Does War Make Presidents Great?

Today is Presidents’ Day in the United States. It’s a holiday declared by the federal government to celebrate the birthdays of two presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. George Washington is often called "the father of our country," and for good reason. Without his having led soldiers in the fight for independence from the British, we might not have had a separate country as soon as we did. But Abraham Lincoln is more problematic. He is known, of course, for leading the Northern states during what has variously been called the "Civil War," "the War Between the States," and the "War of Northern Aggression," and, of course, for ending slavery in the United States.

From an early age, I was a fan of Abraham Lincoln. I read books on him, including Stephen Vincent Benét’s book-length poem, John Brown’s Body. One of my favorite passages from John Brown’s Body is Benét’s description of Lincoln. (I write this passage from memory because the libraries are closed, the book is not online, and my books were destroyed in a recent fire.)

"He ain’t much on looks,
Much on speed.
A young dog can outrun him any time,
Outlick him and outeat him and outjump him.
But mister, that dog’s hell on a cold scent,
And, once he gets his teeth in what he’s after,
He don’t stop until he knows he’s dead."

I loved that passage, with the image of Lincoln as grimly persistent in pursuit of his goal. In the household in which I was raised, Lincoln was celebrated as the "Great Emancipator." It was only years later that I learned that that was only part of the story. It wasn’t just the well-known fact that Lincoln’s main concern was to keep the Union together and that ending slavery was, for him, a distinctly secondary issue. Recall his famous statement in his letter to newspaper publisher Horace Greeley:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union."

Beyond Lincoln’s lukewarm opposition to slavery was the fact that he suppressed so many people’s freedom in his attempt to quash dissent about his war. Many people today rightly criticize George W. Bush for his attacks on habeas corpus, the most important restriction on government action. But Lincoln made Bush look like a piker. Although Bush has put in place laws and policies that would allow him to put many people in prison without charging them with a crime, he appears to have used his power sparingly, at least on U.S. citizens. But Lincoln used his power against prominent political opponents. To translate to the current context, imagine that Bush threw Rep. Ron Paul or Sen. Russell Feingold in prison for the duration of the current war. That would put him on a par with Lincoln.

Even beyond that, though, is the huge number of people killed because Abraham Lincoln was president. It takes two to tango, of course, and so the Southern leaders were also to blame. But what if the two sides had gotten together to negotiate a dissolution of the Union with a freeing of the slaves and a compensatory payment from northern taxpayers to southern slaveholders? Why should the North have had to compensate the South for freeing the slaves? It shouldn’t have. But which is better: taxing people in the North at high rates for a short time but not getting them killed or taxing people in the North at high rates for a short time and getting many of them killed? The former is what would have happened had an agreement been struck; the latter is what did happen because the two sides went to war. It strikes me that high tax rates and no deaths are better than high tax rates and hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Consider what Americans and American historians think about when they judge whether a president is "great." One of the first things they think about is whether he led the nation in a war, preferably a war that the United States won. So, for example, Franklin D. Roosevelt is often judged to be great because of World War II. As it happens, I think the United States might have needed to get involved in the European part of World War II, but Roosevelt could have easily avoided war with Japan. FDR’s measures to cut off a major part of the oil supply to Japan helped lead to the Japanese government’s attack on Pearl Harbor. So FDR certainly does not deserve the "great" label for his actions in the war with Japan.

Or consider Woodrow Wilson, who got the United States into World War I. There was a war that the United States could easily have avoided. Moreover, had the U.S. government avoided World War I, the treaty that ended the war would not likely have been so lopsided. The Versailles Treaty’s punitive terms on Germany helped set the stage for World War II. So it’s reasonable to think that had the United States not entered World War I, there might not have been a World War II. Yet, despite his major blunder, which caused over 100,000 Americans to die in World War I, Wilson is often thought of as a great president.

Another "great" president, Theodore Roosevelt, pushed for war before becoming president and continued McKinley’s war to make the Philippines into a colony after McKinley was murdered.

Can you think of any presidents who are called "great" but who neither got the United States involved in a major war nor carried out a major bloodbath in a war they inherited? I can’t.

Is the pattern becoming clear? I think it’s clear to George Bush. I think it’s also clear to Hillary Clinton. If we really want peace, we need current and future presidents to get the message. And to do that, we need to stop celebrating presidents who made unnecessary wars.

Copyright © 2007 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

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Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at