Abraham Lincoln and George Washington used to stare down at every school child from the walls of every grade-school classroom in America. Last time I checked, they weren’t as ubiquitous – and certainly not studied or hallowed as much.
They’ve even combined their birthdays into Monday’s bland “Presidents’ Day.” Once Feb. 12 was Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 22 was Washington’s, and everybody knew it. Probably not many schoolkids – or anybody else for that matter – could name those dates now.
It’s as if in our overly egalitarian modern-day mindset we decided that elevating great national leaders, even if it did involve cheesy “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down that cherry tree” mythology, is somehow elitist or worse. But we need those national icons, and these two should be right at the top.
An every five-year survey of presidential historians has consistently ranked Franklin D. Roosevelt as the greatest president and Washington and Lincoln right behind. This is based on a variety of characteristics, not least of which is the success they had in achieving their objectives.
Roosevelt belongs in the pantheon of the great presidents, no doubt. But above Washington and Lincoln?
Without George Washington, the American system as we know it today might not exist. That was due in part to the simple fact that he was the first president and didn’t mess it all up. But we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of setting the ship on a steady course and having the leadership characteristics to unite a still widely fragmented collection of largely independent states. Not to mention that Washington rejected the entreaties of some who wanted to make him a king and walked away after two terms.
Sixty years later, Lincoln held together the nation Washington had forged. Not without horrendously bloody division, of course, but without Honest Abe’s determination to preserve the Union – “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” – there would be no United States of America today. And Lincoln’s insistence that the nation couldn’t any longer tolerate the contradiction of its creeds and the people it held in bondage represented the greatest milestone in the long journey to make those creeds a living reality.
That these two men were the two most important presidents who must fundamentally shaped this nation seems self-evident, as Thomas Jefferson – another of the greats – described the truths on which the country was founded.
Franklin Roosevelt? He, too, came along at a critical time in the nation’s history. Conservatives see him as the original author of big government, and that is true as far as it goes. But I’d posit this: In an overarching sense, Roosevelt himself was a conservative in the most fundamental sense of the word. A very strong argument can be made that Roosevelt “conserved” capitalism in America.
How could this man, who railed against corporate greed and the wealthy “frozen in the ice of their own indifference,” and who led the institution of a regulatory structure never before seen in America, be the conservator of capitalism? Because the nation in the Depression was as close to a revolution as it ever had been since the Civil War or would be again. By softening the harsher elements of capitalism with things like wage and hour laws, Social Security and public works employment when private sector jobs were scarce, FDR may actually have saved our economic system from an all-out assault by popular demagogues who would have taken it who-knows-where.
And of course Roosevelt was in the process of dragging a reluctant nation into World War II when Pearl Harbor made it a done deal. That resulted in America’s post-war emergence as the world’s preeminent power.
So, yes, Roosevelt belongs near the top. But Washington and Lincoln deserve the highest rungs.
Tomorrow’s their day. Too bad they have to share it.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.