Abraham Lincoln has been named the best president in American history in a very unofficial, very unscientific survey of a handful of local high school and college social studies teachers.
“In large part because of his devotion to democracy,” says Rob Shapiro, adjunct professor of political philosophy at Saint Xavier University on Chicago’s southwest side. “Although a man of enormous intelligence, a natural genius, he never viewed his intellectual power or other abilities as a reason to lord it over others. One of his greatest sayings was ‘(a)s I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.’ He understood the vital principle, so lacking in our own day, that no matter how great your intelligence, or your other talents, no one is ‘better’ than anyone else in our society or has the right to tell others what to do.”
Even though Lincoln was given the opportunity during the nation’s greatest crisis to rule as a tyrant, Shapiro said, “He (like George Washington) declined, refusing to act beyond the powers he understood the Constitution to have granted him as President.”
In honor of Presidents Day , I asked history and government experts to sound off on which past U.S. commanders in chief deserve to be feted on this holiday, which ones are underrated and which ones should, well, be relegated to the hall of shame.
The scholars didn’t focused their analysis on contemporary presidents such as Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. They all agreed that Lincoln has been our nation’s greatest leader.
With history and scholarship as their guide, all began by agreeing that Lincoln has been our nation’s greatest leader.
The father of Josh Fulton, associate professor of history at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, grew up in Petersburg, IL, which is right next door to New Salem, where Lincoln lived for a short time.
Fulton said not only was his dad’s hometown surveyed by Lincoln, the nation’s 16th president’s “sense of humility in a time of conflict was stressed upon me at a young age.”
John Wydra, who teaches at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, said, “Not only did (Lincoln) save the Union, his leadership helped bridge the gap between the ‘All Men are Created Equal’ in the Declaration of Independence and its absence in the Constitution by helping add the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, which respectively abolished slavery, created equal protection under the law for all people, and allowed men of all races to vote.”
Lincoln’s personal story is remarkable as well, Wydra said.
“He was born in a log cabin in rural Kentucky, lost his mother at a young age, had less than a year of formal education, served in the Black Hawk War, taught himself law and became a successful lawyer in Illinois, got elected to the state legislature and the U.S. Congress, helped form the Republican Party and then became president, while suffering from depression and the loss of two of his own children,” Wydra said.
OK, other than Lincoln or even Washington, which president had the greatest impact on this nation?
“Unquestionably, FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt),” Shapiro said. “The New Deal, not always by design or always for the better, transformed the character of American government and society. Also, no one understood or used better mass media (in his case, radio), setting a model that is still imitated.”
Rebecca Houston, who teaches social studies at Mother McAuley High School in Mount Greenwood, also chose FDR.
“For utilizing the power of the government to alleviate human misery and for implementing policies to provide basic security for the most vulnerable Americans and for steady leadership during times of major national crisis — the Great Depression and World War II,” she said.
Other presidents who deserve to be celebrated more than they typically are include Harry Truman, who, Fulton said, accomplished a great deal even though he was rather polarizing in his day.
Houston also offered praise for Truman, who, she said, single-handedly integrated the armed forces of the United States and proposed, long before it was politically feasible, comprehensive Civil Rights legislation and national health care.
Wydra said Lyndon B. Johnson doesn’t get enough credit, either.
“He was thrown into the world’s toughest job in the middle of a tragedy. His ‘Great Society’ created Medicare and Medicaid which was an attempt to help the chronically poor in rural and urban America and are still incredibly important programs today. He also signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts into law,” Wydra said. “He did handle Vietnam poorly but I feel like he inherited a very difficult situation that he made worse.”
In addition, Shapiro said, other presidents that deserve a “Huzzah” include Ulysses S. Grant, who is faulted frequently for the scandals he seemed to be unaware of around him in his administration. “He actually handled the vast problems of Reconstruction better than he is given credit for,” Shapiro said. A runner-up to that, he added, “(Dwight D.) Eisenhower who understood that patience and calm were necessary in the face of the challenge of the Cold War and navigated its problems better than is usually believed.”
Let’s move on to most damaging.
Houston said Andrew Johnson, who was impeached by the House in 1868, “because he squandered the opportunity that Reconstruction offered.”
Fulton said, “In the modern age, (Richard) Nixon’s actions created an apathy in our national politics we still deal with today. Other presidents have committed actions or supported legislation we may not find acceptable and would be considered destructive by the public today. For example: Washington and (Thomas) Jefferson owned slaves, and (Woodrow) Wilson supported a social vision that prized whiteness. President Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ is a large portion of how Americans engage with their government today, but his commitments to the war in Vietnam caused a significant rift in American society.”
Some of the teachers said that, of all the U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy is the most “overrated.”
“His foreign policies proved to be problematic, from the Bay of Pigs to support for the Diem regime in Vietnam,” Houston said. “The most significant legislative triumphs (Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act) were accomplished after his death by Lyndon Johnson.”