David McCullough, biographer of John Adams, Teddy Roosevelt and Harry Truman was asked recently about the qualities that made these presidents along with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln truly great. He listed four:
George Washington, our first president had no example to go by. He set the standard, chose the title “president” over “king” and set an example for future presidents. Due to his popularity he could have stayed in office for life but chose instead to retire to his home at Mt. Vernon after his second term. Incidentally, George Washington (adjusting for inflation) has been our wealthiest president, amassing his fortune before he took office.
John Adams, our second president was the driving force behind the Declaration of Independence. He was the first to live in the White House (called the President’s House at the time) and added an inscription to the mantel of the fire
place that reads “I pray heaven to bestow the best blessing on this House, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise men ever rule under this roof!” McCullough emphasized that Adams placed the word “honest” before “wise”.
Abraham Lincoln was determined to preserve the Union and to abolish slavery. The country was divided on both issues but he had the courage to stay the course despite personal attacks and military setbacks. He made visits to the battlefields to see first-hand the price the nation was paying to stay the course and at Gettysburg he gave his famous address, ending with a tribute to the fallen soldiers – “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Teddy Roosevelt (my favorite) was determined to make the United States a naval power. To that end he recognized the value of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans for both commerce and defense. After years of frustration, he took steps to “seize” Panama from Columbia ensuring the construction of the Panama Canal. Later he sent 16 US battleships on a “cruise” around the world to send a not-so-subtle message that our nation had arrived as a world power.
Harry Truman was a long shot to defeat Thomas Dewey in the 1948 election. He campaigned by train taking his message directly to the people. People said “Give ‘em hell Harry.” President Truman replied “I tell them the truth. They just think it’s hell”.
So on this President’s Day, remember that character is reflected by deeds, not words.