The Most Consequential Actions of Our Presidents

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In Joseph Ellis' fine book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (1997), he states, "It [the Louisiana Purchase] was unquestionably the greatest achievement of the Jefferson presidency and, with room left for scholarly quibbling about Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and Harry Truman in 1945, one of the most consequential executive actions in all of American history."(1)

For a student of American history one of the fun aspects is, in fact, scholarly quibbling. When such quibbling concerns the most important or most consequential individual or event in regard to the future of the United States, the fun can be excruciating. (Remember, I am talking about students of American history here; we take our fun where we can get it.)

My intent is to engage in such quibbling by suggesting executive actions of several of our presidents that might qualify as the most consequential.

I will delimit consequential somewhat, though, by excluding actions taken where there was no other real choice--for example, Franklin Roosevelt's decision to enter World War II after Pearl Harbor. I also have limited myself by not citing more than one action per president. When it came to those whom I truly admire, this decision was not made easily.

While the emphasis is on actions taken, I do not wish to neglect those not taken. An action purposefully not taken could well be among the most consequential. Obviously, it would have to be clear that nonaction was carefully thought through and historically recorded as a decision not to take a specific action. No student of history could even begin to conjecture upon all that may have been in the minds of our chief executives that led to nothing specific being done. For a nonaction to be included it, too, had to meet the criterion of the president having had a true choice to make. Hopefully, this will become clearer as I describe certain actions purposefully not taken.

I want to reemphasize that I am highlighting single, specific actions and nonactions, not the totality of a president's contributions. I am by no means rating the presidents as to their greatness or lack thereof. In fact, a specific, consequential action or nonaction that makes the list may have emanated from one of the forty-one presidents who has not made anyone's list of the greatest.

The actions and nonactions cited below are discussed in chronological order, with the proviso that those of recent vintage bear the burden of recency. With more time for hindsight, these would perhaps be eliminated, while others would be added.

The list undoubtedly omits certain executive acts that other students of history would consider more consequential and includes some that they would quickly eliminate. If that is the case, my objective has been met.

Let the quibbling begin!

George Washington. Rarely, if ever, during the Revolutionary War did Commander in Chief George Washington hold a manpower advantage over his British foes. Yet within the peacetime of his presidency, he had cause to send an American army against a foe half the army's size. The enemy? American citizens of Pennsylvania.

In suppressing Pennsylvanians rebelling against a lawful act of Congress--an excise tax on whiskey--President Washington forcefully demonstrated that ours would be a national government where change in a law would come through peaceful means provided in the Constitution. Lawful acts would not be the object of violent organized rebellions.

With the decided advantage of being the first president, Washington had the opportunity (and thankfully the acumen.) to establish precedents that would influence America's future substantially. An action on the side of change through legal means very early in our history decidedly meets my definition of consequential.

John Adams. I turn now to John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson. And while this means I will have covered our first three presidents, let me assuage any anxieties--all forty-one presidents will not be covered. …