The American Legion Magazine | 2.1.14
By Alan W. Dowd
The idea for Mt. Rushmore was conceived in 1924, when South
Dakota’s state historian contacted Gutzon Borglum about creating a
sculpture out of a rock formation in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Borglum liked
the idea and proposed that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln serve as the
main subjects for the massive mountainside sculpture.[i]
That initial idea grew to include Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.
Mt. Rushmore is many things—monument, memorial, landmark—but
the towering sculpture of those towering leaders also reflects something more.
As Borglum put it, Mt. Rushmore “bears witness, carries the likeness, the
dates, a word or two of the great things we accomplished as a nation.”[ii]
Washington was more than just a president. He was a warrior,
his silhouette reminding us that our liberty and independence come at a
price—and that the best way to avoid paying that price in blood is to pay it in
preparedness. “There is nothing so likely to produce peace,” he counseled, “as
to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”[iii]
Washington also represents the birth of what he called a
global power. Yet his stoic gaze warns against “entanglements” with foreign
lands, providing a constant reminder that America is exceptional—that, as he
put it, “Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a
different course” than the Old World.[v]
Washington himself pursued a different course than that of
Old World. So revered was Washington that he could have been president for life
or some sort of benign military monarch. If anyone was bigger than the
republic, it was Washington, the father of our country. But his actions made it
clear to his successors that no president is bigger than the republic. He resisted
the temptation to amass personal power and bowed to the rule of law—setting crucial
precedents on executive power, time in office and civilian control over the
Jefferson represents America’s founding document, the
Declaration of Independence, which declared to the world that “all men are
created equal” and endowed by God with a right to life, liberty and the pursuit
of what each defines as happiness. Jefferson’s masterpiece was more than
America’s birth certificate, more than an announcement that the New World was
ready to govern itself. It was the flame that lit the furnace of what he called
“an empire of liberty.”[vi]
Indeed, Jefferson’s assertive foreign policy expanded America westward,
defended American interests on the far side of the world, and made it clear to
friend and foe alike that America would fight for its rightful place among the
Just as Washington set lasting precedents in how he left
office, Jefferson set lasting precedents in how he entered office. Jefferson’s
election marked the nation’s first transfer of power from one party to another.
It was a peaceful transfer of power, but that was anything but inevitable. The
election was bitterly fought, and the outcome was uncertain for weeks. During
the long stalemate, there was talk among Jefferson’s opponents of transferring
presidential authority to a Senate designee or leaving the office vacant. There
were even fears of civil unrest.[vii]
But Jefferson calmed his supporters and patiently
waited for the system to work. After dozens of ballots, a majority of House
delegations chose him to lead the nation.
“We are all Republicans, we are all
Federalists,” he said poignantly in his inaugural address, thus laying the
foundation for a political system where winners are not coronated like kings
and losers are not treated like defeated enemies.
More than half-a-century would pass before the promise of Jefferson’s masterpiece
was finally fulfilled.
Lincoln initially focused on preserving the Union—as he famously explained in 1862, “If I could save the Union without
freeing any slave I would
do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the
slaves I would do it”[viii]—but
somewhere between Bull Run and Appomattox, Lincoln realized that saving the
Union required America to extirpate the original sin of slavery.
“If God wills that it
continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's 250 years of unrequited
toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be
paid by another drawn with the sword,” he declared in his second inaugural, driving
home his point and his own transformation by quoting Psalm 19, “the judgments
of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”[ix]
In abolishing slavery, Lincoln finished what was left undone
at the Founding. In laying out his vision for postwar peace, Lincoln reminded
us of our responsibilities to those who fight and die for America: “to care for
him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan.” And in
preserving the Union, Lincoln transformed America from a collection of
independent states into one nation—the “last, best hope of earth.”[x]
Finally, TR embodies America’s entry on the world stage as a
force for good. By building the Panama Canal, TR connected East and West. By forging
a truly global Navy, he wielded a “big stick” that projected American power and
deterred America’s enemies.
Indeed, his policies provide a timeless example of how to
deter war by being fully prepared to wage it. “We
infinitely desire peace,” he declared, echoing Washington. “And the surest way of obtaining it is to show that we
are not afraid of war.”[xi]
TR also taught his successors that global leadership demands
more than pursuing simple self-interest, that in becoming a great power America
should not stop being a good neighbor. So, he challenged America to resist
“cold-blooded indifference to the misery of the oppressed.”[xii]
Even when “our own interests are not greatly involved,” he declared, there are
times to act “in the interest of humanity at large.”[xiii]
TR’s was the last visage to be completed. The mountain
monument was finished just weeks before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor—a
symbolic parentheses to America’s time of inward-looking isolation.
To the novice, there appears to be plenty of room for more
super-sized sculptures to the right of Lincoln. But National Parks Service
officials note that Borglum’s son, who completed the project, concluded that
the elder Borglum’s design exhausted the carve-able rock.[xiv]
Moreover, geo-engineers are unsure how new excavations would affect the
Geology aside, the nature of the monument—four American
leaders representing four distinct eras of American history—has always invited
discussion about who else belongs on Mt. Rushmore. Polls suggest that Americans
are open to the idea of adding another face or two.[xvi]
Whether or not Congress ever moves in that direction, it’s an interesting
If the geological limitations could be overcome, the political
limitations are certainly bridgeable. One can imagine a bipartisan compromise
whereby a Democrat and a Republican are added.
A strong case could be made for two very different leaders: Franklin
Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. One expanded and wielded the powers of government
to fight the Great Depression. The other declared, “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”[xvii]
Yet despite their
philosophical differences, they had much in common. Both believed deeply in
American exceptionalism. Both were optimists and principled pragmatists,
skilled politicians and media maestros. And both used these traits to rouse
America from periods of self-doubt, rally the country against existential
threats, defeat brutal enemy regimes and help America achieve aims arguably as
consequential as those achieved by the four men immortalized on Mt. Rushmore.
Love him as the man who ended the Great Depression and gave every ounce of
himself to defeat the enemies of democracy, or hate him as the man who created
the modern welfare state and called Stalin “Uncle Joe,” it’s difficult to
describe FDR as anything less than a towering historical figure.
At home, FDR launched programs aimed at
reversing the Great Depression, getting America back to work, creating a safety
net for tough times and laying the foundation for economic progress—everything
from emergency programs like the Bank Holiday, CCC, WPA and other alphabet-soup
agencies, to enduring programs like the Social Security Administration and
Tennessee Valley Authority.
Crucially, FDR’s efforts stabilized the
country’s political-economic infrastructure. “It
was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who gave hope to a nation that was in distress
and could have slid into dictatorship,” as Newt
Gingrich has observed.[xviii]
Indeed, Americans approved of FDR’s unprecedented government
expansion and intervention, as evidence by his victories in four presidential
Overseas, FDR built the great arsenal of democracy, walked
America back onto the international stage and steered America to a position of
unmatched geopolitical power. He envisioned a postwar world founded on freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from
want and freedom from fear. And along with another giant of World War
II, Winston Churchill, he crafted the Atlantic Charter, the principles of which
still underpin the international system.
The economic crisis America faced in 1980—double-digit
inflation, double-digit unemployment, double-digit interest rates—was
compounded by what President Jimmy Carter called an “erosion of our confidence,” a sense that America was in the midst
of irreversible decline.
the optimist, Reagan believed that America’s greatest days were yet to come.
The key, in Reagan’s view, was reviving America’s economy by cutting nondefense
spending, eliminating unnecessary regulation, revamping the tax code and
unshackling America’s free-enterprise system.[xix]
formula worked, as the country enjoyed an unprecedented and unbroken 92-month
stretch of economic expansion, an 18-percent increase in disposable income, a
halving of unemployment.[xx]
the economy reawakened, Reagan had the resources to outspend, out-build,
outmaneuver and outlast the Soviet empire. Reagan challenged Americans to think
of the Cold War not as permanent condition to be managed, but as a struggle
between freedom and tyranny—a struggle that could be won.
“The West will not contain communism,” he promised in 1981. “It
will transcend communism…a sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last
pages are even now being written.”[xxi]
that end, he put a halt to the moral relativism and accommodation that had set
in after a decade of détente. He rebuilt a demoralized military, armed
anti-communist rebels, rolled back Soviet expansionism, challenged the legitimacy
of the Soviet state and used rhetoric like a weapon: “Beware the temptation
of…blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at
fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil
empire,” he intoned.[xxii]
By the end of Reagan’s presidency, the Cold War had melted
away. Nine months later, the Berlin Wall was gone, the Soviet Empire was in full
retreat and America had been transformed from a nation in decline into an
economic-military-cultural colossus without historical parallel or geopolitical
As President Barack Obama observes, “Ronald Reagan changed
the trajectory of America.”[xxiii]
That may explain why, for almost two decades, bills have been introduced in
Congress to add Reagan’s face to Mt. Rushmore.
Built to Last
There is more to this discussion than politics or geology,
of course. Perhaps the real question is a philosophical one: Is Mt. Rushmore a finished
product or a work in progress?
Paul Menard of the National Park Service reports that his
agency considers it “a completed work of art.”
Writer Ronald Fraser, who advocates adding FDR to Mt. Rushmore, counters that
the monument is “a running chronicle of the American experience.”[xxv]
Whether or not anything is ever added to the mountain
memorial, it’s comforting to know that nature won’t take anything away from it
for a very long time. Geologists estimate that Mt. Rushmore’s erosion rate is
barely an inch every 10,000 years.
That’s a powerful metaphor for the timeless truths these men
stood for—and very much in keeping with Borglum’s hopes. “Let us place there,” the
sculptor wrote, “as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their
faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer
that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them
[i] PBS, American Experience, Timeline: Carving Mount
[iii] Washington, 1782; George Washington, "Maxims of
Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious," John Schroeder, ed.,
[iv] Washington, 1788; “George Washington Reconsidered,”
Don Higginbotham, ed., 2001, p.124.
[v] Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796; https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/gwfare.htm.
[vi] Jefferson, 1780; http://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/empire-liberty-quotation
[vii] James Parton, “The Presidential Election of 1800,” The
Atlantic Monthly, July 1873.
[viii]Lincoln, 1862; http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/abraham-lincoln-papers/thinking3.html
[ix] Lincoln’s second inaugural, 1865.
[x] Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, 1862.
[xi] Roosevelt, 1903; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=97733#axzz2jEykLGwu
[xii] Roosevelt, “The Wisdom of Theodore Roosevelt,” Donald
Davidson, ed., 2003, p.144
[xiii] Roosevelt, 1905; http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=56&page=transcript
[xiv] Bill Lucey, “Is president Barack Obama bound for Mount
Rushmore?” November 19, 2012, The Huffington Post.
[xvi] 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll, November 30, 2009.
[xvii] Reagan’s first inaugural, 1981
[xxi] Reagan, 1981; http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/reagan-quotes/
[xxii] Reagan, 1983;
[xxiv] David Whitney, “Bill would add Reagan’s image to Mount
Rushmore,” The Spokesman-Review, July 23, 2004.
[xxv] Ronald Fraser, “Put FDR on Rushmore,” Baltimore Sun, July