Historians, as a profession, are understandably fascinated by change. Civilizations, as a phenomenon, are properly concerned with conservation. Tension is inevitable when the former apply criteria of success and failure ill-suited to the goals of the latter. The best recent evidence: C-Span has just released its Presidential Historian’s Survey for 2017. It is proof that historians celebrate Presidents the more change they achieve while consigning them to obscurity for governing prudently according to circumstance.
It should be said, to C-Span’s credit, that as such surveys go, this one reflects a reasonably broad range of historians. The survey’s designers—Douglas Brinkley, Edna Greene Medford, and Richard Norton Smith—represent an ideological span, and the participants include Stephen Knott, Walter McDougall and Jack Pitney, all familiar to the readers of this site.
The problem lies not with the raters but with the methodology. The historians were asked to give equal weight to 10 categories: “public persuasion,” “crisis leadership,” “economic management,” “moral authority,” “international relations,” “administrative skills,” “relations with Congress,” “vision/setting an agenda,” “pursuing equal justice for all,” and “performance within context of times.”
Lincoln, Washington and Franklin Roosevelt topped the survey; Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan brought up the rear. Those are all typical results for such surveys, as was the inflated ranking of eighth for John F. Kennedy and 12th for Barack Obama.
The intrigue, though, lies neither at the top nor at the bottom but at the middle of the pack. This is where the champions of prudent governance calibrated to circumstance, not transformational leadership—Calvin Coolidge and George H.W. Bush come to mind—shake out.
Yet prudence, strikingly, was not among the criteria the historians were asked to rate. The criterion of “performance within context of times” only obliquely captures the idea that some moments in history do not require transformation. Indeed, that category’s bias in favor of an expansive rather than a limited notion of “context of the times” is illustrated by the fact that the same prudent Presidents wound up in the same place in the middle of the pack even on that individual rating.
The idea that leaders should be willing to curb their appetites for greatness when circumstances do not require it comes to the American tradition through the person of a 28-year-old Abraham Lincoln. In his Lyceum Address, Lincoln spoke of his time (the year of his speech was 1838) as one of relative prosperity and calm compared to that of the Founding, and recognized the danger: Leaders with ambitions for greatness, finding no avenue for it in adhering to the ways of their predecessors, would instead try to bulldoze their own avenues by claiming—even creating—crises.
The Founders, Lincoln said, had become immortal by establishing constitutional freedom. “But,” he went on,
the game is caught; and I believe it is true that with the catching end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they too will seek a field.
Indeed we have seen “new reapers” unable to gratify their desire for fame by “supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others”—from Barack Obama (see messianic formulation here) to Donald Trump with his “American carnage.” Whether stated as inspiring visions or as crises, these pursue invariably the same object: power.
To be sure, what prudence dictates is not always restraint. On an Aristotelian understanding, phronēsis is concerned with the ability to achieve the right ends, which sometimes requires daring and sometimes does not. In the classical sense, and also in the Burkean one—in which prudence is more, although not entirely, inflected with caution—Lincoln was the model of the prudent statesman.
Similarly missing from the C-Span survey, yet vital to prudence, was the ability to gauge the long-range impact of one’s choices. Thus such notoriously imprudent Presidents as Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson—the implementers of measures that were sufficient to attain a crown of achievement for them but that entailed heavy consequences for later generations—earned relatively high ranks.
Clearly the Presidential Historian’s Survey was not designed to capture prudential factors. Its criteria lean hard toward a formula of presidential success that might be expressed as success equals change divided by time (s=c/t): that is, the more one changes and the faster one does it, the better a President one is.
At least two of its 10 criteria—“crisis leadership” and “vision/setting an agenda”—are more or less explicitly geared toward change. While “public persuasion” is necessary regardless of whether a President wants to change or to conserve, one suspects those who employed it in the service of change ranked higher on that score. The same is true of “relations with Congress.” An innocent reader of The Federalist might think “relations with Congress” would mean institutional competition. But those who exceled in the survey, like Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt, succeeded not in competition but in pushing programs of substantial change through the legislature.
Two other categories—“moral authority” and “equal justice”—are inkblot tests. International relations and administrative skills are entirely appropriate but do not answer the question of whether the international polices or the administrative skills are put to prudent or ambitious ends, and one suspects the survey rewarded the latter. “Economic management,” meanwhile, reflects a supremely modern view of the presidency that systematically disadvantages early executives and in which Clinton Rossiter’s view of the job trumps Publius’.
The most serious omission from the survey is any measure of whether a President adhered to or even entertained a constitutional understanding of the office. Here earlier Presidents might fare better than later ones. Washington would top that category. Madison and Monroe would not be far behind. Presidents who consider their own performance almost solely in terms of the power they exercise, and not their authority to exercise it, would rank—and belong—in the basement. This is not to say that Presidents must construe the office narrowly. It is to say they would have to consider its boundaries thoughtfully.
The difficulty, of course, of including a criterion explicitly about the Constitution is that it requires a capacity in the members of the historical profession to take inaction morally seriously. This hardly seems to be asking too much. Baseball writers do it. And so do some of today’s historians—namely, those who consider issues of prudence and not merely of power. Knott is among them.
It must be conceded to such surveys, and to the human experience, that great times reveal greatness. Churchill was Churchill, but it was the Second World War that showed him to be so. A prudent statesman in inconsequential times may possess greatness of soul, which may consist in disciplining that greatness by calibrating it to the moment, as the Lincoln of 1838 counseled. Such a statesman will probably never rank alongside the Lincoln of 1861.
Still, those who measure history solely in terms of change should consider the incentives their method generates. Historians might, for instance, be chastened by the observation that Donald Trump, who certainly qualifies as one of Lincoln’s reapers in the field of ambition, can be accused of many things. Not changing circumstances rapidly in his first month in office is not among them.