The Ten Most Important Presidential Elections In American History

With Presidents Day coming on Monday, this is a good time to reflect on the 56 Presidential elections that this country has had, and to judge which ten are the most significant, path breaking elections.

Of course, there can be debate and disputes as to the judgment of this author and blogger, but here goes, in chronological order.

Presidential Election of 1789–the selection by the Electoral College of our first President, George Washington, the absolutely right choice for the beginning of our nation under the Constitution, as Washington set important precedents for the future, and had no ambition to grab power long term.

Presidential Election Of 1800–the first time we had an opposition party come to power with grace, and without violence, setting a standard for the future, as Thomas Jefferson defeated John Adams, and the dispute between him and Vice President Aaron Burr, who claimed a tie in the Electoral College, was settled peacefully as well, and caused a modifying of the Electoral College process.

The Presidential Election of 1828–the first one decided by popular vote synchronizing with the electoral vote, and giving the country a so called “Common Man” in the Presidency, Andrew Jackson, representing city workers and frontiersmen alike.

Presidential Election of 1860–leading to the election of Abraham Lincoln, who set out to preserve the Union at all costs, and wielded power in a controversial, but thoughtfully considered way, through four years of the Civil War.

Presidential Election Of 1912–the triumph of progressivism, the recognition that government’s role had been changed irrevocably in a country that had been transformed from an agricultural to an industrial nation, had tripled in population since the Civil War, had become a multi ethnic nation, and had recognized the need for the regulation of capitalism in the public good, as well as political reforms and social justice. And it was the most exciting election, as three Presidents, past (Teddy Roosevelt), present (William Howard Taft), and future (Woodrow Wilson) competed against each other.

Presidential Election Of 1932–the triumph of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the worst moments of the Great Depression, offering hope and action (the New Deal) to revive the spirits of the nation, and have the American people believe in the future. Without his victory, there might have been social revolution and bloodshed on a large scale.

Presidential Election of 1960–witnessing the first Catholic President elected (John F. Kennedy) and the promotion of idealism and a new beginning in the advancement of social justice and political reform.

Presidential Election Of 1964–the victory of liberalism with the election of Lyndon B. Johnson, and the defeat of Barry Goldwater and conservatism, therefore insuring the continuation of the New Deal, and the evolution of the Great Society.

Presidential Election Of 1980–seeing the triumph of conservatism under Ronald Reagan, with some modifications of the New Deal and Great Society, and great speeches, but not the conservative “heaven” that many imagine it was, but making Reagan a national icon like Washington, Lincoln and FDR.

Presidential Election Of 2008–witnessing the first African American President (Barack Obama), and his work to provide health care reform, preserve the New Deal and Great Society, and overcome the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The author welcomes discussion and debate on this post!

6 comments on “The Ten Most Important Presidential Elections In American History

  1. Paul Doyle February 19, 2012 6:47 pm

    Can’t argue with any of them, Professor. While the election of 1860 is well known to have caused the secession of Southern states before Lincoln was inaugurated the following March, not much is known about the interim period between the election of FDR and his inauguration. No, not the inactions of Herbert Hoover relative to closing banks.

    According to a new book , bankers were plotting to asking FDR to step aside so that a military type government could be run .

    I’ve got to pick these two elections as the most important for its impact on nation and turning points in our nation’s direction.

  2. Ronald February 19, 2012 7:51 pm

    Yes, Paul, you are correct that these are the two most important elections of the ten.

    It is correct that there were all kinds of plots against FDR throughout his first term by right wing forces in the corporate and military spheres. There is a new book on this by Sally Denton, and you should look at her book.

  3. Paul Doyle February 19, 2012 8:18 pm

    I agree. The link I included in my first post was for her book. It’s on my “Next to read” list.

    With your vast experience and knowledge on the subject, you should do a Top 10 book list relating to the Presidency.

  4. Paul Doyle February 19, 2012 8:26 pm

    BTW, 41’s father and 43’s grandfather, Prescott Bush was involved in some of the plotting…

    Unsung hero–Smedley Butler.

  5. Paul Doyle February 20, 2012 10:14 pm

    OK, Professor. I’ll name my Top 10 books relating to the Presidency. Obviously, any top list is subjective based on personal interests. Plus, I do not have an academic background and sometimes move my lips when I read ;), so please don’t be too critical. Here goes (in no particular order):

    Lincoln Trilogy–Carl Sandberg

    Robert Caro’s trilogy on LBJ. His 4th and final comes out in a couple of months.

    Theodore H. White’s “The Making of the President” series.

    “John Adams” by David McCullough

    “Plain Speaking” by Merle Miller

    “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin

    “Nixonland” by Rick Pearlstein (he also had a wonderful one on the Goldwater-LBJ 1964 race that was more recent.

    “The Conquerors:Roosevelt, Truman and the destruction of Hitler’s Germany ” by Michael Beschloss

    “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” by Richard Reeves

    “The War Lovers” by Evan Thomas

    I think this is the best book I’ve read on TR, even though it focused on his pre-Presidential years in general and the Spanish-American war in general.

    I’ve tried Edmund Morris’ books on TR, but could never really get into them.

    The above come to over ten, but sequels have to count as the whole.

    Would be interested in your favorites.
    Happy Presidents Day and
    Happy Washington’s Birthday on Wednesday for we traditionalists.

  6. Ronald February 20, 2012 10:44 pm

    Thanks, Paul, for your list. Gosh, what a difficult job to list the best books on the Presidency, since it is an overwhelming topic with so many great books. I commend you on your list. Since you asked what I would select, I will list the following with recognition that any list can be challenged. So here goes:

    John Adams–McCullough
    Abraham Lincoln–Goodwin, Donald
    FDR–Burns, Schlesinger
    JFK–Schlesinger, Reeves
    LBJ–Dallek, Caro
    Nixon–Ambrose, Reeves
    Wilson and TR–Cooper
    White–Making of the President series

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