Time for my annual rant about Presidents’ Day. I see no reason why great Presidents like Washington and Lincoln should share a date with miserable failures like James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. Technically the federal holiday is still George Washington’s birthday, although that makes absolutely no sense as the holiday has to fall between February 15-21, and thus can never occur on February 22, Washington’s birthday. A popular sport for Americans has always been rating their Presidents. All such ratings are of course subjective and mine is no exception. I weigh the good and the ill that a particular president did and that determines his place in my ranking. Feel free to note your disagreements in the comboxes. Here is Part I of my list from best to worst:
1. George Washington-The Father of our Country is the standard by which all presidents should measure themselves. Victory in the American Revolution would have been impossible without his leadership. At the Constitutional Convention, his quiet leadership was a steadying force for the often quarrelsome and contentious drafters. His presence ensured that the constitution drafted would be taken seriously by the States. As President he established endless precedents for his successors to follow, dealt successfully with the huge national debt left from the Revolution, and knit the Union together. None of his successors come close to him except for Lincoln.
2. Abraham Lincoln-In just a little over four years he fought and won our Civil War, ended slavery and preserved our Union. His speeches are masterpieces of the English language. The great tragedy for our nation is that he was slain before he could attempt to guide the nation through Reconstruction. Washington and Lincoln are in a class by themselves.
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt-I believe that his policies during the New Deal were truly voodoo economics and that much of what he did was wrongheaded and retarded recovery and economic growth. However, only a fool could deny that his raising of American morale through the New Deal was anything less than brilliant. As a war president he was wise enough to let the generals and admirals fight the war, and, in general, he chose them wisely. He is largely responsible for the creation of modern America, a fact that will earn him both boos and plaudits.
4. Theodore Roosevelt-With the first Roosevelt to occupy the oval office, America strode onto the world stage. From building the Panama Canal, resolving the Russo-Japanese War to the sailing of the Great White Fleet around the globe, Roosevelt set the framework for the American Century.
5. James K. Polk-He settled the Oregon dispute with Great Britain and successfully waged the Mexican War which added vast territories to our country. Few presidents have accomplished as much in two terms as Polk did in one. He also had the good grace to die shortly after he left office, a policy some other former presidents would have been wise to emulate.
6. Ronald Reagan-The successor to one of our worst presidents, Ronald Wilson Reagan restored American prosperity and morale. His policies initiated an economic boom which, with minor lapses, endured for almost a quarter of a century. He masterfully brought the Cold War to a successful conclusion with an American victory. The best president of my lifetime.
7. Thomas Jefferson-Easily the most over-rated president in American history. I place him this high solely because of the Louisiana Purchase. In many ways the Purchase ran counter to his political principles but he did not allow those principles to stand in the way of an action that enormously benefited the nation. Jefferson also deserves praise for the first war with the Barbary Pirates where he demonstrated a willingness to defend America’s interests, which ran counter to his military policies which weakened the defenses of the nation.
8. Grover Cleveland-The only Democrat to attain the presidency in the just over a half century between James Buchanan and Woodrow Wilson, and doing so twice in non-consecutive terms, Cleveland was a classical liberal and today would be considered a political conservative. He was pro-business and pro the gold standard. He was completely out of sympathy with the economic populism which was beginning to reshape his party. An advocate of civil service reform, he was notable for keeping on Republicans, like Theodore Roosevelt at the Civil Service Commission, who he viewed as doing a good job. A political reformer all of his career, he waged a steady fight against political corruption, and attracted a good deal of support from reform minded Republicans. He vetoed many spending bills which he regarded as excessive or unconstitutional. In one of his vetoes he included this message which deserves to be remembered by all Americans:
I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people support the government, the government should not support the people. The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bonds of a common brotherhood.
9. James Madison-The Father of the Constitution’s presidency was dominated by the War of 1812. As a war president Madison was something of a dud, the War of 1812 being rather poorly conducted, at least on land. However, it is at least arguable that the country came through the War more united and stronger than when it went in. Madison did lead the country to swift victory in the Second Barbary War in 1815. During his presidency he championed internal improvements and the national Bank, and helped lay the framework to a post war wave of prosperity and development.
10. Harry Truman-A machine politician from Missouri, little was expected from Truman when he assumed office following the death of Roosevelt. He brought the Pacific War to a swift end with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a decision which he never regretted and which he took full responsibility for. His Marshal Plan helped stabilize post war Europe and fend off the advent of Communist governments in Italy and France. The creation of NATO was a key element in the process which ultimately led to American victory in the Cold War. Despite it meaning the ending of his political career, he refused to purchase a truce from the Communists to end the Korean War by forcibly repatriating Chinese and North Korean POWs who wanted to remain in the West.
11. Chester A. Arthur-Arthur had been something of a crusader for civil rights in his youth for blacks, working on two notable civil rights cases that you may read about here and here. After his early years he became a fairly typical Republican machine politician in New York. After the assassination of President Garfield, he surprised everyone by fighting for Civil Service reform as president. He revitalized and modernized the Navy. He was a budget hawk and vetoed bills that he considered excessive. He attempted to stand for civil rights for blacks in the South, although after the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1873, he was left with few tools to intervene on behalf of blacks. Universally regarded with suspicion when he took office, he left the office of the Presidency deeply respected by almost all his initial critics.
12. Calvin Coolidge-America had the greatest jump in domestic prosperity under Coolidge. A throwback in many ways to a simpler time in American history, Silent Cal was actually quite eloquent in his opposition to the growth of the federal government and the advent of the welfare state under Hoover and FDR. Our most underrated president.
13. John Adams-A miracle that man ever became president. He lacked every political instinct and seemed to go out of his way to pick quarrels and alienate people. As president he skillfully brought the Quasi-War with France to a conclusion, knowing that while doing so he was signing his own political death warrant and that of his Federalist party. He demonstrated, in the midst of ferocious partisan political battles that make our current political divisions seem tame in comparison, statesmanship that few of his successors have equaled.
14. Andrew Jackson-The father of our two political parties: The Democrat party which he created, and the anti-Democrats created in opposition to him, going under the name initially of the Whigs and most Northern Whigs eventually creating the Republican party in the 1850s. Our modern party system derives from his career. As President his shining moment was the Nullification Crisis where he successfully withstood South Carolina’s first attempt to start a civil war. His worst moments were the trail of tears and his war on the national bank. The most consequential president, for good and ill, between Washington and Lincoln.
15. Dwight David Eisenhower-Ike successfully concluded the Korean War, maintained the balance of terror with the Soviet Union in nuclear weapons, and left the US a more prosperous nation than he found it. Our most successful post war President next to Reagan.
16. James Monroe-America made rapid progress in its Westward expansion under Monroe, especially with the construction of the Cumberland trail. Partisanship was at its lowest ebb in American political history during his “Era of Good Feelings”, with the old Jeffersonian Republicans morphing into a broad enough party to encompass all but the most die-hard Federalists. The negotiated purchase of Spanish Florida completed American expansion in the East. The Monroe Doctrine signaled to the rest of the world American dominance in this half of the globe, although it took the tacit support of Great Britain and the Royal Navy to ironically make it a reality. A good ending to the Virginia Dynasty.
17. Zachary Taylor-Old Rough and Ready had zero political experience when he became President as a result of his national hero status from the Mexican War. A slaveholder, he had served in the Army for almost four decades and had developed a deep love of the Union. During his term as President, cut short by his sudden death, he was outspoken in his opposition to secession, and threatened that if secession occurred he would raise an army and hang every secessionist he could get his hands on. One of the more interesting what ifs in American history is if Taylor had lived, a Southern President during the 1850s and a declared opponent of secession. Instead, the presidents in the decade prior to the Civil War would all be northerner politicians intent on appeasing the slave holders of the South.
18. William Howard Taft-A competent president, Taft was no politician, as he amply demonstrated by alienating many factions of the Republican Party during his term in office, and setting up the Bull Moose run for president in 1912 by Theodore Roosevelt which ended in Taft coming in third in that race. Taft championed lower tariffs, civil rights for blacks and a general reform agenda, most of which he got through Congress. A successful president largely ignored by history.
19. George Herbert Walker Bush-Elected largely because the country wanted to give Reagan a third term, but couldn’t, Bush presided over a prosperous economy. In foreign affairs he fought two quick and victorious wars in Panama and the Gulf. His fatal flaw was that he always had been lacklustre as a politician, as he demonstrated by breaking his “read my lips”, no new taxes pledge which cost him his presidency.
20. William McKinley-One of the more enigmatic figures to occupy the White House, McKinley kept his political associates at arm’s length, with few men really certain what McKinley truly thought on any of the great issues of the day, until McKinley, ever cautious, decided on his course. McKinley ushered in a period of Republican presidential dominance that might well have lasted until 1932, without the schism in the Republican party in 1912. McKinley led the country out of the Depression of 1893, the most severe depression in the country’s history. He advocated civil rights for blacks at a time when racism, and not just in the South, was rapidly rising. A combat veteran of the Union army who deeply abhorred war, McKinley was reluctantly convinced to declare war on Spain after the destruction of the Maine. Like Taft, his historical reputation suffers from being outshined by Theodore Roosevelt.
21. John Quincy Adams-A dead man walking politically throughout his term as president due to the fiery denunciations of Jackson of the “corrupt bargain” which led to Adams winning the presidency in 1824 courtesy of the support of Henry Clay, who Adams named as his Secretary of State, Adams materially helped the development of the nation through his policy of internal improvements, an issue which would be the chief issue dividing Democrats and Whigs for the next generation. Adams pursued a policy of conciliation with the Indians, as opposed to the removal policy championed by Jackson. Like his father, Adams was defeated for re-election and won precisely the same states his father had won in his failed re-election attempt in 1800.
22. Woodrow Wilson-Wilson has become a devil figure on the right, thank you Glen Beck, but I think that is overblown. He was a competent war president, and certainly attempted to avoid going to war as long as he could. After the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German ambassador promised to return several states to Mexico if Mexico would ally with Germany if the US declared war on Germany, I think it was impossible for Wilson to avoid entering the war. His 14 point peace plan mirrored in many respects that proposed by Pope Benedict. He set up the Federal Reserve, something that was long overdue in my opinion. My main criticisms of Wilson are his segregation of the Federal civil service, reflecting the fact that Wilson was an unapologetic segregationist and made no effort to enforce the civil rights of blacks; his growth of the size and scope of the Federal government; and the curtailment of civil liberties during World War I. His presidency went out on a bizarre note with his wife Edith basically serving as president sub rosa for the last 16 months of his term after Wilson was incapacitated by a stroke.
23. Benjamin Harrison-The Republican caught between Grover Cleveland’s two terms, Harrison is largely forgotten by history and that is unjust. He fought manfully for the civil rights of blacks in his term, constantly speaking out against deprivation of the right to vote in the South of blacks and the simple murder that was dignified by the term lynching. He sponsored civil rights legislation in Congress, although the Federal Elections Bill failed in the Senate due to unified Democrat opposition. He appointed Theodore Roosevelt to the Civil Service Commission and stood by him, even when his attacks on corruption in Republican federal appointments caused Harrison no end of political problems. In regard to Indians Harrison adopted a reform policy by which individual Indians would be given land rather than having the land given to the tribe. Although the policy ultimately failed and much of the land was eventually bought up by white speculators, at the time it was thought to be a much-needed reform of the atrocious reservation system.
Tomorrow we will deal with the bottom 20 chief executives.