What Makes a Great President?

Jeffrey Sikkenga

May 1, 2009

A speech delivered on February 16 at The Villages, Florida, by Jeffrey Sikkenga, Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.

In 1914, a British author, James Bryce, published the 3rd edition of his famous book, The American Commonwealth. Having visited and studied the United States for several decades, Bryce concluded that there was one question about the American presidency that had to be asked and answered—”Why Great Men are Not Chosen Presidents”:

Europeans often ask, and Americans do not always explain, how it happens that this great office, the greatest in the world… to which anyone can rise by his own merits, is not more frequently filled by great and striking men. In America, which is beyond all other countries the country of a “career open to talents”… it might be expected that the highest place would always be won by a man of brilliant gifts. But from the time when the heroes of the Revolution died out…no person, except General Grant, has… reached the chair whose name would have been remembered had he not been president, and no one except Abraham Lincoln has displayed rare or striking qualities in the chair. Who now knows or cares to know anything about the personality of James K. Polk or Franklin Pierce? The only thing remarkable about them is that being so commonplace they should have climbed so high.

Now, of course, we can reply to Lord Bryce that, as his own words suggest, America has had great presidents, and on President’s Day we honor two of them in particular. But, if we are honest, Lord Bryce’s observation should force us to reconsider a question that is always important, but especially now at the beginning of a new president’s term—what makes a great president?

When he recently took the oath of office, Barack Obama placed his hand on the Lincoln Bible, deliberately invoking the memory of his hero. That’s not surprising. In a recent survey, American historians reflected an almost universal consensus by ranking Abraham Lincoln as our greatest president.

But when Lincoln thought about political greatness, he did not think about himself. He looked back to our Founders for his model. Above all, he turned to the example of George Washington. What made Washington so great, Lincoln said, was that even though Washington could have been “an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon,” he chose otherwise. Unlike Alexander the Great, Washington didn’t turn himself into a god. Unlike Caesar, he didn’t turn a republic into an empire. And unlike Napoleon, he didn’t subvert his country’s highest ideals to put himself on a throne. That’s because, as Lincoln understood,Washington was a special kind of political person; he was what people used to call a statesman. I think that’s a term we need to revive today because our political language has become too poor to fully make sense of great presidents like Washington and Lincoln.

So what do we mean by the word “statesman”? A statesman has political responsibility, but he is no mere “politician”—at least as we typically understand that term. It’s been said that Teddy Roosevelt, reflecting our typically low view of politicians, used to joke: “When the roll is called in the Senate, the Senators don’t know whether to respond ’present’ or ’not guilty.’” Of course, every president is a politician in the sense that he holds a political office, but we rightly tend to think of presidents as more than that. We tend to think of them as leaders. The president, we sometimes say, should be “the leader of the country.”

So what do we mean by a “leader”? A leader is someone who moves people toward a larger goal. The goal itself does not necessarily have to be political, so there are business leaders, academic leaders, and leaders in the arts.Wherever there are fields of endeavor, there can be leaders. But all leadership has one thing in common. It is always about moving people away from where they are toward some new goal set by the leader.

From the statesman’s point of view, there is a problem with thinking about presidents simply as “leaders.” “Leader” is an amoral term. It does not signify right or wrong. For example, most historians would say that Adolph Hitler was a leader. He moved Germany from one place to another. Indeed, he was the head of a movement. But Hitler and the Nazis moved Germany (and the world with them) to a terrible place, and only a committed Nazi would say that Hitler was a statesman. So how is a statesman different from—and better than—a mere “leader”?

As Washington and Lincoln knew, the answer lies in the goal that the statesman pursues and in the way he pursues it. Washington and Lincoln understood that politics is, above all, concerned with justice – with doing what is truly right for the country. As Lincoln once said, he always clung to the hope that human beings could live by a rule greater than self-interest. Now this might seem a little idealistic to some of us (as it did to some in Lincoln’s time, and in Washington’s time, too), but we often have too low a view of politics, as though everyone in politics talks about what’s right just so they can get elected. That’s not true of statesmen. They don’t talk about justice for the sake of getting power. They seek power for the sake of doing justice.

Of course, to do what is right you have to know what is right, and for that knowledge, both Washington and Lincoln turned to the same source: the fundamental principles of our country, especially as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. As soon as the Declaration arrived in the field from Philadelphia, Washington had it read to the assembled American troops. This is what our country is fighting for, he told them: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” That was the foundation of our Revolution and the basis of Washington’s understanding of justice—a government that protects the natural rights of the people and derives its just power from their consent. Lincoln believed the same thing, as he said to a crowd at Independence Hall just a few days before he became president in 1861, “I never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” In fact, he said almost prophetically that, concerning the principle of human equality and the right of government by consent, “I would rather be assassinated on this spot than surrender it.”

So, for the statesman, the goal is justice, and he finds it in our Founding principles.

Of course, fanatics can also be devoted to justice, but a statesman is not a fanatic. He understands that it matters how you do justice. To be a statesman, you not only need the virtue of justice but also another special virtue—what Aristotle called prudence. This does not mean simply “caution.” Rather, prudence means knowing how to do justice in the particular circumstances that you face.

What does prudence require? First of all, you have to know human nature. You have to understand how you can show people what the right thing is and persuade them to do it. Washington was a master at this. As Winston Churchill said, “Washington’s genius lay in keeping an American army in the field.” In his wonderful book, 1776, David McCulloch tells how at a low point in the siege of Boston in the winter of 1775-76, a huge fight broke out between more than 1000 troops from Massachusetts and Virginia, which threatened to bring even more disorder to an army already menaced by disunion and desertion. If the army disintegrated into chaos, the siege of Boston could be broken and the American cause stillborn. Washington arrived on the scene and, according to one witness, “rushed into the thickest of the melee, with an iron grip seized two tall, brawny athletic savage-looking riflemen by the throat… alternating shaking and talking to them.” Washington’s desperate action worked. The troops shrunk back, the fight broke up, and, McCulloch says, “nothing more came of it.” That’s prudence.

Besides knowing human nature, a prudent statesman also has to be able to see the big political picture. He must see the whole and how each part fits into the whole. He has to have great political “vision,” just as a great quarterback can see the whole field and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

Lincoln had this kind of vision. He retired from politics in 1848 after one term in Congress, but he returned to the public scene in 1854 because Congress had passed a law—the Kansas-Nebraska Act—allowing people in the Western Territories to vote to decide whether they would enter the Union as free or slave states. They would put slavery to a vote. The law sounded plausible. In a democratic society, shouldn’t the people decide? But Lincoln objected. Allowing the majority to decide the issue would communicate that slavery was not really a matter of right or wrong—it was morally indifferent. Lincoln knew that promoting indifference toward slavery was the first step toward accepting it. So the Kansas-Nebraska Act had to be opposed before it started to change the minds of the American people in a pro-slavery direction. For his opposition to what seemed like a moderate law, Lincoln was criticized harshly by those who simply didn’t see the problem he saw, and so didn’t understand the danger as he did.

To be prudent, however, it is not enough to have a comprehensive vision of the right thing for the country. A statesman also must know that compromise is often part of doing the right thing. He must be willing, at the right moment, to back off and not push beyond what the public mind will bear. Compromise is often part of doing justice because, as the Declaration of Independence says, the people have to consent to what their government does, which means that a statesman can only go as far as the people will agree. He can’t force them. His difficult job is to try to persuade the people to go with him a little further toward the principles of justice. In that process, he can’t compromise on those fundamental principles, but he often must compromise on how strongly he promotes them in the circumstances. That’s because consequences matter. For a statesman, it’s not enough to have good intentions or even to do the right thing. The right action is also the one that has the best possible consequences. So compromise is often part of prudence.

A great example of this kind of prudence is Washington’s conduct with respect to slavery, an issue on which Founders like Washington have often been unfairly reviled as hypocrites or racists. He wasn’t, but to see that, we must understand the circumstances he lived in. Washington was born into a society in Virginia in which slavery was deeply rooted, and as a young man, he inherited slaves and even bought them. When he married, his wife Martha—who was one of the richest widows in Virginia—brought many more slaves with her to Mount Vernon. So Washington had a lot of slaves by the time the American Revolution began. As W.B. Allen notes, however, by 1774 Washington started to realize that slavery violated the very principles on which the Americans based their government—the natural rights of every person to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So he started where he could. He stopped buying more slaves. Then, in his last Will and Testament, he freed his slaves after the death of his wife. He waited that long because of his duty to his wife and to his slaves. She needed the care, and he would have broken up slave families if he had freed his slaves while Martha’s remained in bondage, because many of the slaves had intermarried. Washington also knew that simply freeing slaves did not do them much good if they were not prepared for freedom, especially in a hostile social and legal environment. So he set up a trust fund for those who were too old or young to work and for those who needed education and training in order to work as free laborers. He didn’t just give people freedom; he gave them the tools to be free men. In other words, Washington compromised on freeing his slaves immediately so that he could free them with the best possible consequences for them and for his own family. He acted prudently. He did justice within the circumstances he faced, and in hopes of making the circumstances more just in the future. After all, when he died, Washington was the most famous man of his time. His example counted, and even in his death, as Allen notes, the “common principle for Washington was freedom” for all men.

Unfortunately, today we have too often lost sight of the true greatness of presidents like Washington and Lincoln because of how we talk about them. They are not statesmen anymore, just politicians or, more typically, leaders. But even “leader” does not capture both the justice and prudence of the statesman. For one thing, leaders presume followers; leadership assumes “followership.” But, asWashington and Lincoln knew, our society is founded on the idea of self-government, that all people have the right and the capacity to govern themselves, that we can solve our problems without always relying on leaders to solve them for us. The people are supposed to lead themselves by adhering to the Constitution they set up, not by following a leader.

Another problem with focusing on “leadership” is that it presumes that the leader should set new goals for us to move toward. But Washington and Lincoln understood that as a country, we already have our goals. They are set out in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution: to protect the “unalienable” rights of every individual to “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”; and “to establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Political leadership in the modern sense requires rejecting those old goals in favor of new ones. To put it strongly, it requires turning our backs on the principles and institutions of our Founding that guided Washington and Lincoln.

If we don’t want to do that, then when we think about what makes a great president, we need to replace our talk of “leadership” with the idea of statesmanship. But it won’t be easy. Leaders offer us the comfort of following them. Statesmen call us to the sometimes uncomfortable task of following our highest principles, no matter how difficult that might be. If we go back to Lord Bryce’s question, maybe that’s why so few “great” men have been president. The greatest presidents are not those who lead America to some new and unknown idea, but—if the principles of our Founding are true—they are those who renew our commitment to the ’old’ principles of our Declaration and Constitution that we all know—or should know. That certainly was the goal of Washington and Lincoln, and they achieved it in their time. Yet despite their great success, both men knew that America was—and still is—an experiment that could fail if the next generations do not understand and cherish those principles.

That’s the question for us on President’s Day. Like Washington and Lincoln, will we strive to teach the next generation of Americans the meaning and significance of the principles that those great men strove to uphold in both life and death? We can and we must—if we are going, in some small way, to do justice to the memory of the statesmen we honor on this day.

Jeffrey Sikkenga is the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center.