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]

Four Giants

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 “nascent empire”[iv]—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 military.

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 nations.

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 existing sculpture.[xv]

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 thought experiment.

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.

Democracy’s Defender
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 elections.

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.

Freedom’s Fighter

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.

Ever 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]

Reagan’s 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]

With 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]

Toward 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 peer.

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.”

[xxiv]  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 away.”[xxvi]

[i] PBS, American Experience, Timeline: Carving Mount Rushmore.


[iii] Washington, 1782; George Washington, "Maxims of Washington: Political, Social, Moral, and Religious," John Schroeder, ed., 1854, p.102.

[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.

[xv] Lucey.

[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 11, 1987.