When John Adams followed George Washington as president of the United States, he had remarkable shoes to fill; the general’s vision of the office shaped it to such a degree that Adams seemed like a poor fit. The precedent of personality even over policy fueled expectations from the citizens and leaders alike. Adams withdrew rather than reinterpret the position for himself, and this caused many of the problems and frustrations of his term in office. His achievements paled in comparison to his failure to be another Washington.
Thomas Jefferson’s presidency was like another first. He reformed the office in his own image and reaped great disappointments and even greater successes. Paradoxically, Jefferson behaved less as monarch than as everyman, and yet he wielded more power in his administration than Washington even imagined. Jefferson’s successor seemed doomed to the same cycle Adams had faced. James Madison could not be Thomas Jefferson.
The second and fourth presidents did share similarities. Both highly admired the men they replaced as chief executive. Both were smaller men in stature and force of personality than the presidents they followed. Both had perhaps intellectually meatier, though certainly less glamorous, lives in public service than the men who preceded them. Both inherited cabinet members and agendas from their predecessors. Unlike Adams, however, Madison had never been called a fiery orator or a rousing leader. The diminutive, scholarly Madison rose to the foreground when forced, but preferred to contribute from behind the scenes through writ-