Our presidential history is full of much prestige and accomplishment, but it's not hard to get the impression that Americans show a disturbing lack of knowledge of our presidential history, because of recent surveys showing who they think are the "best" presidents ever. Most surveys conducted for "greatest president" have names of living presidents, ignoring the contributions of some of our first leaders in creating the nation (Washington and Jefferson rarely appear on these lists). According to an ABC News survey, names like Abraham Lincoln (Republican), John F. Kennedy (Democrat), Ronald Reagan (Republican) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat) appear before George Washington (the primary leader of the American Revolution and our first president) and Thomas Jefferson (who drafted and created the philosophy behind the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution).
What did your history teacher teach you about our presidents, and what do they teach your children today about them? Lots of misconceptions exist today about what were failures and successes of their administrations. So we at the 'NAM thought it'd be a good idea to touch on obvious presidential misconceptions, and maybe in the process, we'll touch on some of the ideas that contribute to the New American Myth.
Debunking the Myth - Presidential Misconceptions:
"One of our best presidents was JFK, it's a shame he died at such a early age. What a tragedy."
John F. Kennedy, our 35th president, did have a grizzly public assassination, that is true. Yes, it was a tragedy, as it would be for any nation that had such a brutal public death. However, we should not glamorize JFK's administration because of his public image of being a youthful, vibrant president shot down in his prime. For the short time in office he had, he did little to justify being labelled our "Greatest President", and in fact, had he stayed in office his aggression towards the Soviet Union might've ignited World War III.
"JFK helped ease the tensions of the Cold War, look at how he resolved the Cuban Missle Crisis."
The best example of some of Kennedy's failures were in his foreign policy and attitude towards the Communists. It was JFK's administration that incited the Soviets to construct the Berlin Wall, after negotiations from U.S. representatives (at the behest of JFK) floundered with the Soviet leaders. JFK was active in sending armed men into combat to fight Communism, and one of the least of things we needed during the Cuban Missle Crisis was the Bay of Pigs incident, when JFK coaxed Cuban refugees to return to attempt to take over Cuba, only to have the revolt squandered and exposed as an American effort. Vietnam, a war that had nothing to do with America, was only in JFK's "interest" of staving off Communism.
These conflicts brought tensions to a boil internationally, at a time when the Soviet Union and the U.S. were in an arms building race to stockpile the most nuclear bombs. JFK was fanatical about anything Communist, openly threatening war on the Soviet Union for virtually any reason, for instance, once citing a call to war if Cuba attacked ANY nation in the Western hemisphere with a missle. Kennedy would often times directly order that Un-American activities be watched with a close eye, and according to "Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS from Kennedy to Nixon", documents show that Kennedy used the IRS to silence critics on a scale larger than Richard Nixon (who is notorious for such abuses). Kennedy believed Communism was a great threat to the U.S., so huge a threat that he often trodded on civil liberties of his own citizens to "protect" them from it (ironically, a practice used by Communist governments around the world).
JFK was one of the leading factors in turning the Cold War hotter, and it almost exploded. His Dallas assassination ended his career as president, and life, at a young age. While tragic, when praising his successes as a president, one must ask if the Cold War would've became nuclear war had JFK continued his aggressive interventionist foreign policy of stepping toe to toe with the Soviet Union.
"Lincoln freed the slaves, hands down, he's the best president."
It's been labelled as history revisionism to think anything else, but, factually, it was known that Lincoln did not fight the Civil War for the purpose of freeing slaves. No statement he made or legislation he passed (even the Emancipation Proclamation - which applied to only "rebellion" states, and actually freed very few slaves) ended slavery. A Thirteenth Amendment to Constitutionally end slavery only got Lincoln's support (and probably passed irregardless of that support) AFTER it was made obvious to him that abolitionism was a rallying call-to-arms for the war. A direct quote from him on the importance of slavery in the Civil War,
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. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause.
Lincoln, in his attempts to free slaves, did little more than do what he felt helped the war effort, freeing next to (and possibly) no slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation, concentrating more on not losing the South to secession than the issue of slavery. Lincoln's credit for freeing the slaves vastly ignores the underground civil rights movement and the modern-era accomplishments of civil rights activists. While definitely someone to encouraged abolitionism, it is blatant exaggeration to give him credit for ending slavery.
Many people, including a black abolitionist who stood as Lincoln's advisor on civil rights, Frederick Douglass, praised Lincoln for some bold stances he laid out which bolstered the confidence of the abolitionist movement. However, some of these people, like Douglass, also recognized that Lincoln's interests were more for the Union than the slave. In a speech addressed at the unveiling of the Freedman's Monument (a statue of a fatherly Lincoln standing over a shackled slave), despite the speech being full of much virtuous praise of Lincoln, Douglass is compelled, on the basis of truthfulness, to say the following...
"It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was pre-eminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country."
If the issue of slavery conflicted with Lincoln's goal to unify the Union, we might remember him much differently as a bigot, as opposed to the Great Emancipator. In light of this, only you can decide to what extent Lincoln was sincere in his slave-freeing efforts.
"Honest Abe also unified the U.S., without him, we'd probably still be fighting each other."
The Civil War was a very difficult period in American history. Irregardless of the slavery issue, Lincoln's response was negative in several regards.
1. It denied the Southern states a basic human right, one outlined in the Declaration of Independence as one of the "inalienable" rights: the right to seceed peacefully and establish a new "more perfect" union.
2. He suspended the "writ of habeas corpus", and established martial law in the Northern states. Without the writ, law is arbitrary, since no court order is needed to justify whether someone is imprisoned with due cause or not, and court orders can be totally ignored. During this time Lincoln used it to jail, without due process and evidence, political detractors who favored a peaceful resolution to the civil war conflict. Lincoln justified this action by claiming that all people who detracted from the war effort were criminals.
This practice continued by the military despite Supreme Court judgements ordering it to cease between the years of 1862-1866. The writ was officially restored when the courts recognized that the Constitution said that only Congress has the right to revoke the writ in a severe "state of rebellion". Since then only one other time has someone abolished the writ, that was F.D.R., who abolished it to imprison the American-Japanese during WW2 on suspicion of "Japanese subversion" in the notorious American concentration camps.
3. He furthered the infringements by ordering the military to seize printing presses of publishers who criticized his practices. On one noteable incident he made the following order:
"You will take possession by military force of the printing establishments of the New York World and Journal of Commerce ... and prohibit any further publication thereof.... You are therefore commanded forthwith to arrest and imprison ... the editors, proprietors and publishers of the aforementioned newspapers."
4. Lincoln also established an unconstitutional version of the Income Tax to help fund the war. This "temporary" provision evolved to become the Income Tax we still pay to this day.
5. Lincoln was the first president to institute Conscription (the draft) which is still a mechanism of government in play today. Conscription is an unnecessary tool of a free state, and one of the first signature features of malicious governing. The Air Force and Navy both have always had enough volunteers to fit their needs, and voluntary entry into the military has usually been more than enough to fit any engagement (for instance, the recent wars against Afghanistan and Iraq needed no draftees). Even the American Revolution was won with an army of volunteers and hired servicemen. Enslaving men to fight is contradictary to our founding values, and can even be said to be contradictary to the values behind Abolitionism.
Whether you think Lincoln was a war hero or not, the above clearly illustrates abuses of his presidential authority, blatantly ignoring the Constitution (and being one of the first presidents to do so on this scale). It stands simply as some more food for thought to contrast the rosier views on Lincoln.
"I think Reagan did more to protect American safety overseas than any president, look at what he did with Russia!"
Reagan "stood up to Russia", but all he managed to do was antagonize a nation that may have gone to war had it not been for it's collapsing economy. Reagan engaged in a tactic of financing foreign powers with money and arms to overthrow Communist leaders (ironically this was not much different than Soviet policies to finance the overthrow of non-Communist leaderships), including supporting Saddam Hussein and the Taliban when Russians invaded their respective nations. These policies, especially in recent history, have shown to have unsuspected negative results.
In the end, what Reagan did was outlast a dying nation, riddled with economic hardship due to years of failing Socialist policies. Reagan's antagonism of the Russian economy actually led to worsening economic situations at home in the long run, for intance, it created our near total dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
"Reagan stimulated the economy and lead us to a financially secure time."
Reagan didn't cut back on government spending, however, causing the deficit to balloon during his eight years in office, ultimately changing nothing except extending and expanding government programs which stayed in place even during recession. Policies like this were part of the major cause of our current 6.7 trillion dollars of national debt, and set a terrible precedent for future administrations. Reagan did reduce taxes, but by borrowing with deficit spending, he did in no way reduce government size or growth. In fact, national debt went up about 450% between the beginning of his administration and the end of the following term of his colleague and successor, George Bush (Sr.).
Despite bold statements, where he'd remind America that "government is not the solution", Reagan left America with expanded means for people to make government the "ultimate" solution. Even his famed tax code revisions left the income tax progressive and powerful. This was part of the same backwards-fighting mentality of FDR's "New Deal", which Reagan openly supported in his youth. (more on "New Deal" policy-making later)
"Reagan was great for morality, and he strengthened the family unit through his policies."
Divorce rates continued to rise, proving that morality cannot be provided from a presidential decree. Teenage pregnancy rates also continued to rise, as did crime in general, especially violent crime. While proclaimed a moral savior for using government to institute more religious reforms, Reagan really did next to nothing to observably slow the downfall of social values as the 1980's represented and era of increased acceptance of careless drug use, while violence and sex became even more pervasive throughout television, movies and music - which, while not necessarily immoral, shows that society moved on through the Reagan era irregardless of Reagan's policies about morality.
"Franklin D. Roosevelt proved that the working man can take charge of himself, without him, the Great Depression never would've ended like it did."
History teachers and politicians abroad espouse that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's policies ended the famed "Great Depression", however, economists and historians beg to differ. According to a Cato Institute policy report, FDR's policies may have prolonged the Great Depression, making it worse than it originally would have been.
Stark failures of FDR's administration during the era of the Great Depression:
1. During FDR's "New Deal" era, median annual unemployment rate was 17.2%, and at no point during the 1930's did it fall below 14%.
2. The 1937 peak of the depression was less in per capita output than the previous peak, in 1929. And it, of course, was followed by another crash.
3. It saw the largest peacetime expansion of federal authority ever in American history. This is the same kind of phenomenon we see in other post-WWI depressionary governments, like Germany and Italy, where their regimes (the Nazis and Fascists, respectively) came to power and made the federal authority far more powerful than it ever was before to "cope" with the depression. We'll leave the accuracy of this comparison for you to discover.
4. Straight from the Cato report: "The New Deal prolonged the Great Depression by doubling taxes, making it more expensive for employers to hire people, making it harder for entrepreneurs to raise capital, demonizing employers, destroying food, promoting cartels, breaking up the strongest banks, forcing up the cost of living, channeling welfare spending away from the poorest people, and enacting labor laws that hit poor African Americans especially hard."
5. FDR's policies taxed everyone to provide work that, ironically, put more private workers out of business - by monopolizing private trade into federal cartels - than it did to actually create jobs.
6. Most of the economic recovery didn't come until after WWII's large funneling of money into the wartime economy. In fact, the end of the Great Depression coincided more to the wartime boom than it did any FDR policy-making.
So, it's true, without FDR policy-making the Great Depression may not have ended like it did - it might've ended sooner.
"FDR's 'New Deal' was a revolution in American policy-making."
The New Deal caused at least one form of American Revolution: the Revolution of unmitigated, unstoppable, rampant and uncontrollable government growth irregardless of philosophical, moral and lawful justifications for it. The blatant attempt by FDR to Socialize our government is hard to ignore - he doubled taxes, increasing personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, estate taxes, excise taxes, gift taxes, he created new taxes like the undistributed wealth tax, taxes for programs to redistribute money, even taxes to create Socialistic federal cartels to run the economy from a centralized seat in Washington.
It may sound like exaggeration, but the New Deal marks one of the largest growths of the federal government ever, a growth rate which has retained itself even to this day. The "alphabet soup" of programs much resemble our modern-day government, and to this day, FDR's model of governing still exists.
The SEC threatened businesses small and large with lawsuits and criminal charges for non-compliance to their investment standards, and upon the inception of the SEC, noticably fewer companies were able to raise capital, largely due to complex filing procedures. FDR attacked the nation's companies by hiring 300 lawyers to compromise over 150 antitrust lawsuits. Analysis of stock market investments show that pre-depression capital was easier to raise than post-depression boom... if the Great Depression was caused by stock market investment depression, shouldn't the pre-depression stocks be depressed further than post-depression ones? Not if something was continuing to prevent employers from raising new capital and hiring new workers. FDR's various agencies did just this, making America an unsafe place to invest.
These Roosevelt "New Deal" reforms continued to break up America's strongest banks, by attacking the ones that diversified, instead of the national ones which were the real cause of Great Depression failure. Creation of the Federal Reserve centralized all banking ensuring that if there were to be a bank failure, the government would be the cause, ignoring that loans and holdings were best provided to the public by the strong private banking institutions like the kind that stood during the Great Depression era despite the worsening economy.
The National Recovery Administration (NRA) policies caused all sorts of havok on local business levels, by engaging in price-fixing and placing restrictions on employment, as did the AAA. In fact, the Roosevelt administration saw price-fixing was the solution to "save" the worker (from themselves, presumably), by "ensuring" their wage. All it did was ensure the employer couldn't afford to stay in business or expand, to create more jobs or provide better job security.
With more projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority wasting time flooding farmland and putting private contractors out of jobs, in the name of government works and monopolies, the "New Deal" sure was a revolution of some sort. We'll leave our readers to decide what sort that exactly is.
"Great programs like Social Security were started by FDR, so he is obviously one of our greatest presidents."
Social Security, part of the FDIC plan, was meant to provide all retirees with pension after they had become too old to work. However, unsound monetary practices within the centralized banking system have produced inflation, and applying inflationary adjustments (the Cost of Living Adjustment) to Social Security savings shows that it's nigh impossible not to pay an era's worth of inflationary interest with every Social Security check. No other investment programs have these problems, however, the federal ones do. Why?
Because simply put, the Federal government is not an "investment". It is a "redistribution". In fact, it operates at an inequity to collect these funds in the first place, losing money out the gate. Embracing a "opt out" provision of Social Security to help citizens find alternate means of retirement savings is often ignored by those who realize that in reality, you cannot have Social Security with an opt-out provision, because to continue Social Security without total bankrupcy you have to continue to increase federal taxation for it. Hence it's a total and abysmal failure as a federal program.
"With FDR's oversight, our government became what it is today."
FDR did help the government become what it is today, at least in the respect of it's unchecked growth into virtually every economic sector. The economy wasn't the only sector that FDR saw our government grow into. Fearful of the threat of Communism, FDR expanded the powers of the FBI (headed then by the now-notorious FBI head J. Edgar Hoover) to give them the ability to pretty much act openly, so long as Hoover used FBI resources to investigate his political rivals, such as Huey Long.
With FDR, we saw the same tradition that Lincoln started, and the same one that JFK and Reagan (as well as many other presidents past & present) continued... the era of government growth. If it wasn't growth through new agencies, regulations, or assumed military powers it was growth through increased taxes, higher deficit spending, or federal monopolies that kill jobs and private competition. The staff here at the 'NAM just felt it was only appropriate to remind our readers of these negatives, considering all the (possibly undue) praise these particular Democrat/Republican presidents have been recieving lately from their respective supporters in the popular press.
... Presidents past and present, if we're not careful, our memories of them will become just another part of the New American Myth we live in everyday.