Not surprisingly, Mount Rushmore’s two bookends—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—top most scholars’ rankings of America’s greatest presidents. (Franklin D. Roosevelt is a third chief executive sometimes graded at the top of the presidential class.) As America commemorates the February birthdays of both Washington and Lincoln, read the cases made for each man by two preeminent historians and decide for yourself who was the greatest president.
The Case for George Washington
George Washington was not just “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” as he was eulogized by Henry Lee, but first among America’s chief executives in the minds of many presidential scholars, including Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph Ellis. After leading the Continental Army to an improbable victory over the world’s most powerful empire, Washington faced another daunting challenge to transform ink on parchment into the actuality of the American presidency.
The Case for Abraham Lincoln
When Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office 72 years after Washington, he confronted the greatest crisis in American history with a nation torn in two. Harold Holzer, director of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, says that Lincoln’s work to preserve the Union that Washington helped to create is part of what made him the country’s greatest president. “Saving the Union, which would have ended the American experience, and eradicating the sinful hypocrisy of slavery gives him the edge for me. Plus, he died for his nation’s sins. He was the last victim of the violence necessary to secure the bond between the states. That makes him all the more heroic.”