What makes great presidents great?Most presidential historians agree that 'great' presidents must have a vision that includes the ability to aspire to ideology but be firmly footed in reality. They...

What makes great presidents great?

Most presidential historians agree that 'great' presidents must have a vision that includes the ability to aspire to ideology but be firmly footed in reality. They must have 'strength', however there are many different kinds of strength, and most interesting is the criteria that 'great' presidents are president during a time of extraordinary historical circumstance. Any thoughts?

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dbello | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator

Posted on

I want to thank everyone who thus far who contributed to my topic, the conversation was informative and passionate. Most of all, I enjoyed reading the free exchange of ideas 'in action'. 

Regards, dbello  

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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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In reply to #7: You assume that morality is absolutely relative. It is not true that history always judges the victors to be in the right. History is replete with examples. Take the wholesale slaughter and subjugation of Native Americans as one. Today, history views that chapter as a dark and tragic episode in the nation's history.  Native American leaders at the time were viewed as savages who needed western "enlightenment", but now are viewed as courageous and enlightened individuals who were treated cruelly and unfairly.

There are certain facts of history that cannot be changed and ultimately take their permanent place on the right or wrong side of history, irrespective of who won or lost. In one respect, it doesn't really matter if the South had won or lost the Civil War. The practice of slavery was an abomination then as it is now. Whether they won or lost would never change that fact.  Slavery was not a moral conflict; its existence was in opposition to an absolute moral truth.

History may not always judge the victors to be in the right, as you assert.  Agreed.  However, History has a fickle way of being reinterpreted contingent upon one's time and view.  We may teach about Jamestown, but do we mention how the Native Americans nearly wiped out the English colony within 3 days of its arrival? Who studies or teaches King William's War, where in what eventually became the State of Maine, every settlement was levelled and nearly all English settlers were slaughtered by Native Americans (with weapons supplied by the French)?  Viewpoints change, because the times change.   And the morals change with the viewpoints.  Beware absolute moral views! What may be considered proper in one culture and time may be considered abominable in the next. Before the Industrial Revolution, every place on Earth (with the exception of possibly England) had some form of slavery, and had had it for thousands of years. A few centuries ago, was it seen as an abomination?  In the West, Biblical references were used to justify its existence; this was the Divinely Established Natural Order of Things. This belief is reprehensible to us now, but was acceptable to people then.  I've written other posts where I've suggested that had Northern lands and climate been as fertile and fair as Virginian in early colonial days, slavery would have been equally widespread North and South, and no one would have batted an eye. From where would the objections come?  Without a few slaves, no one eats! Without thousands and thousands of slaves, there's nothing to export and trade!  No economy! Abolition would have been considered a doctrine for the suicidal. Facts of history indeed do not change, as you assert; but their interpretation does; additionally, different facts at different times get suppressed or exalted, contingent on the historian. But to make an honest study, it's important to note and include all the facts; but it's imperative to not apply 21st century morals to them. To understand what people in their own time thought and believed is the true study of history.  And if that's done well, we see how far we've evolved.

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santari | eNotes Employee

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In reply to #5 -- Who said the South made a mistake?  Had they won the war, history would have judged them in the right, and the North in the wrong!!  In the day, Southern States saw their struggle as the Second American Revolution -- breaking away from a despotic government and asserting State's Rights. Only mid-war did Lincoln alter the reasons for the fight by introducing the moral conflict of slavery. The winners write the history books, and the actions of 'great' historical figures are very much interpreted by whose tale you tell and whose lens you look through. If the CSA existed today, Jefferson Davis would be a "great" president, because the assignation of current day 'greatness' to historical figures is completely subjective.  Davis would be seen as "The Father of Our Country" (if you're living south of Mason-Dixon!) Equally, had the American Revolution been lost, and we remained British, Washington would have been hanged as a traitor, seen as one today, and relegated to a footnote in American History.

You assume that morality is absolutely relative. It is not true that history always judges the victors to be in the right. History is replete with examples. Take the wholesale slaughter and subjugation of Native Americans as one. Today, history views that chapter as a dark and tragic episode in the nation's history.  Native American leaders at the time were viewed as savages who needed western "enlightenment", but now are viewed as courageous and enlightened individuals who were treated cruelly and unfairly.

There are certain facts of history that cannot be changed and ultimately take their permanent place on the right or wrong side of history, irrespective of who won or lost. In one respect, it doesn't really matter if the South had won or lost the Civil War. The practice of slavery was an abomination then as it is now. Whether they won or lost would never change that fact.  Slavery was not a moral conflict; its existence was in opposition to an absolute moral truth.

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linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

In reply to #5 -- Who said the South made a mistake?  Had they won the war, history would have judged them in the right, and the North in the wrong!!  In the day, Southern States saw their struggle as the Second American Revolution -- breaking away from a despotic government and asserting State's Rights. Only mid-war did Lincoln alter the reasons for the fight by introducing the moral conflict of slavery. The winners write the history books, and the actions of 'great' historical figures are very much interpreted by whose tale you tell and whose lens you look through. If the CSA existed today, Jefferson Davis would be a "great" president, because the assignation of current day 'greatness' to historical figures is completely subjective.  Davis would be seen as "The Father of Our Country" (if you're living south of Mason-Dixon!) Equally, had the American Revolution been lost, and we remained British, Washington would have been hanged as a traitor, seen as one today, and relegated to a footnote in American History.

You make some good points. I watched a "mockumentary" not long ago called "CSA: The Confederate States of America." It was a satire on what it might be like had the south won the war, but it made you think as well.

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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted on

In reply to #5 -- Who said the South made a mistake?  Had they won the war, history would have judged them in the right, and the North in the wrong!!  In the day, Southern States saw their struggle as the Second American Revolution -- breaking away from a despotic government and asserting State's Rights. Only mid-war did Lincoln alter the reasons for the fight by introducing the moral conflict of slavery. The winners write the history books, and the actions of 'great' historical figures are very much interpreted by whose tale you tell and whose lens you look through. If the CSA existed today, Jefferson Davis would be a "great" president, because the assignation of current day 'greatness' to historical figures is completely subjective.  Davis would be seen as "The Father of Our Country" (if you're living south of Mason-Dixon!) Equally, had the American Revolution been lost, and we remained British, Washington would have been hanged as a traitor, seen as one today, and relegated to a footnote in American History.

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linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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I'm sure many folks in the South would not regard Lincoln as a great president, being born 200 years ago today.  He may be viewed as a tyrant who helped initiate the invasion of those states that had voluntarily chosen to join the Union, and then voluntarily chosen to leave it.  Maybe the would consider Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy to be a "great" president as George Washington had been before him, both having to blaze their own ways in entirely new difficult circumstances.  Reagan appears to have been vindicated; how GW Bush could be after aiding and allowing the evisceration of the Constitution over the last 8 years remains to be seen. Certainly each of these leaders stood up and fought for what they believed to be right.  Whether that makes them "great" and history judges them so seems rather subjective.

Now, now, there's no need to go reminding us southerners of our mistakes.

Have you not noticed which states are on the red side at election time? It's predominantly the southern states. I've been a Republican all my life--and I even wear shoes!!

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enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

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I'm sure many folks in the South would not regard Lincoln as a great president, being born 200 years ago today.  He may be viewed as a tyrant who helped initiate the invasion of those states that had voluntarily chosen to join the Union, and then voluntarily chosen to leave it.  Maybe the would consider Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy to be a "great" president as George Washington had been before him, both having to blaze their own ways in entirely new difficult circumstances.  Reagan appears to have been vindicated; how GW Bush could be after aiding and allowing the evisceration of the Constitution over the last 8 years remains to be seen. Certainly each of these leaders stood up and fought for what they believed to be right.  Whether that makes them "great" and history judges them so seems rather subjective.

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amy-lepore | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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How about their passions and convictions to stand up for what is "right" when the majority disagrees?  Sometimes the truly "great" presidents aren't recognized at the time of their service...only afterward when we can look back with 20/20 vision and truly see the truth and wisdom.  Winston Churchill is a great example, and I think perhaps George W. Bush will be recognized much like Ronald Reagan...after things settle down and the light shines through all the dust.

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

What makes great presidents great?

Most presidential historians agree that 'great' presidents must have a vision that includes the ability to aspire to ideology but be firmly footed in reality. They must have 'strength', however there are many different kinds of strength, and most interesting is the criteria that 'great' presidents are president during a time of extraordinary historical circumstance. Any thoughts?

There have probably been many presidents with the potential for greatness that was never realized because the times in which they governed did not call it forth. The presidents we call great, it does seem, are those who were called upon to make momentous decisions for the country in the most difficult of times. But making a momentous decision does not insure greatness. To be great, a president must have a vision for the country, and the the ways in which he acts upon it must be rooted in integrity and principle. No American president can be great without first being a good man. And no president, however visionary, can be great unless he can inspire the nation to trust him and to follow him, although the path is exceedingly difficult.

Abraham Lincoln was perhaps our greatest president because his challenge was the survival of the government itself. Lincoln's vision was to preserve the union, not for his generation, but for ours--and our grandparents' before us and our grandchildren's after--for all Americans who would come after him. His principles were rooted in the same Constitution he had sworn to preserve, protect, and defend. He never stopped being President of all the states, even though some had chosen to go their own way. We know, had Lincoln lived, the South would have been treated much more gently after the war--"with malice toward none."

Other great American presidents? Most of us have our own candidates, but those named most frequently share these qualities of Lincoln: vision rooted in principle, executed successfully without the loss of integrity. It's hard to define a great American president, but we know one when we see him.

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bdot | Teacher | (Level 1) eNoter

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In reply to #7, I think history has proven beyond of shadow of doubt that the South made a tremendous mistake.  We can torture the issue about states' rights until it confesses to anything, but the fact still remains the South seceded because Lincoln was elected and they were fearful what the Federal government would do to their "peculiar institution."

Lincoln may have used slavery as a strategy to prevent foreign intervention ... at the war's midpoint, but the South used it as their casus belli, though they chose to wave the banner of "states' rights" instead.

The Southern leaders etc. swore an oath to uphold and defend the Consitution of the U.S.  Instead, they broke their oath and attacked Ft. Sumter.  Furthermore, the slave population greatly (and artificially) inflated their representation in Congress (3/5 Clause), but it wasn't enough.  Thus, they gave into their fear and brought upon a war that many historians today blame Lincoln for.  So much for the victors writing the history books.

 

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jillyfish | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Valedictorian

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It is not just about character. 'The world' makes great presidents. A 'great' president needs great events. For example, without 9/11, Bush would have just continued to play golf and run a 'same old' presidency. ('The World' also makes catastrophic presidents. Without 9/11, GWB wouldn't have been able to demonstrate just how thoughtlessly aggressive and utterly incompetent he was.)

If the Soviet Union wasn't finacially wrecked and ready to fall, Reagan wouldn't have had the opportunity to finish them off with a hike in the arms race. It was being president at that specific time that allowed him to be 'great' (if he was).

Some presidents have eventless terms of office. Clinton's second term was about he'd messed about with his secreatary! Not exactly edifying. There was 'nothing more interesting to do'. The economy was rocketing. The cold war was over. There were no pressing 'great' global issues.

A president doesn't steer the world like the Captain of some stately ocean liner. A president rides his desk like a desparate surfer as each event 'wave' rolls and crashes through his office. Sometimes a beautiful big wave comes along that he can ride to glory (or very public disaster)... All decisions contain risk. You may not like the idea, but luck is important too. According to Cheney in 2003, the invasion of Iraq was a 'high risk strategy'. In other words, a long-shot. It didn't pay off. 

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