Not surprisingly, Mount Rushmore’s two bookends—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—top most scholars’ rankings of America’s greatest presidents. (Franklin D. Roosevelt is a third chief executive sometimes graded at the top of the presidential class.) As America commemorates the February birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, read the cases made for each man by two preeminent historians and decide for yourself who was the greatest president.
The Case for George Washington
George Washington was not just “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” as he was eulogized by Henry Lee, but first among America’s chief executives in the minds of many presidential scholars, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis. After leading the Continental Army to an improbable victory over the world’s most powerful empire, Washington faced another daunting challenge to transform ink on parchment into the actuality of the American presidency.
“The power of the modern presidency is not defined by the Constitution. It’s defined by the Washington presidency,” says Ellis, author of “His Excellency: George Washington.” “If you read the Constitution of the United States on the executive branch and the power of the presidency, it’s extremely vague. And the ghost hovering over the entire Constitutional Convention is fear of monarchy. Washington makes real and palpable what is vague in the Constitution. He makes the office of president both prime minister and king. He gives it its executive power. He creates the idea of a cabinet, which didn’t exist in the Constitution, and he defines the primary role of the executive branch in the making of foreign policy.
“Washington has the incalculable advantage of being first. That can’t simply be dismissed,” Ellis says. “Lincoln saved the republic that Washington created. Lincoln’s tremendous act of leadership is dependent completely upon the existence of a stable, enduring republic that would not have come into existence if the Founding Fathers and Washington, the Founding-est Father of all, hadn’t created it. Everything Lincoln does wouldn’t have happened if Washington wasn’t the leader he was.”
A lesser man might have been consumed by power and reigned like a monarch, but Washington would never be a King George. He didn’t even want to be president in the first place, Ellis says. “No president in American history didn’t want to be president more than George Washington. He knew no person could enter and exit the office with the same level of reputation. He tried to quit after his first term but was told the republic couldn’t survive without him.”
In spite of pleas to remain in office, Washington stepped aside after two terms with a memorable goodbye to the American people. “The big thing with Washington’s farewell address wasn’t the address but the farewell,” Ellis says. “People think they can’t exist without him. He is the closest thing to an indispensable figure in American history, and yet by exiting he sends the signal that no person in the republic is indispensable. Everyone is disposable.”
Washington, of course, wasn’t immune from America’s “original sin.” His wealth was built upon the backs of hundreds of slaves who lived at Mount Vernon, although Ellis notes that the first president is the only one of the Founding Fathers from Virginia to free his slaves upon his death. “Washington knows that if you start to argue about slavery in the early years it would have destroyed the republic. He believes the time to debate it is 1808 when the slave trade ends.”
Ellis says that Washington, as the commander of the Continental Army, brought a stature to the presidency that no one could ever match. “He’s the only president elected unanimously both times. He is the one founder who is a legend in his own time—and not just after. Every one of the other prominent founders agree that he is in a separate category among the founders. He gets all the big things right. His judgement is impeccable. He brings a level of popular support that is impossible for any subsequent American leader to ever have.”
The Case for Abraham Lincoln
When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office 72 years after Washington, he confronted the greatest crisis in American history with a nation torn in two. Harold Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, says that Lincoln’s work to preserve the Union that Washington helped to create is part of what made him the country’s greatest president. “Saving the Union, which would have ended the American experience, and eradicating the sinful hypocrisy of slavery gives him the edge for me. Plus, he died for his nation’s sins. He was the last victim of the violence necessary to secure the bond between the states. That makes him all the more heroic.”
Holzer says that part of what made Lincoln the country’s greatest president is that he embodied the American Dream. Unlike a wealthy, slaveholding plantation owner such as Washington, Lincoln was born into poverty. “He was not part of the American elite. He wasn’t a military hero. He rose from obscurity to prove that anyone could make it in America.
“Lincoln was also the greatest writer among the presidents. Tolstoy, Stowe and Whitman all believed it,” says Holzer, who has authored, co-authored or edited more than 50 books himself. The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s second inaugural address are among the most iconic texts in the country’s history. “His words are American gospel. For all of his totem-like dignity, Washington was not a memorable phrase-maker. He inspired by leading by example. Lincoln, though, created almost a second Declaration of Independence in his prose.”
Lincoln’s six-foot, four-inch frame added to his aura, Holzer says. “In a way he was almost mythologically admirable because of his physical attributes. He was one big guy. He’s still the tallest president we’ve ever had. People took to him because, like Washington, he was much bigger than his contemporaries and capable of physical feats, which made him admired by men, who were the voters. Everyone knows that Lincoln was amusing and retold jokes. He was also a lightning rod for people’s anxieties, and by having a sense of humor he helped the country endure. He’s almost a symbol of national endurance by that extra strength and humor.”
Holzer says Lincoln also had the skills to deal with a partisan environment that didn’t exist during Washington’s presidency. “I think Lincoln was very adaptable. I don’t think Washington was. Washington did not have to operate much in the political sphere. He was contemptuous of party politics. When newspapers started attacking him in the middle of his second term, he didn’t want to deal with it. He would not have been able to thrive in the next century, but the timing was right for both men.”
One of the most common speculative questions in American history is how Lincoln, had he lived, would have handled the contentious process of Reconstruction differently from his successor, Andrew Johnson. “I think Lincoln would have been savvy enough to negotiate more ingeniously than Johnson,” Holzer says. “He couldn’t have done any worse. Had Lincoln been around for the 1860s, we might not have needed a second civil rights movement in the 1960s to fulfill that unkept promise.”
Lincoln has his share of critics—some who blame him for moving too impetuously in starting the Civil War and suspending habeas corpus, others who fault him for moving too slowly in abolishing slavery. “He’s still the one, though, who did more than anyone else to end slavery,” Holzer says in Lincoln’s defense. “He owns emancipation because he’s the one who did it and suffered through the decision. He paid a huge political price for what we think was lethargy and reluctance. He was, in fact, a liberator.”