Presidents 1 - 3
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George Washington

George Washington

In July of 1755, a force of French and Indian soldiers launched a surprise attack against a British army in the Ohio Valley. Almost half of the British force was killed or wounded. When the British General Edward Braddock was killed, his aide George Washington performed heroically. Washington took charge of the forces, leading the survivors on an orderly retreat back to Virginia. He later reported that he had "escaped without a wound, although I had four bullets through my coat."

The French and Indian War was the school in which George Washington learned the art of war. Years later, when leading the colonial armies during the American Revolution, Washington often would be defeated. But he always managed to preserve the Continental Army to fight again.

George Washington was born in Virginia, the son of wealthy planters. As a young man, he studied and worked as a surveyor. When his half-brother Lawrence died, Washington inherited the family plantation, Mount Vernon, and began a career as a gentleman farmer. He fought in the French and Indian War as a member of Virginia's militia, and resigned in 1758 after he was elected to Virginia's House of Burgesses. In March of 1759 Washington married Martha Custis.

Washington was elected a delegate to the First and to the Second Continental Congress. After war broke out at Lexington and Concord, John Adams nominated Washington to be head of the Continental Army: "I [have] in my mind for that important command . . . a gentleman whose skill and experience as an officer, whose independent fortune, great talents, and excellent universal character would command the [approval] of all America."

Washington's integrity and dignity inspired trust from the people of the country, and the congressional delegates unanimously approved him as army commander. Although not a military genius, he was a man of great determination and will. And he proved to be a natural leader.

Washington always kept the Continental Army from being destroyed, even when it had more defeats than victories. Its lowest point occurred during the winter of 1777-1778, when the army was camped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The soldiers were under-clothed, underfed, and underpaid -- yet, Washington's leadership held them together.

Always alert for a military opportunity, Washington clearly spotted one in 1781. Joining forces with a French fleet, Washington and his soldiers trapped a British army at Yorktown. The surrender of the British commander, General Charles Cornwallis, ended the war.

With peace finally in sight, Washington resigned from the army. He hoped to enjoy his retirement at Mount Vernon. But when Virginia elected its delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington was persuaded to go. When the electoral college voted on a first President to lead the new American nation, Washington was the unanimous choice.

Washington was keenly aware that his actions as the first President would set an example for Presidents who would succeed him. He always was thoughtful about his words and actions in public office. Even in symbolic matters, he tried to set the proper tone. When Congress debated how to address the President, Washington announced that he preferred "President of the United States" to more exalted titles like "His Elective Highness."

Washington chose the most talented people he could find for his Cabinet. He asked Thomas Jefferson to be Secretary of State and appointed Alexander Hamilton Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton was an intelligent but controversial Secretary. Jefferson and James Madison objected to Hamilton's plans for raising taxes and creating a national bank. But Washington agreed with Hamilton. Together they helped get the new nation's economy off to a good start.

Washington was not afraid to use the President's power when necessary. In 1794, when farmers in western Pennsylvania refused to pay a tax on whiskey, Washington called up the militia. This prompt response ended the Whiskey Rebellion and showed that the federal government had the power to enforce its laws.

Washington was elected to two terms as President, but refused a third term. This set a precedent followed by every President until Franklin Roosevelt. In his farewell address, Washington advised Americans against getting involved in European alliances that could drag the United States into war. That advice guided American foreign policy for many years. Washington also advised against the formation of political parties, but Americans did not follow that suggestion.

Washington retired to Mount Vernon in 1797, but lived for only another two years. When "the Father of His Country" died on December 14, 1799, the whole nation mourned. The man who had led the United States to victory in the Revolution and guided the nation in its infancy was gone, but neither he nor his accomplishments would ever be forgotten.

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John Adams

John Adams

When lawyer John Adams defended the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre, his fellow Bostonians were shocked. But Adams said he took the case because he believed the soldiers had been provoked by a mob. They were only obeying orders, he said. To John Adams, justice was obviously more important than popularity.

Born in Braintree (present-day Quincy), Massachusetts, Adams attended Harvard College and set up a law practice in his hometown. He married lively Abigail Smith in 1764. Their partnership provided Adams with good advice and intelligent and witty conversation.

Adams was devoted to his wife, family, and friends, but was often reserved or cold with strangers. Sensitive to criticism and prone to depression, Adams did not have the ideal personality for public life. But his ambition and patriotism drove him into politics.

Massachusetts voted Adams a delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774. There he worked hard to move the Congress toward independence. Although Adams was assigned to the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence, he thought that Thomas Jefferson was a better writer. Adams left the actual writing to his friend and colleague.

During the Revolution, Adams represented the new nation in Europe. In 1783, together with Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, he helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris. The treaty ended the war with Great Britain and formally recognized American independence. Shortly thereafter, Adams was appointed the first ambassador to England from the United States.

Adams served as the new nation's first Vice President during George Washington's term as President, but he did not like the position. He called it "the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived." When Washington refused a third term in office, Adams was elected the second President of the United States in 1796. His longtime friend Thomas Jefferson became his Vice President, and he kept most of Washington's Cabinet members in place.

The ongoing wars between England and France troubled Adams' presidency. Many members of his own Federalist party and the Cabinet wanted the United States to side with England against France. But Adams wanted peace, and pursued a policy of neutrality. Because of this stance, he lost much support within his own party.

The division within the Federalist party and Adams's failing popularity with the American people caused him to lose the presidential election to Republican Thomas Jefferson. But Adams never regretted pursuing peace. He requested that his tombstone be inscribed with: "Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of the peace with France in the year 1800."

Adams died at age 90 on the Fourth of July, 1826. His last words were "Jefferson still survives." But his old friend had actually died on the same day, several hours earlier.

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson  Jefferson Memorial  

When Thomas Jefferson presented his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress in June of 1776, he was aware that the ideas in it were not new. Jefferson had learned many of the democratic principles expressed in the document from the writings of Englishman John Locke and other philosophers. Now he endowed them with a uniquely American flavor. Jefferson later wrote that he tried "to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

Thomas Jefferson was born in Goochland (present-day Albemarle) County, Virginia, the son of a wealthy landowner and planter. He received a fine education at the College of William and Mary, and was the most scholarly of all the founding fathers. Jefferson could read French, Latin, and Greek. He was an architect, inventor, naturalist, writer, lawyer, and diplomat as well as a politician and statesman.

Jefferson's love of music and violin playing helped him woo and win Martha Skelton, a young Williamsburg widow. They were married on January 1, 1772. The couple lived at Monticello, the Virginia home that Jefferson had designed and was in the process of building. Jefferson would continue to improve and remodel Monticello throughout his entire life.

Jefferson believed that his natural inclination was towards science, but that certain events carried him into politics. He was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, and then to the Continental Congress, where he quickly was appointed to the committee for drafting a Declaration of Independence.

Although John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were more prominent members of the committee than Jefferson, Adams wanted Jefferson to write the draft of the Declaration. He felt that having a Virginian pen the document would help convince southern delegates to vote for it. He also knew that Jefferson was a better writer. Although Jefferson's draft was amended before it was passed (and his attack on the slave trade deleted), he had put his indelible stamp on the birth of the American nation.

During the Revolution, Jefferson served as a member of Virginia's House of Delegates, and he wrote the state's Statute of Religious Freedom. Although Rhode Island had been the first colony to guarantee religious freedom, Virginia was the first state in the new nation to pass such a law.

Jefferson was appointed ambassador to France in 1785. When he returned to the United States in 1790, George Washington made him the nation's first Secretary of State. Although Jefferson had great respect for George Washington, he was in constant conflict with Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton wanted a strong federal government guided by powerful, educated men. Jefferson believed more political power should belong to the states and to ordinary citizens. Hamilton and his supporters created the Federalist party, while Jefferson and his friends formed the Democratic- Republicans.

Although George Washington did not favor political parties, he came to agree more with Hamilton's views than with Jefferson's. Growing increasingly uncomfortable as a member of Washington's Cabinet, Jefferson resigned in 1794.

When Washington decided against a third term as President, Jefferson ran for the office on the Democratic- Republican ticket. His opponent was his longtime friend John Adams. The Federalists won the election, and John Adams became President. Jefferson, who received the second highest number of votes, became Vice President.

In 1800, Jefferson ran for President against Aaron Burr and the incumbent John Adams. This time he won the office. Jefferson's greatest achievement as President was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte, needing money to fight his wars, offered to sell the territory to the United States for $15 million -- a price of about 3 cents an acre. Jefferson realized that purchasing Louisiana would more than double the size of the United States. He quickly finalized the deal before Napoleon could change his mind.

Jefferson hired his private secretary Meriwether Lewis to explore the vast territory. Lewis recruited his friend William Clark to help lead an expedition of about 50 men, who not only explored and mapped the land, but also collected specimens of new plants and animals they found. Lewis and Clark's trek lasted over two-and-a-half years and covered more than 8,000 miles.

Jefferson was reelected President in 1804, but his second term was plagued by complications. In the wars between France and Great Britain, British ships began firing on American ships that couldn't prove their nationality. Jefferson declared an embargo act that prevented American ships from sailing to foreign ports. This act hurt American trade and business, and in turn, Jefferson's popularity.

Jefferson followed Washington's example and decided against a third term in 1808. Retiring to Monticello, he spent much of his time trying to get his neglected farm to turn a profit. But he had time for other projects as well. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, and he considered this one of his most important achievements. In fact, when Jefferson wrote his will, he asked that his tombstone read "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom and Father of the University of Virginia." He did not even mention the presidency.

Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of United States independence. His old friend John Adams died on the same day.

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Washington, Adams, Jefferson
Madison, Monroe, Adams
Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison
Tyler, Polk, Taylor
Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan
Lincoln, Johnson, Grant
Hayes, Garfield, Arthur
Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland
McKinley, T. Roosevelt, Taft
Wilson, Harding, Coolidge
Hoover, F. Roosevelt, Truman
Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson
Nixon, Ford, Carter
Reagan, Bush, Clinton
Bush, ????, ????

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