For President’s Day: The Mount Rushmore Rorschach Test
I still vividly remember a cross-country driving trip with my parents in a newly customized 1977 Ford Econoline van. One of my most anticipated stops was near Keystone, South Dakota, where I was promised that I would see men’s faces carved into a mountain.
As a boy in the fifth grade at that time, and also with not much natural interest in history, this still seemed like something that could not be missed. This was no “World’s Largest Ball of Twine” (which, by the way, is in Cawker City, Kansas). Even I knew that Mount Rushmore was iconic. And after looking up in awe at those four faces for a few minutes, my first question was, “Now, who are they?” I could easily identify the guys on the ends. Washington and Lincoln had faces that I recognized. I needed some help with the two in the middle though—Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.
As a professor of history now, I know a little something more about these four men than I did back then. I have also participated in lots of theoretical discussions like “Who is on the Mount Rushmore of professional basketball players?” or rock bands, military commanders, inventors, or even historians. Either way, Mount Rushmore is as much a physical place as it is a symbolic space in our mind.
In that symbolic space, Mount Rushmore is built time and time again within each of us, honoring people who have played seminal roles in shaping the American past in politics or popular culture and everywhere in between. As a result, the question of “Who should be the fifth president on Mount Rushmore?” is, to me, not the right question to ask. Why? Because the answer is more of a Rorschach Test for the person answering it than it is an objective statement about that past.
One person might rightly answer that the fifth president should be Ronald Reagan, because his eight years in office were a “miracle” that revived faith in America, brought economic prosperity, crushed the Soviet Union, and destroyed the Berlin Wall. Another person might react quite negatively to this and say that Reagan’s vision was myopic in that he failed to address problems at home, such as a growing AIDS threat, corporate greed, and the rising issue of homelessness in the country (Ehrman and Flamm, 2009).
It is no surprise that every president has a range of historical interpreters and interpretations. These views are shaped by the individual writing that history, his or her beliefs, professional background, availability of documents, social context, and then ultimately the president himself (hopefully we will need to make this gender neutral in the future).
When a student reaches graduate school in history, they get to hear their professors talk about “historiography” all the time. And what that cumbersome word means is that to understand history, we must analyze the interpretations, because the past is not fixed, but is instead, as R.G. Collingwood said, a “moving spectacle” (Kessler-Harris, 2011). Mount Rushmore is fixed, and history is changing all the time. Therefore, the two are in some ways like oil and water.
Don’t get me wrong. Monuments are vitally important in aiding and inspiring our American memory. They are tangible and concrete things. You can take impressionable kids to visit them in ways that you cannot drive them to a historian’s esoteric interpretation. Therefore, I am not dismissing Mount Rushmore, because it holds as much symbolic importance as it is a place to celebrate just Washington, Lincoln, and those two guys in the middle. Monuments matter, but they are in themselves not bearers of objective truths like “who are the nation’s Top Five presidents.”
Therefore, if there was to be a planned expansion of Mount Rushmore to include a fifth president, I would rather that space go instead to someone who could spark positive debate and remembrance of our past, instead of generating a red-vs-blue political disagreement (which is ultimately what a fifth president would do).
Instead, I would like to see an unknown face that represents us all in some way: a suffragette, an unknown soldier, a Native American, an immigrant, a slave. I would argue that the idea of these five unknown people signify a multi-cultural United States in a more complete way than any five presidents ever could. But then again, that is just my personal Mount Rushmore Rorschach Test.
On President’s Day, yes, it is important to look back at the men who have held the Executive Office. We must try to understand their actions, their times, and their history in the best ways we can. It is also important to know that we will never get any of their legacies exactly right. As Reagan himself said, “First of all, the history will probably get distorted when it’s written. And I won’t be around to read it.” (Reeves, 2005)
This does not mean we should stop trying. Having an ongoing engagement with the past is vital for us, as we continue to come to terms with our present and prepare for our future. How we interpret that past also says something of ourselves and our values.
I look forward to one day taking my three daughters to Mount Rushmore, and I will help them identify those two in the middle if they need assistance. But if it comes to actually putting just one more president up there, I want no part of that unwinnable debate, unless it is a purely symbolic discussion with friends or students to help them better understand our remarkable United States of America.
John Ehrman and Michael W. Flamm, Debating the Reagan Presidency (Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009).
Alice Kessler-Harris, “Fighting the Good Fight,” OAH Outlook, August 2011.
Richard Reeves, President Reagan: The Triumph of Imagination (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), xiii.
About the Author
Mark D. Bowles is Professor of History at American Military University. He earned his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in 1999, and he has authored or co-authored twelve books focusing on the history of science and technology. His most recent book is a college-level textbook on Digital Literacy.