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Henry F. Graff

May 2024
1min read

Professor of history, Columbia University

Most overrated:

Grover Cleveland. By luck, as the first of the handful of Democratic Presidents elected since 1856, he shares in the esteem in which Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy have come to be held—as if he were their progenitor. Although his most eminent biographer labeled him a man of courage, he had avoided the draft in the Civil War by hiring a substitute. Essentially a lazy man, and lacking the jolliness sometimes associated with fat people, he was ratcheted up from mayor to governor to President without standing for anything in particular. He did not enjoy politics, even being President. He took almost no hand in shaping the important laws passed during his time in the White House, including especially the formative Interstate Commerce Act. He earned national acclaim when he devoted an entire annual message to the subject of reducing the tariff, and then he languidly failed to press the issue on Congress, so that the outcome was zero. Blind to the new economic and social forces rumbling across the nation, he operated through an unshakable personal honesty and a primitive sense of what was right and what was wrong. For these virtues he ought to be remembered. But no one—least of all a Chief Executive—deserves a medal for them.

Most underrated:

The journalist Sarah Josepha Buell Hale (1788-1879). The first woman editor, she was once known through her writings as simply an ardent preacher of the Victorian outlook and as the founder of Thanksgiving Cay. Today we have to see her as a pioneering and successful businesswoman—as well as wife and mother—who influenced the popular culture indelibly. Through the pages of Godey’s Lady’s Book , which she managed from 1837 practically to the end of her long life, she displayed to her readers the latest women’s fashions, gradually generating the fascination with clothing that in time became the hallmark of America’s unrestrainable passion to consume.

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