While George Washington is the classic Warrior President, the history of the presidency is full of distinguished military men who exercised strong leadership.
Throughout the history of the American presidency, citizens frequently turned to men who had distinguished themselves in times of war. This precedent began with George Washington. In some cases, effective battlefield leadership enabled strong political leadership; in other situations, like with Ulysses Grant, the opposite was true.
For Americans today, the lure of such leadership is still apparent: after the successful Desert Storm Operation, General Norman Schwarzkopf’s name was invoked as a possible candidate; in later years, both Republicans and Democrats attempted to recruit General Colin Powell. Warrior Presidents appealed to Americans since George Washington and may still provide future leaders.
Three Significant Warrior Presidents
According to one scholar on American Presidents, George Washington was “cut in the mold of the ancient Romans.” Adding to that, Brown University Historian Gordon Wood writes that, “George Washington…was the perfect Cincinnatus, the Roman patriot who returned to his farm after his victories in war.”
Called out of retirement at Mount Vernon, Washington led the nation through two presidential terms, easing growing factional politics, concluding beneficial treaties with Britain and Spain, and establishing precedents for future commanders-in-chief.
Upon his death, Henry Lee pronounced Washington to be “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen,” perhaps proving England’s King George III correct when he predicted that Washington “will be the greatest man in the world” for surrendering his sword to Congress.
In 1828 Andrew Jackson won the presidency after a viciously bitter campaign against John Quincy Adams. Jackson’s fame rested on his spectacular victory at the Battle of New Orleans after the War of 1812 had already concluded.
Jackson’s leadership as a “man of the common people” resonated with voters tired of perceived bland leadership in Washington City. Jackson decisively ended threats of Southern secession, attacked nullification, removed the American Indians beyond the Mississippi, and “killed” the National Bank that he perceived as elitist.
Although students of history may disapprove of some of his measures, he nevertheless demonstrated strong leadership. According to historians, people still “wrote-in” his name on election ballots even after he had died.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the perfect apolitical general. Few knew his political allegiances. Serving two terms beginning in 1953, Eisenhower promised to personally go to Korea and end the war. The Eisenhower Doctrine protected United States’ interests as the Cold War heightened. Yet it was his handling of the 1956 Suez Crisis that probably reflected best his strong leadership, letting Britain and France know that the United States would supplant the late European colonial empires as guardians of peace.
Generals, Presidents, and Distinguished Officers
Too often, political parties drafted former generals solely to achieve platform agendas by appealing to voters. The 19th Century Whig Party did this three times with William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott (Scott lost); During Reconstruction, Republicans ran Ulysses Grant – a terrible chief executive, in part to appeal to Northern veterans.
Military association with the Civil War helped a number of men win the presidency, including Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley. Conversely, non-service hurt contenders like Samuel B Tilden in 1876 and even Grover Cleveland who, as President, returned captured Civil War battle flags to the South.
The most recent Warrior Presidents were John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush. Both men served as lieutenants in the navy during World War II. Kennedy’s heroism was identified with PT-109 while Bush was a successful pilot, shot down and almost captured.
Military and Political Leadership
Battlefield leadership doesn’t always equate with political success, yet the leadership skills learned at West Point or Annapolis are lifetime and have often enabled the nation’s leaders to guide the nation through difficult times. At the same time, military service is not a prerequisite for greatness, as proven by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
- Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy Since 1938 8th Ed (Penguin, 1997)
- Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, The American President (Riverhead Books – Penguin Putnam, 1999)
- Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992)