841-1849)
  • Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
  • Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
  • Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
  • James Buchanan (1857-1861)
  • Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
  • Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

U.S. Presidents 1869-1909

This period, which stretches from just after the Civil War until the early part of the 20th century, was marked by Reconstruction, including the three Reconstruction Amendments (13, 14 and 15), the rise of the railroads, westward expansion and wars with Native Americans in the areas where American pioneers were settling.

Events like the Chicago Fire (1871), the first run of the Kentucky Derby (1875) the Battle of Little Big Horn (1876), the Nez Perce War (1877), the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), the Wounded Knee Massacre (1890) and the Panic of 1893 define this era. Toward the end, the Gilded Age made its mark, and that was followed by the populist reforms of Theodore Roosevelt, which brought the country into the 20th century.

  • Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
  • Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
  • James A. Garfield (1881)
  • Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
  • Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)
  • Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
  • Grover Cleveland (1893-1897)
  • William McKinley (1897-1901)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

U.S. Presidents 1909-1945

Three momentous events dominated this time period: World War I, the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II.

Between World War I and the Great Depression came the Roaring '20s, a time of immense social change and huge prosperity, which all came to a screeching halt in October 1929, with the crash of the stock market. The country then plunged into a somber decade of extremely high unemployment, the Dust Bowl on the Great Plains and many home and business foreclosures. Virtually all Americans were affected. Then in December 1941, the Japanese bombed the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. was drawn into World War II, which had been wreaking havoc in Europe since the fall of 1939. The war caused the economy to finally turn up. But the cost was high: World War II took the lives of more than 405,000 Americans in Europe and the Pacific. Franklin D. Roosevelt was president from 1932 to April 1945, when he died in office. He steered the ship of state through two of these traumatic times and left an enduring mark domestically with New Deal legislation.

U.S. Presidents 1945-1989

Truman took over when FDR died in office and presided over the end of World War II in Europe and the Pacific, and he made the decision to use atomic weapons on Japan to end the war. And that ushered in what's called the Atomic Age and the Cold War, which continued until 1991 and the fall of the Soviet Union. This period is defined by peace and prosperity in the 1950s, the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, civil rights protests and civil rights legislative changes, and the Vietnam War. The late 1960s were particularly contentious, with Johnson taking much of the heat over Vietnam. The 1970s brought a watershed constitutional crisis in the form of Watergate. Nixon resigned in 1974 after the House of Representatives passed three articles of impeachment against him. The Reagan years brought peace and prosperity as in the '50s, with a popular president presiding.

U.S. Presidents 1989-2017

This most recent era of American history is marked by prosperity but also by tragedy: The attacks of Sept.11, 2001, on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and including the lost plane in Pennsylvania took 2,996 lives and was the deadliest terrorist attack in history and the most horrific attack on the U.S. since Pearl Harbor. Terrorism and Mideast strife have dominated the period, with wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq soon after 9/11 and ongoing terrorism fears throughout these years. The 2008 financial crisis was the worst in the U.S. since the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929.

  • George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
  • Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
  • George W. Bush (2001-2009)
  • Barack Obama (2009-2017)
  • Donald Trump (2017- )