America Needs a History Lesson

Quick, now: who was the greatest president in the history of the United States?

When asked this question, nearly one-third of respondents in a new Gallup poll answered either Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. I suppose both of these guys had their good points, but there is no way you can make a strong case for either of them being the greatest president in our history.

Nor should we default to the stock answers of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt offered to us annually by surveys of professional historians, who are fascinated by wars and the “imperial presidency” which aggrandizes power to the federal government.

No, the only president for whom a compelling case can be made is our first president under the current Constitution: George Washington, the “American Cincinnatus.” Here is a man who not only played a critical role in getting the United States its independence in the first place, but who had an opportunity to become a king or dictator and turned it down.

Many of Washington’s officers urged him to seize control of the government at the close of the War of Independence. As a victorious general, his popularity was immense, and if he had the character of a Napoleon or–dare I say it–a George W. Bush or a Barack Obama, he probably would have succumbed to the temptation to become a benevolent dictator. However, Washington was never in it for personal gain. He refused these overtures and turned his authority back over to Congress in order to retire to private life at his home in Virginia.

Contemporaries dubbed him the “American Cincinnatus,” a classical reference that is meaningless to the intellectually impoverished landscape in which most 21st-century Americans reside. If you don’t know who Cincinnatus was, you can find out here.

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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16 Responses to America Needs a History Lesson

  1. worldtake says:

    I agree that our greatest president was clearly George Washington, but I disagree with your assertion that singles out W and Obama as presidents who would, if given the opportunity become dictators. However, in our history, there are at least a dozen others who would have jumped a the chance to fill the role of dictator. In my opinion W never really had the smarts to do this, but was never really in power. He was just a puppet of the neocons, like Cheney and Rove who controlled him — any one of those evil characters would have clearly jumped at any chance of being his Richelieu though.
    What about Reagan, who all republicans and conservatives of all stripes see increasingly through rose-colored glasses and as a great benevolent force. I remember him in a very different way, having been a protester of the illegal, immoral and stupid Viet Nam war in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when he said in his campaign running for governor of California something like: All protesters of the Viet Nam war, should be lined up against a wall and shot. That is a paraphrase, and although I can’t produce his exact words, I know he said it, becaus I didn’t read it. I heard it come out of his foul mouth.
    What about his involvement with McCarthyism? How he was able to continue with a political career after his support and participation in this blackest moment in American history, escapes me. I think this guy would have jumped for joy at the opportunity to be not only a dictator of this country, but of the world if the opportunity arose.

    • Dr. J says:

      Every president since at least JFK, and perhaps since FDR, has been a promoter of questionable foreign policy, and if you want to disqualify Reagan on the basis of his support of the Vietnam War, you’d have to disqualify just about every other postwar president on similar grounds. That might not be a bad thing . . . just be consistent.

      I’m surprised you think McCarthyism was the “blackest moment” in American history. I can think of many other episodes that would be a better candidate for that designation.

  2. Caleb says:

    Calvin Coolidge

  3. Doc,

    Given your very point in this post, what do you think GW would have made of a holiday designed to honor him and other chief executives? We could also have a longer discussion about the merits of a holiday that celebrates good and awful presidents equally. I know everyone thinks of Washington and Lincoln (and sometimes Reagan because of his birthday) on Presidents Day, but technically, the day honors all of them, doesn’t it? I have tough time honoring the likes of Andrew Jackson, the Battle of New Orleans aside.

    • Dr. J says:

      GW liked pageantry, and I’m sure he’d enthusiastically support the celebration of things like July 4, but you’re right to raise this question. I think he’d view Presidents Day as a bit unhealthy.

  4. Preston says:

    I think the problem is two-fold. There is certainly a problem with the lack of historical knowledge in the nation, but I think that another reason for these poll results is kitsch, in the sense Milan Kundera uses it. These two presidents are rallying points for those who shout slogans. Never mind that Reagan had a difficult time balancing the budget, conservatives will continue to laud him as a hero. Never mind his questionable foreign policy, he is a kitschy figure behind which the conservative movement has rallied. Clinton is not as much of a rallying point for the liberals, but among the younger generation in this country, most people would wish to return to the economy of the Clinton years.

  5. worldtake says:

    I say not JFK, but Roosevelt, particularly since Eisenhower when the cold war really started to ramp up. Our national fear spurred by anti-communist mavens shaped the world we have today and Raygun was the ultimate cold warrior from his beginnings of the movement with his support of McCarthy and his disgusting thugs, to his buildup of our military that forced the Soviets to fall apart — I maintain that the ethically and morally bankrupt communist systems around the world, would have collapsed on their own long before, were it not for the rallying point of having our missiles aimed at them. I will concede your point though and downgrade McCarthyism to one of the blackest periods of American history, behind slavery, extermination of Native Americans as government policy, our part in the creation of Hitler by signing the Treaty of Versailles and an endless list of other black spots.
    I’d like to point out that the ramping up of the cold war during the Eisenhower administration was based on the lie given to the American people that the Soviet Union was much more militarily advanced than they were. It is now public record that the U2 Spy planes had reported this covert information to only a few in our government along with the president and the rest of the country was unaware of the fact that the Soviets were, at least at that time, no threat to us. Of course with our buildup, then they built up and on and on and since we had more money for dangerous military toys, we won. We won this?

  6. Preston says:

    And thank you for adding the words “under the current constitution.” Which would more Americans know, the story of Cincinnatus or that there were presidents before Washington?

  7. Pingback: Are We Naturally Savage Jerks? | The Western Tradition

  8. worldtake says:

    Yes I would agree that the Civil war, based on the the numbers dead, was our worst (I would rather not use the term blackest — you figure out why) historical moment. But what brought that on? The south insisted that they actually had the right to own human beings and many, as evidenced by the tone of the celebrations in the south commemorating the civil war, still think that it would be good if they could have continued to be slave owners even until today. So do you consider this time to be so “dark” because of the dead, or because you lost your right to own people?

    • Dr. J says:

      Ross, I thought the above comment made it clear that the death toll is what made it so horrible. I have no idea what I ever could have posted on this site to give you any legitimate reason to think that I’m unhappy that I can’t go out to buy a slave today.

      I think we’ll have much more fruitful exchanges even while disagreeing if you respond to things I’ve actually written instead of projecting caricatures onto me. How about tolerating a little diversity?

  9. How about Grover Cleveland? Reading his writings is like reading Menger or a classical economist. He just doesn’t sound like a politician, which I think is fantastic. In addition, he held onto his economic beliefs despite the changing times, especially in his own party with William Jennings Bryan ready to turn the Democrats on their head.

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