How the four presidents on Mount Rushmore were chosen, and why they deserve their place.
Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore has been renowned as one of the most iconic landmarks in the United States. Drawing over two million visitors each year, it is featured with four beloved presidents, each who have left their significant mark on American history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Occasionally, one may wonder why these four presidents were chosen. Let’s take a brief look at the presidency of these four figures, the significance that they had on American history, and why they deserve to be on our most iconic mountain.
The man responsible for the idea of a carved mountain featuring iconic American heroes was Jonah LeRoy Robinson, better known as Doane. After becoming State Historian of South Dakota, Doane conceived the idea for Mount Rushmore.(1) Originally, he planned to include various heroes of the Old West, including Louis and Clarke, Red Cloud, and Buffalo Bill, but he ultimately decided to stick with the four presidents. Carving of the memorial began in 1927, with Gutzon Borglum as the primary architect.
Figure 1: Doane Robinson (left) and Gutzon Borglum (right).
George Washington was the first to be chosen, as he was the first president of the United States, and he has been renowned as the “Father of the Country.” Washington heroically lead Continental troops against the most powerful empire in the world, and he was present for the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. He attended the Constitutional Convention of 1787, where he was unanimously elected president. Before leaving the office, Washington issued a Farewell Address, in which he stated several warnings. These included cautioning Americans against forming political parties and becoming involved in international affairs. Although neither of those would stick, Washington left a legacy that lasted, and it has inspired all generations of Americans.
Thomas Jefferson, when compared to the other three presidents on Mount Rushmore, is certainly the oddball. A member of the Democratic-Republican Party, Jefferson has often been considered to be the most “enlightened” of the founders, and he was certainly the liberal of his day. Unlike Washington, who favored a strong central government, Jefferson favored more power to the individual states, a small military, and a nation with ideals based largely on Yeoman farming. Jefferson deserves his place on the mountain due to his strength in the face of the Tripoli powers, who were capturing American sailors and selling them into slavery. After humiliating our ships and sailors in the eyes of the world, the Tripoli pirates were soon faced with the might and strength of the United States Navy. When the First Barbary War ended in 1805, Jefferson won the United States the respect of the Tripoli powers. He had sent a clear message to the world that harassing or harming American citizens would not come without serious consequences. Alongside this, Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of the United States. Jefferson was also primarily chosen, however, because of his firm stance on self-government.
Most people are familiar with the president who guided the U.S. through the Civil War, abolished slavery, and preserved the union. The first Republican president, Lincoln was formerly a member of the Whig Party, before joining the Republican Party in 1854, which was founded largely on an anti-slavery platform. Although abolition was not his original goal at the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln was always anti-slavery, and in response to pro-slavery arguments, he stated, “Whenever I hear someone arguing in favor of slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.” Lincoln will always be remembered as one of our most articulate presidents, and his final line in the Gettysburg Address still rings hope for America: “That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Daniel Ruddy, in his book, Theodore the Great, makes the argument that, if Gutzon Borglum had not favored Roosevelt, we would likely have seen Andrew Jackson on Mount Rushmore, rather than Teddy. A veteran of the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt heroically led the “Rough Riders” on a charge up San Juan Hill, capturing the point from Spanish forces. After becoming president, he enacted anti-trust policies, and became known as the “Trust-Buster,” breaking up numerous monopolies. A member of the Republican Party, Roosevelt also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in bringing an end to the Russo-Japanese War, and he also advanced the National Park movement.
Figure 2: Borglum’s Early Concept
What do these four presidents represent?
According to the National Park Service, Borglum specifically chose Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt because they specifically represent an advancement of America in some form. George Washington, as the father of the country, represents the birth of America. Thomas Jefferson, the visionary who doubled the size of the nation through the Louisiana Purchase, represents the growth of America. Theodore Roosevelt, who paved the way for the working class in the early 20th century, represents the development of America. Abraham Lincoln, who held the Union together during its worst crisis and helped pave the way for a new birth of freedom, represents the preservation of America. Before closing this article, it is important to remember that, as beloved as these presidents are, they were not without their flaws. Sometimes, in the heat of patriotism, it is easy to forget that great leaders were still people who made plenty of mistakes. Despite their flaws, however, these leaders have made a significant impact on the formation of America as we know it, and each deserves their reputation for achieving a milestone in our country’s greatness. As such, they all deserve a place on our nation’s most iconic mountain.
Hoover, Herbert T. and Zimmerman, Larry J. South Dakota Leaders: From Pierre Chouteau, Jr. to Oscar Howe. University of South Dakota Press. 1989.