On this day, in 1799, George Washington died. In addtion to his imposing thighs and huge redacted monument, Washington is still revered for having been one of the U.S.’s greatest patriots and warriors. He also had a talent for marrying money.

Washington provides me with wonderful teaching opportunties in the first half of the U.S. history survey. (Thanks George!) On the one hand, his willingness to serve his country, coupled with a reluctance to grasp power with both hands, nicely illustrates the concept of “virtue,” the cornerstone of republican ideology.

On the other, his position on slavery was, um, complicated. Washington decided, by the era of the Revolution, that slavery was corrosive but public discussions of abolition more so. So, although he privately criticized the peculiar institution*, he brought slaves with him to Philadelphia while serving his terms as president.

So let’s get to the important question: was Washington the nation’s best president? I’d say that, although he gets points for refusing to become a monarch, the answer is still no. Because of his unwillingness to lead on the issue of emancipation, I have him occupying the show slot in this horse race, number three, trailing Lincoln** and FDR. But polls suggest I’m predictable in my choices, based on my profession and politics. Who do you think was best?

* Anachronism alert: I’m pretty sure that nobody called slavery that until the late 1820s, when John C. Calhoun euphemized about the South’s “peculiar labor.”

** Duh.