Monday, March 30, 2020

Ancient History, 1

On April 30, 1789, George Washington was sworn in as the First President of the United States under the terms of the newly ratified Constitution. This was just a month short of exactly 231 years ago. For the sake of discussion, let's assume nothing changes in the next 31 days.

In that time, 44 men have held the presidency (Grover Cleveland is counted twice because his two terms were non-consecutive, which is why the 44th man to be President, Donald Trump, is the 45th President). This averages out to a new President every five and one quarter years.

There have been stretches of time in which we have had a lot of presidents, and other stretches when we had very few. Between March 4, 1801 and March 4, 1825, a stretch of 24 years, only Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), James Madison (1809-17), and James Monroe (1817-25) occupied the presidency.

During a similar stretch of 24 years -- March 4, 1837 to March 4, 1861 -- there were eight: Martin Van Buren (1837-41), William H. Harrison (1841), John Tyler (1841-45), James Polk (1845-49), Zachary Taylor (1849-50), Millard Fillmore (1850-53), Franklin Pierce (1853-57), and James Buchanan (1857-61). Of those eight, not one was elected to a second term; two, Harrison and Taylor, died in office; Tyler and Fillmore, respectively, succeeded them but were never elected President in their own right.

Bonus fact: Van Buren was the first President of the United States not named Adams to be denied re-election.

Obviously the Van Buren-Buchanan period was exceptional; the combination of two presidents dying in office, and six others being consistently rejected for re-election, is a juxtaposition of circumstance no one ever hopes to see again.

The Jefferson-Monroe period, however, is less so. The occurrence of a 24-year span in which there were only three presidents, while rare, is not unique. The unprecedented case of Franklin Roosevelt being elected four times in succession led to a three-president (Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower) stretch lasting from March 4, 1933 to January 20, 1961 -- almost 28 years (the 20th Amendment ratified in 1933 changed the date on which presidential terms begin and end).

More recently, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama headlined a similar three-president stretch, running from January 20, 1993 to January 20, 2017.

But there has never been a case where four consecutive presidents have each served a full eight years in office. If Donald Trump does win re-election as I expect, and serves the entirety of his second term, he will cap an unprecedented era in American history.

Considering that the Van Buren-Buchanan period of eight presidents culminated in the secession crisis and Civil War, the tendency now to keep re-electing presidents seems to belie the depiction of America as irredeemably polarized.

But, time will tell, I suppose.

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