Michael Bradley, Executive Editor
Daniel Day-Lewis recently brought Abraham Lincoln to life in his Academy Award-winning performance as the title character in Lincoln. In light of the success of the biographical film and Lincoln’s recent birthday, the Rover approached two history professors with the question: Was Lincoln the greatest American president?
Yes: Lincoln embodies American dream
Nearly 150 years after his assassination, Abraham Lincoln remains this nation’s greatest president. While his nearest rival George Washington played a fundamental role in creating the American Union, it fell to Lincoln not only to save it, but also, as he declared, “to make it, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.” Though Lincoln stressed that his politics represented simply a continuation of the founders’ principles, as president he went beyond restoring republican principles and embraced a “new birth of freedom” for the nation. Confronting and eradicating the scourge of slavery, a challenge his idols Washington and Jefferson deliberately avoided, Lincoln simultaneously preserved the American republic and made it worth preserving. Those twin achievements catapult him to the top of our list of greatest presidents.
Today Lincoln remains an enduring embodiment of the American dream because his life reads as the great American success story. Born poorer than any other president, Lincoln grew up the son of a failing farmer, received less than a full year of formal education, and faced adulthood with only a desire to improve himself. Through determination and an unquenchable thirst for distinction, he ascended to the presidency, but he understood his success as a consequence of the opportunities available to all free men in the United States. To Lincoln, the quintessential American was, like him, the “prudent, penniless beginner in the world, [who] labors for wages awhile … then labors on his account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” Lincoln’s vision of an economy fostering upward mobility still rings true for Americans today, however wide the gulf separating individual aspiration from economic reality. In other words, Americans continue to identify with our sixteenth president because his biography remains a compelling illustration of one of our nation’s noblest dreams—the opportunity to rise.
Of course, Lincoln’s legacy as our greatest leader rests more on his policies as president during the republic’s greatest crisis. Yet the very decisions he made as commander-in-chief were fundamentally rooted in his vision of the United States as a unique beacon of opportunity in an unfree world. To him, the fight to stop the spread of slavery in order to bring about its ultimate destruction was at heart an attempt to preserve and expand the free labor economy, what he called “the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all—gives hopes to all … and improvement of condition to all.” To Lincoln, the Civil War represented nothing less than the great battle to sustain that vision.
And by “all,” it must be said, Lincoln included African Americans. While not an abolitionist, nor at any point in his career an advocate for full racial equality, Lincoln still believed that all Americans were entitled to the foundational rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even though he shared with most white Americans a belief in black inferiority, he still argued forcefully for a fundamental economic equality for every individual. To Lincoln, even the poorest black woman possessed a “natural right to eat the bread she earns with her own hands without asking leave of anyone else … she is my equal, and the equal of others.” The Declaration, Lincoln concluded, “set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all … constantly labored for … and thereby constantly spreading … augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
It was these core ideals that prompted Lincoln to run for president in 1860; to reject steps that might avoid war but would permit slavery’s extension; to issue the Emancipation Proclamation; to accept black men as soldiers in the Union army, and to recognize their services as critical to victory; to push for the Thirteenth Amendment; and to demand the unconditional surrender of the Confederacy.
On the one hand, it is important to see Lincoln in context, not single-handedly bringing about emancipation. After all, it took unceasing agitation from abolitionists, white and black, in and out of Congress, as well as the courageous actions of countless slaves, to undermine slavery on the ground and create the conditions for Lincoln’s action. On the other hand, it’s equally important to appreciate Lincoln’s firm antislavery convictions and faith in the Declaration’s core principles.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Lincoln’s perpetual popularity, like John F. Kennedy’s, is largely rooted in his martyrdom, and that he died before having to deal with the messy matter of reconstructing the nation. Even Lincoln’s great skills as politician and president, this thinking suggests, would have proved no match for intractable post-bellum problems. But I would argue otherwise: Had Lincoln lived to preside over Reconstruction, it’s tempting to wonder whether this country’s long struggle to achieve racial equality might have played out totally differently. I realize the risk here is to exaggerate Lincoln as an advocate of racial equality, while in fact at the time of his death he was not yet ready to promote black suffrage. I engage the counterfactual because Lincoln’s successor, the hapless and self-destructive Andrew Johnson, was unequivocally this nation’s worst president. Clearly Lincoln, our greatest, would have done better, however daunting the challenges.
Daniel Graff is the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the History Department.
No: the greatness of George Washington
George Washington’s greatness lies both in what he did and in what he was. A member of the Virginia militia in the 1750s, he defended the colonies against the French in the Seven Years War, he was a moderate in the Virginia House of Burgesses and was opposed to the Boston Tea Party in 1773, he was elected to the First and Second Continental Congresses and was Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in its victory over England in the War of Independence. Elected to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was chosen to preside over its deliberations and, respected for his dedication, administrative abilities and common sense, was elected the nation’s first president.
The colonists had declared their independence in part because they thought King George had exercised excessive and oppressive powers over them, and, to insure that this would not happen again, they experimented with a government with no executive at all under the Articles of Confederation. But in the Constitution of 1787 they provided for one of the strongest executives in the world, uniting the head of government and the Chief of State in the same office because they knew that the first person to hold that office would be the widely respected and trusted George Washington.
Washington had no precedents to follow when he assumed office but the precedents he set shaped the presidency for the next 225 years. Although some advisers preferred more elaborate and royal-sounding titles such as “His Majesty, the President” or “President of the United States and Defender of the Liberties of the Same,” Washington decided on the simple “The President of the United States.” On taking the oath of office, he spontaneously added the words “So Help Me God,” and all presidents since have followed. Although not mentioned in the Constitution, Washington decided to deliver an Inaugural Address, setting the precedent for all presidents after him. The Constitution provided for heads of individual executive departments but Washington decided to convene them periodically as a group, and the presidential cabinet was formed. Many at the time presumed that the Chief Justice of the United States would be the senior member of the Court, but Washington set the precedent of appointing the Chief Justice even from outside the court.
Although numerous federal officials can be appointed only with the consent of the senate, Washington dismissed them without asking senate approval, and that practice continues. According to the Constitution, treaties need the advice and consent of the senate also, but when the senate refused to discuss a proposed Native American treaty in his presence, Washington never sought their advice again—only their consent after it was signed, setting another precedent. Washington established the right of executive privilege when he refused to share with congress documentation concerning John Jay’s treaty with England. He voluntarily retired from office after two terms, and this two-term tradition continued until Franklin Roosevelt accepted a third term in 1940 as World War II erupted in Europe and the Pacific. And Washington opposed the formation of political parties—“factions” he called them—and at times they can seem a hindrance to the effective passing of legislation.
At the Potsdam Summit Conference attended by Harry Truman of the United States, Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union in 1945, President Truman, although in office only three months following the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt, was given the honor of presiding at the first session because, as both head of government and Chief of State, the American presidency outranked the other two. A recent historian has reflected that “the Constitution made a powerful executive possible, but it did not mandate one.” The American presidency is what it is today in large part because of George Washington, because of the trust and respect he enjoyed and because of the precedents he set—both because of what he did and because of what he was.
Rev. Thomas E. Blantz, CSC, is a professor emeritus in the history department.