The American presidency may appear a strange if not an unnatural place to seek men of learning, and when they have been found, it is equally likely that a judgment will be made that they do not belong there after all. This is a popular misconception and, it may be said, a scholarly misconception from which the popular impression arises. The best of the presidents, by common consent, have been men who did things, as commanders in chief in time of war, civil or foreign, and as statesmen in the face of a variety of other serious challenges. The worst of them have been corrupt, incompetent, or indolent, characteristics exhibited singly or in some combination. As a powerful office, from the chief magistracy of George Washington to the imperial presidency of our time, it has tended to enjoy extremes of reputation. A president should be great in the estimation of most Americans, and if he is not, he is criticized insofar as his accomplishments fail to meet the high standards of anticipation that come with the high office itself. There have been mediocre or ordinary men as president, and these are thought of as poor or weak or bad because they were not great. Such judgments, in any event, are made on the basis of measurable achievements. The learning of the office holder, whether extensive or limited, makes no immediate or discernible difference to those who pass judgments. Overviewing the presidency and presidents shows that knowledge of a theoretical kind and erudition of any sort, if recognized at all, are factors quickly discounted as irrelevant to the game of rating the presidents. Morton Borden summed it up in America's Eleven Greatest Presidents, when he wrote "the fact seems to be that America's greatest presidents have been chosen on the basis of success," and "the majority of scholars think much along the same lines as most Americans. . . . the ultimate criterion is still success." The success referred to is the product of actions taken rather than ideas conceived, even though the ideas may have enjoyed a significant role in shaping policy.
Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke of the ramifications of the conflict between thought and action in "The American Scholar," his Phi Beta Kappa