by Stephen Elliott
Jon Meacham (C’91, H’10), Distinguished Visiting Professor of History and Pulitzer Prize winning author, gave a talk for President’s Day, February 17, entitled “The Presidents on the Presidents: How They Judge One Another.” Meacham is offering a course this semester at Sewanee: Hours of Crisis in U.S. History. The history seminar traces key points that shaped American history from the Declaration of Independence to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since the class was in such high demand during registration, Meacham offered to give two talks to the greater Sewanee community during the semester: this President’s Day talk and one later in the spring, said Vice Chancellor John McCardell in his introduction for the talk.
The talk examined how presidents throughout American history have viewed their predecessors and, in some cases, their successors. However, Meacham began the discussion in Guerry Auditorium by welcoming both the current and “potential members of the Sewanee community,” referring to the many high school students in attendance, telling them, “I would not be doing anything I do now if it weren’t for Sewanee.”
Through humorous anecdotes, Meacham sought to highlight the humanity of the presidents, often overlooked due to their larger-than-life status. Particularly, he discussed the achievements and character of George Washington, calling him “a real man who accomplished real things.” To emphasize this point, Meacham recalled Ronald Reagan’s imaginative fiction about the spirit of the different presidents wandering the halls of the White House, which Reagan concluded by saying, “History is a living thing that never dies.”
The stories about the presidents ranged from George H. W. Bush throwing up on the Prime Minister of Japan to Grover Cleveland jokingly praying over a young Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “May this boy never become President of the United States.” However, the more somber intellectual interactions between presidents helped highlight the importance of President’s Day to the audience. Meacham spoke particularly about Abraham Lincoln’s reliance on the guidance and precedent of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson in his decisions during the Civil War leading to the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln was able to find virtue in two presidents of whom he had disapproved in his younger days, allowing him to make a decision that would forever alter the makeup of the United States.
Meacham further discussed the difficulty of holding the highest office in the land. The men elected must eventually accept “the gap between what they would like and what is possible,” he said. In fact, with all the criticism faced by American presidents, Meacham is “amazed they aren’t crazier than they already are.”
Executive editor and executive vice president of Random House, Meacham is a former editor of Newsweek and a contributing editor to Time magazine. For American Lion, his 2008 biography of Andrew Jackson, Meacham received the Pulitzer Prize.