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writing for godot

The Worst President Ever?

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Written by lynn boyd hinds   
Saturday, 01 September 2012 03:40

A controversial President is seeking re-election in a nation that is sharply divided. His election only exacerbated the situation. He is perceived as a radical who is changing America, a man who can make eloquent speeches but who could not produce the results the nation needed to solve its most important problem. His opponent argues that, because of his experience, he would be more effective in solving the most pressing issue of the day. The President makes a controversial announcement prior to the election. He bypasses Congress with an executive order that opponents characterize as purely political. This man simply does not fit the mold of other presidents and many consider his first term a failure. Even though he followed a man considered to be a weak president, expectations of winning a second term are low. Evidently even the President himself has serious doubts about being re-elected.

Sound familiar? Well, perhaps not. The year was 1864 and the President seeking re-election was Abraham Lincoln.

If you see a bumper sticker proclaiming “The Worst President Ever,” consider that conditions in 1864 were quite similar to today’s situation. Most of Lincoln’s contemporaries would have scoffed at the suggestion that Lincoln would be memorialized as perhaps our finest President. Few predicted that he would be re-elected.

Lincoln had won the White House as a largely unknown candidate, running as “Honest Abe the Rail Splitter.” Opponents viewed him an inexperienced upstart. Political rhetoric portrayed him as an “ungainly, commonplace prairie lawyer.” The media (newspaper editors and cartoonists) portrayed him as a gorilla or a baboon, a “slang-whanging stump speaker.” He had little experience in government, had served but one term in the House and had twice been defeated for the Senate. They were certain his “comic awkwardness and limited intellect” would be a “national embarrassment.”

Not that they were passionate about Lincoln’s opponent, a fellow Mid-western lawyer, Stephen Douglas. The New York World lamented that the Age of Statesmen had been replaced by “the age of rail splitters, buffoons and boors, and fanatics.” In a crisis pf appalling magnitude “the country is asked to consider the claims of two ignorant, boorish, third-rate backwoods lawyers.” The editorial concluded: “God save the Republic!”

The event that triggered the secession of seven states and the start of the Civil War was the simple fact of Lincoln’s election. Although he tried to assure the South that he had no intention of ending their way of life, seven states left the union before his inauguration, convinced that the newly elected president would end slavery. Lincoln was so despised and so distrusted by so many that the mere thought of him in the White House was cause to treat the government as enemy. Thanks to a split opposition, Lincoln won the White House with a plurality of just forty percent of the
vote. Clearly the nation was divided in more ways than just North versus South. Race was the focus of much of the hatred of Lincoln in the North as well as the South,

Lincoln’s first term was eventful, characterized by critics as both radical and as a failure. His first term had strengthened the federal government in significant ways. He censored the Press and by executive order eliminated the constitutional right of habeas corpus, resulting in the arrest of war critics without benefit of trial. He established the nation’s first graduated income tax, assessing only the top earners with a 3% tax. He re-established the National Banking System that Andrew Jackson had destroyed thirty years earlier. He made the federal government a force in public education by signing into law the Morrill Act, giving seventeen million acres of federal land to the states in order to establish land grant colleges. The Legal Tender Act had taken the nation off the gold standard, substituting paper money printed by the government, with a concomitant rise in inflation as the country experienced its largest national debt to date.

Lincoln was arguably the most active president to reside in the White House to date. As Commander in Chief and Chief Executive he had elevated the Presidency to a position supreme over the Congress and the Courts. But now there was another issue. Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862. His move to free the slaves in the South was viewed as simply a political ploy.

The campaign for re-election in 1864 saw an intensified vitriol in the racist rhetoric of the attacks. True, Lincoln was demonized as a filthy storyteller, a braggart, a despot, a liar and a fiend, a radical who had subverted the government, but the issue of race drew the most heated rhetoric. Northern newspapers such as the New York Herald had predicted that should he be re-elected “hundreds of thousands of fugitive slaves would come north to compete with white men” and their “fair daughters” would fall prey to “African amalgamation.” Opponents dubbed him “Abraham Africanus the First.” The campaign against Lincoln’s re-election appealed to base fears based on a deep-seated racism.

But the overriding issue for most in 1864 was the war that had dragged on until the public had grown weary of it. Clearly Lincoln was vulnerable. Newspapers that had supported him now doubted he could be re-elected and called for substitutes to run, prompting other candidates in his own party to get in the race. Powerful editor and former supporter Horace Greeley editorialized: “Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected.” Eleven weeks prior to the vote Lincoln himself wrote: “it seems exceedingly probable that this administration will not be re-elected.”

Democrats ran against him on a peace platform, urging negotiations to end the terrible conflict. They nominated a candidate who was not known for firm political positions but who was personable and could negotiate a peace. Their choice was George McClellan, the general Lincoln had fired for his failure to pursue victory aggressively. Prospects for re-election looked dim for Mr. Lincoln until just a few weeks before the election.

But then in September there were victories by the Northern armies, most notable the conquest of Atlanta by General Sherman. Newspapers returned to his support and public opinion veered toward victory rather than negotiation. Candidate McClellan quickly announced that he would ignore the party’s peace platform and intensify the war effort instead. His main advantage would be, he proclaimed, that he would pursue the war more effectively than Lincoln and, that having military experience, he knew how to win the war. Lincoln won with 55% of the vote.

Presidents are often controversial figures in their own day. It is only in retrospect that Americans agree on the greatness of national leaders. Perhaps nothing better illustrates how Lincoln was denigrated while he was president than his speech at the battlefield in Gettysburg. Today the Gettysburg Address is part of our national scripture, yet was dismissed by contemporaries as trivial. The Chicago Times commented, "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat and dishwatery utterances;” the Harrisburg Patriot said it would “ pass o v e r t h e silly r e m a r k s o f t h e President willing t h a t the veil o f oblivion shall b e dropped o v e r t h e m a n d t h a t they shall n o m o r e b e r e p e a t e d o r t h o u g h t o f . ”

Soon after the war’s end Lincoln was on his way to becoming iconic hero. In 1886 Henry W. Grady, an influential Georgia journalist, spoke to a New York audience. He recalled that America had resulted from two historical traditions: the Puritans of the North and the Cavaliers of the South. Referring to the statement that the typical America is yet to come, Grady proclaimed that he had already come: “From the union of these colonial Puritans and Cavaliers came he who stands as the first typical American: Abraham Lincoln, greater than Puritan greater than Cavalier, in that he was American.” Lincoln’s status in American history has only grown since then.

Perhaps one should wait a bit before deciding “worst president ever” or “best president ever.”

Rating presidents requires the perspective of history.

 

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0 # cesar 2012-09-05 06:42
great article. thank you.
 
 
+2 # kandotom 2012-09-19 20:31
excellent words, about Lincoln and the rating of presidents. I did something like that, playfully, on my blog. Check it out:

http://european-americanblog.blogspot.com/2012/06/is-obama-one-of-wors-or-best-presidents.html
 
 
-5 # RMDC 2012-09-20 02:24
George W. Bush is the worst president ever!

There will never be anyone as stupidly and dishonestly bad as Dubya. No perspective of history is needed for this judgment.

Obama is no Lincoln and even Lincoln is not much to get excited about. He should have let the South go. We'd all be lots better off now. Political unity is something really stupid to fight over. Most of our media criticize Yugoslav President Milosevic for trying to keep Yugoslavia together. He was just like Lincoln in this regard. He lost. The forces for dissolution were too strong (NATO bombing was turning point.) Had Lincoln lost the Civil War he would be very poorly regarded now.

I really can't think of much about Lincoln to admire. He totally bungled the liberation of African Americans. He had no idea about what to do with freed slaves. He had no idea what to do about the defeated South.

The republican party was when Lincoln was president a tool of NY banks and big business just as it is today. Lincoln was more than anything the president of the 1%.
 
 
+3 # Colonial Mayhem 2012-09-20 19:18
Obama is nothing like "Honest Abe" mainly due to the fact that first and foremost he is not honest. Obama Bin Lyin. IMPEACH NOW!
 
 
+4 # jodybird1000 2012-10-11 14:44
I wish people could just grow up and have an intelligent debate instead of calling names. It cheapens your entire arguments to the babbling of a child...
 
 
-2 # docholidaync 2012-10-18 08:30
I am a college graduate from 2001. George W. Bush is the worst President ever! It will be hard to top him!
This country started going to downhill when George W. Bush took office. Bush destroys all Clinton Bills. Didn’t do anything for the Economy his 8 years in office. It was a huge mistake when Bush was won his second term. I knew that day this country was in trouble! I have been applying for jobs ever since I been out of college. I am not enjoying my life at all because this country decided war was more important than economy during Bush term.
Gas prices messed up this country during Bush term. There are more college graduates from 2001 that are either under employ or unemployed. Crude Oil was cheaper during Bush term and his prices were higher.
When people say we can afford 4 more years with Obama? Did those people vote for Bush twice? If so you people are hypocrites!
More plants in NC shut down during Bush term! This country should sue Bush and his cabinet team for screwing up this country. Bush got rich off Oil during his term so he can pay off the debt!
The reason why the unemployment rate was so high during Obama first 4 years because people were allowed file 2 years nonstop. Bush term people were only allowed 6 months at a time.
If Gore would have won in 2000 this country would have never ever been in this mess! That is a huge shame!
 

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