But before we abandoned our Festive February events, I wanted to share an assignment I gave my son this week in regards to Presidents Day. The Washington Post was having an online discussion with its readers about which presidents were the most underrated. They eliminated from consideration nine presidents they considered to be the most frequently praised: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Besides those nine, they asked, which presidents haven't gotten the amount of praise and respect that they deserve?
I found both the question itself and the online discussion to be really interesting. For example, some argued that Lyndon Johnson's domestic achievements were remarkable--but does his mistakes in Vietnam outweigh the good he did in terms of civil rights? Did Harry Truman's approval to use the atomic bomb on the Japanese people make him a courageous hero or a Western-centered murderer? Was James Madison's sheparding of the US Constitution one of the most overlooked, but fundamentally important, contributions of all presidents? Are we too focused on recent events and presidencies and forget the developments of the past?
I thougth this was a great discussion to be having on Presidents Day. Plus, it has particular relevence in our family, since my brother spent the summer visiting all the presidential libraries and is writing a book on the question of presidential legacies and the role presidential libraries play in how we remember our former leaders (read more about it on his blog, Across the Country with the Presidents).
So I gave my son a Presidents Day assignment to write a persuasive essay (another skill we're working this year) about the former President that we as a country should appreaciate more. We talked about the Washington Post discussion, we looked at Wikipedia's collection of ratings of US Presidents, then told him to write a polished essay without telling me who his selection was until I read it.
Meanwhile, I was trying to come up with my answer. I would probably end up with James Madison, because I think the country would have fallen apart way before the Civil War had it not been for his work on skillfully crafting a Constitution that all the original states could live with; however, I am somewhat predisposed in favor of Madison for some personal reasons. The Washington Post didn't have an actual vote, but gave the following list, based on the number of comments and recommendations of comments by other people:
1. George H.W. Bush
2. Lyndon Johnson
3. Jimmy Carter
4. Harry Truman
5. Calvin Coolidge
6. Barack Obama (I excluded him from our considerations--we were only doing former presidents)
7. Gerald Ford
8. James Polk
9. Chester Arthur
(To learn more about the arguments in favor of these presidents, read the Post's article here.)
Personally, I'm not sure about Calvin Coolidge and Andrew Johnson, and I have mixed feeling about James Polk (I think he only got this high on the list of underrated due to the song below by They Might Be Giants):
AND, of course, I thought James Madison should be on the list.
But, in general, those were the presidents who came to my mind for being underappreciated.
However, when I got the finished essay from my son, he had not chosen any of the presidents mentioned above. Instead, he chose to write about......
JAMES BUCHANON? He of the pro-slavery Dred Scott decision and Kansas constitution? The president that, in the Wikipedia presidential rating system, was rated as one of the top five WORST presidents by 15 out of the 18 polls, and the very worst president by four of them. Well, at least he definitely falls into the unappreciated category....
But I loved my son's take on his presidency. He reviewed his actions and talked about how bad they had been for the country. But he summed it up by saying that his goal was "desparately delaying the war," and then concluded:
It was quite a good thing that he delayed the issue of secession until Lincoln, the right man for the job,was elected. Putting the issue into the hands of the right person was an invaluably beneficial act...I really loved his perspective. What a great way to view those presidencies (or other leaders, or even people or events in our own lives) that we consider to be "failures"--that they were placeholders, or part of the process of getting the right people and resources in place for our latter successes! He gave me some great perspective on the entire issue, as well as writing quite a good essay.
I recommend this as a great assignment to give your students for Presidents Day. It certainly made ours more thoughtful and meaningful.
Who would you choose as the most underrated US President? Share your choices below in the comments section.