Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.

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Trying Men's Soul

Bil Johnson
Bil Johnson

Yale University
Lecturer at Brown University

Bil has over 25 years of experience as a public school teacher. Before his current role as a teacher at the Urban Assembly School in NYC, Bil was a senior lecturer at Brown University.


We're continuing our look at the US presidency. And I mentioned in a previous episode, people who define presidency; George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and Andrew Jackson. Now we're going to look at four more presidents, who I think refine the leadership and the definition of presidency. We'll look at Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Let's start with Abe Lincoln. Many historians, you probably already know them, many historians consider Lincoln as the greatest president. Well Lincoln and Washington tied for first. Washington of course because he started the country and did an incredible job. But Lincoln was faced with probably the greatest crisis ever in the history of the United States, and that was the civil war. And somehow, some way, Lincoln did it. He didn't let the south succeed. He didn't let the south leave the union. The south said, "No, we want to be a confederation," and again the terms federation and confederation. "We want to be a loose alliance of states that have slavery by the way. And we don't want to be part of the federal union we're leaving."

And basically Lincoln says, "No you're not," and he uses the power of the federal government. It's his leadership in a number of areas that really keeps the union together. It's his use of the resources at hand, it's asserting the presidency when he feels like he has to, and the miraculous thing is he does keep the union together, and that's far and away the great accomplishment of his administration obviously.

In the process he frees the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation.

Of course when it was issued, it only freed the slaves in the states in rebellion, because there were couple of boarder states like Verland, and I think Kentucky, which were fighting for the north but had slaves. And so Lincoln didn't really free the slaves there. But once the war was over, slaves were freed. And the psychological impact of The Emancipation Proclamation at the beginning of 1863, is that the slaves are freed. And it gives a huge moral importance to the war. It really provides northerners with a feeling like it's not just keeping the union together, we're fighting to free human beings.

Even though there was still a lot of controversy about where those human beings were in relation to each other. And Lincoln of course was accused of that too at times. But we can't down play The Emancipation Proclamation, it's a brilliant stroke by Lincoln.

His incredible persistence to find the right generals. I really recommend and I'll put this in the bonus materials that you read Lincoln letters to his generals. This guy didn't miss a detail. It's amazing. This war is going on and he has a string of horrible generals. The south far away had the best generals, starting with Robert E. Lee, who Lincoln offered the head of the union army too. And Lee being a Virginian said, "No I've got to go fight for the south." And Lincoln just works his way through his generals till he gets Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. He gets the generals who will win the war. But he's not afraid to fire people, and to persevere to get the right leaders.

So really the assertion of that kind of a leadership is very important and not backing down. He's incredibly courageous in a number of ways, I think. He also manages to keep Great Britain out of the war. If Great Britain comes in on the side of the south, economically especially, there's a good chance that the south will be able to succeed.

Lincoln manages diplomatically to keep Great Britain out. There is also a whole side of Lincoln's presidency that often goes overlooked, and that's the legislative side. The Homestead Act which increases settlement and increases northern territories is passed. The Morrill land grant act which starts all these land grant agricultural colleges. A lot of our State universities today really were started under the moral act from Lincoln's administration. And the transcontinental railroad bill is all passed while Lincoln is running the war. It's amazing. He's got this incredible crisis he's faced with everyday of course.

I mean if you look at pictures of Lincoln from the beginning of his administration like this one, to the end where he's really worn and haggard, you can see the toll it took on him. His feeling about the loss of life and you see that in the eloquence of his speeches; the Gettysburg address, the Second Inaugural address. Those will be in the bonus materials, because his eloquence, his writing is brilliant. And Lincoln really takes the presidency and elevates it. He takes with Washington, Jefferson, Monroe and Jackson to find and he elevates it to a more refined level of leadership, a more refined level of eloquence really.

The next person that we need to really look at, I think is Teddy Roosevelt. Between Lincoln and Roosevelt, you have got some interesting presidents, but nobody who really has an impact on a country and the world, the way these other presidents have heard. And Teddy Roosevelt, he's a ball of fire. He's the youngest man to take over the presidency when William McHenry is assassinated in 1901. Teddy Roosevelt is 42 years old. So he's the youngest president ever. John Kennedy is the youngest elected president, but Teddy Roosevelt is the youngest president. 42 years old may seem old to you because you're in high school, but 42 years old is really pretty young to be president of the United States.

And in 1901, the beginning of the 20th century, the beginning of the emergence of United States as a world power, and here's Teddy. Having written up a San Juan hill in the Spanish-American war with his rough riders, he's this real action oriented guy. He's a republican, but he's a progressive republican. And progressive means, he wants to see change. He wants businesses brought under control. He doesn't like the monopolies. He becomes known as a trust buster. The monopolies were called trusts. And Teddy Roosevelt starts to take them apart with legislation. The pure food and drug act, the meat inspection act, all kinds of child labor laws. Roosevelt his square deal as he calls it, is really a blow for progressive legislation and progressive thinking. And it really stands up for the common man and the working class people. The wages and hours, minimum wage laws, things like that start to be passed under Roosevelt.

He also is a real leader in the conservation movement. He sets aside more property for national parks than any president prior to him. And also really, he was probably the first "green" president we had.

In foreign policy too Roosevelt, I mean he's all over the place. He's just a dynamo and it's really a fun presidency. And if you're ever in New York city, go to Central Park, West to the Museum of National History and Central park West, there is just a great stature of Teddy Roosevelt, because he helped found the museum of National History. And he's on a horse and he's got his head up. And it just typifies the energy. He of course had been governor of New York for a while, and he was a native New Yorker.

But in foreign policy, Roosevelt had to fairly speak softly but carry a big stick. He believed in showing off our power without having to engage in conflict and he did that. He sends the great white fleet around the world to show America's might, its new steel navy. He negotiates a truce between Russian and Japan. There's a ruse of Japanese war.

In 1907, he negotiates that truce and wins the Nobel peace price. And of course if you know a palindrome. A palindrome is a series of words that forward and backwards spell the same thing. And the palindrome about Roosevelt is a man, a plan, a canal, Panama. And if you write that down, a man, a plan, a canal, Panama, forward and backwards it says the same thing. But it's talking about the canal, the Panama Canal which connects the Atlantic and the Pacific. And Teddy Roosevelt oversees the construction of the Panama Canal and unites the Atlantic ocean and the Pacific ocean, so people don't have to sail around South America. It's an incredible administration and he's a pretty incredible guy.

He's followed by Woodrow Wilson. And he actually helps get Woodrow Wilson elected. Roosevelt follows the precedent of George Washington of serving only two terms. He leaves office in 1909 and lets his vice president William Howard Taft to have to take over. He's not pleased with Taft's administration. He doesn't feel it's as progressive as it should be. And Roosevelt in 1912 runs against Taft, his former vice president and Woodrow Wilson who runs for the Democrats, the governor of New Jersey. And Teddy runs under the Bull Moose party ticket. And he probably leads to Wilson being elected.

And the thing about this is it's kind of interesting because Wilson is equally a progressive to Roosevelt in many ways. He's certainly equally affected as a trust buster. There is an array of legislation that's passed, that continues to break down monopolies and promote working class people. He organizes the Federal Reserve bank which we still use. If you look at any money that's in your pocket, it says federal reserve note. There is a series of federal reserve banks around the country. So the federal bank gets a re-organisation that really helps organize it better.

He keeps us out of war as long as he can. And it's kind of he kept us out, then he got us in. But he gets us into World War I, in time to really help the allied forces win the war. And then, his 14-point plan and creation of the League of Nations after World War I, is really a brilliant piece of diplomacy. And it wins the Nobel peace prize for him. So here we've got two presidents who win the Nobel peace prize, pretty impressive and pretty impressive guys. And really once again, refining that presidency, now taking it out on the international stage, and winning the Nobel peace prize.

Finally, Franklin Roosevelt. I'm just going just to say two things. The Great Depression and World War II. Either one of those is going to be a handful for any president. Franklin Roosevelt has to deal with both of those things during his presidency. And this is a man who was stricken with polio when he was a boy. He of course has to get around on clutches and in a wheelchair, and people don't know that in this day and age of radio. But he comes into office in 1933, and the country is mired in depression. We're just as low as low as can be economically. 25% of the people in the country are unemployed. And Roosevelt starts by declaring a bank holiday. People lost faith in the banks of the country. And he says the banks are going to be closed for 24 hours and when they open again, they are going to be fine, the Federal government is going to go into every bank in the country.

Now of course they really didn't really do that, but psychologically it's a very important move. And Roosevelt is a genius of psychology with the American people. His fire side chats, he goes on the radio regularly and he talks to the American people, and there are pod-casts. I'll put these websites up so you can go and listen to Franklin Roosevelt, and his fire side chats. As he talks to the American people about having nothing to fear, but fear itself and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and getting out of this depression.

Of course he gets us out of depression, well World War II really gets us out of this depression. But Roosevelt at least gets the country feeling like it's up and moving. And his Alphabet soup agencies, the AAA, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the WPA, the Works Progress Administration, the PWA, the Public Works Administration, starts to employ people all over the place. And there is probably something in your town that the WPA built or the PWA built. His three R's, Relief Recovery Reform introduced things like social security, something that we still have, so that people won't be destitute in their old age. So social security which is a relief measure, but a long term reform measure. And it certainly adds to the recovery of the country. The Tennessee Valley Authority which provides hydroelectric power to the entire Tennessee Valley area which is a series of about a half a dozen states openly. It still exists, it still goes on.

So getting the country together again, during the depression leads to Roosevelt not just getting re-elected in 1936, but in 1940. And he becomes the first president to serve a third term. He's elected in 1940, takes office in March of 1941 and the next thing you know of course, December 7th, 1941 the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor.

Now Europe had already been involved in World War II since September 1st, 1939. And we had been helping the British as their ally and certainly trying to help their war effort. But it was very clear. Germany was really gaining in Europe. And now, the Japanese entered the war, they were Germany's ally in the Pacific side of the world and they bombed Pearl Harbor, the US naval base in Hawaii.

This of course leads us into World War II and once again, Roosevelt in amazing fashion, rallies the American people. He buys enough time and mobilises the country. And this really gets us out of the depression big time because all of a sudden, everybody is working in navy yards and aircraft factories, the East Coast, the West Coast.

He, like Lincoln, before him, he finds the rights generals. He manages to find that Douglas Macarthur, Dwight Eisenhower. He's just a brilliant leader. He negotiates with Stallone and Churchill. He really throughout the war seems to make the right move in almost every direction. Obviously, the executive order that rums up the Japanese people, and the German Americans who were then sent to camps, for the duration of war, is really a hideous thing, and something that we have to look at as a black mark on Roosevelt's administration. But beyond that, he was faced with this enormous crisis.

The key thing he does early on in World War II, and is even in negotiation about this before the war in some ways, is the Manhattan project. The development of the atomic bomb. And there is a real race here between the Germans and the United States in creating that atomic bomb, which of course ends the war. We dropped it on Japan August 6th, 1945 ending the war. Roosevelt was not around for that decision. He is re-elected for a 4th term in 1944 incredibly. But he really only serves one month of that term. And in April 1945, he dies of a cerebral hemorrhage and his vice president Harry Truman from Missouri, takes over. And Truman ultimately orders the dropping of the bomb.

So what we've seen here our four presidents, Franklin Roosevelt faced with the great depression and World War II. Woodrow Wilson, Woodrow won but also trust busting progressive legislation, the 14-point plan winning the Nobel prize. Teddy Roosevelt I can't begin to repeat all the things he did with domestic policy and foreign policy, also a Nobel prize winner.

And of course Abraham Lincoln who keeps the country as a union. These four presidents really refine the presidency. They elevated to another level that it's fairly hard to live up to. And I don't think quite honestly we've seen anybody since Franklin Roosevelt, kind of achieve those heights.

So for your ideas and actions in this episode, I've got some questions for you to reflect on. How would Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson and FDR fair today in this world of 24/7 cable and internet coverage? Really we think about FDR with his polio, his crutches, his wheelchair, he wouldn't be able to hide it the way he could in those days. The other thing to think about is, were these guys, these presidents of this time were they lucky or were they exceptional leaders? Did they just happen to be at the right place at the right time, or did they make the decisions? Were they assertive in the right ways?

And finally, the big question is kind of a cliché question, but it's definitely one to think about. It's do the times make the man, or do the man makes the times? Was FDR the person who really shaped what the United States became during The Great Depression or was it The Great Depression that made FDR rise to that challenge?

There are things certainly we can look at, FDR's WPA, the Works Project Administration was able to create incredible monuments like this, this bridge where he employed thousands of people. Will any of our presidents today leave a monument like this behind? Do they have the where with all the assertiveness the leadership capability to do that?

So as a history detective, those are the kinds of questions you need to be asking. Not just to prime yourself for AP US history testn but to be a really active, involved engaged thinking citizen. And of course all the while, you want to be having some fun with history.

Just to wrap this up I want you to think like historians, to put yourself in the shoes of a historian and you determine were these four great presidents or not. Obviously I've got my opinion, I've laid it out there for you. I think you've got to pay attention to these presidents. I'm sure they're going to come up on the AP US history test more than once because their administrations were incredibly active. And there was a great deal going on. But, you have to make the choice. And the key thing is, what's the evidence? How are you going to prove whether you think they're exceptional presidents or not. Maybe you don't think so, but what's your evidence? You've got to show that to me. And to me that's like the document based question, finding that evidence, being a history detective, is really where it's all about. And it's really about having fun with history.

So the next episode we'll look at some presidents who could have probably been considered great presidents, but somehow made some bad decisions along the way. So while I get ready to show you that, and set that one up, you go out there and check out Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, the other Roosevelt. Are they great presidents or not? Go do some research and have some fun with history.

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