Skip to main content

The Man On Horseback

April 2024
2min read

War heroes have often made good presidential candidates. Sometimes they have even made good Presidents

The eagle on the great seal of the United States holds both an olive branch and a rather uglylooking bunch of arrows—but the eagle’s head is turned toward the symbol of peace. This is fair enough: everything considered, our history warrants our reputation as a peace-loving nation. Yet ten of the thirty-six men we have chosen to be Chief Executive have been generals.∗

∗Washington, Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Eisenhower.

The proportion is surprising, especially when it is remembered that a genuine strain of antimilitarism runs deep in the American past. The Declaration of Independence complained against George III that “he has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.—He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power”; and the framers of the Constitution saw to it that there would be no more of that.

An ingrained suspicion of the military seems to be inseparable from the texture of democracy. The heart of our system, after all, is government by consent of the governed—a poor way to run an army. Washington, struggling to weld an officer corps out of a hodgepodge of militiamen, was painfully irritated by the democratic custom in some states of letting the soldiers elect their officers. Yet it was also Washington who said, at the very beginning of his Revolutionary generalship, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” Throughout the long, exasperating years of the war, he meticulously consulted the Continental Congress on major decisions whenever that was possible. By the time victory came at Yorktown he had proved himself beyond any doubt the very model of a citizen-general, and he was the unanimous choice to be our first President.

The concept of the citizen-soldier, in fact, does much to explain the paradox of our antimilitarism and our frequent preference for military heroes in the presidential mansion. Americans usually go to war reluctantly; but once committed, everyone is expected to pitch in—to win. Afterward, the men who most spectacularly led their fellow citi/ens in battle have been enthusiastically honored, and often the enthusiasm has been enough to overwhelm fears of “the military mind” and carry a war hero into the White House. The rank of general, of course, has not been an absolute prerequisite—witness Teddy Roosevelt. It is more significant that of those ten Presidents who were generals, only two (Grant and Eisenhower) were West Pointers, and only one other (Taylor) was a peacetime professional soldier.

The essence of a war hero’s appeal is that he has risked his life in devotion to the whole nation. It is an appeal that goes beyond party, and thus is peculiarly suited to the Presidency, which (despite the fierce party clash on Election Day) is an office supremely representative of the needs and aspirations of the entire people. Both major parties have been sharply aware of this, and both have offered military heroes as candidates whenever they were, as the pregnant expression goes, “available.”

The following portfolio exhibits six eminent presidential heroes after Washington—and the fields on which they earned their glory.

—E. M. Halliday


We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.