It has been less than a month since Donald J. Trump was inaugurated 45th President of the United States of America. After a shocking and combative presidential contest, many assumed that the business tycoon would calm down once he was in the White House. However, this has not been the case. So is he the most controversial president in U.S. history?
Richard Nixon is perhaps the most well-known recent example of a divisive president. Inaugurated in 1969 and re-elected four years later, his presidency fell apart, mired in controversy. The Democratic Party’s office in Watergate had been broken into during the 1972 election campaign, and after months of investigations, it transpired that Nixon had been informed about the break-in (by Republicans) and that he had been involved in a complex cover-up. The American people were shocked to their core. Would their president really lie to them? Impeachment proceedings began, but Nixon resigned. It was a sad end to a President who had shown genuine promise as a strong international statesman. He left America a fragile nation; the people felt genuinely shocked and betrayed by their president. The use of ‘-gate’ to depict any sort of scandal even forty years later shows the impact this event had.
Bill Clinton’s tawdry love life resulted in the next big scandal for the American presidency. As with Nixon, it was not so much the what he did, but the cover-up (his insistence that he “did not have relations with that woman”). How could Clinton lie so decisively? Although impeachment proceedings never materialised, Clinton’s image was tarnished (Indeed, this besmirching of the Clinton name is considered to have played a part in President Trump’s electoral success).
During last year’s depressing election campaign, some commentators noted that Trump would perhaps become a modern-day Andrew Jackson. Born in the west to immigrant Irish parents, Jackson famously rose from “log cabin to White House”, becoming president in 1829. He was larger than life and said to have had a fierce temper. The East Coast establishment were nervous about him, but he vowed to change the way politics was done. Remind you of anyone? In fact, the lawyer turned Major General did change a great deal in Washington. He increased the role of the presidency and reorganised the American banking system. He remains a deeply controversial figure in American history today.
Finally, if we are considering controversial presidents our attention should turn to Abraham Lincoln. Elected in 1860, he promised to bring about revolutionary change. He condemned slavery and called for increased democracy. Whilst we look back now and see a moral leader, many at the time were horrified by his actions. Indeed, eleven states tried to leave the Union because of him, sparking the American Civil War.
So, is Donald Trump the most controversial president in U.S. history? Time will tell. History has rightly been very kind to Lincoln. Clinton’s and Nixon’s transgressions, whilst unwise, do not seem particularly shocking with our twenty-first century cynical hindsight. Jackson was certainly a fierce-tempered president popular with the masses and loathed by the establishment. We wait, nervously, to see how Trump measures up.
I am currently working for a Pupil Referral Unit in the south, having previously taught in comprehensives in Oxford and London. My particular interests are History and (English) Literature, but as a mum of two small boys I am also increasingly interested in debates surrounding primary education in general and parenting in particular.