The following article was written by our Commander for our recent Americanism Night. The content is his personal opinion and not Post policy, but is presented for your information.
Americanism means the virtues of courage, honor, justice, truth, sincerity, and hardihood—the virstures that made America. The things that will destroy America are
prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft-living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.
--- Theodore Roosevelt
Each February American Legion posts throughout the country celebrate Americanism. My topic this year is great American presidents.
Any examination of the greatest American presidents to hold office is–by definition–unavoidably colored by an individual’s political leanings and opinion. For example, while most historian and popular polls among ordinary Americans cite our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, as the greatest executive to ever occupy the White House, in twenty first century America there are still stubborn detractors who consider Lincoln to be a tyrannical usurper of individual liberty, a terrorist who laid waste to the mid-nineteenth century South. These Americans believe Lincoln got what was coming to him at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Those opinions aside, liberal and conservative historians generally agree that the top five U.S. presidents include Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt, not in any particular order except for Lincoln, who is touted as the greatest of the great.
We know Abraham Lincoln as a self-made man who came from the humblest of origins. Weeks after assuming office he confronted a crisis no other president, including FDR, would ever face: a terrible civil war that would eventually claim over 600,000 American lives in the course of eradicating slavery while strengthening the power of the federal government. Lincoln’s brilliant Second Inaugural Address and his remarks at Gettysburg, his courageous leadership, great humor, and storied wisdom are captured in hundreds of modern books about Lincoln, including Doris Goodwin Kearns’ TEAM OF RIVALS. Some argue that Lincoln’s martyrdom artificially elevated his standing in history, not unlike John F. Kennedy‘s reputation, but I would argue Lincoln’s achievements withstand all close scrutiny. He is undoubtedly America’s single greatest president.
George Washington was the product of a Virginia planter family, a man who eventually married into a substantial money (Martha Custis) and through various land deals and exploitation of his vast holdings of slaves, died a wealthy man. Early in his adult life Washington sought a military commission in the British army while fighting in the French and Indian War in the 1760s. Denied his commission after numerous attempts because he was not a British subject of means (money), Washington eventually led a rag-tag group of determined American patriots to victory over a much larger and better-equipped British army and navy, famously escaping near annihilation at the Battle of Brooklyn and withstanding a cruel winter at Valley Forge, before eventually defeating his rival Lord Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown. A consummate politician both as a military general and as our first president, in his day Washington was universally celebrated as a courageous, honorable, and virtuous military leader and civilian president. He worked hard at sustaining a public image of himself as righteous, proud, capable. Washington embodied some of Theodore Roosevelt’s concepts of Americanism in his writings about characteristics of good military officers a hundred years before Roosevelt’s presidency. Perhaps Washington’s single greatest contribution to American history was his willingness to step down at the end of his second term and quietly return to Mount Vernon as a civilian, an action not widely appreciated by Americans today. Washington would not serve as America’s first king.
At the time of his death Thomas Jefferson asked that his three proudest accomplishments be listed on his gravestone: author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and third president of the United States of America. But Jefferson more likely cracks the top five list because he oversaw the doubling of the size of America in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase, spending pennies per acre to buy millions of acres of land from Napoleon Bonaparte, in one of the greatest single real estate deals of all times. As president, Jefferson spent much of his time undoing the work of his predecessors, Washington and John Adams. His vision of America was that of a pastoral, agricultural republic with a weak federal government and strong state jurisdiction. Jefferson sought to substantially weaken the U.S. Constitution although while president he put the power of his office to good use in a number of ways. I believe he may be ranked unjustifiably high among other presidents, in spite of his central role in the founding of America.
For a man of his wealth and standing in high society, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had an extraordinary amount of empathy for the very poor in America. Through his sunny optimism, his deep sense of justice for the everyday American, and his skill in strong-arming reluctant members of Congress to pass the New Deal and by doing so lift millions of his downtrodden countrymen out of the depths of despair, FDR ranks as of one America‘s greatest all-time executives. During FDR’s four terms, the number of farmhouses in America that became electrified were more than doubled, thanks to controversial projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) damns. FDR was not what most would consider a sincere person, instead a master manipulator of the legislative process and the people who served him and America. Roosevelt’s Americanism comes to light via his strong leadership at a time when the entire world depended on the American arsenal of democracy to save them from totalitarianism. Of key importance was Roosevelt’s incredible ability at talking to everyday Americans through his Fireside Chats, convincing them that the wartime sacrifices they were making were worth the effort. He showed great physical courage in not letting his paralysis deter him from becoming one of the very best presidents during his four long terms in office.
Theodore Roosevelt is still celebrated today as the prototypical American president and his stature among many historians is growing, still. He served at a time when the average American needed a politically-powerful advocate to go up against the monied interests of the Gilded Age. A true war hero who was not afraid to expose himself to danger in battle, or on safaris in Africa, or in blizzards in South Dakota, Theodore Roosevelt’s vigor embodied the Americanism principles he himself identified: honor, courage, justice, and hardihood. Like his nephew FDR, Theodore Roosevelt was viewed as a traitor to his class by his rich peers. But both Roosevelts possessed the vision and leadership skills to usher America through very difficult times. They put their high socio-economic standing in American society to great use for the betterment of their country. They were natural-born leaders.
In recent years, three other presidents are sometimes mentioned among the second-tier greatest presidents: Reagan, Jackson, and Truman. Among these three, I would select Harry Truman as deserving the single highest accolades, but that is a story for another time. Jackson, the first populist American president, is not deserving of this high rank because of his genocidal actions against Native Americans in the Trail of Tears incident. Reagan’s standing will likely continue to rise among many Americans, not all, because he was at the helm when the Cold War ended.
While there was international conflict during each of these five presidents’ terms of office, not all top-five five presidents are great because they were in office while America was at war. We recognize their greatness because all of them elevated America to its next stage in history, leaving the country stronger and ready for its next chapter. This is the essence of leadership, as seen through the lens of Americanism: witnessing change and having the ability, the courage, and foresight to guide this great country through rough waters to arrive safely on the other side, stronger than before.
Time and again these leaders were able to sustain our American tradition of greatness.