Some conservative commentators spent their Presidents’ Day holiday ruminating over Barack Obama’s evil intentions, or denouncing the chief executive as an alien interloper and fanatical ideologue perversely determined to damage the Republic. Instead, they might have focused on the history of the John Adams’ White House prayer to develop a more effective context for their criticism.
On November 2, 1800, a day after he became the first president to occupy the newly constructed executive mansion, Adams wrote to his wife Abigail: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.” More than a century later, Franklin Roosevelt ordered the inscription of these words on a mantel piece in the State Dining Room, inviting serious consideration over the extent to which Divine Providence responded to the earnest entreaty by the second president. In terms of wisdom, some of Adams’ successors who “ruled” under the White House roof most certainly fell short. James Buchanan comes to mind--or Jimmy Carter.
When it comes to honesty, skeptics might also cite Heaven’s mixed blessings, reviewing a long history of presidential prevarication. Within memory, Richard Nixon almost certainly lied about Watergate, as did Bill Clinton about his amorous adventures. More significantly, millions of Americans still believe (against all evidence) that George W. Bush knowingly distorted the truth about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
But in the deeper sense that Adams longed for “honest men” to occupy the home on Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House and the nation fared much better: all those who rose to the highest office worked hard at the job, took its responsibilities seriously, and sincerely pursued the nation’s good in order, if nothing else, to secure a positive verdict on their own place in history.
Even the most corruption-tarred presidents, U.S. Grant and Warren G. Harding, agonized over the demands of the office and drew scant personal benefit from the squalid scandals (involving unworthy associates) that unfolded around them. They both retained the profound affection of the populace while they lived and drew massive outpourings of grief at their lavish funerals. And both presidents (especially Grant) have begun a recent rise in the estimation of historians.