It is said that the times make a president and there’s anecdotal proof. Good times have yielded mediocrities while some of our gravest crises have summoned giants. The early 21st century has given us both, some lightweights and one who might rank with the second tier of greats. My thesis follows.
Abraham Lincoln stepped onto the world stage like someone from Greek mythology or ordered up from central casting. “Send us a president. A real president. Someone with intelligence and a logical demeanor, and, please, tell him he’ll need to check his ego at the door.”
And voila, an excessively tall, self-educated lawyer raised on the frontier seemingly came out of nowhere leapfrogging better known aristocrats. The public broke for Lincoln and he made his way to Washington knowing if he survived (there were death threats) he’d have to deal with saving a Union that was coming apart at the seams.
Somehow we got Lincoln, a politician from the new Republican party which was nailing down the coffin lid on the Whig party. He had minimal experience for what was ahead of him. He’d served a bit in the Illinois house and a term in the US House of Representatives and was defeated in a senate race by Stephen Douglas. He was well read but in a time of book scarcity, that meant less than it might today. Lincoln’s law library consisted of two books.
Lincoln intrigues us even today because he was a tall oak among shrubs of so much presidential mediocrity. Immediately before him, James Buchanan is almost universally considered the worst president in American history for his bumbling administration that led up to the Civil War.
Unfortunately, Buchanan is far from alone. Scholars rate many of his 19th century predecessors on the list of the worst presidents in history. Truth be told what came after Lincoln was not much better which only makes Lincoln seem more remarkable. Buchanan was preceded by Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, John Tyler and Zachary Taylor, all midgets by comparison to Lincoln. William Henry Harrison also preceded Lincoln, but he’s usually given a free pass because he died only 31 days into his term leaving us with the unremarkable John Tyler, the first vice president ever to assume the office of president.