Generations Defining — and Redefining — American History

Americans naturally tend to think of their presidents in terms of generations, like they do with their families. This may have started with the news that former Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, half a century to the day the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence they jointly drafted.

The Founding Generation (birth years 1732-1767) held the presidency for nearly half a century, from 1789 to 1837. Five were adults during the American Revolution. Two had childhood memories of it: John Quincy Adams of watching the gunfire smoke from Bunker Hill at age 7, Andrew Jackson of being slashed by a British officer’s sword at age 14.

Within a month after Jackson left office, 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln gave his Springfield Lyceum speech, venerating the founders and warning of mob rule. He was part of the antebellum generation (birth years 1773-1809), which held office from 1837-69, grappled with the fissiparous issue of slavery expansion and, after a bloody civil war, abolished the “peculiar institution.”

The Civil War generation (birth years 1821-1843) all fought in that war, except Grover Cleveland paid $300 not to do so. Regarded by historians as undistinguished, these presidents presided over amazing

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