Obama recently offered this pearl of wisdom about the “race” for President:
So what they are going to do is make you scared of me. You know he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like those other presidents on the dollar bills.
So what they are going to do is make you scared of me. You know he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like those other presidents on the dollar bills.
I won’t even bother pointing out that there is only ONE other president on the dollar bill. Nor will I bother pointing out that, until he is actually, you know, elected and inaugurated, Obama shouldn’t be comparing himself to “other presidents.” But I will certainly address a key point and concede:
Barry, you ARE right about one thing. You aren’t like the “other presidents on the dollar bills.”
Who are the other presidents? Well, the one president on the dollar bill is, of course, George Washington. Some other presidents on other bills include Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson. Of course, not all bills have presidents. Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin come to mind.
Let’s have a gander at some of their life stories, shall we?
To be fair, since Obama has never been elected president, why don’t we begin with another never elected president: Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton, like Obama, did attend Columbia University. And as a child, he became a “citizen of the world,” having been born in the West Indies and traveled across the British Empire. That’s about as much as Obama is like Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton was one of the founders of this nation. He fought in the Revolutionary War and was a true military hero. He didn’t just volunteer; he raised an army of volunteers and served as its captain. Maybe Obama could say that is like being a “community organizer.” But I digress. After his successful operations in the early days of the war, he was appointed chief of staff to General Washington (we’ll get to him later). In this role, he played a key part in obtaining the service of the French through diplomacy and negotiation with the Marquis de Lafayette. When Hamilton and Washington had a major disagreement, Hamilton didn’t simply resign. Instead, he requested a transfer back to field command, where he believed he could further aid the revolution. That’s when he won the battle of Yorktown.
After we won our independence, Hamilton continued to serve. Following his victory at Yorktown, Hamilton was elected representative from New York to the new Congress of the Confederation. As history tells, the Confederation was an inefficient form of central government. Frustrated with the inability of the government to function during crisis after crisis following the war, Hamilton called for a new system of government. This led to the Constitutional Convention.
It was during this time that Hamilton entered the Bar as a practicing attorney. Unlike Obama, who had a free ride to Harvard, Hamilton taught himself through self-study, finding time during his career to devour the works of Blackstone and other legal texts, until he became qualified to practice. And practice he did, representing clients in important cases like Rutgers v. Waddington. He also founded the Bank of New York and restored Columbia University after its wartime closure.
When the time came for the Constitutional Convention, Hamilton was the first delegate chosen. A great team player, Hamilton set his own ego aside and worked with other delegates to draft a proposed Constitution that met the demands of each state, not just his own. When the draft was completed, he recognized it was a radical departure and might face opposition from citizens hesitant to embrace such change. So he enlisted the aid of James Madison and John Jay, and set about to publish The Federalist Papers for mass distribution, in order to win the support of the people.
After the Constitution was adopted and George Washington chosen as the first president, Hamilton served as our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. In this role he created the first national mint, enacted the plan to pay off war debts, and successfully implemented and enforced the first form of taxation by the new government. He also worked closely with our first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (more on him later), to avoid bringing America into the European wars following the French Revolution.
However, there was still the strong possibility that America might be drawn into global conflict during the rise of Napoleon. After having retired from service as Treasurer, Hamilton heard the call of duty once more. When our second president needed to build a military presence to demonstrate America’s ability to defend itself, he called upon Hamilton to serve as commander of military forces. Hamilton, with the full endorsement of George Washington, did so gladly. Thankfully, that war with Europe did not come.
Sadly, all most people today know about Hamilton, if anything at all, is that he is the guy who lost his duel with a political enemy. It was a tragic end to the life of one of the greatest Americans in the history of our nation. That, and most people know that Barack Obama doesn’t much resemble Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton EARNED a place on our currency.
How about that other non-president on the bills? You know, Benjamin Franklin?
Obama doesn’t much resemble him, either.
Like Hamilton, Franklin suffers from the ignorance of many young Americans today. Most “yoots” today can tell you that Franklin discovered electricity flying a kite. Well, I hope they can at least. But his life was so much more than that.
Unlike Obama, Franklin didn’t attend any prestigious schools. He was almost entirely self-taught, eventually earning his title of “Doctor Franklin” through achievement, receiving doctorates from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford – among others – for his accomplishments and contributions to academia.
By age 15, Franklin was already publishing controversial writings under pseudonym (he was secretly submitting writing to a family-owned newspaper), causing much conversation in his city. When his identity was revealed and he was forced to abandon his efforts, he didn’t just walk away. He ran. He ran to Philadelphia were, in just a few short years, he had founded the first public library and established an organization for philosophy and scholarship. He also started his own newspaper, published the first Almanac, and embarked upon a career of discovery, learning, communicating, and inventing.
Inventing! Here are just a few of the more significant things we owe to Benjamin Franklin:
Bifocal lenses. Barometric weather charts. Refrigeration. Like your air conditioning? You wouldn’t have it without Benjamin Franklin. And let’s not overlook the Franklin Stove, which served as the foundation for many advancements in heating still in use today. Oh, and of course, there is Franklin’s groundbreaking work with electricity. He didn’t just discover that lightning is an electric discharge. He made Earth-changing discoveries about positive and negative electric charge, insulators, and current flow. Every physicist since owes the foundation of all modern electrical theory to Franklin, just as they owe the foundation of all mechanical theory to Newton.
Franklin also created the first community fire department. He founded the first group in the nation to advocate for the abolition of slavery. He composed innovative music and invented new musical instruments to play it. He developed printing techniques to thwart counterfeiting and used them in the mint of Pennsylvania. He served as colonial Postmaster General. He founded the University of Pennsylvania. He founded the first public hospital in colonial America. He served as a justice of the peace. He served in virtually all levels of colonial government, including election as speaker of the Pennsylvania House. He traveled frequently to London on behalf of colonial interests, such as his famous trip in opposition to the Stamp Act. He founded the Pennsylvania militia. And that was all BEFORE the Revolutionary War.
As a member of the Continental Congress, Franklin was instrumental in leading the call for Independence. In collaboration with John Adams, he organized the independence movement, convincing Richard Henry Lee, a southerner able to sway the reluctant colonies of the Carolinas, to move for a vote on independence. He then served on the Declaration Committee, assisting Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in lobbying the Continental Congress to vote in favor of the declaration. Possibly more than any other member, Franklin made independence a reality by bringing the fiercely abolitionist Adams and the slave-owning South together through common ground.
Franklin then headed for France as our colonial ambassador, securing support from the crown of King Louis and bringing to the Revolution the vital support necessary to defeat the British. After the victory of Yorktown, Franklin negotiated the Treaty of Paris securing our full separation from England and establishing America as a sovereign nation in the eyes of the world.
Following his time in France, Franklin returned to Pennsylvania, serving as its governor during the period of confederation and then joining Hamilton at the Constitutional Convention. Right up until his death in 1790, Franklin continued to fight for the abolition of slavery, publishing several of the most influential essays on abolition in the last few years of his life.
All I can say about this is:
Barack Obama? You, sir, are NO BEN FRANKLIN!
Shall we move on to the actual presidents on those bills?
Let’s begin with the lightweight of the bunch, Andrew Jackson:
Most folks today can probably come up with the knowledge that Jackson is on the twenty dollar bill… and not much more. Some who actually follow history or politics might be able to tell you that Jackson was responsible for forming the modern Democratic Party, and that he was some sort of war hero.
At the ripe young age of merely thirteen, Andrew Jackson served as a courier in the Revolutionary War. While you might think that is a non-combat role, the fact of the matter is that couriers were ripe targets for the Red Coats, as they often carried sensitive strategic information. Many were captured if not simply shot on sight. Jackson was one of the former, but may have wished he was the latter. He was held as a prisoner of war, nearly starved to death, was tortured, received permanent facial scars from the sword of his captor, contracted smallpox, and was left for dead. He watched his older brother, also a prisoner of war, die beside him.
Upon his escape, Jackson was unable to rejoin the fight due to his ill health. But rather than do nothing, he went to work making saddles for our mounted cavalry. It was during this time towards the end of the Revolutionary War and in the early years of the confederation that Jackson, like Hamilton, taught himself law and eventually entered practice in the new American Frontier. By 1788, his health and vigor restored, he was appointed Solicitor of the Western District, where he helped lead the effort to form the State of Tennessee. Is that like being a “community organizer”?
Jackson was the first elected congressman representing his new state. He went on to serve as Tennessee’s senator, then a justice of its supreme court. While serving in government, Jackson succeeded in building up a family business, developing land, running an agricultural empire, and opening successful mercantiles in the blossoming new state. He also volunteered as a militia officer, commanding the entire Tennessee force. It was in this role where he gained his greatest pre-presidential fame.
When the War of 1812 began, Jackson’s forces fought in many key battles. But it was his victory in the Battle of New Orleans that broke the back of the British.
Jackson also single-handedly brought Florida into the United States. Chosen to lead a military expedition against the Spanish colony, Jackson was unsatisfied with merely winning a battle. Instead, he sought to conquer. With the support of then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, Jackson led his forces into Florida, seizing control. Spain ceded the colony, and Jackson became its first provisional governor.
Following these military actions, Jackson returned to Tennessee, where he was again chosen to be Senator, then nominated for President of the United States. It was at this time that Jackson achieved what may be his greatest accomplishment: he organized a number of political figures dissatisfied with the status quo and, responding to public demand for change, established what is now the Democratic Party. He lost this election to John Quincy Adams – but only because the Electoral College was split among four candidates and Adams was able to win a deciding vote in the House of Representatives. However, Jackson had won the popular vote and had the most electoral votes. The election of 1824 makes Bush v. Gore look pretty insignificant. Jackson used public outrage to make his political party a powerful machine, laying the path for a two-party system that has, for the most part, greatly reduced plurality victories and forced candidates for office throughout the nation to win over clear majorities for nearly 200 years.
Jackson ran again in four years with tremendous public support against the establishment, winning by a landslide. Jackson then won re-election, defeating the famous Henry Clay. You could say he was a real agent of “hope and change.”
Since Obama hasn’t served as President yet, it wouldn’t be fair to bring up Jackson’s efforts after election. I’ll let you look that up on your own. And again, to be fair, it would be a disservice to history to neglect to cover some of Jackson’s more dubious achievements, such as Indian relocations. But questions of morality aside, one must admit that, for good or for ill, Andrew Jackson didn’t just serve, he shaped America. Jackson’s legacy lives on through its impact on history.
Suffice it to say, Obama is correct: he is nothing at all like Andrew Jackson.
How about one of those other dead white guys, like Thomas Jefferson?
Thomas Jefferson does have a few things in common with Barack Obama. They both went to prestigious schools, practiced law, and got into politics at an early age. That’s about as far as anyone could take this comparison, however.
At an early age, Jefferson demonstrated a gift with language – English and otherwise. By the time of his graduation from William and Mary at age 20, he was fluent in French, Italian, Latin and Greek. Didn’t Obama recently admit he doesn’t speak any foreign languages?
As a young attorney, Jefferson gained notoriety for his work on hundreds of cases each year. During this period of prolific legal achievement, Jefferson still managed to serve in Virginia’s legislature. But he wasn’t merely a “present” vote there. Instead, he argued vociferously against the tyranny of the British and published numerous writings on liberty. Working with his colleague George Mason, Jefferson produced a Virginia Declaration of Rights and a draft for a Virginia Constitution. When Jefferson was chosen to attend the Continental Congress, these writings earned him a place on the Declaration Committee.
Jefferson did the bulk of the work in drafting our Declaration of Independence. This alone makes him one of our most important Founding Fathers. But this was only one of many achievements of Thomas Jefferson during the period of American Revolution and Independence.
Shortly after the Declaration, Jefferson returned to Virginia where he was a founding member of its new independent legislature. He drafted over one hundred bills, including laws establishing freedom of religion – the first in the world. Jefferson went on to serve as Governor of Virginia. He successfully established the state’s new capital in Richmond. He created America’s first dedicated law school at William and Mary. He also succeeded in making William and Mary the first university in the world to be independent of religious affiliation.
After the Revolution, Jefferson served as our second ambassador to France, following in the footsteps of Franklin. He then served as our first Secretary of State under President George Washington. It was during this time that Jefferson began to have serious differences of opinion regarding the federalist path of the nation under Washington and Hamilton. Rather than simply leave office in disgust, Jefferson instead sought to form a political party – the Democratic-Republican Party. This was the first organized political party in the nation, and with it, Jefferson started a movement that would dominate all national politics until the time of Andrew Jackson.
When Washington retired from office, his vice president, John Adams, ran to succeed him. Jefferson and his fledgling party ran against Adams, resulting in the first electoral crisis of our history. As originally written, our Constitution declared that the electoral vote runner-up in the presidential election would be the vice president. This resulted in the federalist Adams as President, and his chief rival Jefferson as vice president. When the 1800 elections came around, Adams and Jefferson both tried to find a way to not only win, but help an ally come in second. This resulted in the disaster of 1800. Jefferson wanted to win and wanted Aaron Burr to come in second place. But the split of the electoral college resulted in Jefferson and Burr tied, and the House of Representatives, controlled by Jefferson’s federalist opposition, had the power to elect the president. It took 36 votes in the House before Jefferson was able to win a majority and claim the Presidency.
As a result, a Constitutional Amendment was adopted allowing a presidential ticket with a president and vice president together.
Of course, Jefferson accomplished a great deal as president – but then it wouldn’t be fair to talk about things like the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition, or the development of American foreign policy. After all, Obama hasn’t been president yet.
But Jefferson also accomplished much outside of politics and after his presidency. Like Franklin, Jefferson was a man of science and invention. He gave us such things as fountain ink pens, folding chairs, and modern excavation techniques used by archaeologists today. His work in agriculture led to numerous developments for aquaculture, crop rotation and soil conditioning. He established the University of Virginia, where students today still call it “Mr. Jefferson’s School.” His love of architecture helped spread the neo-classical style throughout America. He rebuilt the Library of Congress after its destruction in the War of 1812.
Jefferson’s writings on liberty, government, religion, philosophy, science and the arts are legendary. His brilliance was best described by another president. When President John F. Kennedy welcomed forty-nine Nobel Prize winners to the White House in 1962 he said, "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
No, there is really no comparison between Jefferson and Obama.
Now let’s move on to the real heavyweight: George Washington.
Washington, of course, is known as the Father of Our Country, the leader of the Revolutionary War, and our First President.
Washington’s brilliant career began as a surveyor. His work led to the first accurate maps of the Virginia Colony for Britain. It was this service that led to his commission as a major in the Virginia Militia at the young age of 20. It also helped him learn enough about the land to identify and develop new farmland as a planter, a career that led to a comfortable life.
But the comfortable life wasn’t enough for Washington. He continued to serve as an officer, even when it became clear that conflict was coming. He was chosen to act as a military ambassador and deliver an ultimatum to French forces in the neighboring Ohio territories – an ultimatum that went unheeded, resulting in the French and Indian Wars.
During the French and Indian Wars, George Washington attained the rank of brigadier general and commanded troops in numerous victories, culminating in the conquest of Fort Duquesne – leading to the foundation of the city of Pittsburg under British control. As the conflicts came to an end, Washington could have simply returned to his farms. Instead, he chose to become active in colonial politics.
Washington served in the Virginia legislature and as the justice of Fairfax. With George Mason, he initiated a boycott of British goods to protest the Townsend Act. Britain capitulated and the act was repealed. After Britain retaliated with the Intolerable Acts, Washington chaired the Fairfax Resolves, calling for the formation of a Continental Congress. Washington himself served as a delegate to the First Continental Congress.
Then the fighting started.
When it became clear that military action was inevitable, Washington offered his service as a militia leader to the Second Continental Congress. This was at a time when Washington could have instead made a fortune in agriculture, or continued to serve as a civilian bureaucrat. While Washington assessed his own skills as insufficient to command an entire army, he nonetheless accepted the position of General of the Continental Army when no one else would.
I won’t bother you with drawn out details of Washington’s service in the Revolutionary War. Entire textbooks have been written about it. Entire college courses are dedicated to it. Suffice it to say, Washington created and led our first national military force and won our independence against a superior force that, by all rights, should have crushed us like a bug.
But I will tell you about what Washington did after the war was over. He was offered the chance to become King of the United States. He had a loyal army ready to fight to the death for him. Instead, he turned down supreme power and went home to his farm. He also returned to his roots as a surveyor, leading an expedition to explore the western frontier. But duty called once again.
The fledgling government under the Articles of Confederation was a failure. When Alexander Hamilton succeeded in initiating a constitutional convention, George Washington, the most admired and respected man living in the United States of America, agreed to preside. When the new Constitution was ratified and the first president chosen, the people elected George Washington our first president, the only unanimous choice in history – and Washington achieved this twice.
Again, it isn’t fair to bring up his presidential record. But consider this: as first president, Washington did more to shape our government than every president since combined. Washington appointed every federal judge, including the entire Supreme Court. He created the first Cabinet, defining the positions of Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and Secretary of War. Virtually every aspect of executive power in modern American government has a foundation in the Washington presidency. And, after the end of his second term, Washington did something unimaginable: while still able to carry on his duties, he retired. What’s more, he let the people of his nation freely choose his successor, with very little of his own influence.
In every other government from the dawn of time, leaders clung to their crows until death. A few who recognized their own incapacity due to age or health passed on their titles to their chosen heirs, but continued to rule from behind the scenes – at least until their heirs had enough of their own power to exert their own rule.
But Washington walked away. Rather than seek a third term, which he surely would have won with a third unanimous victory, Washington recognized the danger inherent in a political dynasty and cleared the way for a new generation of leaders to continue what he had begun.
Washington’s service, sacrifice, wisdom and leadership made America what it is today.
Obama is absolutely correct: he certainly is different from the president on the dollar bill.
That leaves Abraham Lincoln.
I won’t bother you with so many details about Honest Abe, as he is probably the single most written-about person in American history. Although, interestingly enough, Lincoln is, on paper, the president most like Obama. At least, prior to his election... Lincoln was a young lawyer who spent a few years in the Illinois legislature. Lincoln was elected to only a single term to the United States Congress before he was elected president. Lincoln reorganized political opposition to Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party, forming the modern Republican Party. I guess that’s some sort of community organization.
But that’s about as far as the comparisons go. Lincoln’s legacy isn’t what he did before office. It’s what he did IN office. Lincoln kept the Union together during Civil War. He was Commander in Chief when brother fought brother in a war that cost over a million lives. He wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and delivered the Gettysburg Address. He completely revised the concept of executive power, ushering in a new era of presidential responsibility. After the war, his work led to the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and paved the way for freedom and equality. And what was Lincoln's reward for his legacy? An assassin's bullet.
Maybe Obama thinks that, if we would only give him the chance, he could be as important to history as Abraham Lincoln. Well, if he wants to think that, he can go right ahead. But that sort of hubris only serves to make people like me dislike Obama more.
Well, here’s a compromise for Obama. I’ll go ahead and accept that he can claim some professional kinship with Abraham Lincoln. I’ll grant that, going into the office, he could have as much qualification for the job as Lincoln had. But that’s as far as I’ll go. Obama has done nothing to demonstrate that his vision of hope and change should even be spoken in the same breath as Lincoln. Obama may be elected, but he will have to EARN his legacy. I’ll leave it to the next generation to decide if Obama should get his face on the five dollar bill. I have my doubts.
And so, in conclusion, let it be clear that Obama does, occasionally, get some things right. He got it right when he said he doesn’t look like those other presidents on the dollar bills. He’s not even close.