Make America great again? America has never been great, from its infancy wallowing in sin and injustice. America has always been great, a land whose creeds and ideals inspire even beyond our borders.
While these two views appear to clash, any accurate and patriotic rendering of America must include each side of this historical coin.
In May, President Barack Obama became the first sitting United States president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. He addressed an audience of people that included survivors of the atomic bombing in 1945, saying, “We must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without [nuclear weapons].”
The few times I’ve taught Calvinism to students, usually under the guise of the acronym T.U.L.I.P., most have been repelled. They understand some vague kind of spiritualism or mysticism. Some even get the appeal of the feel-good megachurch. But the orthodox Christianity that has so affected the history of the world is foreign to them, much less the seeming hardcore variants like Calvinism. (Erin Bartram made this point well in a post here.) While students balk at the doctrine of “Limited Atonement,” the doctrine that many find simply unbelievable is the doctrine of “Total Depravity.”
Were this a ranking of presidents who most successfully accomplished their agenda, James K. Polk would likely be first on the list. Polk, a Democrat who so followed in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson that his contemporaries called him “Young Hickory,” ran on a platform of three basic ideas: 1) lower tariffs; 2) resolve a territorial dispute between the United States and Great Britain over Oregon (in America’s favor); 3) annex Texas. All of this, Polk promised, was to be accomplished in one term, after which he would retire.
In 1846, he signed the Walker Tariff lowering the tariff rates, accomplishing his first goal. He threatened war with Great Britain before forcing them to sell their portion of the Oregon Territory, completing the second item on his list. President John Tyler, after Polk was elected, urged Congress to annex Texas, which it did — Polk’s third goal was accomplished before he even stepped foot in the White House.
No other president was so singularly focused and so adept at making his agenda a reality. Alas, it was his war with Mexico that, more than anything else, exacerbated the sectional tensions that would eventually lead to Civil War.
I suppose it is not correct to blame the onset of the Civil War on the presidents directly preceding it. A more convincing case can be made that the Civil War was made inevitable by the Dred Scott decision, John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on Harper’s Ferry, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the expansion of the United States into the West, the war with Mexico, or even the founding of the country itself. (In reality, the Civil War was likely the result of a combination of many of these factors.) The president is actually not as powerful as we make him seem in the narratives we push in presidential biographies and media coverage. This is the case today — though presidents receive praise or blame depending on whether the economy is booming or contracting, they have a very minimal effect on such a large and unwieldy thing as the American economy — and it was even more so the case in the 19th century, before anything like the modern presidency existed.
Still: It could not have helped to have had three of the worst presidents in our history run the country in the decade before the Civil War.
Andrew Johnson was a man of many prejudices. Born in poverty in North Carolina, Johnson was a racist toward black people, arguing that the Declaration of Independence’s famous statement that “all men are created equal” did not apply to blacks, and, like most Democrats in the 1850s, blamed hot-headed abolitionists for the sectional crisis that led to the Civil War instead of those agitating for slavery. He hated the Radical Republicans, vetoing every major piece of legislation Congress sent to his desk during Reconstruction. He resented elite Southern whites, both for the ways that the Southern plantation system favored them over people like his own family and for their traitorous actions in seceding from the Union and starting the Civil War. Continue reading
Look at any list of greatest presidents and you will find it populated with strong, tough men who, through force of will, achieved what they wanted to achieve. Hence, George Washington, the great Revolutionary General, is routinely put in the top three. Franklin Roosevelt, despite his own physical maladies, ranks up there because he defeated the Great Depression and the Axis Powers. (Let me be clear: I am merely referring to the the myth of FDR — if anything, he exacerbated the Great Depression.) Ronald Reagan stood down the Soviets. John Kennedy, thanks to the glorification of the Thirteen Days, is seen as a capable and strong leader (whereas, if we focused on the Bay of Pigs, his debate with Khruschev, or his administration’s creeping involvement in the Vietnam War, we would have a decidedly different interpretation.) Feckless, weak presidents like Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford rank near the bottom in most lists; tough SOBs like Harry Truman and Teddy Roosevelt count as “near-greats.”