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Most Americans are hard pressed to identify presidents by their landmark accomplishments or failings. No doubt most remember Abraham Lincoln as the president who led the country through the Civil War, and Richard Nixon as the only chief executive to have resigned the office. But could more than a handful say what Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, or Theodore Roosevelt achieved during his White House term? How many Americans know that Woodrow Wilson was the architect of the Federal Reserve; that the Securities and Exchange Commission and the minimum wage began with FDR's New Deal; or that Lyndon Johnson was responsible for Medicare and federal aid to elementary, secondary, and higher education?
Presidential standing with the mass of Americans has been more about a man's character and inspirational leadership. Did he stand for something distinctive as president? Did he appeal to our better angels? Did he speak in memorable ways to what we value most about our national traditions? "With malice toward none; with charity for all," the "bully pulpit," "a war to make the world safe for democracy," and "Ask not what your country can do for you …" resonate with Americans more powerfully than any specific actions that Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, or John F. Kennedy took as president.
The Atlantic pieces excerpted here attest to why these four presidents exert an enduring hold on our imaginations. Lincoln's integrity and standing as a "statesman" rather than a "politician"; Wilson's regard for "originative personality" and the national tradition of individualism; Roosevelt's insistence that the country's best and brightest have indisputable civic responsibilities; and Kennedy's admiration for the artists and writers who speak truth to power reflect national core values that tie these presidents to every generation of U.S. citizens.
Lincoln for President (October 1860)
by James Russell Lowell
Shortly before the 1860 presidential election The Atlantic's editor, James Russell Lowell, came out in support of Abraham Lincoln, whom he commended as a "statesman" and a powerful voice against the spread of slavery. He predicted, accurately, that the election would prove to be "a turning-point in our history."
How Books Become Immortal (September 1891)
by Woodrow Wilson
In 1891 Woodrow Wilsonthen a popular professor at Princeton and a frequent contributor to The Atlanticconsidered what it is about the greatest authors that makes their works last. (Wilson later went on to become the president of Princeton, the governor of New Jersey, andafter defeating both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft in a three-way race in 1912the president of the United States.)
What College Graduates Owe America (August 1894)
by Theodore Roosevelt
Seven years before he assumed the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt, then a thirty-five-year-old member of the Civil Service Commission and a regular Atlantic contributor, argued that it is incumbent upon men of means and education to take an active role in public affairs.
The Purpose of Poetry (February 1964)
by John F. Kennedy
Less than a month before his assassination President Kennedy gave a speech at Amherst College in honor of the late poet Robert Frost. He emphasized the importance of the poet in American society as critic, commentator, and "champion of the individual mind and sensibility." The speech was later published in The Atlantic.