The Big Question: Jesse Norman argues that it was the modest and witty man who built a "team of rivals" who made the best president

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

Let your eye sweep across a photograph of Mount Rushmore, or better still the real thing, and you will see four men who have a strong claim to be America’s greatest president.  

There is Washington, who won the war of independence and handed over control of the army to civilian authority; who chaired the Constitutional Convention, wordlessly, in that sultry Philadelphia summer of 1787; and who gave up the presidency in 1796 and headed back to his farm rather than become a monarch.

Then Jefferson, drafter of the Declaration of Independence and purchaser of the Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the United States and opened up the frontier. And Teddy Roosevelt, who led the Rough Riders’ charge up San Juan Hill, built the navy, busted monopolies and founded America’s national parks.

Yet Washington is an icon, not a man; Jefferson was a devious hypocrite who betrayed his president and friend John Adams, and proclaimed universal equality but never freed his own slaves; and Roosevelt, for all his peacetime genius, never faced the supreme test of leadership in war. No, for me it has to be the last of the four, Abraham Lincoln.

Unlike the others, Lincoln (16th president, 1861-5) grew up in adversity. He was born in a one-room log cabin, lost his mother at the age of nine, had the barest minimum of formal education, failed as a small businessman, and taught himself the law by ploughing carefully through Blackstone’s "Commentaries". He was tall and skinny, and not pretty: accused once of being two-faced, he said if that was so, why would he have chosen the face he had? He had served just one term, two years, as a Congressman before he ran for the presidency on the back of his national reputation as an opponent of slavery.

Why Lincoln? Because he was a political genius who gained the presidency by charm and stealth, reaching out across factions to win the delegates he needed. Because he famously built and managed a "team of rivals" from the most brilliant politicians of the day. Because he had wit, modesty and self-control, which hid his despair at personal setbacks including the premature deaths of two of his children. Because he won a civil war, the worst of all conflicts, despite blundering and pusillanimous generals, incompetent officials and a cacophony of conflicting advice and naysaying. Because he conquered external opposition, and his own doubts, and freed the slaves. Because he renewed a moral vision for America as one nation founded on freedom not on bloodlines, and on choice and self-determination not on ancient prerogative. Because of the magnanimity of his plans for Reconstruction. Because, from his "House Divided" speech to the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, he spoke for America in language that remains unforgettable to this day. And finally, because he died in office, serving his country.

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See more Emily Bobrow on George Washington, David Thomson on Franklin D. RooseveltDavid Rennie on Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Lockwood on Theodore Roosevelt and Anne McElvoy on Bill Clinton

Jesse Norman is Conservative MP for Hereford and author of "The Big Society" and "Compassionate Conservativism"