COMMENTARY: A case for Lincoln as best president

This is in response to Dr. Sam Hoff’s letter to the Delaware State News about the Washington-Lincoln Debate. [“Why George Washington is (still) best president,” Opinion page, Feb. 22] First of all, I would like to congratulate Sam Hoff and Tom Welch on winning the vote for President Washington. This, of course, to me does not decide the issue – I would still argue that Abraham Lincoln was the best president, just as I know Tom and Sam would maintain their stand if the vote went the other way.

Perhaps I was not the best voice for Lincoln, and for that I apologize. I am a history enthusiast, and have no experience in “debate.” Dr. Hoff has coached debate – and I was frankly out-classed. “Outclassed” is a euphemism; I was thoroughly beaten.

The sole question to be decided in the debate was “Who was the best President – Lincoln or Washington?” I, at the time, was clueless trying to understand why the professor wanted to debate anything but that! One goal, apparently, was to divert the opposition from addressing the actual topic of the debate, “Who was the best president?” and I fell for it, hook, line and sinker. I was busy fighting gnats, irrelevant snippets, and left little time to make my case! A terrific debating tactic, deftly utilized by a skilled debater!

For example, Dr. Hoff talked about Washington’s success as a general before he was president! That doesn’t make him the best president after the war! Grant was a great general, and is often considered a failure as a president. He noted the national budget went up when Lincoln became president, conveniently forgetting that there was a war at the time. He talked about the return of Jim Crow after the Civil War, as if that was caused by Lincoln, who could not stop it because he had been assassinated! Washington was, over his lifetime, indubitably the indispensable man. Our focus was, however, on the role played as presidents, an entirely different question.

But now, let us finally decide who actually the best president was. In 1982, 49 top historians addressed that very question in Chicago, Illinois. Five areas were determined as the factors that identified a superior president.

1) Character/integrity. In this area, both men were exemplary. No comment.

2) Political Skills. While George Washington prided himself on not being a politician, he did demonstrate adeptness both as commander in chief and president in getting his agenda past. Lincoln, on the other hand, was unsurpassed in this area, besting opponents for the nomination, keeping together a varied coalition of conservatives, abolitionists, Democrats, radicals, immigrants and nativists to win the Civil War.

3) Leadership. Both men demonstrated this quality, but there was a difference.

A. Washington, the hero of the Revolution, entered the office with near-universal acclamation. With such adoration, he was able to follow the last pattern of the last great republic, Rome, running his cabinet, as I read it, virtually as a moderator.

B. Lincoln had won only 40 percent of the popular vote, and was vilified right from the beginning. To unite the country, he selected a cabinet of his rivals, many of whom thought they would have been a better president. Lincoln earned his rank as a leader in office. As James Lowell put it, “Never did a president enter office with less means at his command, save his own strength and steadfast understanding.”

4) Legislation.

A. As first president, virtually everything Washington did set a precedent. The nation needed structure, and the legislation Washington introduced provided it. Naturalization procedures, copyright laws and entry requirements for new states were passed during his term. On the other hand, even though Washington quietly opposed slavery, and could have risked his political capital to at least begin to put that cancerous lesion on the road to oblivion, which Lincoln did, he [Washington] chose to do nothing. Imagine if he had at least articulated to Congress the argument that slavery was an abomination that eventually should be ended, or asked people to think about a timetable to do that, how American history might have been different.

B. Lincoln, on the other hand, addressed the smoldering problems that the nation needed to overcome, and that lesser presidents, including Washington, sometimes ignored. Not only was slavery addressed, but the Homestead Act and the transcontinental railroad helped the country to grow physically, but the Morrill Land Grant College Act helped common people gain a higher education. Delaware State University, where Professor Hoff works, is a result of Republican legislation in 1862!

5) Accomplishment/Crisis Management. As Mr. Welch and Dr. Hoff repeated endlessly, Washington led the American Forces during the Revolution, and chaired the Constitutional Convention, But again, that was not during his presidency. Abraham Lincoln, as president, led the nation through its greatest crisis, which threatened its very existence, ended slavery, and by his efforts to open the west, helped make us the greatest nation on earth.

Let us return to the deliberations of the 49 historians. At the end of their study, the 49 historians declared unanimously that Abraham Lincoln was not only our greatest president, but had won in all of the five areas! While I accept the conclusion that Lincoln was the best, I do not accept all of their conclusions. They did not include Washington in the top five – Dr. Hoff and Tom Welch convinced me that he was No. 2, and I sent in an application to the George Washington Society.

Mrs. Hoff, the good professor’s wife, afterwards told me not to feel bad, that her husband loved and excelled in that type of debate, and that in her opinion he could have done an equally excellent job on the other side — speaking for Lincoln! I do not doubt that for a minute, but frankly, as a non-debater, I can only champion what I believe in, and could not do that. She said Dr. Hoff enjoyed the experience, and perhaps we should work on other projects.

Again, when looking only at the facts, I believe that the overwhelming view of the American people and the overwhelming view of professional historians is correct — Abraham Lincoln was our best president!

In any case, I would like to thank all the people involved in a quintessential program – “Who was the best President – Lincoln or Washington?” Debate – Dr. Sam Hoff, Thomas Welch, Judge William Witham, David Skocik, Dr. Myna German, Andy West, Chris Hall, Charles Postles and Stephen Piersall, Dover Library’s History Book Club Members and the Staff of the Old State House Museum. kudos to all!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Koch, Ed.D., a retired educator originally from Maine, now resides in Magnolia and is the organizer and moderator of the History Book Club at the Dover Public Library.

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