Commander in Chief | Chief Executive | Chief Diplomat | Ceremonial Head of State | Manager of the Economy | Party Leader | National Leader

Banner celebrating Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 victory and the end of prohibition

The authors of the Constitution envisioned a president above partisan politics. In George Washington, they chose an individual who scorned political parties, calling them "potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government."

They hoped that Washington's successors would emulate his example. They were wrong. The system they created encouraged, if not demanded, a rise of political parties to articulate and broker differences, and required successful presidents to be effective party leaders. For political parties, the presidency is the highest prize. There are coattails to ride into office, and there is patronage to dispense to the "boys."



 Ronald Reagan campaign button, 1984
Several presidents attained office by building political parties or reshaping existing ones. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison organized the Democratic-Republican Party in the 1790s to counter the Federalist Party of John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Andrew Jackson created the new Democratic Party in the 1820s and won the presidency in 1828 by consolidating the remnants of the Democratic-Republican Party and attracting first-time voters. Others, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, reshaped their parties' structures, establishing coalitions and bringing in new supporters.
 Cast of Abraham Lincoln's hands
Abraham Lincoln first ran for office at the age of twenty-three and spent his life as a political activist and strategist. His skillful touch rallied Republican leaders to the cause of preserving the Union.

Leonard Volk took these original casts of Lincoln's hands on May 20, 1860, two days after the Republican Party nominated the former Illinois congressman as its presidential candidate. Lincoln's right hand was still swollen from shaking hands with congratulating supporters. Volk wanted the right hand to be grasping an object, so Lincoln went out to his woodshed and cut a piece from a broom handle, which is preserved in the artist's cast.

From the earliest elections, political parties and local candidates have recognized the importance of linking their campaigns to the head of the party's ticket. This has given the presidential candidates tremendous power to shape their party's agenda and serve as its spokesman.

 Invitation to a dinner honoring President Clinton
Presidents play an important role in strengthening their parties by hosting special events for loyal members and likely prospects. Such functions like this are typical ways for chief executives to use their valuable time to maintain enthusiastic support for their political parties.

Though many criticize the influence of money in politics, presidents are increasingly, and more openly, engaged in fund-raising in their role as party leader. At this 2000 gala honoring William J. Clinton, a record $26.5 million was contributed to the Democratic Party.

Pundits often say that money is the mother's milk of politics. This is only partly true. The distribution of appointments and favors is one of the most important weapons in a president's arsenal for strengthening a party and building support for an administration. Even though various civil-service reform acts have greatly reduced the number of presidential appointments, there are still plenty of rewards to pass out to loyal supporters or to be withheld as punishment for political disloyalty.


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National Museum of American History