Happy Presidents’ Day!
The Federal Holiday celebrated today is technically, under federal law, the celebration of Washington’s Birthday although it has more recently (with most states eliminating the Lincoln’s Birthday holiday) become an all-inclusive day. 43 individuals have held the office of President of the United States. Barack Obama (D) is the 44th president, the numerical discrepancy because of Grover Cleveland’s (D) non-consecutive terms as 22nd and 24th president. All 43, good and bad, successful and unsuccessful, are deserving of our attention today as people who held the highest office in the land.
One of the big Presidents’ Day stories making the media rounds today is the C-SPAN survey of 65 historians ranking the 42 Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush (R). Perhaps un-surprisingly, Abraham Lincoln (R) ranks as the ‘best’ president for leading us through the Civil War and preserving the union, while his immediate predecessor, James Buchanan (D) ranks as the ‘worst’ for standing by and letting the Civil War happen.
While the 65 historians have generally hit the nail on the head, or at least fairly close to it, I respectfully disagree with some of their conclusions. For example, Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) deserves a much lower ranking than his #3 position, as his well-intentioned but misguided efforts merely prolonged one of the darkest economic times in our history. George W. Bush (R) also gets low-balled at #36, the seventh worst, when he probably deserves something in the twenties for his post-9/11 leadership (and would have deserved better had he not spent his last couple of months in office trying to re-create FDR’s walk to Socialism). His rankings will improve with time.
My biggest disagreement, however, is with the #1 and #2 positions. To rank Lincoln ahead of Washington is pure blasphemy.
I mean this as no slight to Lincoln; Washington was such a great leader that it would be extremely difficult for any President—past, present, or future—to approach him. When he led this country, the idea of somebody stepping down willingly from an office like the Presidency was unheard of. King George of England quipped, upon Washington’s voluntary retirement, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
In fact, many wished to crown Washington as King after his success as General of the revolutionary army. Every such effort was rebuffed by Washington, a true believer in limited, democratic government.
Consider that everything Washington did as president was without precedent. The office had not existed before he held it. He established the ephemeral traditions of the office that were not captured by the Constitution. It was Washington who established that the office of president was unique in the world, and that the president would not be treated like a mere legislator nor would he be treated like a King. It was something new. He was a head of state, like a King, but unlike a King his time there was temporary and he answered directly to the people, not to himself.
Aside from the ins-and-outs of the office of president, Washington was instrumental in every step of the foundation and establishment of this country. Without him, there likely would not be a United States of America. A more power-hungry leader might have established himself as King and led to new tyranny. A less capable leader might have failed to establish the stable Democratic government that had proven so elusive for centuries previous. Without Washington, there likely wouldn’t have been a union for Lincoln to defend seventy years later.
Who was the greatest President? There is no doubt. George Washington.