The first president of the United States was a military man. General George Washington not only led the Continental Army but as a young soldier fought in the French and Indian War for the British.
We get that much in elementary school.
What might be news is that most American presidents were in the military: 26 of the 44 men who have served as president also served their country in uniform in some capacity. (Because Grover Cleveland’s two terms were interrupted by the election of Benjamin Harrison, Cleveland is considered both the 22nd and 24th presidents, thus the number of men who were president always lags one behind the number of the presidency; Donald Trump, therefore, is the 44rd man to hold the office and the 45th president.)
With the death Friday of George H.W. Bush, the most recent American president who fought, this is a good moment to examine the link between the military and the Oval Office.
Washington might have set the precedent of serving two terms, but his military background certainly wasn't a model: he was followed by two decades of non-veterans. Washington left office in 1797, the next military man to be in the White House was in 1817, with the swearing in of James Monroe, who had dropped out of William and Mary College to fight in the American Revolution in 1775 and was wounded in the Battle of Harlem Heights (though James Madison, while not in the military, saw more combat than many who were, as we will see).
Military heroism helped a number of presidents win office. Andrew Jackson was of humble origins — he was the first president born in a log cabin —and gained fame by his victory against the British in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the war of 1812. William Henry Harrison was so linked to a particular battle that it could serve as his name — his 1840 campaign slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” refers to an 1811 battle against a confederation of Native Americans at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in Indiana.
Many presidents not generally remembered as soldiers in fact served — Abraham Lincoln was a captain in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. And sometimes “service” is a broad term — seven American presidents claimed to have fought during the Civil War, though that includes Andrew Johnson, who was military governor of Tennessee in 1862.
As the presidency is by definition a political position, the issue of exactly what kind of military service a president tendered becomes important. Seeing combat is the general measure of worth, but not always. Dwight Eisenhower, the first World War II vet elected president, graduated West Point in 1915 and was never under fire in his nearly 40-year military career, yet that was not held against the Supreme Allied Commander.
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