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02-20-06, 07:51 AM
America’s Greatest Presidents
February 20th, 2006
Steven M. Warshawsky

Today is “President’s Day.” A holiday originally intended to honor George Washington (and in some states Abraham Lincoln), President’s Day has degenerated into just another day off for government employees and an excuse for large retailers to hold sales.

More destructive to our national consciousness, it has become a day that purports to “celebrate” all presidents equally, the dismal failures along with the towering giants. Perhaps this is why hardly any celebration occurs at all. This is a shame, because the truly great men who have led this nation throughout our history deserve the American people’s most heartfelt thanks for a job well done.

There have been several presidents who have earned the appellation “great” for the leadership and vision they demonstrated during their service in the White House, including Thomas Jefferson, James K. Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and George W. Bush (still a work in progress). Today, however, we must honor three presidents above all others: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan. Each of these men led the United States through a period of deep national crisis, and each time the nation emerged stronger, freer, and more committed to its founding ideals.

George Washington (1789-1797)

George Washington not only is America’s greatest president, he is the single most important person in American history, and one of the most important persons who ever lived. (See this.) Washington was the central figure in both the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention (without Washington’s support, the Convention never would have succeeded), but today we honor President Washington for his brilliant and indispensable leadership during the crucial early years of the American Republic.

Washington understood that, as the nation’s first president (the only president to be elected by the unanimous vote of the Electoral College), he had been entrusted to set the course for the future growth and success of the infant nation. During his eight years in office, Washington deftly steered clear of the many dangers then threatening the country.

Washington reduced the danger of sectionalism by making several goodwill tours throughout the country and appointing to his cabinet leading politicians from both North and South and both Federalist and Anti-Federalist factions. He secured the nation’s borders, as well as access to the Spanish-controlled port at New Orleans (vital to westward expansion), with necessary, albeit unpopular, treaties with England and Spain. And he prudently avoided being drawn into the great power struggle between England and France, a policy that was unpopular among both pro-British and pro-French crowds in America, but essential to allowing the United States time to recover from the Revolutionary War and gather her strength for the great nation-building tasks ahead.

Equally important, Washington asserted the constitutional authority of the new federal government to “insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, [and] promote the general Welfare.” Without a strong central government – the very impetus behind the Constitutional Convention – no American nation would have been possible.

One of the most significant, but frequently overlooked, events during Washington’s presidency was the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.Essentially, the Whiskey Rebellion was an uprising by settlers in western Pennsylvania who opposed a liquor tax passed by Congress. To quell the rebellion, Washington, acting pursuant to federal law, called up a militia force of 13,000 men, whom he personally led into the troubled area. The rebellion was suppressed with nary a shot. Instead of being punitive or vindictive – which would have embittered the settlers, and other Americans, towards the new central government – Washington offered amnesty to rebels who dispersed peaceably and pardoned rebel leaders who were convicted of treason.

Washington’s handling of the Whiskey Rebellion is a case study in the exercise of firm yet magnanimous authority by a leader who was prepared to risk his own reputation in the service of the greater good.

Last but not least, Washington deserves enormous credit for ensuring the success of democracy in America, by rejecting calls to make him king and refusing to serve more than two terms as president. How many persons, then or now, would voluntarily relinquish power in this manner? I dare say very few. These were the acts of a profoundly noble and patriotic man, whose love of country and belief in the principles of the American Revolution were the driving forces in his life.

Washington may not have been a thinker on par with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, but his character, judgment, and patriotism were unparalleled. After his death in 1799, Washington was famously eulogized by Congress: “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”


Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

The next president we honor today is Abraham Lincoln, for his steadfast leadership during the nation’s darkest crisis, the Civil War. While many admire President Lincoln for his glorious prose and Hamlet-like sensitivity, it was Lincoln’s single-minded dedication to preserving the Union that underlies his greatness.

Adamantly opposed to secession, Lincoln warned the South in his First Inaugural Address:

“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. . . . You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to preserve, protect, and defend it.”

Shortly thereafter, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. In the four years that followed, despite military setbacks, a devastating body count, and fierce political opposition, Lincoln remained true to his oath, and saved the nation.

Contrary to his popular image, there was nothing Hamlet-like about Lincoln’s approach to the Civil War. He understood that, first and foremost, the Confederacy had to be defeated militarily, no matter the cost. And the cost was enormous, including more than 600,000 dead (North and South).

Lesser men than Lincoln were prepared to quit the fight long before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865. Such a course would have doomed the United States (and the Confederacy) to a future of weakness and mediocrity. Thankfully, Lincoln was prepared to do whatever was required – raising one of the largest armies the world had ever seen, engaging in the bloodiest battles in American history, expanding the powers of the presidency – to ensure the success of the Union.

Significantly, even in the midst of a terrible civil war, Lincoln did not suspend the electoral process, and in 1864 he stood for re-election against a popular anti-war candidate from the Democratic Party, whom Lincoln soundly defeated.

Lincoln was more than just an iron-willed commander-in-chief, however. He was a brilliant political thinker (for example, his First Inaugural Address is a tour de force of constitutional theory), who recognized that the Civil War fundamentally was about the future of freedom and democracy in America.This was not just an issue of slavery, although Lincoln realized early on that the abolition of slavery had to be one of the North’s chief war aims, for which he deserves enormous credit. Rather, as Lincoln expressed in the Gettysburg Address, it was about the success of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Lincoln rightly predicted that were the Confederacy to succeed in dividing the country, the great republic bequeathed to Americans by the Founding Fathers – which Lincoln aptly called “the last, best hope on earth” (see this) – would be destroyed. Lincoln was determined that would not happen. It cost him his life. But it earned for him the eternal gratitude of all Americans.

Ronald Reagan (1981-198

Washington and Lincoln stand above all other presidents in American history. In our lifetimes, however, one man has embodied the same qualities of love of country and commitment to freedom that made Washington and Lincoln great; his name, Ronald Reagan.

President Reagan came into office at one of the lowest points in American history. The 1970s had been a miserable decade. Domestically, the 1970s witnessed low economic growth coupled with rising unemployment and inflation (“stagflation”); exploding rates of illegitimacy, crime, and drug abuse; and a near total failure of leadership from the White House.

Overseas, the forces of communism and Islamic extremism were spreading seemingly unchecked, punctuated by the fall of Saigon in 1975, the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan later that same year. The decade reached its nadir with the Iranian Hostage Crisis (November 1979 to January 1981), one of the most demoralizing episodes in American history.

This all changed on January 20, 1981, when Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the nation’s 40th president. That day, in his eloquent and inspiring Inaugural Address, Reagan articulated the themes that would guide his presidency for the next eight years: expanding individual liberty and opportunity, reducing the role of the federal government, unleashing the entrepreneurial energy and genius of ordinary Americans, and rebuilding the military.

Above all else, Reagan restored a spirit of confidence and optimism to the White House, and to the American people.

Under Reagan’s leadership, the nation embarked on the longest period of economic expansion in its history. Real economic growth went from an anemic 1.6% to a robust 3.5% per year. The “misery index” (unemployment + inflation) declined from 20.8% during the last year of Carter’s presidency to 9.6% during the last year of Reagan’s presidency. Tax rates were slashed, while government revenues soared in a “supply side” boom. And contrary to critics who claim that Reagan’s policies unfairly benefited the rich, the portion of total income taxes paid by the top 1% of taxpayers rose from 18% in 1981 to 28% in 1988. (See this.)

At the same time that Reagan’s fiscal policies were reinvigorating the American economy, his build up of American military power – and his plain talk about the evils of communism – were reinvigorating the “containment” policy of Truman and Kennedy. Reagan referred to his foreign policy in characteristically homespun terms as “peace through strength.” It worked. Reagan stopped the spread of communism in Latin America. He struck back against Middle Eastern terrorists. He created an unmatched military that would later win the First Gulf War in spectacular fashion.

Most importantly, Reagan exerted enormous and unrelenting pressure on the Soviet Union – through military, political, economic, and technological means – to abandon its commitment to worldwide revolution, agree to steep cuts in nuclear weapons, and liberalize its society. The result was one of the most profound achievements in human history: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. (See this.)

The American people were drawn to Reagan’s message of freedom and hope. In the 1980 election versus the hapless Jimmy Carter, Reagan received 489 electoral votes to Carter’s 49, and won the popular vote 51% to 41%. Reagan was resoundingly re-elected in 1984 over Walter Mondale (Carter’s vice-president), with 525 electoral votes to Mondale’s 13, and 59% of the popular vote to Mondale’s 41%. By comparison, this was a larger margin of victory than FDR achieved in 1932, 1940, or 1944. (See this.)

Reagan has remained extremely popular with the American people, and his death in June 2004 resulted in an outpouring of love and grief across the nation. At his funeral, Reagan’s friend and ally Margaret Thatcher recounted Reagan’s enormous legacy:

“He sought to mend America’s wounded spirit, to restore the strength of the free world, and to free the slaves of communism.”

These were great and difficult tasks, and Reagan achieved them all.

On this President’s Day 2006, let us remember, and take inspiration from, our three greatest presidents: Washington, Lincoln, and Reagan. All hail the chief!