Great Presidents

Meet 12 of America's most important presidents and examine their lives, achievements, and legacies to American life and politics.
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Overview

Meet 12 of America's most important presidents. Through revealing anecdotes and inside stories" you can examine their lives, achievements, and legacies to American life and politics through the eyes of political expert Dr. Allan J. Lichtman. These 12 leaders steered the United States through pivotal times: Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Reagan."

About

Allan J. Lichtman
Allan J. Lichtman

Each president had a powerful vision of America and the American promise, even though they came from widely different backgrounds, had varying styles, personalities, and beliefs, while embracing different approaches to governing.

INSTITUTION

American University

Dr. Allan J. Lichtman is Professor of History at American University in Washington, D.C. He did his undergraduate studies at Brandeis University and earned his PhD from Harvard University. Professor Lichtman is the recipient of the Scholar-Teacher Award from American University. He was a Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author or coauthor of six books, including The Thirteen Keys to the Presidency and The Keys to the White House. The ìKeysî system predicted well ahead of time the outcome of every presidential election from 1984 to 1996. He is editor of the book series Studies in Modern American History. Dr. Lichtman has published more than 100 scholarly and popular articles that have appeared in journals and newspapers, including the American Historical Review, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, New Republic, Washington Monthly, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times. Dr. Lichtman has provided commentary for CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, CNBC, C-SPAN, Worldnet, Voice of America, the BBC, and many other networks worldwide.

By This Professor

The American Presidency

01: The American Presidency

This first lecture will review the selection of 12 great American presidents who led the nation through crises of war, depression, and social upheaval. It explains how we will consider both the personal and public lives of these leaders, explore their presidencies, and show how they shaped both the office of the presidency and the history of the United States.

33 min
George Washington—The Rise of a Patriot

02: George Washington—The Rise of a Patriot

George Washington wanted fame and a lasting, positive legacy. By fame he did not mean mere celebrity, but the honest esteem that comes from service, sacrifice, and character. Even with all of today's debunking cynicism, he remains a true American icon.

31 min
George Washington—American Liberator

03: George Washington—American Liberator

At critical moments during the Revolution and the nation's infancy, Washington was beyond doubt the "indispensable man." He led the Continental Army to victory against the British, and after the war, lent his prestige to the cause of strengthening the dangerously weak national government. In 1788, he was unanimously elected as the first president under the new Constitution.

31 min
George Washington—The First President

04: George Washington—The First President

President Washington had to work to establish precedents for relating to the public and administering the new government. During his first term, he and his gifted cabinet established a new financial system, developed a foreign policy based on noninvolvement in European affairs, and pursued westward expansion.

31 min
George Washington—American Icon

05: George Washington—American Icon

"The approbation of [one's] country," said Washington, "is the highest reward to a feeling mind, and happy are they who so conduct themselves to merit it." His second term saw parties forming even as Washington remained above the fray. He dealt with threats from abroad and showed the power of the federal Union by crushing the Whiskey Rebellion. Refusing a third term, he stepped down in 1797 "first in the hearts of his countrymen."

32 min
Thomas Jefferson—The Pen of Freedom

06: Thomas Jefferson—The Pen of Freedom

Thomas Jefferson occupies a special place in American history. Before he was 45, he had written the Declaration of Independence, the Northwest Ordinance, and Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom. Also considered are his views on women and on slavery.

30 min
Thomas Jefferson—Party Leader

07: Thomas Jefferson—Party Leader

Between the Revolution and his election as president in 1800, Jefferson was minister to France and later Secretary of State. He lost the presidency to John Adams in 1796, but under the system of the time he became vice president. Jefferson led the formation of the party that became known as the Democratic-Republicans. In 1800, he unseated Adams; it was the first transfer of presidential power in U.S. history.

30 min
Thomas Jefferson—Expansionist President

08: Thomas Jefferson—Expansionist President

Jefferson's greatest accomplishment as president, the Louisiana Purchase, came in his first term. These years also saw the first-ever presidential sex scandal when Jefferson was charged with fathering children by his slave, Sally Hemings.

30 min
Thomas Jefferson—The Agonies of a Second Term

09: Thomas Jefferson—The Agonies of a Second Term

Jefferson's second term was far more vexing and controversial than his first. When he left office, controversies in foreign policy remained unresolved. Like no other Founder or early president, Jefferson today remains an immediately influential—and controversial—figure.

31 min
Andrew Jackson—Hero of the New Republic

10: Andrew Jackson—Hero of the New Republic

A combative product of the Western frontier and the bitter Southern phase of the Revolution, "Old Hickory" won a victory over the British at New Orleans in 1815 that made him the greatest American war hero since Washington.

31 min
Andrew Jackson—The Conqueror Returns

11: Andrew Jackson—The Conqueror Returns

After fighting the Indians and the British, Jackson won the popular vote for president in 1824, but lost to John Quincy Adams in the House of Representatives. His supporters denounced this "corrupt bargain" in which Adams's chief supporter in the House, Henry Clay, became the new Secretary of State. Jackson's vindication would come four years later.

31 min
Andrew Jackson—The Warrior President

12: Andrew Jackson—The Warrior President

Jackson's war against the Bank of the United States was the highlight of his first term, a stormy period that also saw the Peggy Eaton affair, a struggle over the nullification of federal laws by South Carolina, and the forced removal from their lands of Native Americans.

31 min
Andrew Jackson—A President Defiant

13: Andrew Jackson—A President Defiant

The bank crisis continued as Jackson became the first president to be censured by the Senate. Social unrest, especially over slavery, forced new challenges on Jackson and his party. Finally, we examine Jackson's impact on American political life, especially his role in the development of the modern party system.

33 min
James K. Polk—Party Loyalist

14: James K. Polk—Party Loyalist

Although relatively little known, Polk is an important president. Sickly as a child, he had an intense will to succeed. He was elected to Congress at a young age and became a disciple of Jackson. But by the early 1840s, his career seemed to be over.

30 min
James K. Polk—The First Dark Horse

15: James K. Polk—The First Dark Horse

Polk was the first "dark horse" nominated for president, and he won an upset victory over veteran Whig leader Henry Clay. He worked hard at all phases of his job, and especially when pursuing expansionist policies vis-à-vis Oregon and Mexico.

31 min
James K. Polk—Apostle of Manifest Destiny

16: James K. Polk—Apostle of Manifest Destiny

Polk's single term featured the dispute with Britain over the boundaries of Oregon Territory, and the conflict with Mexico. Each receives detailed discussion, with specific attention to Polk's place at the center of "Manifest Destiny"—the drive toward the sea-to-sea expansion of the United States.

30 min
Abraham Lincoln—Frontier Politician

17: Abraham Lincoln—Frontier Politician

Abraham Lincoln had a true log-cabin upbringing in Kentucky and Indiana. He rose as a lawyer and state legislator in Illinois, served a term in Congress as a Whig, and moved like many antislavery Whigs to the new Republican Party in the 1850s.

31 min
Abraham Lincoln—The First Republican President

18: Abraham Lincoln—The First Republican President

His debates with Stephen Douglas made Lincoln a national figure and set him on the path to the 1860 Republican nomination. The lecture will cover the crackup of the American party system in the 1850s, the complex alignments of 1860, and the repercussions of Lincoln's eventual triumph in the four-man presidential race of that year.

31 min
Abraham Lincoln—Wartime Leader

19: Abraham Lincoln—Wartime Leader

Although he lacked military or administrative experience, Lincoln was an active commander-in-chief. With the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, he gave the war a purpose beyond the restoration of the Union on the old terms. And he faced the task of running for re-election in the midst of the struggle.

31 min
Abraham Lincoln—The Martyred President

20: Abraham Lincoln—The Martyred President

After winning re-election, Lincoln was preoccupied with the problems raised by the end of slavery and the start of reconstruction. The lecture will also highlight the controversy surrounding Lincoln's assassination and examine the reasons why he is considered the greatest of all American presidents.

30 min
Theodore Roosevelt—Patrician Reformer

21: Theodore Roosevelt—Patrician Reformer

The first part of TR's life saw him go from sickly boyhood to a vigorous young manhood. This lecture considers his early experiences, his political ideas and involvements, his work as assistant Navy secretary, and his service with the Rough Riders in the war with Spain.

30 min
Theodore Roosevelt—The Cowboy as President

22: Theodore Roosevelt—The Cowboy as President

TR's rise was meteoric. He became the reform-minded governor of New York in 1898, and William McKinley's running mate two years later. After McKinley's assassination in 1901, TR became the youngest president ever. He used the "bully pulpit" more effectively than any prior president and put a distinctly progressive stamp on the presidency.

31 min
Theodore Roosevelt—Progressive Dynamo

23: Theodore Roosevelt—Progressive Dynamo

TR's first term saw him steer a program of progressive reform through Congress and shape an expansive, active foreign policy. His landslide election to a second term in 1904 would bring an expansion of his progressive agenda, creating difficulties with conservatives in his own party.

30 min
Theodore Roosevelt—Third-Party Crusader

24: Theodore Roosevelt—Third-Party Crusader

After trying to wrest the GOP nomination from Taft, TR ran as a Bull Moose Progressive. His losing bid gained the biggest vote share ever for a third party. As president, he had expanded his office's power, and his vision of world affairs enduringly influenced our foreign policy. He was fittingly the first president of what some would call The American Century.

31 min
Woodrow Wilson—American Visionary

25: Woodrow Wilson—American Visionary

Woodrow Wilson began the shift of the Democrats away from state's rights and limited government toward federal initiative and governmental activism at home and abroad. How did his youth in the Civil War and Reconstruction South affect him? What role did his scholarly career play in shaping his politics?

32 min
Woodrow Wilson—The Professor as Politician

26: Woodrow Wilson—The Professor as Politician

After 1904, Wilson began leaning toward the reformism that he would embrace as governor of New Jersey and U.S. president. The unusual 1912 presidential election is discussed, as is Wilson's ambitious domestic program of tariff reform, antitrust initiatives, and creation of the Federal Reserve Board.

29 min
Woodrow Wilson—The World Stage

27: Woodrow Wilson—The World Stage

World War I was the central foreign-policy challenge that Wilson faced. As the war dragged on, U.S. neutrality became increasingly hard to maintain. Acting on his belief that it was America's mission to "make the world safe for democracy," Wilson took the country to war in 1917 despite his 1916 campaign promise not to.

31 min
Woodrow Wilson—The Fight for Postwar Peace

28: Woodrow Wilson—The Fight for Postwar Peace

Having given the Allies crucial help in winning the war, Wilson wanted a League of Nations to help secure the peace. The British and French were cool to the idea, however, and at home Wilson lost a grueling Senate fight over the League. He suffered a debilitating stroke in October 1919. The impact of his efforts is still much debated.

31 min
Franklin D. Roosevelt—Provocative Politician

29: Franklin D. Roosevelt—Provocative Politician

Meeting the challenges of war and depression led FDR to launch revolutionary changes that are still with us today. In many ways he created the modern presidency that TR and Wilson had helped establish. FDR's life began in privilege, but he knew deep personal and political adversity as well.

30 min
Franklin D. Roosevelt—New Dealer

30: Franklin D. Roosevelt—New Dealer

This lecture examines the critical election of 1932 and FDR's significance in forging the New Deal coalition that made the Democrats the normal majority party. Many of the New Deal's early innovations, especially those designed to fight the Depression, lasted only a few years, but the sheer magnitude of New Deal experimentation was beyond anything previously envisioned.

31 min
Franklin D. Roosevelt—Into the Storm

31: Franklin D. Roosevelt—Into the Storm

After his 1936 landslide FDR sought to extend the New Deal, but fell victim to his own hubris. Even a president of huge stature and popularity can push his powers only so far. As the 1930s ended, war in Europe and the possibility of a third term dominated the 1940 campaign.

31 min
Franklin D. Roosevelt—President in a World at War

32: Franklin D. Roosevelt—President in a World at War

When FDR died in April 1945, just weeks after his inauguration and weeks before the end of the war in Europe, Winston Churchill said that the former president had "altered decisively and permanently, the social axis, the moral axis, of mankind by involving the New World inexorably and irrevocably in the fortunes of the old."

31 min
Harry S Truman—A Struggle for Success

33: Harry S Truman—A Struggle for Success

Although the hardscrabble Truman was the least esteemed of presidents, scholars have reappraised him, and he usually ranks high in surveys of historians. When FDR's sudden death thrust him into the world's most important position at one of history's great turning points, Truman became a key shaper of the postwar world.

31 min
Harry S Truman—Needing America's Prayers

34: Harry S Truman—Needing America's Prayers

A vice president Roosevelt had largely ignored, Truman found himself in April 1945 facing the responsibility of ending the war and making foreign and domestic policy for the postwar world. The bold decisions he made over the next few months profoundly affected the world and America's place in it.

31 min
Harry S Truman—Winning the Peace

35: Harry S Truman—Winning the Peace

The strategy of containment was a product of the first Truman administration that became the hallmark of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War. America would assume huge and unprecedented global responsibilities that would deeply affect both life at home and the shape of the presidency.

31 min
Harry S Truman—No Accidental President

36: Harry S Truman—No Accidental President

In the early 1950s, the Cold War suddenly turned hot, Stalin got the bomb, and Americans began wondering if their neighbors were Communist spies. In a reversal of earlier roles, Democrats became the party of civil rights, activist government, and internationalism. Truman left office in 1953 having changed the future of his country and the world.

32 min
John F. Kennedy—The Construction of a Politician

37: John F. Kennedy—The Construction of a Politician

The tragic end of JFK's short presidency left Americans wondering what might have been. He led the nation through three turbulent years marked by the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement, the most significant social movement of the postwar era.

33 min
John F. Kennedy—The Emergence of a President

38: John F. Kennedy—The Emergence of a President

After a campaign in which the use of TV, polling, and image-making would make it a model, the cool, analytical, and glamorous Kennedy would bring a new look, style, vitality, as well as a new idealism and realism to the presidency.

31 min
John F. Kennedy—A President in Crisis

39: John F. Kennedy—A President in Crisis

Despite his bold rhetoric, JFK proceeded cautiously on domestic issues such as civil rights. Much of his early term was spent dealing with major Cold War crises involving Cuba, Berlin, and Vietnam.

31 min
John F. Kennedy—His Final Challenges

40: John F. Kennedy—His Final Challenges

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 showed Kennedy at his best. In 1963, he proposed landmark civil rights legislation, began planning a major initiative against poverty, and struggled with the question of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

30 min
Lyndon Johnson—Politician in the Rough

41: Lyndon Johnson—Politician in the Rough

Lyndon Johnson, one of the most activist presidents in history, left a legacy of both achievement and tragedy. Growing up amid rural hardship, he developed a deep need for attention and respect, and great sympathy for the less well-off. Devoted to and brilliant at politics, he became a successful six-term congressman.

30 min
Lyndon Johnson—Professional Politician

42: Lyndon Johnson—Professional Politician

LBJ narrowly won a Senate seat in 1948, and by 1955 was the youngest majority leader in Senate history. Never fully comfortable in the vice presidency, he took office after JFK's assassination determined to follow the liberal precedents of Franklin Roosevelt.

31 min
Lyndon Johnson—Building the Great Society

43: Lyndon Johnson—Building the Great Society

As president, Johnson immediately pursued ambitious domestic reforms. These Great Society programs included his war on poverty, civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid, environmental and consumer protection, aid to education, and an expansion of federal welfare measures.

30 min
Lyndon Johnson—Acrimony at Home and Abroad

44: Lyndon Johnson—Acrimony at Home and Abroad

Turmoil and social unrest would mark Johnson's last three years in office. Above all, the war in Vietnam dominated events—detracting from the Great Society, undermining the economy, sapping the strength of Johnson's Democratic party, dividing Americans, and exacerbating other domestic problems.

31 min
Ronald Reagan—"The Gipper"

45: Ronald Reagan—"The Gipper"

Ronald Reagan made conservatism respectable and formidable in late 20th-century America, slowed the growth of domestic spending, shifted priorities to the military, deregulated industry, achieved a major arms reduction treaty, and brought America to the brink of victory in the Cold War.

31 min
Ronald Reagan—A Conservative in the White House

46: Ronald Reagan—A Conservative in the White House

Reagan's victory in 1980 capped a 20-year revival of conservatism. In 1981, he forced through Congress a major tax cut, an expanded military budget, and cuts in domestic programs.

31 min
Ronald Reagan—The Acting President

47: Ronald Reagan—The Acting President

Reagan roused Americans from the malaise they had been in since the mid-1970s and made them believe again that America was a great country, a citadel of democracy, one worth fighting and dying for. But his domestic policies faltered as the administration failed to address problems of the late 1980s.

31 min
Ronald Reagan—The Teflon President

48: Ronald Reagan—The Teflon President

Although Reagan's final place in history is not yet clear, he successfully transformed the terms of political debate and understanding in the United States, and his second term ushered in the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

31 min