Andrew Johnson and John Tyler: What could possibly link them together? Well, they both were U.S. presidents. And they both were—in the unanimous verdict of students who were scrutinizing their legacies—“horrible.” Four students had come together for a “Spring Breakthrough” class—a nontraditional take on spring break—that researched, reflected on, and ultimately ranked U.S. presidents. Spring Breakthrough is all about offering classes that have no grades, have no pressure, but have lots of potential to force students outside their intellectual comfort zones.
Other classes had students mucking around in the marsh to study crabs (at the marine-life-minded Duke Marine Lab), constructing a lightweight bicycle (an endeavor led by a classical studies professor, presumably attuned to classic bicycles), and spending time with puppies (to learn about shared evolutionary ties—and just to enjoy the company of puppies).
“Presidential March Madness” fed off, appropriately, the frenzied bracketing that accompanies college basketball’s version of March Madness. It was organized by POLIS (otherwise known as The Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service), part of the Sanford School. The two leaders of the course—Fritz Mayer and B.J. Rudell, director and associate director of POLIS—configured the first-round pairings.
Some of those pairings pitted a great legacy against a great legacy (think Duke versus UNC). There, in the same region, were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Other pairings were purposeful in a way that seemed inspired—or devious. William Henry Harrison was in a bracket with his grandson, Benjamin Harrison; and John Quincy Adams with George W. Bush, both sons of presidents. It was Franklin Pierce versus James Buchanan, a battle over who was more responsible for the Civil War. And John F. Kennedy versus Lyndon B. Johnson, a matchup meant to explore whether J.F.K. contributed to L.B.J.’s successes—or to his failures.
The students had a lot of history to sift through, and a lot of debates over how to weigh various factors in assigning “greatness.” Barack Obama beat out James Garfield, William Taft, and William McKinley and was in an Elite Eight matchup with Abraham Lincoln. One of the students, sophomore Elliott Davis, argued that James Polk should advance over Washington in the Sweet 16. “I hadn’t even heard of James Polk before the class,” he said later. “But I discovered that he had a very ambitious agenda, including acquiring Texas and the Oregon Territory, winning the Mexican-American War to acquire much of the American Southwest, and paving the way for the Panama Canal.” All accomplished in just one term.
Along the way, the students were lobbied by partisans of the various presidential players; Mayer and Rudell had alerted presidential historians that the game was afoot. A Chester Arthur biographer said in a message to the class that his president “should/will beat Millard Fillmore,” but that beating Teddy Roosevelt “is a tall order.” Still, he campaigned for Arthur as “an unlikely champion of civil-service reform, building the foundation of a modern federal movement for the progressive presidents who followed him.” For his part, a T.R. biographer insisted that “[a]side from the land grab in Panama, he never ordered a military intervention that cost a single life.”
As they made the case for some preferred president, the students recited policy achievements—the Social Security Act, the Federal Highway Act, the Voting Rights Act. But their bigger conversations concerned bigger matters: whether a presidency was devoted to equity and fairness, remained scandal- free, bolstered the institutions of government, and promoted a moral image of America abroad. All of which led to questions like: What are we to make of Lincoln’s shifting views on slavery?
Lincoln, in the end, was validated. He emerged as the champion among presidents.