Popular Presidents: Before President Obama, There Have Been Other Widely Popular Presidents with Grand Agendas. Some Were Termed "Great" Presidents, but What Did They Actually Accomplish?
Kenny, Jack, The New American
In 1909, in the great state of Illinois, school teachers one February day were directed to spend at least half the school day in public exercises, patriotic music, and recitations of sayings, verses, and speeches to mark the centennial birthday of a great hero. At the end of it all, they were to have their students face in the direction of Springfield and chant in unison the following:
"A blend of mirth and sadness, smiles and tears;
"A quaint knight errant of the pioneers;
"A homely hero, born of star and sod;
"A Peasant Prince, a masterpiece of God."
Who was this masterpiece of God, this knight errant and heroic offspring "of star and sod"? Well if Springfield, Illinois, is Mecca, Abraham Lincoln must be the American Muhammad--if not the American Allah. While our 16th President was considered fair game for scathing political and editorial attacks during his life, his sudden death by an assassin's bullet inspired the near-deification of "Father Abraham." In 1868, Edward M. Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, read the "Gettysburg Address" at campaign appearances for Republican presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant and concluded tearfully: "That is the voice of God speaking through the lips of Abraham Lincoln! ... You hear the voice of Father Abraham here tonight."
Nor did it end there. "Destiny made Lincoln the agency of fulfillment, held the inherited covenant inviolate and gave him to the ages," Warren G. Harding proclaimed decades later. So great was the shadow Lincoln cast over the land that in the 1940s, Everett Dirksen, then a Congressman from Illinois, opined that the first duty of any politician was to "get right" with Lincoln. Nearly a century after the President's martyrdom, historian David Donald would observe: "The Lincoln cult is almost a national religion." Almost?
Lincoln's role as a pseudo-religious figure in our nation's history continues to this day. Nearly all political movements invoke his name and claim his benediction. Citizens with causes of various stripes march to his monument in Washington, there to plead their case before the grim figure in stone seated on what looks for all the world like the Judgment Seat of God. The cult of Lincoln in our histories and folklore, in our monuments and place names--and on our currency--is a fact of life. And while the 16th President, in life, had not the technological means to project himself "live" into the schoolrooms all over the country as our current and recent Presidents have done, schoolchildren are still dutifully taught to revere his image and his name. More important, as the deification of Lincoln has continued for nearly a century and a half, so has the near worship of the presidency, a cult that would no doubt amaze the Founders of our republic.
The powers and the duties of the President are enumerated in Article II, Sections 2-4 in the Constitution of the United States. They take up four paragraphs and deal mostly with appointments and minor duties. The authors of The Federalist Papers said nothing about the President providing a "vision" or lifting the spirit of, or writing an agenda for, the nation. The word "leader" was used as an epithet in warnings about demagogues who would incite a nation to ruinous folly or, worse, create an artificial crisis to inflate his own powers. Yet Presidents in our time are expected to "grow the economy" and provide us with all sorts of material blessings, while they "rid the world of evil-doers," as George W. Bush proclaimed. President Obama has promised to "transform this country" and "change the world." Clearly we don't elect Presidents for their modesty.
During his one term in Congress, Lincoln voted against the declaration of war against Mexico, arguing that President Polk had unjustly and unconstitutionally started the war by invading Mexican territory. To permit a President to "make war at pleasure," he asserted, is to acquiesce in "the most oppressive of all Kingly oppressions. …