The Lives of the Presidents
WE honor our Presidents, and well we may. They have all risen to greatness through honorable effort. They were representative men. They were just such men as are made from boys having no better, if as good, opportunities as the boys who are living to-day. Each made for himself the story of his own life. Greatness was not thrust upon them, nor were any of them born with the promise that they should be the chief rulers of their land; nor were they taught in their boyhood that any one had to obey them, but rather were they taught that they should be obedient to others.
The men who were to become our early Presidents lived at a time when the colonists were throwing off the yoke of King George III. Others of them were boys in those exciting times. They early learned that a man born to be a king was not, for that reason, a great man. On the contrary they were taught that greatness was something which they had to work for. When they were boys, most of our Presidents had to start far down the ladder and climb step by step to the top, and the stories of all of them arc filled with patience, endurance, intelligence and ability which make them a hundred times better worth reading than the lives of most kings who arc only great because they are born in a palace.
It is for this reason we put before you here the stories of the Presidents of the United States, for we are sure if you read one of them you will be glad to read them all.
Those of you who have read much in history must know a good deal about the way other nations are governed. Their rulers have many names. We call them kings and emperors and czars and sultans and other names, and are apt to look upon them as very high and mighty potentates, with their fine robes and gay palaces and all the show and ceremony with which they try to make themselves look great. But when we come to look at them closely we find of what little worth the most of them really were.
This then is the difference between Kings and Presidents. Kings are born to their offices, and the crown is put on their heads if they have no more sense than an owl, who may look wise but is not. Presidents are born among the common people, and they must be men of very superior powers to carry them up to the head of the nation. The people of a kingdom do not pick out their rulers at all. They come by the chance of birth. But when the United States wants a ruler it goes among its seventy-live million people and selects the man who seems to be the best of them all. Of course, there are mistakes made. Our people do not always get the best. But they get the man they want, not the man that chance offers them, and are sure to get men far above the general run of kings. Why, if we take our twenty-five Presidents and put them beside twenty-five of the best Kings that history tells us about, we would have reason to feel proud.
Let us look at the character of our Presidents. There was Washington, the first of them all. Where in all the world has there ever been a greater and nobler man? We are all proud of him still and are glad to say that we were born in the land of Washington. There were John Adams and his son, men of the highest private virtues, patriotism, earnestness, and devotion to duty. There was Jefferson, a student and philosopher, with a lofty mind but with an earnest trust in the common people and the rights of man. There was Madison, whose named is identified with our noble Constitution; Monroe, the guardian of American independence; Jackson, a fine example of strength and manliness; Lincoln, distinguished for his public and private virtues, his patriotism and magnanimity. I might go on to the end of the list and show how each stands above his fellow-citizens in some virtue.
It is true we have not always chosen the best man. Mistakes may be made, even when a whole nation lifts its voice. In choosing a President there are two things to be considered, the man himself, and the principles he stands for. If the mass of the people wish a certain policy to be carried out, they will vote for the man who stands for that policy, even if a better man stands for a different policy. In that way some weak men have been chosen. Then there is the worship of military glory. That has put some men at our head who made better generals than Presidents. But on the whole we have done very well and have good reason to be proud of our choice.
This is a book of the lives of our Presidents. I do not think you could find anywhere more interesting lives. We are not talking here of boys born in palaces and fed on cream and cakes, some of them bowed down to as kings before they left their cradles; but of boys like Abraham Lincoln, born in a rude hut in the wilderness and studying by the aid of a kitchen fire and a wooden shovel; or like James A. Garfield, driving mules on a canal path to help his poor mother; or of a dozen others who had to scramble along, inch by inch, until they showed themselves so noble and brave and sensible and honorable that the people of our great nation were glad to put them at their head.
Talk about the romance of history! Have we not plenty of it here? The story of Kings begins after they get on the throne. And then it is more their people's history than their own. But the best of the story of Presidents comes before they get to their high office. There is where we find the romance of their lives. After they get to be Presidents it is all official work, very important, but not very interesting. But the way they got there is what you will like best to read about; how some were born in log huts and some in mansions; how some went to college and some to the little country school; how some ruled plantations and some chopped wood or drove mules; how some fought and won in great wars and some rose to be famous orators and statesmen; and how in the end they were chosen by the people to be Presidents of the United States. It is all very wonderful and very interesting and I am sure all who read this book will say the same.
Note: This book was written in 1903, and includes the Presidents
who served to that time.
Source: "The Lives of the Presidents and How They Reached the White House" by Charles Morris, LL.D., 1903.
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