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Who was America's Greatest President?

(Photo by Robin Holland)

This week on the JOURNAL, Bill Moyers spoke with historian Eric Foner about the life, legacy, and legend of Abraham Lincoln. Foner said:

“The greatness of Lincoln, I think, is his capacity to grow and change and evolve. Lincoln’s ideas when he dies are quite different from what they were earlier in his life... Sometimes people are president who may have great characteristics, but they’re president in very quiet, calm times and they never have an occasion to demonstrate their greatness. Lincoln’s greatness comes in his response to the unparalleled crisis of the Union and of slavery... The characteristic that I find most interesting in Lincoln is this self-confidence, the ability to think for yourself, coupled with open-mindedness and willingness to listen to criticism... It’s that strong moral compass but willingness to listen to criticism and think anew that I think is the characteristic that leads him to greatness.”

Although Lincoln is widely considered one of America’s better presidents, a revisionist minority maintains that his reputation is based on generations of propaganda. Libertarian scholar Thomas DiLorenzo wrote:

“[Lincoln historians] routinely refer to him as "Father Abraham" and compare him to Jesus or Moses. They do this because their agenda is not only the deification of Lincoln, but of executive power and nationalism in general... And when some of his more dastardly deeds, such as micromanaging the waging of war on fellow citizens, are mentioned they are always obscured by a mountain of hollow excuses, rationales, cover-ups, and justifications... Lincoln’s (and the Republican Party’s) "real agenda" was the old Hamilton/Clay mercantilist agenda of protectionist tariffs, corporate welfare, central banking, the creation of a giant political patronage machine, and the pursuit of an empire that would rival the British empire.”

What do you think?

  • Who do you think was America’s greatest President? Explain.

  • Could someone look at the same historical facts and justifiably conclude that the President you chose was among America’s worst? Why or why not?

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    1. FDR
    2. Lincoln
    3. Jefferson
    4. Washington
    5. Jackson
    6. Polk
    7. TR
    8. Wilson
    9. Truman
    10. Kennedy

    "The weapon (of history)is loaded and cocked against the elite and their corporate pseudo-legalities."
    (and it is hare-triggered like a Glock-17 with a #1 pull) Now why is that? Global corporate capitalism with it's corporate personhood, holy great private property ("success ethic") and sacred elite contract (collusion) has outlived its usefulness to humanity. It is extremely difficult or impossible to become or remain extremely wealthy or extremely poor in a fair and just society.
    People will eventually get back to taking care of themselves collectively. Labor fashions your reality on an hourly basis. (thanks Klark)
    We are Neo-Abolitionists, ready for wage slavery to end.

    Michael J Ahles, Jack Martin, you got it. It's time for us to recognize that government and country are not synonymous. It's possible for a government to destroy a country, and if it looks like the government is going to destroy its own country, what should the people of that country do?

    Every manufactured event is a distraction from something more important and urgent, often something left undefined. It's been 200 years since a future corporate lawyer was born on the frontier, but does that mean we must celebrate in the way we do, or even on this holiday alone? A few government employees and a tiny labor aristocracy might get a day off in previous years. I think in schools the black construction paper profiles of Honest Abe stopped several decades ago,in lieu of test coaching. Maybe returning small change or a lent book to the rightful owner became laughable. Five dollars is small change today, and so is the Emancipation Proclamation in our rear-view of history, an object even smaller than it may appear and fading to the distance. We understand slavery has not disappeared, but now manifests as debt and human trafficking, political subterfuge when it comes to taxation and so-called wars, with ugly indentured servitude upon believing soldiers eager for peace.
    Eric Foner says it's illegitimate to lift figures out of their time into ours, but I long to watch "Dollhouse" with Abraham at my side and see how he reacts to prostitution of the mind in its rawest and most callus form.Because that's what we are now, what the powers that be have made us today. We live where CSI Miami is police work, where 24 is national security and Oprah is arbiter of home life and popular taste; an extremely strange and contradictory and deceitful greedy world. I can't help but think if Abe had the BOMB he'd use it, that he'd realize his fortitude and sacrifice had resulted in nothing.
    So how can we celebrate gifts we never received? Sent, but intercepted and pillaged, made a travesty at the roadside between a tax day gunshot in 1865 and today?

    Eric Foner said Lincoln was not enthralled with the culture of his time, that he welcomed a paradigm shift. Aren't we wrong to be enthralled with the false and manipulative myths surrounding one mostly typical man? Aren't we obligated to throw off both the thralldom of the "corporate success ethic" and the stationary illusions of manufactured heroism and move on to something sustainable. We patch Lincoln like a brittle old movie poster about to disintegrate, so retouched that nothing authentic remains. And isn't it the same with a country in cascade failure, where less and less functions adequately each day, where our very physical existence is undermined by our habits of action and of mind.

    When Lincoln assumed office chattel slavery had outlived its usefulness even to those who possessed human beings as capital. The weapon was already loaded and cocked against it. Lincoln pulled the trigger to dissolve that illegitimate capital without Constitutional recourse. We unenthralled neo-abolitionists are ready to dissolve illegitimate capital again. The weapon is loaded and cocked against the elite and their corporate pseudo-legalities. Distracted Barack Obama may lack the fortitude to pull the trigger, but soon someone will do it. We wage slaves shall be freed; Freed to reconstruct human existence.

    Don't be enthralled by the manipulative media event of a distant and mundane birth, that only delays something more important already irrevocably in motion.

    What kind of minstrel show jokes is Obama cracking that may shame America later? Well, he must be laughing at the working class chumps in Elkhart, Indiana who lost their RV building jobs and believe $400 a year is on the way. The economy can spin but not turn around.

    Ronald Reagan: He made me feel proud to be an American again, after a pretty dark period in our history.

    Thomas Jefferson:

    "When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

    I think that time has come again, don't you?


    One president at the end of his term forewarned our society of an imminent cancerous doom, namely the "Military-Industrial" complex. Perhaps his contributions weren't great enough for us to listen to him. Too bad for us.

    Ultimately, people will look back and say that Jimmy Carter must be included in the top three. He has proved to be the most compassionate, the greatest peacemaker, a world-class statesman, who has allowed himself to be vulnerable for the sake of peace with justice. What other president has so devoted himself to this objective and was willing to forsake popularity in exchange for justice combined with peace?

    Jimmy Carter

    For me, Lincoln and FDR were two of our greatest presidents -- Lincoln for saving the union and his efforts at fairness and freeing the slaves, FDR for saving the union in a different way -- ending the Depression and alleviating the suffering of so many. As one who loves history, I also appreciate the Works Progress Administration and how much they preserved and saved with writers and photographers out in the areas that would not have otherwise been documented.

    I appreciate Bill Moyers Journal. Thanks.

    For me ol' Honest Abe has become much more fascinating now that a century and a half of overpainting and hagiography have been rubbed away to reveal the wily politician underneath. As Truman said, a statesman is merely a politician who's been dead 10 years. You don't attain to the Presidency by being a monolith or marble saint; it takes craft and compromise. But what is most fascinating about Lincoln is how he grew in office: his views on race, the purpose of the war, and the future of the Republic. He was definitely a product of his age, but also, somehow transcending it-- and not just because we continue to make him over in our own image, but also because of the greatness of the man: his mind, his oratory and his character. Like America itself, Lincoln reflects not only what is most savage and disgusting in us, but also what is most noble and hopeful. If he seems a contradiction, it is because we are too.

    We have been a fortunate and a lucky country for a long time, but mostly we have been a stealing and murdering country. We have never had a great President because we have never been a great country. We are now an imperial hegemonic country that has turned on its own productive classes and oppressed underclasses. It seems our elite believes they can forever float on a cloud of wealth supported by the propulsion of self-perpetuating debt. They are mistaken because we face the wrath of the living planet itself for the grievous wounds we've inflicted upon it. We shall fall before we ever have had a great leader of any sort. What we have had is ass-licking chumps to the wealthy class, present company not excluded. If Washington is excluded it is only because he was the wealthiest American of his time. Recently two men with rotting brains have been proclaimed our leaders. One died in dementia as I expect the other will: Ronald Reagen and George Bush. We have had genocidal monsters like Andrew Jackson and sexual perverts like Clinton and Harding. Others have been egomaniacs of little vision or consequence who were only "great" because the elites let them serve wealth and power as "presidents." Some behaved like half-awake zombies, making temporary sense in tumultuous times. I count among these Lincoln,Wilson, FDR, Johnson and Carter, maybe Obama, all still obedient to their masters.

    I have to agree with Billybob although I think it is a toss up between Lincoln and Washington

    George Washington put his property & life on the line to develop our country. No other president has been Valley Forge cold, led men against a much larger military. George is best!

    This should not take away from many brave, insightful & courageous presidents our country has been blessed with, BUT, President Washington "is the greatest"!

    Prof. Foner spoke as someone that examined facts & then made his decisions--unlike most guest who seem to have an agenda & then look for supporting evidence.

    Billy Bob, Florida where Obama & the DNP denied my vote

    Once again, a terrific guest! Mr. Foner says that we learn of Lincoln mostly by his writings. I would like to share a Lincoln quote which prophetically speaks to our current economic situation. This quote of Lincoln is taken from the book, The Unseen Hand An Introduction to the Conspiratorial View of History by Ralph Epperson:
    "The money power preys upon the nation in times of peace and conspires against it in times of adversity. It is more despotic than monarchy, more insolent than autocracy, more selfish than bureaucracy. I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me, and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. Corporations have been enthroned, an era of corruption will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people, until the wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the republic is destroyed."
    You see all wars since Napoleon have been caused by the international bankers. The American Civil War was purposely created and Lincoln was to be a pawn. Here is how it went:
    At the time of the Civil War the state banks operated the banking system of the United States and issued all the money. The money was backed by gold and not by debt and paper money. Meanwhile the federal budget is deteriorating as Stephen Birmingham reports in Our Crowd "At the outbreak of the war the U.S.Treasury was in greater shambles than Fort Sumter. Southern banks had been quietly withdrawing large amounts of funds on deposit in the North. When Lincoln took office he found his Treasury almost empty."
    The year 1837 Rothchild sent his representative to the U.S. named August Belmont who started buying gov. bonds. Soon he became Lincoln's "financial advisor!" Other leading characters in the Civil War story were J.P.Morgan and Lincoln's Secretary of State Salmon P. Chase.
    In an authorized biography entitled THe Rothchilds, the Financial Rulers of Nations, a meeting took place in London in 1857. At this meeting the International Banking Syndicate decided that the North was to be pitted against the South under the old principle of 'divide and conquer.' And thus they initiated the Knights of the Golden Circle in the southern states; and,secession began.
    These plotters realized once again that the Americans would not accept a national bank without a reason for having one; war became the reason.
    Wars are costly and they force governments into a position where they must borrow money to pay for them. [This was the Rothchild family modes apprendi which has been at work since that family financed the Napoleon wars.] However, at the time America was too powerful for them to manipulate Mexico, Canada, France or England to war against America; and, as yet, they hadn't established a central bank in Russia so they couldn't yet manipulate that country. [But they would later by using Karl Marx]
    The war was being fought to force the United States into a position of having to create a national bank, run independently by the European bankers like in Europe. Our brave President Lincoln had turned his back on them when he refused to borrow and introduced the "Greenback" instead (which was debt free). However, with the help of Rothchild's 'plant', Salmon P. Chase, the Congress passed in 1863 the National Banking Act which created a National which had the power to issue U.S. Bank notes, not supported by gold but by debt! The money was loaned to the government at interest and became Legal Tender. Lincoln's assassination and all assassinations of our presidents since have been ordered by this evil group.
    Wake up Americans! We are still being used as pawns in a worldwide chess game by elitist bankers who use their oil game to control us all!
    Mary Hath Spokane,
    Speaker of TRUTH

    Thanks.. this was very enlightening interview.
    I think people's appreciation and love to president Lincoln seem to come back to life whenever whenever a serious crisis of leadership hits our nations with all sort of misery it creates.

    It never ceases to amaze me that there is only one thing Americans like better than putting someone on a pedestal (look at how casually we throw around the word "hero" when someone is simply doing his job) ... and that is knocking someone off a pedestal. Really, it is OK to accept the fact that someone is human (Lincoln included), it doesn't diminish his greatness when taken in the context of when he lived.

    You know, excessive interjections of the phrase "you know" have been shown to be a commonplace symptom of those who expect their attempts to articulate subtle insights to be belittled and marginalized. You know, when you think about it, you realize that this was the research in social psychology and its linguistics which demonstrated a higher rate of usage of "you know" among people suffering from poor self esteem. Exemplary speakers were, you know, like guys from the, you know, ghetto, who were basically, you know, criticized for this stammer in their attempts to adopt formal Standard American English, and, you know, sort of left to feel like what they had to say wasn't worth, you, know, that much. You know? By the time they had been critiqued by the stylists, the content had been lost.

    You know, Ed Nevin?

    Oh, Bill! Thank you so much!

    I hadn't been able to arrive at a critique of Daschle. I was too fond of him, and too jammed up in frantic efforts to fend off disappointments with Obama's initial actions.

    Obama must lead from the middle, I have maintained, and can't be held to "leftist" aspirations in finding policies. Never the less, your opening discussion Friday, with Greenwald, permitted my eyes to open.

    Gotta go now. Episode not over. Need to focus.


    Oh, Bill! Thank you so much!

    I hadn't been able to arrive at a critique of Daschle. I was too fond of him, and too jammed up in frantic efforts to fend off disappointments with Obama's initial actions.

    Obama must lead from the middle, I have maintained, and can't be held to "leftist" aspirations in finding policies. Never the less, your opening discussion Friday, with Greenwald, permitted my eyes to open.

    Gotta go now. Episode not over. Need to focus.


    This program was quite interesting, but I was soon aware of the excessive use of "you know" by Professor Foner. I counted at least 46 "you knows". I suggest he listen to this (otherwise very interesting) broadcast and see how it spoils his speaking, you know?

    Like the previous poster I too would like to thank you for the wonderful honest truth about one of our greatest presidents. I especially liked your essay at the end Bill, and I find your show to be an absolute treasure (as is most of PBS programming). Thank you for pointing out not only the suffering here at home (which the media has seemed to forget), but also the suffering of those outside of our country as well. Probably my favorite presidents are (in no particular order) Lincoln and the Rosevelts (Teddy and Franklin) because the inspired hope and fought for the "little guy," the downtrodden, and the disenfranchised. I believe they instilled the nation with a positive spirit during times of great challenges and they challenged us to really examine that document upon which our country is founded and to really work hard a grow (and think about what kind of country we want to be) to live up to the ideals of what our nation was founded on. I hope our current president can continue to instill a sense of hope in our nation and help our generation pick up the tradition of living up to the ideals upon which this country was founded. Thank you for the wonderful work that you do, and the hope that you provide.

    It's nice to hear someone say something intelligent and truthful about Lincoln and the Civil War, and the more so because Prof Foner comes from a rather controversial and tendentious background. The seeds tho of the Civil War were laid about 1630 and Abe and the years 1860-1865 form a rather small part of it. Foner is right, that, as with all our wars, the outcome turned out to be somewhat different from what anyone expected, but Lincoln would have known all about inflation. The British, btw, tried to get the slaves to fight for them during the AR, and so did the Continental Congress.

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