Whatever your take on the historical accuracy or fairness of the LBJ-MLK sequences in Selma, those scenes remind us of a key fact: that a presidency is defined far more by conversation than by isolated action. From elementary school on, it seems to be all about those individual figures: their portraits in sequence, their faces on Mount Rushmore, their names memorized and associated with policies and controversies. Yet just as Johnson and his administration were so deeply connected to King, so too should we remember all our presidents—and especially our most famous ones—through the conversations that helped shape them and their eras. Here are three under-remembered examples, from three of those Rushmore icons.
George Washington wasn’t president yet in March 1776—America hadn’t even declared independence—but he was already the commander of the Continental army and the incipient rebellion’s most prominent leader. So when he received the young African American-poet and slave Phillis Wheatley for a conversation at his Cambridge headquarters, it was a striking and significant moment. Wheatley, ever bold in words and deed, had sent her 1775 poem “To His Excellency George Washington” and an accompanying letter to the General, who was sufficiently impressed to write back and request a meeting. Slavery was still legal in Massachusetts at the time, and the meeting thus certainly highlights the era’s inequities. But it would be abolished in the state a few years later, thanks to slave petitions that utilized the Revolution’s own ideas and language in support of their cause—as did Wheatley in poems such as “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth” (1773), making this 1776 meeting a conversation between two visionary revolutionaries.
In February 1865, Abraham Lincoln was in the heat of the Civil War’s bloody final months, as well as the extended push for the 13th Amendment captured by the recent film Lincoln (2013). Both of those histories were connected to a conversation left out of Spielberg’s film: between Lincoln and African-American doctor, journalist and novelist Martin Delany. Delany was also and most saliently an empassioned advocate of African-American Civil War soldiers, and his conversation with Lincoln represented the culmination of those efforts. It not only resulted in his being named the first commissioned African-American field officer, but itcontributed significantly to Lincoln’s support for African-American officers within the expanding U.S. Colored Troops regiments. Delany wrote at times in favor of the creation and population of African nations such as Liberia, reflecting his fears that the period’s American racism could not be overcome. But whether refusing to leave cholera-stricken Pittsburgh (during both the 1833 and 1854 epidemics), working with freed slaves in postwar South Carolina, or meeting with Lincoln to help African-American officers hasten the war’s conclusion, Delany also dedicated his life to his countrymen, making this 1865 meeting a conversation between two selfless leaders.
Teddy Roosevelt had been president for less than a year when, in October 1901, he made history by inviting Booker T. Washington to be the first African American to dine publicly with a president. Washington was still segregated in the period—a condition that would only deepen over time, as Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal government as one of his first presidential actions a dozen years after this dinner—and Roosevelt’s invitation generated substantial national debate and controversy. As the Washington and Lincoln examples illustrate, Roosevelt was only making more public the kind of conversations and relationships—across cultural and racial lines—that had long informed and influenced our leaders. Yet the very act of making such a moment public and official was bold nonetheless—and both the president and his “Guest of Honor” (as Deborah Davis’s book names Washington) thus represented vital steps along this historical trajectory.
We can’t carve additional faces on Mount Rushmore, nor necessarily add historical portraits to those elementary school rosters. But on this and every Presidents’ Day, we can and should remember not just these singular figures, but the crucial conversations that truly define their eras and our nation.
Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.