The Best One-Term Presidents

News / Politics

The Best One-Term Presidents

By: James Smith

With a Presidential election coming up, we’re gearing up for all the excitement by thinking about which past Presidents did certain things best and worst. So we came up with a new regular feature: the Presidential Superlatives. Today, we look at the four best one-term Presidents (four because they only served four years, get it?). In order from worst to the best:

4. John Quincy Adams
JQA was not as great a president as he was a diplomat, but, like his father, much of his poor reputation as a President has less to do with what he actually did than with the legacy of bitter obstructionism of his opponents. The younger Adams, however, was focused on many policies that would today be lauded: he paid down the national debt (reducing it by two-thirds), sought to protect Indian rights, and began an ambitious set of infrastructure projects.

3. John Adams
The elder Adams might deserve to be on the list simply by virtue of his historical importance as a Founding Father, first Vice President, and first defeated President to give up power willingly (in contrast to George Washington, who retired). Adams’s greatest virtue as President, however, was his willingness to sacrifice his political reputation for the good of the country: while much of the population, and his ultimate successor Thomas Jefferson, clamored for war with France during his term, Adams refused to bow to pressure and ultimately resolved the situation peacefully. He also continued Washington’s policies of strengthening the federal government, expanding the army and navy, and building up the American economy. The only black mark on his record was the signing of the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which gave the federal government arguably extra-constitutional power to deport and imprison citizens.

2. James Knox Polk
For some reason forgotten by American historians, Polk is almost certainly the greatest President elected to only one term, and may be among the five greatest American presidents of any term length. Elected in 1844, Polk promised to serve only one term, and true to his word he did not seek reelection in 1848. In those four years, however, he had a record of unblemished success: he annexed Texas, settled a territorial debate with Britain over the Oregon Territory, conquered California, reduced tariffs, and re-established the Independent Treasury, which survived until 1921. He achieved almost every goal he had in just four years.

1. Abraham Lincoln
Are we cheating by including a twice-elected top-two President in our list? We think it’s excusable given that Lincoln served just over a month of his second term -- leaving the Union to flounder under the "leadership" of Vice President Andrew Johnson. Nonetheless, no President was more important in less time than Lincoln, who was almost entirely responsible for staying the course in the Civil War and ultimately preserving the integrity of the Union, and whose assassination made the course of Reconstruction immeasurably harder for the administrations of Johnson and Grant.

[All pics via Wikimedia Commons. Top - US Government. John Quincy Adams - Southworth & Hawes. John Adams - Asher Brown Durand. James Polk - Mathew Brady. Abe Lincoln - Alexander Gardner.]

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