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Robert W. Johannsen

April 2024
1min read


J. G. Randall Distinguished Professor of History, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Most overrated:

If I have learned anything from the study of American history, it is to be wary of identifying any public figure as the “single most” anything. I would like to bend the rules a bit by suggesting certain specific instances in which public figures appear to be either overrated or underrated. As for an overrated public figure, I am ambivalent—perhaps John Quincy Adams as President and congressman, when he seemed to be woefully unaware of political realities, disdainful of the popular will, and contemptuous of the rules and procedures of the national legislature; or perhaps William Lloyd Garrison, whose uncompromising extremism and overbearing and presumptuous manner not only put off some who might otherwise have joined the attack on slavery but also blunted the thrust of the movement by fomenting splits among its supporters.

Most underrated:

James Buchanan during the secession crisis, that “poor old man” according to one textbook writer. Buchanan’s response to the crisis, beginning with his message to Congress in December 1860, was founded on deep respect for the Constitution and the Union. He resisted and defied the wishes of the secessionists, appointed strong Unionists to his cabinet to replace those who had resigned, made an ill-fated effort to uphold federal authority at Fort Sumter, and in his January 8,1861, message to Congress, voiced convictions that found echoes in Lincoln’s inaugural address, all the while recognizing the seriousness of Southern grievances and urging that the issues be compromised in order to save the nation from bloody civil conflict. A pretty good record for a lame-duck President.

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