Our Historical Memory . . . Or Lack Thereof

It was 241 years ago today that the Continental Congress approved the wording of the Declaration of Independence. Although Thomas Jefferson drafted the document, there was a committee that was responsible for sending it to the floor of the Congress. Two of those committee members were John Adams and Benjamin Franklin.

Jefferson later said that he didn’t write anything original, that he was merely putting into words the consensus of the era concerning rights that come from God and the necessity of forming a new government.

The preamble tells us that there is a Law of Nature (a phrase traced back historically to the book of Romans in the Bible) and that our Creator granted men certain rights that government cannot take away.

The final paragraph included an appeal to “the Supreme Judge of the world” for the rightness of their motives in making the move to independence and ends with these stirring words:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, & our sacred honour.

They meant it. Many suffered for this action. They knew they were now prime targets, seen as traitors to the Crown.

What remains of our historical memory?

Point out this ignorance to some of our educators and what response might you get?

I remember very well the day in class when I found out that some of my students couldn’t write cursive. I was stunned. The loss of that skill is another blow against historical knowledge:

The Fourth of July became a major celebration for the first time on its fiftieth anniversary in 1826. Since Jefferson and Adams were still alive, they were invited to the celebrations, but both begged off due to their health. The nation was then startled a few days later by the news that both had died on the Fourth of July, exactly fifty years after their historic participation in the framing of the Declaration.

Odd as it may seem to some, that news sparked unity in the nation, as if God held off their deaths for that specific day to highlight the significance of American independence.

Unity. What a nice concept.

Are we worse off now than ever? As a historian, I know there have been worse times in some ways—the Civil War, the Great Depression. We came through those, but what about today?

Our problem may be worse today with the rapid decline in our culture’s Biblical worldview. As you go about your celebrations today, pray for God’s mercy on our nation.

Virginia’s Historic State House

VA CapitolOver the past week, I’ve been chronicling my visit back to Virginia, where I’ve spent most of my adult life, and the tour I led for students. One more post about that, then I’ll get back to some commentary on the latest developments causing agitation in the nation’s capital. For today, I’d like to focus on Virginia’s capital, Richmond, and the Capitol at its center.

I didn’t take this photo, obviously, and was kept from taking any on the outside by the torrential rain we endured while walking in Richmond last Friday, thanks to the tropical storm that blanketed the east coast. But the rain couldn’t dampen the historical significance of this place.

Capitol RotundaThis capitol building opened for business in 1788, only seven years after Virginia’s capital moved from Williamsburg to Richmond. In its rotunda is a one-of-a-kind sculpture of George Washington. In 1785, renowned French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon arrived in the new United States for the express purpose of fashioning a lifelike statue of Washington. Houdon spent two weeks at Mt. Vernon where he measured Washington meticulously and made a life mask of his face. He then searched for the best white marble he could find, without any streaks of gray, and completed the statue, which was installed in the rotunda in 1796. This is the only life-sized statue of Washington in existence made directly from those measurements and life mask. When you look at this masterpiece, you are seeing the genuine George Washington in a way that no portrait can convey.

Capitol-Jefferson RoomWe toured all the historic rooms on the main floor. One had a full wall painting of the storming of Redoubt #10 at Yorktown, the decisive assault that led to the victory there and the end of the American War for Continued Self-Government [a.k.a., the American Revolution for those who are unaware of my renaming fetish]. Then we entered the Jefferson room—pictured here—which is fitting, since Thomas Jefferson was the brains behind the Capitol’s architecture. What I didn’t realize until this tour is that the Virginia Capitol served as the site for the recent Steven Spielberg film Lincoln. I’ve seen the film but wasn’t aware this building was used for it. The guide said it took three months of filming; it also took a lot of work to cover up all modern additions—electric lights, newer portraits, etc., to give it the 1865 look and feel.

Capitol-Old House 1The old House of Delegates chamber is now used primarily for tours, but it has seen its lion’s share of historic moments. Nearly every Virginian associated with the first century of the state’s history has passed through this room. There are busts of Patrick Henry, John Marshall, George Wythe, and many others. At the center of the room, seen here on the left, is a large statue of Robert E. Lee, who refused Lincoln’s offer to command the Union armies and instead took control of Virginia’s state militia. The statue stands on the spot where he accepted that command. While I’m not a fan of the Confederate cause, one can still have respect for a man such as Lee, who was no advocate of slavery and acted as his conscience led him. I disagree with his decision, but cannot condemn the man himself.

Capitol-New House 2Our final stop was in the current House chamber, which was used in the Lincoln movie as the stand-in for the U.S. House chamber. It’s kind of amazing how they were able to hide all the modern aspects such as microphones and buttons on the desks, as well as the electronic voting screens on the front wall. This is a beautiful room also. I really need to see Lincoln again to try to identify all the scenes that took place in the Capitol. It would be a nice exercise for me in particular since my first degree was in radio, tv, and film production—a marriage, in a sense, of that degree with my history doctorate.

We also visited the Museum of the Confederacy and the Confederate White House. At the museum, we listened to a fascinating account of how people in the Civil War era handled death and mourning, and all the beliefs and rituals associated with the loss of loved ones. At the White House, I could picture in my mind not only the reality of Jefferson Davis living there, but also the day Lincoln was able to walk into that house and rejoice that the long war he had overseen was about to conclude.

I always enjoy my trips back to the Old Dominion; the history is palpable everywhere. My students on this trip are not history majors, but I hope this time together sparked a lifelong interest in our American heritage.

Monticello & Yorktown: The Tour Continues

Monticello FrontOur tour of historic southeastern Virginia continues. Tuesday was a full day at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. I’ve been to Monticello numerous times, but every time I learn more. Particularly interesting was the interpreter’s talk about slavery at the plantation. He interspersed the overall picture with vignettes from the lives of various slaves who labored there. There were three levels of slavery at the plantation: farm workers; artisans/craftsmen; house servants. One family—the Hemings—was almost slave royalty, resented by those who didn’t get the same privileges. If the name Hemings sounds familiar, it’s because Jefferson might have been the father of a number of those children via Sally Hemings.

Jefferson was a complex man in some ways, engaged in the world of politics but liking nothing better than to experiment with various plants and garden seeds. He also was fascinated with architecture, and never really completed his vision for what Monticello should be.

Dome Room 2In all my previous trips to the house, I just took the basic tour, but this time we had a more extensive tour that took us into the upper levels, even to the famous dome on the top. It was nice to be part of a smaller group for this special peek into areas where tourists normally don’t go. Yet for all Jefferson’s ingenuity, there is an incompleteness to the house that you can feel. He was never satisfied.

Historians like to talk about how brilliant he was, but he certainly didn’t come to a brilliant conclusion in his religious beliefs. I was able to peruse his version of the gospels at the bookstore, and it was exactly as I have often taught: the supernatural is omitted, and it ends with Jesus being laid in the grave. There is no resurrection account.

Jefferson wanted people to follow the morals of the Bible, but not the One who established those morals from eternity.

Nelson HouseYesterday was Yorktown day, scene of the final major battle of the American Revolution. We didn’t have time to drive around the battlefield itself, although I would like to do so sometime since I’m now more focused on those details than before—I now teach an upper-level course on the era. That will have to wait for another time. One of our stops, though, was the Thomas Nelson house in historic Yorktown. Nelson was governor of Virginia at the time of the Battle of Yorktown in September-October 1781. The town was occupied by the British under Gen. Cornwallis. There’s some evidence that Nelson’s house may have served as the headquarters for the general.

Nelson was at the battle, but outside the town as part of the besieging army. He is said to have told Washington not to spare even his own home if it would mean the surrender of the British troops. I’m not sure that bit of information is adequately documented, but it does apparently showcase Nelson’s attitude and his commitment to the cause.

While we were there, I thought I’d get a good picture of some of my traveling companions in Nelson’s garden. Nothing historic in this photo, but I just thought it was a neat picture:

Nelson Garden

On the edge of the historic district is the monument commemorating the victory.

Yorktown Monument

Although the standard name for this war always has been the American Revolution—and I have to use that name so people will know what I’m talking about—I tell students that a more accurate name would be The American War for Continued Self-government. You see, in this “revolution” the “haves” were the leading figures, not the “have-nots.” They weren’t trying to uproot a system; they hoped to salvage the good in it. They had governed themselves for many decades, and the British government changed the status quo. If you really want to see the revolutionaries of the period, look three thousand miles across the Atlantic. The united colonies, which became the United States, achieved their original aim: self-government was established once again.

Presidents Without Knowledge

George Washington 21794

Reporter: President Washington, could you please comment on the rebellion brewing in this country over the excise tax? We hear rumors that you are going to be sending troops to deal with that, and that you yourself may be leading those troops? Is that true, sir?

Washington: Sir, as you should know, that is an ongoing investigation. It would not be proper for me to comment on that at this time. Please do not believe all the rumors you hear.

Thomas Jefferson 21803

Reporter: President Jefferson, is it true that you have been holding secret meetings with French representatives with regard to a vast tract of land called Louisiana? Why would you have any dealings with an egomaniac like Napoleon?

Jefferson: Surely you realize it would be a breach of diplomatic etiquette to comment on this. Besides, I personally have no knowledge of any such secret meetings.

Andrew Jackson 41832

Reporter: Is it true, President Jackson, that you are threatening to hang Sen. John C.  Calhoun over South Carolina’s attempt to nullify a tariff passed by Congress?

Jackson: I have made no public statement to that effect. If anyone ever said anything of that sort, I assure you I would be outraged and would go to the ends of the earth to bring that miscreant to justice. Now get out of my way. I have to go the general store. I’m short on rope.

Abraham Lincoln 81864

Reporter: It has been reported, President Lincoln, that Gen. Sherman, having taken Savannah, sent you a telegram offering the city as a Christmas present. Is that permissible, sir? Can a general give a president a city for a present? Wouldn’t that be highly improper?

Lincoln: I can assure you that I will put my top people on this immediately to investigate whether Gen. Sherman ever made such an outrageous offer. I can affirm, though, that I have no personal knowledge of any such telegram. If anyone in my administration is hiding it from me, they will be dealt with. Now, please excuse me; I have a war to win for the people.

Woodrow Wilson 21917

Reporter: President Wilson, now that we have entered this Great War, your administration has pushed for a sedition act that can be used to muzzle reporters. We’re told it may allow the government to imprison and fine anyone who dares to criticize the war effort. Is that true?

Wilson: Absolutely not. My administration respects the Constitution of the United States. An integral part of that Constitution is the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press. Reporters should always be free to pursue a story or express an opinion. Now, what did you say your name is? For whom do you work? Are you in any way involved as a conspirator against your government?

FDR 21945

Reporter: Now that you are back from the Yalta Conference, President Roosevelt, can you tell us what was decided behind those closed doors? What did you, Churchill, and Stalin agree to? Surely you must be aware that rumors are swirling about how much you gave away to the Soviet Union. Would you please comment?

Roosevelt: I can assure all Americans that I would never “give away the store,” so to speak. I can vouch for Stalin personally. He is a great friend of the United States. We want to support him sacrificially—give him everything he needs to help spread his brand of democracy. But why are you seeking information of a secret nature? Are you from Fox?

Bill Clinton-Esquire1998

Reporter: President Clinton, what’s this we hear about the Oval Office being used for rather unpresidential purposes?

Clinton: If that were the case, I would be very angry, even angrier than you or the American people. But as you know, this is an ongoing investigation so I cannot comment on it. Besides, it’s not as if the Oval Office is part of my administration. Yes, it’s in the house where I live, but I rarely go there, and when I do, you can be sure it’s for official business only. I’ve put my best person on the job of looking into this. Attorney General Janet Reno is absolutely trustworthy. I can attest she has followed my orders to a “T” in all those other investigations into the bogus scandals of which I have been accused.

Obamessiah2013

Reporter: With all these scandals swirling around your administration, how has this affected your ability to do your job, President Obama?

Obama: Scandals? What scandals? Job? What job? I have no knowledge of either. I have no knowledge of anything. I am clueless. Where are my golf clubs?

Barton & Jefferson (Continued & Concluded)

Last Friday, I wrote a post about the controversy over Thomas Nelson ceasing publication of David Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies. My aim was to offer a balanced perspective: I appreciate Barton’s ultimate goal of restoring the knowledge of our nation’s Biblical heritage, yet I take issue with him over trying to force someone like Jefferson into the Christian mold. From my own study of the Founding era and of Jefferson himself, I cannot subscribe to the view that Jefferson was an orthodox Christian.

Barton has written a response at his Wallbuilders site to some of the critiques that others have leveled at him. I read his response, and I now have a response to that. Without going into all the details he presents, I will focus on two of his points.

First, Barton takes aim at academic elites who think they are the absolute experts with respect to historical knowledge and proper understanding of primary documents. I have a lot of sympathy with this critique, but a few qualms as well. After successfully navigating through a doctoral program myself, I can say with complete confidence that having letters such as “p,” “h,” and “d” after one’s name does not confer omniscience. There also is a great temptation to believe you are now in a select fraternity of the privileged; there’s almost a gnostic “special knowledge” quality to this temptation. And yes, there are some professional historians with an agenda who want to rip out all the vast evidence of the Biblical underpinnings of American society and government. But one must be careful not to paint all those with history doctorates with that broad stroke.

After what I wrote on Friday, some may view me as part of that fraternity. Well, that would be almost laughable. I’ve spent most of my post-doctoral existence critiquing that very fraternity as a close-knit group of thinkers and writers who think with and write to one another. Very few of them write a book that the general public is aware of. My desire has always been to provide well-documented, scholarly writing that is geared more toward a general audience. When I penned my doctoral dissertation on Noah Webster, for instance, I determined to break from dissertationese and write in a fashion that could be understood and appreciated by a wider audience than merely my dissertation committee.

So, yes, I agree with Barton that a fraternity of the elite does exist; however, many of his critics do not belong to that fraternity, so to lump everyone together into an amorphous academic elite does not effectively answer the criticisms of his book.

Another part of his defense that I found weak was his assertion that Jefferson only wandered off the Christian path toward the end of his life. I think it is pretty obvious Jefferson was a good Anglican in his younger days only as an external convention; it was how he was raised and what was expected of him. I doubt he ever made any kind of real commitment to orthodox Christian faith. Even when Barton writes of Jefferson’s deviations from some points of doctrine, he does not emphasize that Jefferson denied the deity of Christ. No one who denies the deity of Christ can be a Christian. And this deviation didn’t wait until his later years; his time in France in the mid-1780s marks a decided turn in his views. Jefferson loved French society with its permissiveness in both thought and action. It was this very permissiveness and decadence that turned the stomach of John Adams when he went to France.

I think Barton has chosen the wrong person to try to redeem historically. In my view, Jefferson doesn’t rank very high in a list of Founders who deserve our admiration. Yes, he wrote the Declaration of Independence, but even he later noted he didn’t contribute anything original to the document; he was simply putting into words the general consensus of the time. Yes, he attended church services in the Capitol, but he did so primarily because he thought it important that the chief executive give his approval to religion. He saw religion as beneficial to society with respect to its morals, but he never submitted his life to the One who set the moral standard.

I also defend Jefferson as the author of the “separation of church and state” letter. That letter was not a declaration of complete separation of faith from public office, but only an affirmation to Baptists that the federal government was not going to set up an official church. Further, I use some Jefferson quotes that are quite pithy with respect to federalism and taxes. He is very quotable, and sometimes says exactly what I wish to communicate to my students. So I don’t despise Jefferson, but I do have a critique of his character and worldview throughout his long tenure in public office.

Before we put Jefferson on a pedestal, consider the following:

  • There has been much controversy over his relationship with Sally Hemings, a slave on his plantation. It is not conclusive that Jefferson fathered children with Hemings; it could have been his younger brother Randolph. Yet I personally believe it is more probable that the elder Jefferson is the father. Honest people can disagree on this point, but Jefferson’s close relationship with Maria Cosway [a married woman] while he was in France and his general acceptance of lax French morality lend themselves to that probability. Jefferson also freed Hemings’s children at the end of his life. He didn’t do that for any of his other slaves.
  • In the 1790s and beyond, Jefferson was enamored of the French Revolution, which, at one point, carried out a policy of dechristianization. He never came to grips with the violent nature of that revolution and supported it completely.
  • As George Washington’s Secretary of State, Jefferson continually worked behind the scenes to undermine Washington’s policy toward France, which was neutrality. He even sponsored a newspaper that was set up for the express purpose of lambasting the Washington administration and Washington personally. Jefferson harbored the belief that Washington was trying to set himself up as a king. Early in his second term, Washington lost patience with the disloyal Jefferson and would have sacked him had Jefferson not resigned his position.
  • John Adams was elected president in 1796. In a quirk that was later corrected by a constitutional amendment, Jefferson became his vice president even though he was in the opposing party. Adams, to his credit, reached out a hand of friendship to Jefferson and sought to bring him aboard as an active colleague in his administration. Jefferson rejected the hand of friendship and worked to replace Adams with himself in the next election. He placed his own personal political interest ahead of the nation’s well-being.
  • As president, Jefferson, in tandem with a Congress dominated by his party, placed an embargo on all American goods in an attempt to keep American shipping out of the Napoleonic wars. This relegated an entire section of the nation, New England, to potential poverty. It also just happened to be the section that was the most anti-Jefferson politically. The embargo was a major disaster for American commerce and prosperity, it had to be repealed as one of the final acts of the Jefferson administration, and Jefferson left office a defeated man. His presidency was looked upon as a failure due to this.
  • Although fiscally prudent as president, Jefferson was profligate in his personal finances. He continually spent more money than he had. At one point, he sold his entire library to try to pay his debts. It became the foundation of the Library of Congress. However, he fell back into debt again, and at his death his home, Monticello, along with all his slaves, had to be sold to cover his obligations.

Jefferson’s contributions to the American Founding were mixed. His positives were either balanced by his negatives or his negatives outweighed his positives. That’s a judgment call. However, I would advise Barton and others not to spend so much time resuscitating Jefferson’s reputation. There are other Founders who deserve more attention. To Barton’s credit, he has not ignored other Founders who have a Christian foundation, and when he focuses on them, he can continue to perform a valuable service. But it’s time to stop attempting to defend the indefensible.

David Barton, Thomas Jefferson, & Historical Accuracy

Those who know me know I’m convinced America’s roots are fundamentally Biblical. I deplore efforts to wipe out Biblical influence in the Founding of this country. However, I also deplore any effort to force a Christian interpretation on certain events or individuals. We must be honest with the evidence.

The drive to reestablish the basis for our Biblical roots, at least in more popular Christian reading, probably began with Peter Marshall’s The Light and the Glory, which appeared in the 1970s. I read it at the time and was impressed, although I also was slightly disturbed by how the author concocted conversations between historical figures. Literary license, I guessed. Since then, many have entered the field, trying to augment what Marshall began.

The most successful writer in this genre has been David Barton. I’ve read a number of his books and have appreciated the fact that he has tried to unearth documentation that others might have missed. In fact, I was pleased when he admitted that one supposed James Madison quote everybody was using to show that the Founders based our government on the Ten Commandments was, in fact, spurious. That displayed honesty, and I always seek that in someone who names the name of Christ. We must be honest above all.

Barton’s latest book, The Jefferson Lies, was published by Thomas Nelson, a respected Christian publishing house. I admit I haven’t yet read the book, but that’s going to be a moot point very soon. Thomas Nelson has ceased its publication and pulled it from the market. Is this a case of pressure from the historical profession, which is so secular it doesn’t want to give Barton’s views a chance to be heard? If so, why are conservative Christian historians critiquing it? Have they gone over to the dark side?

One of the goals of the book is to establish Jefferson as a Founder who didn’t really abandon Christian orthodoxy, among other presumed lies about the third president. There’s only one problem with that: Jefferson did indeed desert orthodox Christianity and considered it a superstition. All one has to do is read many of his letters to John Adams, another of the Founders who fell away from the faith. In one of my earlier blog postings, I pointed specifically to a letter Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, in which he stated he was a Christian, but only in the sense that he was following a Jesus who never claimed to be anything other than a man. In other words, Jefferson admired Jesus’ moral teachings, but didn’t consider him to be God.

Then there’s Jefferson’s Bible. Yes, it was meant to be used to help spread civilization to the Indians, but it was never, in Jefferson’s mind, to be used to convert them to orthodox Christianity. He really did reject the miraculous in the gospels, declaring them to be later insertions by Christians who wanted to make Jesus into more than He really was. That’s why he omitted miracles—even Jesus’ resurrection— in his version of the gospels. There’s just no getting around those facts. They are well established by solid research, and as a Christian, I have to accept their validity.

I certainly don’t mean to speak ill of Barton. I can sympathize with his desire to highlight the role of Christian faith in our Founding. But we do the Christian faith a disservice when we go beyond what the evidence reveals, thereby undermining whatever good we may do otherwise.

Are there historians who denigrate Christianity’s influence in our formative years? Absolutely. Some will ignore vital evidence that points to that influence. Yet the antidote is not to commit the same error on the other side. While I don’t think a non-professional historian like Barton should be dismissed simply because he hasn’t jumped through all the hoops to earn a doctorate, nevertheless, some of those hoops are valuable. I’m glad I had to learn research methods and read widely on the various eras of American history. That training, in itself, is not secular; it all depends on how it is used.

I’ve taught American history now for more than twenty years. When I teach my introductory course that focuses on America from its colonial beginnings to the aftereffects of the Civil War, I begin by showing students that different schools of historical interpretation exist. I take them through a school of thought that believes all the good of America’s Founding came from the Enlightenment’s embrace of human reason. Historians from that school summarily dismiss the Pilgrims as a group hardly worth mentioning and portray the Puritans as harmful for their autocratic ways and doctrinal dogmas.

After that, I tell them about those who are so focused on the existence of slavery during this era that they assume the Founders are all hypocrites who offer us nothing valuable as a study. At the opposite extreme, I say, are those who view the Founding as a Golden Era, almost a utopia, where all things were Christian. I then let them know I have issues with all three of those schools of interpretation.

Finally, I present where I’m coming from as I look at American history, particularly its Founding Fathers. I believe it’s important to inform students where a professor stands on major interpretational issues. No one learns in a vacuum. I tell them I see the Founding era as one based on Biblical principles. This means the consensus of the society at that time was Christian, and human laws were based on a Biblical concept that God’s law was supreme and eternal, and that societal laws had to be in accordance with God’s law. Not everything was perfect and/or Christian; neither were all the Founders. Yet there was a general agreement that society functioned best when Biblical values were incorporated into it.

Some Christian historians don’t agree with me. They don’t see the influence of the faith as readily as I do. That’s their prerogative. Yet I must be sure that my arguments for my views are as historically sound as possible. I cannot try to prove that which is demonstrably untrue. I’m afraid David Barton fell into that error this time. I sincerely hope, for his sake and for the sake of accuracy in Christian historiography, that he will reconsider what he is attempting to prove. I want nothing but the best for him personally; that starts with acknowledging he has misstated the historical evidence in this case.

Meanwhile, I genuinely hope that my fellow historians will be just as eager to hold their more secular colleagues accountable for any inaccuracies they espouse. The critique needs to apply equally.

Presidents, Polls, Professors, & the Public

Young America’s Foundation is an organization devoted to conservative principles in culture and government. While it doesn’t claim to be openly Christian—other conservatives are welcome—the concepts it promotes are consistent with Biblical principles. In the last few years, it has established the Reagan Ranch Center in Santa Barbara, where it holds a number of significant seminars and conferences. The organization also bought the Reagan Ranch in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, and is keeping it as Ronald Reagan had it when he lived there. I’ve visited with some of the leaders, both in Virginia and Santa Barbara, but haven’t yet had the opportunity to go to Reagan’s ranch. The last time I was there, I was told to just let them know ahead of time, and on my next trip, they would arrange a visit. Unfortunately, I haven’t been back since; not sure when I’ll be able to go again.

Recently, the Foundation commissioned a poll of college and university professors. They took the opinions of 284 professors on the ranking of presidents. Which presidents did they consider to be the most influential and/or most effective? What grade would they give each president? The answers may not surprise you.

Not one of these professors considered Reagan as his/her top choice. Sixty percent didn’t even put him in the top ten of all presidents. Overall, they gave him a C+ for his achievements, apparently overlooking the tremendous economic resurgence during the 1980s, his pivotal meetings with Gorbachev, and the ultimate demise of the Soviet Union, stemming from the combined efforts of Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. In fact, when they were asked to state what they considered to be Reagan’s greatest accomplishment, nearly 1/5 of them could come up with nothing.

Here are some other indicators of how college professors view American presidents:

  • When asked to list their picks for the three greatest presidents, they mentioned FDR more times than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison.
  • They mentioned FDR four times as often as Reagan.
  • FDR ranked in the top three presidents for 54% of these professors.
  • Overall, Bill Clinton received six times as many favorable mentions as James Madison, the Father of the Constitution.

From where does this stem? Well, three times as many professors identified themselves as liberal than as conservative. The review of this poll that I read doesn’t break down the professors by discipline, but I would suspect that most of them were history or political science professors, and the fact that there were three times as many liberals as conservatives only surprises me in the sense that I thought the divergence might be even greater, given the stance taken by national leadership for these disciplines.

Now for a counterpoint. In February of 2011, the Gallup organization polled Americans nationwide to determine their idea of who should be considered the greatest presidents. In that poll, Reagan came in first, 5 points ahead of Lincoln. Reagan also topped the list in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and ranked first or second in eight of the ten “Greatest President” polls conducted by Gallup since 1999.

I have my own critique of public opinion polls, and how they seem to fluctuate based on the public’s feelings rather than facts. I don’t always consider the majority viewpoint to be the most accurate. Yet I find this poll fascinating. What it indicates is that as time has gone by, people are looking back at the Reagan years with increasing fondness. I think they remember them, when compared to today, as solid, strong, and patriotic. They believe that America came back from the brink in the 1980s, after the disastrous events of the 1960s and 1970s. Reagan was the antidote to LBJ, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. He called us back to our roots, and that led to revitalization.

I believe America can be called back again, and I believe we can overcome the national disgrace of the Obama years. The only question is: will we do so this November? The future is not fixed; our decisions can redirect the ship of state as well as the drift of the culture. One more thing: Christians need to take the lead in this redirection. Now is the time to call us back to a humble dependence on the One who will bless if we come to Him in genuine repentance and a sincere desire to do His will.