Posts tagged Presidents

Best Presidents? Please…

So apparently a group of Historians ranked presidents and Lincoln trumped the list. I don’t really have a problem with this sort of ranking of presidents. I guess it is a fun thing for historians to argue over. Its fine. Really.

BUT, I do think that it shows a lack of moral perspective when a man like James K. Polk is on the top ten  of that list, ranked as number nine. He is responsible for the illegal and unjust war against Mexico and the essential stealing or highly valuable land. Manifest Destiny, for which Polk was a cheerleader, is not something to be championed, or remembered for some sort of great feat. Manifest Destiny is the idea that America was ‘destined’ to spread from ocean to ocean. Where Polk and his followers came up with this divine plan is irrelevant. Polk’s expansionism and rightousness in America’s ‘destiny’ reminds me of Zionism. The idea that political and worldly borders are even in the concern of a higher being is laughable. 

The list writes of Polk:

Polk was one of the greatest presidential advocates of the idea that expanding the Union from the Atlantic to the Pacific was “manifest destiny”. Victory in the war with Mexico allowed the United States to acquire California, Nevada, and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.  “Trounced the Mexicans and dramatically increased the size of the Union, all in one term.” Chris Ayres.

I don’t know who this Chris Ayres is, I think some celebrity reporter turned war correspondant, but he is hardly what I would call a ‘historian.’ And how is ‘trouncing’ Mexicans a good thing? This list that is being talked so much about because it ranked Bush 36th overall and 41st in international relations.I think it is dangerous to teach people that men like Polk were ‘good’ for the country. To be honest, I would rank George W. Bush before him. At least Bush didn’t support slavery and its expansion. I just take issue with celebrating such a terrible president and person like Polk. I guess one could say he was an influential president because he did expand America by instigating a war and stealing land, but one of the ‘greatest’? That’s terrible.

I don’t think people with any sort of intellectual inclinations give lists like these any attention, but for those who do, please know that James Polk represents what has made America have the reputation for being a nation that runs out ‘others’ so that it can increase its wealth and power. And, it might be noted, that Polk was from Tennessee and one of his main reasons for acquiring the territory from Mexico was so that he could expand slavery west within the guidelines of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. How are we going to say that the best president is the one who ended slavery while saying that the others in the top ten are the ones who expanded slavery?

But I guess this whole argument is as pointless as a list ranking American Presidents, because honestly all American Presidents acted in ways that hurt the American people and the world at large. Andrew Jackson personally murdered Native-Americans, FDR interned innocent Japanese Americans, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and Truman dropped nuclear weapons on Japan and instigated an arms race that is still dogging world geopolitics.

But I take personal offense to the idea that James Polk was a great president. It was Henry David Thoreau who wrote in Civil Disobedience that the war in Mexico was unjust and it was the responsibility of American citizens to protest the injust state actively. Thoreau was imprisoned for a short time for refusing to pay taxes that went towards an unjust war that brutalized the Mexican people and sought to expand and support human slavery. Instead of honoring James K. Polk and his presidential and political cronies, I would suggest that we as Americans learn from people like Thoreau who stood up for justice and peace. The people in History that made America better than what it was are the thinkers and actors who protested the policies of our presidents. 

LBJ was probably the best president for civil rights, but he would not have been able to pass the civil rights legislation if it wasn’t for the people who advocated it, like Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, WEB Dubois, Ella Baker, MLK Jr, Malcolm X, and so on. The reason why Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States resonates with so many people is because it does not blindly champion presidents for the expansion and domination that has been the theme of American History.

The heroes of American History are not presidents, and are definitely not presidents like James Polk.


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