Presidents’ Day reflects the underlying idea, which most Americans share, that American presidents can be arrayed upon a more-or-less common pantheon of greatness. This assumption is embedded in presidential rankings, which is predicated on a linear rating, from great to failure, the way you might assess an athlete. This is a mistake born of the unusual circumstances of the 20th century, and it no longer makes any sense.
There are, of course, certain principles upon which nearly all Americans now agree. The republican form of government beats monarchy; slavery is bad; defeating the Axis was good. But a great deal of American history is a long war between what we now call Red America and Blue America. Red America, which draws its greatest strength in the south, believes in states’ rights, a Constitution that strictly limits the prerogatives of the federal government, and upholding the existing social structure. Blue America, based in New England, believes in a more active federal government and more egalitarian social relations.
It makes sense to argue about whether, say, Tom Brady had a better football career than Peyton Manning, because we agree on the basic attributes of what makes a quarterback great. Attempting to assess presidents the same way quickly runs into a series of unsolvable paradoxes. Take, for instance, Ronald Reagan, whose most important domestic accomplishment was ushering in an era of large-scale peacetime deficits. Was this a failure that halted the effective functioning of government? Or was the crippling of the postwar expansion of the New Deal state a goal that it fulfilled? Or Barack Obama, who has revivified activist government in ways that provoke bitter conservative opposition.
One can find similar problems farther back in history. Jamelle Bouie makes the argument today that Andrew Johnson is the worst president in American history, a very common position among historians. Bouie runs through Johnson’s history as a fighter for white supremacy. But the most interesting thing about his argument is an observation, tossed off at the end, that “in a way, Johnson was a success — he pledged to protect white supremacy, and he did it.” It is true that Johnson was impeached by his opponents — but, then, Abraham Lincoln was shot by his. Anyway, Johnson’s impeachment came only after securing a victory for the white south against federal power comparable in scale to the defeat it had suffered at the hands of Lincoln. Johnson was an extraordinarily effective and consequential president. He was only a failure if we dispute the goals for which he worked.
The cause of this confusion is that, for much of the 20th century, the two political parties lacked strongly distinct ideological profiles. It made sense then to think of presidents as striving toward some kind of commonly defined goal.
A related source of confusion is the fact that the parties themselves swapped ideological profiles. In the 19th century, conservative, strict constructionist, anti-government southern America was represented by the Democrats. Progressive, pro-government, socially liberal Yankees were represented first by the Whigs and then, more forcefully, by the Republicans. And yet the two parties have to maintain the fiction of historical continuity. So Rick Perry recently described Lincoln as a strong believer in the Tenth Amendment, which delegates unenumerated powers to the states or “the people,” and which strict constructionists hold as evidence that the Constitution strictly limits the powers of the federal government. As historian Josh Zeitz points out, Lincoln, in diametric opposition to the strict constructionists of his era, consistently advocated an expanded federal role, in peacetime as well as wartime. Another difference, which Zeitz does not mention, is that Perry has advocated the right of his state to secede from the union, a point upon which Lincoln is known to have disagreed.
Yet, since Lincoln was a Republican and Perry is a Republican, he feels it necessary to smooth out the distinctions. Elements of the right who are less attached to the Republican Party are more free to articulate an intellectually coherent view of Lincoln, which is why the Ron and Rand Paul movements contain Lincoln-haters.
The dynamic works the other way, too. Jim Webb, the heterodox former Democratic Senator, recently argued that his party should return to its “Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson roots.” Unlike Perry, Webb is making an argument about history rather than simply ignoring it. But the argument is itself extreme. Andrew Jackson was the quintessential Red America president, a fanatical white supremacist, Southern loyalist, and believer that the Constitution forbade activist government. To reconcile the modern Democratic Party with Jackson’s spirit would invert its identity. Yet Democrats still celebrate Jefferson-Jackson Day. And Jackson was certainly a powerful and effective president, except the goals he advanced were horrifying.
As the United States has returned to the ideological and regional polarization of the 19th century, we will gradually let go of our habit of imagining American presidents as pulling America along a singular path, and see their work for what it was and is: a fierce and endless tug-of-war between opposing camps.