President’s Day in America was Monday, February 18, 2019. It is an amalgamation of two former holidays commemorating the birthdays of Presidents Abraham Lincoln [Feb. 12, 1809], and George Washington [Feb. 22nd, 1732].
They are widely regarded as the greatest American presidents in history. There are solid arguments for either to be number one, however, there is no doubt the other would hold the title of second greatest Chief Executive.
A slight caveat should be noted. These rankings are solely the opinions of the author, though he would like to believe they are considered somewhat informed opinions.
What Makes a Great President?
It is exceedingly rare that a president is considered one of the “greatest” while he is in office. Only many years later is greatness seen the proverbial 20/20 vision of hindsight.
Therefore, it is correct to exclude the current occupant of the White House and his predecessor from this list. This is much the same as rules governing inclusion to a sports hall of fame, such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which allows a longer perspective with which to judge greatness, and that seems a wise notion.
The criteria I used to judge presidential greatness are; the President’s Challenge, Competency, and last but certainly not least, his Constitutional Fidelity.
The Challenge is the historical situation in America when that leader took office. For example, was the nation in great peril or relatively safe at the time.
Competency measures how well the national situation was handled while in office, and Constitutional Fidelity is all about how the president carried out his tasks. Were his actions supportive or destructive of the Constitution and its principles?
I favor the earliest presidents for one main reason. Their job was the establishment and growth of a nation built to exist upon rule by law, and the success of the American experiment was on some shaky ground back then.
With these considerations in mind, here is my list of the greatest presidents in history; numbers 10 through 1.
10. Harry S. Truman – 33rd President, 1945-1953
This man of plain speech from the “Show Me” state came to office in a no-win situation. He had to steer the nation through the death of his legendary predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the atomic end of WWII, and violent Communist aggression during the Korean War [1950-54].
President Truman navigated these rough waters with determination and responsibility and helped launch the post-war economic boom of the 1950s. He earns number 10 on the countdown.
Truman was well-known for some wonderful quotes and quips during his time in the White House. However, here is a less-known fact about Truman and his devotion to his wife, Bess.
…years ago, the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, MO, made public 1,300 recently-discovered letters that the late President wrote to his wife, Bess, over the course of a half-century. Mr. Truman had a lifelong rule of writing to his wife every day they were apart.
9. John F. Kennedy – 35th President, 1961-1963
Ranking ninth is last great Democratic president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. He has the tragic distinctions of being both the Chief Executive with the shortest time in office and the last President to have been assassinated.
During his brief time in office, Kennedy’s accomplishments were frankly astounding. He stared down a credible threat of nuclear destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In October 1962, U.S. spy planes discovered that Soviet missile bases had been deployed in Cuba; the resulting period of tensions, termed the Cuban Missile Crisis, nearly resulted in the breakout of a global thermonuclear conflict
JFK, as he was affectionately known, also began the last full decade in which the U.S. has both started and finished a ten-year period with a budget surplus! You read it right folks, and we haven’t seen a decade like that since.
Finally, JFK is responsible for launching (pun intended) the “space race” by challenging America to “land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” That impossible task was accomplished on July 20, 1969, though Kennedy did not live to see it.
8. Dwight D. Eisenhower – 34th President, 1953-1961
Eisenhower is most famous as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in World War II. He commanded the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and led the Allies to victory in Europe.
Immediately upon becoming the President, Eisenhower had to confront the Korean War and the very real Communist threat. He presided as Commander in Chief while the war was ended with a peace agreement establishing a demilitarized zone created North and South Korea.
He became the first President to confront the reality of the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the United States. He was a popular Chief Executive, and many viewed “Ike” (as he was known) as a likable and down to earth character.
Here is a taste of an early campaign commercial for Eisenhower,
7. Ronald Reagan – 40th President, 1981-1989
The most recent to serve as the President on this list is Ronald Reagan. He stands as the greatest President of this author’s lifetime.
Reagan was a conservative Republican whose efforts domestically and internationally on behalf of America were incredible.
“Reaganomics,” as it was dubbed, brought the American economy back from the brink of Carter’s ‘malaise’ of double-digit inflation and unemployment. Reagan’s policies of tax cuts not seen since JFK and smaller government created a booming economy from one headed for a free-fall.
Moreover, Reagan’s defense stance of “peace through strength,” was the main catalyst resulting in the victory of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In my view, had this policy continued to be pursued going forward, Russia and perhaps China as well would not pose the hazards they do at present.
However, most endearing about Ronald Reagan from my perspective was his staunch pro-life stance. He continually championed the pro-life cause throughout his two terms and instituted the “Mexico City Policy” that defunded international groups promoting abortion around the world, including Planned Parenthood.
6. James Monroe – 5th President, 1817-1825
Number 6 on this list is James Monroe who followed the presidency of Madison and the War of 1812. He served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War during that period.
Among his many accomplishments was his key role as a diplomat in France during the negotiations for the Louisiana Purchase under Thomas Jefferson.
Moreover, he was the last President who had also been personally involved with adopting the U.S. Constitution. As a Virginia delegate, Monroe was one of the few who opposed ratification of the Constitution,
claiming it gave too much power to the central government.
Nevertheless, Monroe put aside his reservations once the document became ratified and he upheld it vigorously.
He is most famous for the “Monroe Doctrine,” put into place in 1823. It was a historic achievement in the annals of foreign policy, which established that European colonization in the Western Hemisphere would no longer be tolerated.
This doctrine has served as a template for much of American foreign policy and international relations to this day.
5. James Madison – 4th President, 1809-1817
James Madison was elected in 1808, on the heels of the popular Jefferson presidency. His physical presence was far less impressive than the previous three presidents.
Five feet four inches tall and weighing about 100 pounds, small boned, boyish in appearance, and weak of voice …[his] strong actions belied his mild demeanour.
His actions while involved with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 earned him the historical title of “the father of the Constitution.”
his Virginia, or large-state, Plan, put forward through Governor Edmund Randolph, furnished the basic framework and guiding principles of the Constitution, …Madison believed keenly in the value of a strong government in which power was well controlled because it was well balanced among the branches.
James Madison was also the first President elected who had not served as Vice President. He was Jefferson’s Secretary of State before ascending to the office of Commander in Chief.
The infant American nation had to face a second war with Great Britain in 1812 under Madison’s guidance. That war brought America closer to defeat than perhaps any conflict with a foreign power.
In fact, it was the only time a sitting President and his staff and family had to evacuate Washington D.C. James Madison earned his place as number 5 on the list by saving the nation from an early death in the “second war of Independence.”
4. Thomas Jefferson – 3rd President, 1801-1809
Another of the original “founding fathers,” of the United States, Thomas Jefferson distinguished himself as a lover of liberty early in his career. He is best known as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Jefferson also presided over the largest land expansion in American history with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803.
One of the most significant achievements of Jefferson’s first administration was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million in 1803. At more than 820,000 square miles, the acquisition (which included lands extending between the Mississippi River and Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico to present-day Canada) effectively doubled the size of the United States.
Jefferson served under John Adams as Vice President and the two men were inextricably linked throughout their lives and careers. In fact, both Adams and Jefferson died on the same date, July 4, 1826, 50 years after the adoption of the Declaration.
3. John Adams – 2nd President, 1797-1801
The second president of the United States earns number three on the list. I believe he may be the most underrated for his immeasurable contributions to the founding of America.
As a lawyer, John Adams acquired a reputation as a fierce advocate of a defendant’s right to counsel and the presumption of innocence when charged with a crime. Moreover,
As a diplomat in Europe, he helped negotiate the peace treaty with Great Britain
Another little-known fact about John Adams is that,
He assisted in drafting the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was its foremost advocate in Congress.
A superb way to appreciate the greatness of John Adams is to view the relatively recent Mini-series “John Adams”. The seven-part series was broadcast in 2008 and features actor Paul Giamatti in what could be his finest work.
Here is a short clip from that series recounting the first meeting of Adams and George Washington.
2. Abraham Lincoln – 16th President, 1861 – 1865
As I noted at the beginning, Lincoln is either first or second on everyone’s list. Over the last few years, most presidential historians have ranked “Honest Abe” as first.
The arguments for a number-one nod are indeed compelling. He faced arguably the greatest threat to the continued existence of the United States and had to win the bloodiest war in American history to do it.
In the brief course of his presidency, Lincoln also set in motion the greatest cultural upheaval and change in peacetime America with the abolition of slavery. He had his presidency tragically ended by being the first President to be assassinated in office.
To top it all off, he gave the greatest speech ever delivered by any president after the battle of Gettysburg. The Gettysburg Address was hand-written by Lincoln, poignant, poetic, and brief in its brilliance.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
November 19, 1863
1. George Washington – 1st President – 1789-1797
If George Washington’s career had ended as a military commander, he would still have been revered as one of the greatest leaders in American history. He fought some of the most famous battles of the Revolutionary War, and the portrait of Washington and his men crossing the Delaware River is a historical classic.
However, it was the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania that defined the character and courage of the General. His soldiers underwent enormous hardship and loss that fateful season.
The 11,000-man force went into winter quarters and over the next six months suffered thousands of deaths, mostly from disease. But the army emerged from the winter still intact and in relatively good order.
Washington was recognized as a natural, though reluctant, leader by his compatriots and was overwhelmingly chosen as president of the first Constitutional Convention in 1787. In fact, he did not seek the office of the President the first election of 1788 and had to be strongly persuaded to run.
However, there was no presidential ‘race’ to speak of. In fact, Washington became the only president ever to be elected by a unanimous vote of the electoral college.
His humility was demonstrated daily and he was keenly aware of the pivotal role he played as the first President.
At first he declined the $25,000 salary Congress offered the office of the presidency, for he was already wealthy …However, Congress persuaded him to accept the compensation to avoid giving the impression that only wealthy men could serve as president.
Washington’s impeccable honesty and integrity impressed friends and foe alike.
For over 200 years, Washington has been acclaimed as indispensable to the success of the Revolution and the birth of the nation. But his most important legacy may be that he insisted he was dispensable, asserting that the cause of liberty was larger than any single individual.
This list was compared with another from 100 presidential historians and published by Business Insider. That list ranked the greatest 20 presidents of all time.
The biggest difference between my list and theirs is the criteria used by historians for evaluating the presidents.
100 historians and biographers rated 43 US presidents on 10 qualities of presidential leadership: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times.
Challenge and Competency would include most of their ten qualities. But, where is the standard of the Constitutional Fidelity as a measuring stick?
Somewhat surprising to me is that though my top 10 is not in precise agreement with the historian’s judgment, all of my selections were included among the 20 greatest on their list. What do you think?
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Isaiah 55:4 [ESV]
Sources: The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2001
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