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What makes a 'great' president?

Nov. 2 marks the birthday of James Knox Polk, the 11th president of the United States. Elected in 1844, Polk is commonly rated as a great or near-great president. But is that rating justified?

President Polk had many fine qualities. He is the only president who kept and fulfilled every one of his campaign promises – including his promise not to seek a second term. His mother was a descendent of John Knox, the founder of Scottish Presbyterianism (hence his middle name), and Polk was a committed Christian and regular churchgoer throughout his life. Infused with a Puritan work ethic, he literally worked himself to death as president, retired from office in broken health and died 103 days later.

Through the Mexican War, the Gadsden Purchase and the annexation of the Oregon territory, Polk more than doubled the size of the United States and was the first chief executive to preside over an America that extended “from sea to shining sea.”

He also vastly expanded the power of the presidency. In 1812, Congress carefully deliberated and debated before exercising its constitutional power to declare war against Britain. But in 1846, President Polk sent American troops into disputed territory where they were almost certain to become embroiled in hostilities, and then demanded that Congress recognize that a state of war already existed. Increasingly with Polk’s presidency and thereafter, the president set national policy and the Congress rubber-stamped the president’s decisions.

Polk is commonly rated between eighth and 12th among our greatest presidents. Without question, he was a strong and dynamic leader, as well as a Christian man of principle and determination.

But does this make him a great president? The fact that a president is a Christian or a man of good character is no guarantee that he understands or will implement biblical and constitutional principles of government.

Those who rate our presidents are commonly academicians, and as such they tend to be left of center. They believe in centralized power, and they therefore admire presidents who increased federal power and concentrated it in the presidency – Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt. (One can only imagine how they will rate Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.)

Similarly, those who centralized power and built empires are considered to be the “great” men of history: Hammurabi of Babylon, Alexander of Greece, Julius Caesar of Rome, Charlemagne of the Franks and Napoleon of modern Europe.

But is this the proper test of greatness? If those who write history hold erroneous values, will not their historical judgments be erroneous as well?

We suggest that the truly great men of history are those who have defended and preserved individual liberty by resisting the increase and centralization of government power.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1788 that “the natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” The truly great presidents in American history have been those who have defended constitutional liberty against this tendency of the federal government to usurp power.

For example:

“I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

Later, as president, he vetoed a public works bill for the same reason.

We’ve strayed from the founders’ vision. But for whatever scraps of our Constitution remain, we should thank America’s truly great leaders – not those who made drastic changes and centralized power, but rather those who have stood by the Constitution, preserved limited decentralized government, and thereby protected individual liberty.

John Eidsmoe and Ben DuPré serve as legal counsel for the Foundation for Moral Law, a religious-liberties organization in Montgomery, Ala.