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Chester County Press

U.S. Presidents: Men who forged a nation

02/21/2024 12:56PM ● By Gene Pisasale
U.S. Presidents: Men who forged a nation [8 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

In the nearly 236 years since our nation came to life under the Constitution, we have had 46 chief executives leaving their mark on the country. While all of them, in some way, influenced the course of social, economic and political trends which forged our heritage, it is worth taking a closer look at a select group of them who left an indelible imprint. As we reflect on their actions—their successes and failures—we come to better comprehend this experiment in representative democracy we call America.

Although New York and Pennsylvania were two of the most successful and populated states, roughly one-third of our Presidents have come from Virginia (8) and Ohio (7). A handful of these men were responsible for delineating the geographic boundaries of what would become the 50 United States. Without George Washington’s persistence, guidance and leadership, not only would we have lost the Revolutionary War, the Constitution may never have been ratified. The original 13 states comprising the majority of the Eastern Seaboard were the result. Although he had no children of his own, his efforts ‘gave birth’ to America, which is why he is affectionately called the “Father of Our Country.” 

Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was a pretty good deal—$15 million paid to France for 530,000,000 acres, or roughly 2.8 cents an acre. It included parts of 14 states, and the northern border even extended into Canada. Despite being highly controversial, President James Polk’s approval of the annexation of Texas in 1845—and winning the Mexican-American War (1846- 1848)—gained much of what would become the Southwest, parts of 10 states including California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, as well as nearby territory. 

We almost lost 11 states which seceded shortly after Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860. Only a brutal and bloody Civil War returned them, and restored a highly fractured Union. People started thinking differently about the country. Before the Civil War, many people said “The United States are…” Afterwards, as a restored Union, they said “The United States is…” President Andrew Johnson’s purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 was initially derided as a mistake by his Secretary of State—“Seward’s Folly”—but aforementioned earlier acquisitions and this northern region added enormous natural resources (timber, crude oil, natural gas, copper, lead, zinc, gold, silver and many other materials) to a growing nation. At the time, the enormous size and importance of Alaska did not occur to most Americans. Today Alaska represents more than one-sixth of the entire United States. 

Because it was such a monumental event, historians for decades have analyzed the Civil War and the events which caused it. President James Buchanan—up until recently the only President from Pennsylvania— had an interesting take on secession which occurred on his watch. Although an experienced attorney highly familiar with the Constitution, Buchanan felt the government had no legal rights in the matter and was powerless to do anything to stop rebel states from seceding. Interestingly, he was personally opposed to slavery, but said in his last Annual Message to Congress: “All that is necessary (regarding slavery) and all for which the slave states have ever contended, is to be let alone and be permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way.” In what appears to be a clear legal contradiction, Buchanan—the trained lawyer—was in effect saying: “They can’t secede, but we can’t stop them.” His inaction allowed a conflict which took the lives of 600,000 people, or roughly two percent of the population. The equivalent today would be more than 6 million people dying, an unthinkable catastrophe. In contrast, Lincoln— through his nearly Herculean efforts to save the Union—is today rated as one of our very best Chief Executives.

Some Presidents took questionable steps to aid the growing country. Theodore Roosevelt was dead-set on building a passageway through central America to aid international shipping. Although the territory was claimed by Colombia, Roosevelt pushed through a deal to acquire the land for constructing the Panama Canal. He even went down there and sat on a steam-shovel to help dig the terrain. The project was an enormous benefit not only to the U.S., but for international commerce for dozens of nations around the world.

Some men who came into office didn’t even want the job. Warren Harding was not at all interested in becoming President, but party officials rammed his nomination through, and in 1920, he got elected. Others supported policies and programs which altered the course of our nation in more subtle ways. Dwight Eisenhower’s proposal for the modern interstate highway system changed the way—and the many places—where Americans work, play and live their daily lives.

Despite changing attitudes and perceptions over many decades, one thing is clear: only the passage of time allows us the perspective to fully understand the influence on the development of our country our Presidents have had. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was initially harshly criticized. Today it is considered one of the most important and beneficial actions ever taken by any Chief Executive. After he left office, Eisenhower was rated in the bottom-third of all U.S. Presidents; now historians list him in the Top Ten. So, as you think about President’s Day and what it means, consider the nearly four dozen individuals whose efforts—in varying ways—brought our nation to where it is today.

Gene Pisasale is an historian, author and lecturer based in Kennett Square. His 11 books focus mostly on the history of the Chester County/mid-Atlantic region. Gene’s latest book is “Heritage of the Brandywine Valley”, a beautifully illustrated hardcover book with over 250 images showcasing the fascinating people, places and events of this region over more than 300 years. His books are available on his website at and also on Gene can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]