On Friday, C-SPAN released its 2017 Presidential Historians Survey, which evaluated each of our presidents in several categories, including public persuasion, moral authority, relations with Congress, and much more. Here are four things we can be thankful for from some of the presidents who historians ranked as much better than average.
Abraham Lincoln embraced his political opponents with kindness and empathy.
Most Americans are familiar with the remarkable story of Abraham Lincoln, who ranked #1 in C-SPAN’s presidential survey. Lincoln finished first in several categories and no lower than third in any of them.
As Doris Kearns Goodwin captured in Team of Rivals, Lincoln reached out to his political opponents after winning the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. He eventually included William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates in his cabinet where they collaborated to pull the country out from the depths of Civil War, while passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery.
As Goodwin noted, “His success in dealing with the strong egos of the men in his cabinet suggests that in the hands of a truly great politician the qualities we generally associate with decency and morality—kindness, sensitivity, compassion, honesty, and empathy—can also be impressive political resources.”
Thomas Jefferson understood that a free press makes us stronger as a nation.
Thomas Jefferson, who ranked #7 in C-SPAN’s survey, wrote much about the importance of independent journalism. As he said, “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”
In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Jon Meacham shared an exchange between Jefferson and Baron Alexander von Humboldt, who asked the President about his reaction to critical press. “Why are these libels allowed? Why is not this libelous journal suppressed, or its editor at least, fined and imprisoned?” The question gave Jefferson a perfect opening. “Put that paper in your pocket, Baron, and should you hear the reality of our liberty, the freedom of our press, questioned, show this paper, and tell where you found it,” Jefferson replied.
Yale historian Joanne Freeman recently offered her perspective about Jefferson on Twitter, saying that while he sometimes complained about the journalists of his day, he “understood their role in American governance.” She added that President Donald Trump recently mischaracterized Jefferson, who would never have claimed that “the press is an enemy to American people” or have used such a claim to delegitimize journalism more generally.
Theodore Roosevelt embraced environmental preservation.
Theodore Roosevelt, who ranked #4 in C-SPAN’s survey, is often considered the “conservationist president” for his staunch protection of federal lands against development and environmental pollution. As Roosevelt said, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.”
After becoming president in 1901, Roosevelt established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments, while protecting approximately 230 million acres of public land.
As Roosevelt wrote, “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”
I don’t believe President Roosevelt would have appreciated Congress’ recent measure, signed this past week by President Trump, to eliminate a rule protecting streams from coal mining pollution. I wish Roosevelt were alive to provide his voice in the fight against climate change.
Barack Obama provided a strong example of personal integrity and decency.
Barack Obama, who ranked #12 in C-SPAN’s survey, demonstrated superior personal character as President, balancing the responsibility of office with that of husband and father. As David Brooks recently wrote about Obama, “He and his wife have not only displayed superior integrity themselves, they have mostly attracted and hired people with high personal standards.”
Brooks continued, “He’s exuded this basic care and respect for the dignity of others time and time again. Let’s put it this way: Imagine if Barack and Michelle Obama joined the board of a charity you’re involved in. You’d be happy to have such people in your community.”
My wife and I have two small children and care deeply about the type of personal example our president sets. We hope that whatever course our kids pursue, they can mirror Obama’s integrity, civility, and decency.
It’s not a coincidence that Presidents Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Obama all ranked highly in the C-SPAN survey. The American people appreciate the personal qualities these men have offered. During this Presidents’ Day weekend, history can provide strong lessons for what makes an effective president and what values help preserve the American legacy.