This text, like much of what I write, was aimed at my Filipino college audience, both fellow students and teachers; so some of the narrative is devoted to explanations of historical elements that might seem basic to an American. Months after I wrote this I learned that top U.S. history academics were surveyed in 2000, and by a significant margin they selected the same three people that I did. I suppose that means that either I think inside the box, or that academically, I’m in good company.
As a student of my country’s history, I often consider who I think qualifies as the greatest American. There have been many Americans considered great, but here I narrow the list down to the top three, and finally to the very greatest of the three.
To begin with, it’s important to define the qualifications. First I ask this question about the candidate: “Historically, was the existence of this person crucial to the existence of the United States?” If the question is answered “Yes” then the credentials are met.
I believe that the top three greatest Americans are all past U.S. presidents—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Anyone familiar with United States history agrees that these three are generally considered crucial to the country’s existence, with all three being at the helm during dark and pivotal times. In fact, their actions ensured either the origination or continued existence of the USA.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was president from January 1933 until he died of a brain aneurism in office in April 1945. The fact that he was elected four straight terms is remarkable in itself and resulted in the Constitution being amended to limit a president to no more than two consecutive terms. He won his first election in 1932, barely three years into the most devastating financial depression in world history. The U.S. unemployment rate was at an all time high of 25%, and even people lucky enough to have a job were suffering, mostly from a lack of confidence in the future and in them selves. Roosevelt had the ability to make people believe that there was hope, although some economy experts aver that his anti-business policies actually delayed our economic recovery—but that is debatable. What is undeniable is that Roosevelt was instrumental in guiding the United States through the travails of World War II. His words to the American public during his weekly fireside chats on the radio were reassuring and inspirational during the darkest times of his administration. Although he died just before final victory against Germany and Japan, much of the credit goes to him as Commander-in-Chief.
Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, running primarily on a platform of anti-slavery. It is ironic that this great man was THE most UNpopular president in U.S. history, and was seen by the pro-slavery southern states as one to deprive them of an institution that they saw as necessary to their way of life. They felt so strongly about their “rights” to own slaves that they seceded from the union just two months after his inauguration. Without hesitation Lincoln mobilized the loyal northern states and the American Civil War was begun. For two years Lincoln’s Army of the Republic was defeated in battle after battle, yet he never wavered. At times when the war seemed hopeless he always rejected advice to seek reconciliation with the rebel south and remained steadfast. He continually changed commanding generals until finally finding his champion in Ulysses S. Grant. He won his 2nd term to office in 1864 as his Federal army wore down the under-funded and out-manned southern army. In April 1865, only days after southern capitulation, southern sympathizer and actor, John Wilkes Booth, at Ford’s Theater, assassinated President Lincoln. If not for "Abe" Lincoln’s determination, there is a good chance that two sets of United States might now exist—a federal north and a confederate south.
George Washington was commander of the American Revolutionary Army from 1776 all the way through the five desperate years of the war of liberation against England. At the time, England was regarded as the world’s finest military power and virtually unbeatable. The American army consisted mostly of inexperienced and nearly unpaid colonials. The Brits beat this ragtag group of militia and regulars in almost every battle, yet Washington kept them in the fight by successfully retreating to fight another day. This went on for five years until 1781, when the over-confident British army allowed themselves to be trapped on the Virginian peninsula of Yorktown, where they were left with no choice except to surrender to a victorious General Washington. After this, the Brits sued for peace, and largely to the efforts of Washington, 13 disparate British colonies became the sovereign nation now called The United States of America. Not long afterwards he became the first president in a runaway election, but what seals him in my mind as the greatest American is what he did shortly after the end of the war. His triumphant army had not been paid or adequately supplied for months, and there was talk of a coup against the inept interim Continental Congress. Washington delivered a simple oration to his troubled officers and men, and shamefully with tears in their eyes, they realized they were about to throw away everything they had fought for. This single action prevented a successful revolution from imploding into chaos. Thanks goes completely to George Washington that the United States had survived its first test as a nation and it has pretty much prospered as the first modern democracy ever since.
Consider this—without George Washington, there would be no America. No one else could have kept together the faltering American Revolutionary Army--HIS army--during those many years of revolution, when materials were scarce and victories even scarcer. After liberation was won, he accepted the presidency PRIMARILY because the American people would have no one else for the job. So revered was Washington, that many wanted to make him king. He was appalled at the prospect and would not hear of it. In fact, he started the unwritten precedent of no more than two consecutive terms in office when he refused to run for a third term, even though he could have easily continued in office. In my mind he is without a doubt our greatest American!