I’m guessing that you meant to include Gerald Ford as the subject of your questions. Ford was the House Minority Leader from 1965 until 1973, and his main ambition throughout his political career was to serve as Speaker of the House. Ford loved serving in the House of Representatives and had never set his sights on the Presidency. It wasn’t until he had succeeded Richard Nixon following Nixon’s resignation in 1974 and decided that he wanted to be elected President in his own right that the Presidency ever became a goal of his.
Unfortunately for Ford, the opportunity to become Speaker of the House never presented itself because his party was in the minority for nearly every day of his Congressional career. He spent nearly a quarter-century in Congress, but the Republicans only controlled the House for two of those years — during the 83rd Congress (1953-1955), which was quite early in Ford’s Congressional career. By 1973, when Ford was appointed to fill the Vice Presidential vacancy resulting from Spiro Agnew’s resignation, he had all but given up his hopes of eventually becoming Speaker. In fact, Ford had made up his mind to seek re-election just one more time (in 1974), retire when his final Congressional term ended (in January 1977), and then enter the private sector to earn some money since he had been living off of his government salary for almost his entire adult life. If he had remained in Congress with the hope that the Republicans would finally gain a majority in the House and given him a path to the Speakership, Ford would have been waiting for a long time. The Republicans didn’t win control of the House of Representatives until 1994; by that time, Ford was 81 years old and it had been 40 years since the GOP had last won a majority in the House.
Would Ford have been a better Speaker of the House than John W. McCormack (Speaker from 1962-1971) and Carl Albert (Speaker from 1971-1977)? Yes, I think he would have. McCormack was quite old when he became Speaker following Sam Rayburn’s death in 1962, and he was far less dynamic and active than Rayburn was. Albert was a stronger Speaker of the House than McCormack was, but I think Ford would have shined as Speaker. Few members of Congress had the personal touch and solid connections (with members from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress) possessed by Gerald Ford. After nearly 25 years in the House, Ford was also an expert on the ebbs and flows of Congress, the legislative process, and parliamentary procedure. Ford was also — like Lyndon Johnson — extremely knowledgeable about individual Congressional districts and understanding of the unique challenges that each member of Congress faced when voting for or against certain pieces of legislation. Each bill affects different Congressmen in different ways and Ford recognized the importance of that when it came time to cast votes. The best Congressional leaders (and best Presidents trying to pass legislation) have that at the forefront of their mind and will use that knowledge to help members of Congress who find themselves in trouble after casting a vote which is unpopular with their constituents. That would have been a major strength of Ford’s if he had ever become Speaker.
I’m not sure if Nixon would still have appointed Ford to the Vice Presidency if he had been Speaker, but I don’t really see a reason why he wouldn’t. Ford might have been reluctant to accept the nomination as VP after finally winning the job he had always wanted, but I’m positive he would have eventually accepted the appointment because that’s just what you do when the President asks you to do something for your country.
What is important to remember is that President Nixon basically didn’t have a choice when it came to appointing someone to replace Spiro Agnew. You asked if I think Nixon would have tried to appoint someone like John Connally to fill the Vice Presidential vacancy if he hadn’t chosen Ford. In fact, Nixon did try to appoint Connally as Vice President, but VP nominees have to be confirmed by the Senate and the House and Democrats shot down any possibility that Connally, who had switched parties and become a Republican after years of rising through the political world as a Democrat. Although Connally was clearly Nixon’s first choice, he quickly recognized that he’d never win the confirmation battle and that he’d have to appoint someone else.
When Vice President Agnew resigned in October 1973, the Watergate scandal was already raging and new details seemed to emerge every day. Even at that point, impeachment and removal from office seemed to be a strong possibility. Because of that, it was clear that whomever Nixon appointed as Vice President could very well end up as President in the not-too-distant future. With that in mind and with significant Democratic majorities in the House and Senate (both chambers being required to confirm the VP nominee), Congress was not only in a position to “advise and consent”, but to basically dictate to Nixon which potential nominees would be confirmed. House Speaker Carl Albert would later admit that Congressional leaders gave Nixon no choice to appoint anyone other than Gerald Ford. Nixon was already in a battle for his political survival due to Watergate, so he was in no position to push back against Albert and nominate his own pick as President. Albert had made it clear that pretty much any other nominee would face a major fight in confirmation hearings and that, as Speaker, Albert could simply stall and keep Nixon’s nominee from even reaching the floor for a vote. That tactic would have opened up other worries for Nixon. If no Vice President had been confirmed and the Vice Presidency remained vacant, it was Speaker Albert who was next in line for the Presidency. If Nixon was removed from office or resigned, Albert, a Democrat, would have assumed a Presidency won by a Republican and been Acting President for nearly three years. Privately, Albert had no intention of maneuvering to become President himself, but the threat of it helped pressure Nixon into nominating Ford as Vice President, as Albert had urged. Ford was nominated just a few days after Agnew resigned in October 1973, was confirmed by both chambers of Congress, and took the oath of office to become Vice President on December 6, 1973. Eight months later he became President when Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment and almost certain removal from office.
I don’t think that Eugene McCarthy could have won the Democratic nomination in 1968 if LBJ had stayed in the campaign and ran for another term. As I mentioned in that earlier post about what I think would have happened if LBJ and Nixon had faced each other in the ‘68 election, Johnson, like any incumbent President, would have had significant advantages and as the head of the Democratic Party, he would have controlled the party throughout the process, so any challenge from fellow Democrats could have been handled pretty easily once he put the party apparatus into action and shaped the Democratic National Convention into whatever he might have needed it to be in the case of a floor fight. Plus, LBJ had a powerful campaign organization that was already familiar with a a primary fight (the unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination against John F. Kennedy in 1960) and a Presidential election (the massive popular vote and Electoral College victory in 1964).
There is also another thing that is frequently overlooked when people bring up Eugene McCarthy’s impressive showing against LBJ in the 1968 New Hampshire Primary. President Johnson actually wasn’t on the ballot in the New Hampshire Primary; he was a write-in candidate, partly for strategic reasons (to test the waters in case something like McCarthy’s strong showing in the primary were to happen). So while LBJ won 49% of the vote and McCarthy won an impressive 42% of the vote, I think it’s always important to note that Johnson was a write-in candidate. Still, McCarthy’s performance was impressive, no matter what, and it was a sign that LBJ was going to face a fight from anti-war advocates during primary season and that McCarthy couldn’t be taken lightly. McCarthy technically came in second place in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic Primary, but it was basically considered a victory, and his strong showing definitely led Johnson to withdraw from the race.
Why didn’t McCarthy do better in the 1968 Democratic primaries once Johnson withdrew from the race? Well, to put it bluntly, Bobby Kennedy screwed him over. For several months prior to the New Hampshire Primary, anti-war activists urged RFK to challenge LBJ for the Democratic nomination, but Kennedy consistently declined to consider a challenge and openly voiced his support in favor of President Johnson’s re-election. Then Eugene McCarthy stunned LBJ and the Democratic Party with his showing in the New Hampshire Primary, and it became clear that there was a passionate anti-war voting bloc that could make a serious difference in the 1968 election. Despite shooting down for months about not entering the race and supporting the incumbent LBJ over his fellow anti-war advocate McCarthy, Kennedy jumped into the race just four days after the New Hampshire Primary.
I know this isn’t a very scholarly way to put it, but RFK pulled a real dick move by jumping into the race after McCarthy had done the legwork in New Hampshire and demonstrated that President Johnson was very vulnerable. When Kennedy announced his candidacy, he immediately started siphoning a lot of those anti-war votes that had propelled McCarthy to the cusp of an upset over an incumbent President in the New Hampshire Primary. Many of those voters saw Kennedy as more electable than McCarthy because he was, of course, a Kennedy, and as they battled each other during the primaries that followed, Johnson’s Vice President, Hubert H. Humphrey, joined the race and was basically seen as the mainstream candidate. To a lot of those young Democratic voters who had supported McCarthy and then bailed in favor of Kennedy once RFK declared his candidacy, HHH was a continuation of the Johnson Administration’s increasingly unpopular foreign policy. But the back-and-forth battle between RFK and McCarthy in many of the state primaries helped clear a path for Humphrey to take a nearly insurmountable lead in delegates as the 1968 Democratic National Convention approached. After winning the California Primary, Bobby Kennedy looked to have some momentum, but he was assassinated that night. In truth, RFK’s only chance at the nomination was probably if all of the candidates headed into the Democratic National Convention without anybody able to clinch the nomination on the first ballot and having a floor fight ensue. Even then, I believe it would have been unlikely for RFK to have been nominated by a Democratic National Convention that was still largely controlled by Lyndon Johnson’s party organization, which would have worked diligently to prevent Bobby Kennedy from being nominated as President. As for McCarthy, he ended up in second place in the delegate count at the Convention, but the battles between him and RFK during the primary season resulted in many of the delegates who had pledged to support Kennedy voting for anybody else besides McCarthy (Kennedy’s delegates were released from their pledge due to his death). Eugene McCarthy got a pretty raw deal in 1968 after being responsible for a major turning point in history with his near-defeat of President Johnson and the aftermath of the ‘68 New Hampshire Primary.
He did?! Oh man, that’s a shame, I’m sorry to hear that. I think that Mr. Burns was probably in his 90s, so at least he had a long life, and us history-lovers are fortunate for that because of his prolific output of top-notch work, particularly on leadership and the Presidents/Presidency.
Here are three of my favorite books by James MacGregor Burns:
I agree — I think LBJ would have won in ‘68 if he had run. First of all, Hubert Horatio Humphrey, of all people, almost pulled off the victory over Richard Nixon in 1968. Humphrey lost the popular vote by a margin of just over 500,000 votes — in an election where George Wallace won nearly 10 million votes. Despite his Civil Rights accomplishments, I think Johnson would have neutralized Wallace in some of those Southern states. In fact, it’s very possible that a heavyweight like LBJ in the race would have kept George Wallace from launching a bid as serious as he actually did in 1968. Wallace won 46 Electoral votes (all of them being states of the Deep South) and I don’t think that would have happened with LBJ in the race.
Wallace was a big factor in the race, but another big factor was the battle for the Democratic nomination and the turbulence surrounding the primaries, RFK’s assassination, and the battles between Chicago police and anti-war protesters outside of the Democratic National Convention. If LBJ had been the candidate, there would have been no primary fight, and the DNC would have been much more disciplined. There definitely still would have been anti-war protests, but instead of seeming to add to the chaos of the Democrats’ nomination process, it would have come across differently.
And the biggest difference would have been the difference between Lyndon Baines Johnson on the campaign trail and Hubert H. Humphrey on the campaign trail. On television, LBJ often came across wooden and uninspiring, but he was something altogether different while campaigning. More importantly, LBJ wouldn’t have rolled over and just let Nixon get away with any Nixonian dirty tricks. LBJ could play just as dirty, and he would have if it meant the difference between four more years and a forced retirement. LBJ was the incumbent President of the United States and the head of the Democratic Party; he controlled the party apparatus would have known who to use the power of his office and his power of the Democratic Party to propel him to victory if it was kept close.
It definitely would have been closer than the 1964 election; LBJ wouldn’t have cruised to a landslide over Nixon in 1968 like he did over Barry Goldwater four years earlier, but I do think LBJ would have beat Nixon. In the election that we did get — a three-way race between Nixon, Humphrey, and Wallace — the Electoral College results were Nixon 301, Humphrey 191, Wallace 46 (270 votes needed to win). Nixon won the popular vote in 1968 over Humphrey by only a few hundred thousand more votes than Kennedy beat him in 1960 (one of the narrowest victories in American history) and George Wallace claimed 9.9 million votes. As I said, in my opinion, if LBJ had run in ‘68, Wallace either wouldn’t have run or he wouldn’t have been able to get ballot access in all 50 states. Either way, he wouldn’t have won 9.9 million votes and I don’t think he would have won any of the five states that he did actually win in ‘68 (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). LBJ would have built a powerful voter registration and get out the vote organization in those Southern states with large African-American populations whose right to vote was signed into law and protected three years earlier by LBJ. I think that those new voters, in addition to the Democrats who remained Democratic voters in the South despite LBJ’s Civil Rights policy, would have put those states in the Democratic column. Wallace also won one of North Carolina’s 13 Electoral votes in ‘68.
If it was just LBJ vs. Nixon, I think LBJ would have won all of the states that Humphrey won (Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia) as well as the states that Wallace won (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi). I also think that LBJ would have won 11 of the 32 states that Nixon won majorities in over Humphrey (Alaska, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia). In many of the 32 states that Nixon won in the actual 1968 election, his margin of victory was slim and Wallace’s removal from the equation likely would have swung more votes into the Democratic column than the Republican, resulting in a swing of those 11 states. The popular vote margin would still be pretty close, but LBJ would win majorities in most of the major states (those with the most Electoral College votes). In a straight LBJ vs. Nixon matchup in 1968, I think the Electoral College result would be: LBJ 381, Nixon 157.
And, yes, this question motivated me to actually go back and re-figure the 1968 Presidential election’s Electoral College map state-by-state. Don’t say I never did anything for you guys.
That is such a GREAT question because the answer can go so many different ways and spur some fantastic debate. The Presidency is a difficult and terribly exhausting job every day and most Presidents have faced a lot of adversity throughout their terms simply because of the very nature of the position and its responsibilities. There are dozens of individual days that are hard to argue with if they are suggested by someone to be the most difficult single day faced by a President over the 225 years that the job has been in service.
I think that the day you suggested is undoubtedly near the top of the list, as are any of the days when a Vice President assumes the office upon the assassination or death from natural causes of the incumbent President, and November 22, 1963 was, of course, one of the darkest days in the nation’s history. The emotions and thoughts possessed by the people on Air Force One as LBJ took the oath office and they prepared to fly back to Washington, D.C. with JFK in a casket just a couple of hours after he arrived in Dallas on that same airplane very much alive are unimaginable. There are just no words for a tragedy of that magnitude, and, as you mentioned, the presence of a newly-widowed Jackie Kennedy, clearly in shock and standing in the crowded cabin of the plane with her husband’s blood and brain matter staining her clothing, adds a whole different dimension to the tragic day and was a hell of a way for someone to begin their Presidency. There was also the fact that nobody knew the scope of the assassination and whether there might be something even more sinister — an international conspiracy or a plot to decapitate the entire federal government — going on. Plus, LBJ was the only President to actually witness his predecessor’s assassination. As if a Presidential assassination isn’t shocking and traumatic enough, Johnson was only a couple of cars back in the motorcade. He saw what happened and he was taken to Parkland Hospital right behind JFK; LBJ caught a glimpse of the scene inside JFK’s limousine as the Secret Service past the vehicle in order to keep him protected inside the hospital; Johnson was in the building when Kennedy was officially pronounced dead. I’ve always thought that one of the strangest feelings ever experienced by a President had to have been when an aide entered the room where LBJ was being held inside Parkland Hospital and addressed him as “Mr. President” — the moment he realized that JFK was dead and that he was now President. Imagine that.
And yet, even with everything mentioned above, I think there are two other more difficult days faced by Presidents. One is April 12, 1945 — another day in which a President died in office and was succeeded by his Vice President. In this case, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died suddenly at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, and was succeeded by Harry S Truman.
FDR was clearly dying when he won an unprecedented fourth term as President in 1944, and his health was declining noticeably. When he took the oath of office for his fourth term in January 1945, FDR was sworn in on the South Portico of the White House instead of at the U.S. Capitol. It was said that the inaugural festivities were scaled back because of World War II and that certainly played a part, but FDR’s failing health was also a factor. At just 557 words, Roosevelt’s Inaugural Address was the second-shortest in American history — only George Washington’s second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1793), which was 135 words long, was shorter than FDR’s fourth. After the physically taxing trip and summit with Stalin and Churchill at Yalta and meetings with other Allied leaders in February 1945 — a journey which would have been punishing for even a healthy person — FDR gave a report on the agreements to a Joint Session of Congress. At Yalta, officials from the other Allied delegations were alarmed by FDR’s appearance and when FDR gave his speech to Congress he did so from a seated position, apologizing for his “unusual posture” and noted that it was “easier for me not to have to carry about ten pounds of steel around on the bottom of my legs.” The reference to the leg braces he had worn since contracting polio in 1921 was the first time Roosevelt had ever publicly acknowledged his physical disability, and members of Congress now saw what those at the Yalta Conference had seen — FDR was gravely ill.
One person who did not realize how badly the President was ailing was the Vice President, Harry Truman. In 1944, President Roosevelt had dumped his Vice President, Henry Wallace, from the ticket, and seemingly put the decision of his running mate largely in the hands of the Democratic National Convention. In reality, Roosevelt was virtually positive that he would not survive his fourth term and he wasn’t simply choosing a Vice President — he was choosing a successor. Vice President Wallace didn’t cut it as a successor (not to FDR and definitely not to the leaders of the Democratic Party), and Truman steered the Convention towards Truman, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, and James F. Byrnes, a former Congressman, former Senator, former Supreme Court Justice, a longtime advisor-without-portfolio to FDR and the ultra-powerful director of the War Mobilization Board.
Roosevelt eventually decided that Truman was the guy he wanted and worked behind-the-scenes to get him nominated at the Convention despite a floor fight by passionate supporters of Wallace who wanted to keep him on the ticket and by Truman’s own reluctance to leave the Senate, a job he loved more than anything he had ever done in his life, for the Vice Presidency, which was powerless and boring and lacked even a hint of influence within Presidential Administrations at that point in history. Once elected and sworn in as Vice President, Truman was no different than any of the previous Vice Presidents — he had nothing to do, wasn’t included in on decisions or discussions of policy, and had almost no personal or professional relationship with President Roosevelt. The only thing of note that Truman did during his Vice Presidency was cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate to help his predecessor in the Vice Presidency, Henry Wallace, get confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. Truman spent most of his days on Capitol Hill, and was at having drinks with a small group of Congressmen and Senator in the office of House Speaker Sam Rayburn on April 12, 1945 when he got a call summoning him to the White House ASAP.
Truman wasn’t sure what was going on, but Allied troops were quickly closing in on Berlin that month from the west and the east, so it could have been just about anything. When he arrived at the White House, it was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who told him, quite bluntly, “Harry, the President is dead.” Despite FDR’s poor health, Truman was stunned. “Is there anything I can do for you?”, the new President asked Eleanor Roosevelt, and the new widow responded, “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
That wasn’t an exaggeration. World War II was coming to a close in Europe and still raging in the Pacific. Within two-and-a-half weeks of Truman’s succession to the Presidency, Mussolini was captured and killed by his own people in Italy, Berlin fell to the Soviets, Hitler killed himself in his bunker, Germany surrendered, and the war ended in Europe. And, at some point shortly after Truman was sworn into office, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson briefed him on the work being done to build an atomic bomb. Truman — the only President to order a nuclear strike — was completely in the dark about the Manhattan Project and the goal of building a nuclear weapon until after he became President. With all of that to come, everything going in on the world, and the fact that he had suddenly succeeded the longest-serving President in American history — a man whose image was hanging in the houses of millions Americans next to an image of Jesus — in the midst of the bloodiest war in the history of the world is why Truman’s April 12, 1945 was a more difficult day than LBJ’s November 22, 1963. The day after he was sworn into office, Truman said to reporters, “I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
The other day that I would consider one of the single most difficult days experienced by a President doesn’t require much of an explanation because most of us remember it well. We lived through it and it’s tragically memorable in the same way that older generations remember November 22, 1963 or another day that was very difficult for a President, December 7, 1941 (the day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor). No matter how I voted, or how I felt about George W. Bush when it came to other issues and his Presidency overall, I will never forget his poise during the days after September 11, 2001, which was without a doubt one of the toughest days any President has ever experienced. He was a bit unsteady on the day of the attacks, at least in his statements early in the day, but we were all unsteady. We didn’t know what the hell was going on, and the President was in the frustrating position of not being allowed by the Secret Service to return to Washington, D.C. until later in the evening. He was removed from the situation, forced to remain in the air aboard Air Force One as it flew across the country, protected by fighter jets, to a secure location in Nebraska. President Bush began to find his footing with his address to the nation that night from the Oval Office once he finally ordered to be taken home to Washington, and he was fantastic throughout the rest of that week, especially at the National Prayer Service and when he visited with the family members of victims and with rescue workers at Ground Zero.
Knowing how difficult 9/11 was for regular Americans like me, far removed from the horror in Manhattan, in Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon, I can’t imagine how hard that day was to the actual victims of the attacks, or those people connected to the victims. And it’s impossible to understand how hard September 11, 2001 was for the President of the United States, from the moment Andy Card whispered the news to him in that classroom in Sarasota, Florida until he finally went to sleep that night after a day of attacks on the country unlike any that any other President has ever faced. Like I said at the beginning of this answer (approximately 90,000 words ago), this is a great question because it has so many possible answers and opens up a very interesting debate. But in my opinion, no President had a more difficult single day than George W. Bush on September 11, 2001.
No, not technically. I doubt that we’ve ever had a President, with the possible exception of William Henry Harrison (because of his brief term), who didn’t have at least one American soldier die for one reason or another during their Administration. Eisenhower was trying to get across the point that the United States didn’t get involved in any major conflicts while he was in office because he hoped a big part of his legacy would be that the U.S. was focused on “waging peace” during his Presidency. Of course, in hindsight, that claim doesn’t hold much water because while there may not have been any full-scale wars involving American troops during the Eisenhower Administration, we know what U.S. involvement in Vietnam eventually turned into.
It is definitely impossible to predict, and there’s no guarantee he would have ever become President. I don’t think RFK would have won the 1968 election; in fact, I highly doubt he would have even won the Democratic nomination in 1968.
If RFK had eventually ended up as President, he would have had to change some of his ways. In order for Presidents to be successful they must find a way to frequently compromise and have to establish positive personal relationships with Congress. That wasn’t a strength of Bobby Kennedy’s, and Jimmy Carter is a prime example of what happens when that’s a major weakness of a President. Bobby Kennedy lacked JFK’s vision and Ted Kennedy’s political skills, as well as the natural charisma that both of those brothers possessed. RFK was the toughest of the brothers and probably the most fearless politically, and those qualities served him well as a campaign manager and in the chief of staff role that he unofficially filled in JFK’s Administration (along with being Attorney General). But those are traits that can also be troublesome for a President unless they are combined with the personal political skills that his brothers had stockpiles of.
This is one of those things that has never been fully interpreted by the Supreme Court and is only vaguely referred to in the Constitution in what is referred to as the “Appointments Clause”. The text of that clause, which is Article II, Section 2, states that the President “shall nominate, and, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.”
What those “Departments” actually were wasn’t made specifically clear, but the common interpretation (and the one that makes the most sense) of those “Departments” is of the agencies of the federal government that exercise the power of the Executive Branch. What the “Heads of Department” were is less clear and has never been defined by the Supreme Court, but it has been taken to mean that there are principal “Officers” and “inferior Officers” within those Departments — the principal “Officers” require Senate confirmation while the “inferior Officers” do not unless Congress specifically mandates it. The principal “Officers” are not just the Secretaries of each Cabinet-level Department and Senate confirmation isn’t limited to agencies considered Cabinet-level Departments. There are nearly 1,500 positions in the federal government which require Senate confirmation after Presidential appointment.
The formation of these Departments and the reason for Cabinet Secretaries is basically, to put it really simply, because there’s a lot of damn work to do. The President is vested with all of this Executive power, but the President is just one person. The Legislative Branch has hundreds of members in elected positions and even the Supreme Court has nine members, and that’s not even counting all of the lower courts in the Judicial Branch. To use the Department of State/Secretary of State as an example since that’s the one you mentioned, the Constitution gives the President the responsibility for our country’s foreign relations. Even during George Washington’s Presidency when the size of the country and the government was small, it was obvious that the President couldn’t single-handedly administer foreign policy, manage the financial system and law enforcement/legal apparatus, and be Commander-in-Chief of the military. The President needed help, so Departments were formed and people were put in charge of those Departments.
The State Department was a no-brainer, and during the Washington Administration, it was followed by a Treasury Department (finance), War Department (defense), and Attorney General (justice). There was actually no Department of Justice until 1870. Prior to that, the Attorney General was a Presidential appointee who was responsible for prosecuting cases before the Supreme Court and as the Executive Branch’s legal authority who could give opinions and advice on the law. When it comes to the technical process of establishing a federal Department, the President usually appoints an official responsible for a specific role or advocates for the establishment of such a role and Congress passes a law creating the Department needed to support that Presidential appointee. As the government and country has grown and different technologies and industries have sprouted, new Departments have been added or have been turned into something else.
The establishment of a Department of State was obviously the most important Department to the leaders when the Presidency went into effect because of its role in supporting the President in foreign relations at a time where even some of our more cosmopolitan leaders were regarded (often quite accurately) as somewhat provincial. Foreign policy was a big concern because the United States was still recovering from a Revolutionary War which resulted in independence but required everything Americans had as well as the assistance of foreign allies (or foreign countries who were at least enemies of England). Strengthening those ties, along with building new ones, was an absolute necessity for defensive and economic reasons — for survival, basically. That’s why the Department of State was the first to be created shortly after Washington was inaugurated. At first, it was actually called the “Department of Foreign Affairs”, but Congress changed the name to the “Department of State” right before Thomas Jefferson was appointed as the first Secretary of State a couple of months later.
More Cabinet-level Departments — along with sub Cabinet-level agencies, many of which also have principal officers who require Senate confirmation following Presidential appointment — have been established throughout our history, but the Secretary of State has largely remained the most important position in the Cabinet. Like the Chief Justice, the Secretary of State is seen as first-among-equals, and was such an important and influential position that the Secretary is first in the order of precedence of members of the Cabinet and was second in line to the Presidency from 1886 until 1947. Early Secretaries of State were so influential that the position seemed to be a stepping stone to the Presidency during the first 50 years of the job’s existence with four of the first six Presidents (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams) being former Secretaries of State. Three Secretaries of State (Madison, Monroe, and J.Q. Adams) were elected to the Presidency directly from the State Department. However, only two former Secretaries of State have been elected President since 1825 — Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State under President Jackson (1829-1831) and elected President in 1836, and James Buchanan, Secretary of State under President Polk (1845-1849) and elected President in 1856 — so, if she is successful in 2016, Hillary Clinton will be the first former Secretary of State elected President in 160 years. And it won’t be for a lack of trying — former Secretaries of State who were nominated by a major party but lost a Presidential election include Henry Clay (lost three Presidential election), Daniel Webster (lost two Presidential elections), Lewis Cass, and James G. Blaine. Several others unsuccessfully sought their party’s nomination and lost or settled for the State Department after losing a Presidential election first (including William Jennings Bryan, who lost three Presidential elections).
This is way more information than jrobertxiii asked for, but I hope it answered some of your questions.
Alright, the 2014 Presidential Rankings are complete. Thanks for checking them out and following along. I’ll be sending out free PDF copies of my book to anybody who guessed my Top 15 correctly.
I look forward to all of the people who are outraged and want to either debate all 43 rankings and/or just call me an idiot even though I’ve said on many occasions that ranking Presidents is completely subjective and any version of Presidential Rankings is totally arbitrary.
As I’m weeding through all of those messages into my inbox over the next few weeks, here is a list of the complete rankings for 2014 (with links to each individual entry):
43. James Buchanan (43rd in 2012 [↔])
42. William Henry Harrison (42nd in 2012 [↔])
41. Andrew Johnson (41st in 2012 [↔])
40. Franklin Pierce (40th in 2012 [↔])
39. James Garfield (38th in 2012 [↓1])
38. Millard Fillmore (37th in 2012 [↓1])
37. Warren G. Harding (39th in 2012 [↑2])
36. George W. Bush (36th in 2012 [↔])
35. Jimmy Carter (34th in 2012 [↓1])
34. Herbert Hoover (33rd in 2012 [↓1])
33. Zachary Taylor (32nd in 2012 [↓1])
32. Benjamin Harrison (35th in 2012 [↑3])
31. Rutherford B. Hayes (27th in 2012 [↓4])
30. Barack Obama (28th in 2012 [↓2])
29. Martin Van Buren (29th in 2012 [↔])
28. Ulysses S. Grant (30th in 2012 [↑2])
27. William Howard Taft (31st in 2012 [↑4])
26. John Quincy Adams (26th in 2012 [↔])
25. Calvin Coolidge (25th in 2012 [↔])
24. Richard Nixon (24th in 2012 [↔])
23. Chester A. Arthur (23rd in 2012 [↔])
22. Grover Cleveland (22nd in 2012 [↔])
21. John Tyler (19th in 2012 [↓2])
20. Woodrow Wilson (20th in 2012 [↔])
19. Andrew Jackson (17th in 2012 [↓2])
18. Gerald Ford (21st in 2012 [↑3])
17. Ronald Reagan (15th in 2012 [↓2])
16. John F. Kennedy (14th in 2012 [↓2])
15. James Madison (12th in 2012 [↓3])
14. Thomas Jefferson (11th in 2012 [↓3])
13. John Adams (16th in 2012 [↑3])
12. William McKinley (18th in 2012 [↑6])
11. George H.W. Bush (13th in 2012 [↑2])
10. Harry S Truman (8th in 2012 [↓2])
9. Bill Clinton (10th in 2012 [↑1])
8. Dwight D. Eisenhower (9th in 2012 [↑1])
7. James K. Polk (7th in 2012 [↔])
6. Theodore Roosevelt (5th in 2012 [↓1])
5. Lyndon B. Johnson (6th in 2012 [↑1])
4. James Monroe (4th in 2012 [↔])
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt (3rd in 2012 [↔])
2. George Washington (2nd in 2012 [↔])
1. Abraham Lincoln (1st in 2012 [↔])