Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Ranking of President: How the Historians Have it Wrong - Part II

(Also see Parts I and III.  See below comments for analysis.)
George Washington, 1789-1797): It should chagrin all of us that the true “father of our country” was also a slaveholder.  Yet Washington was largely perfect in his role as President because he was so adeptly able to play in public the role of a humble man.  He decided to be a President rather than a king, refused to serve more than two terms, and declined to put his religious beliefs on display.  Washington should also not be underrated as a statesman.  Because he did not pursue further conflict with the British, a period of peace was issued in that the young republic badly needed.  In large part due to his cabinet appointees, Washington kept the new nation economically solvent.  And in his farewell address, he warned that the nation should not entangle itself in European affairs – a policy that all Presidents then followed until 1917.  RANKING: 3rd Best of 42 Presidents.

John Adams, 1797-1801:  Adams will forever be foreshadowed by the President that came before him and the President that came immediately after him.  It is fortunate that Adams was not elected prior to Washington.  Otherwise, we may have called our leaders Majesty.  Adams came as close as any President to imagining his own person as royalty, and for all his brilliance left office with a reputation of being a poor politician.  Adams was the President that signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts to suppress political opposition.  But without the assistance of his benefactor, George Washington (who died during Adams' term), Adams was not even able to keep united his own political party.  Perhaps his one great act that he performed as President was the appointment of John Marshall to the Supreme Court.  RANKING: 30th of 42 Presidents.

Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809: Jefferson was a great thinker, the author of The Declaration of Independence and above average President.  Jefferson did much to undo the damage brought on by the Adams’ Presidency, pardoned many prisoners charged under the Alien and Sedition Act and overall attempted to reduce the size of government.  Not everything he did fit into his own political philosophy, however.  He ended up purchasing land under the Louisiana Purchase - not that he thought he had the power to do so under the Constitution, but because it was a gift too generous to turn down.  He also became the first President to initiate an overseas war – which was a severe compromise of his principles.  (The First Barbary War, as it is known, actually did little to prevent piracy, so there was a Second Barbary War that was launched in 1815 during the Madison administration.)  Jefferson was also a conflicted man.  He abolished the slave trade though he personally owned slaves.  And because he long had proclaimed the equality of opportunity for all men, he was uncomfortable in his role as President of the United States and leader of other men.  He attempted to make up for this by greeting diplomats in informal attire.  Jefferson was also a shy man and, great writer that he was, apparently was not too impressive as a public speaker.  Historians note that his one failure as President was the Embargo Act of 1807, which effectively stifled trade with Europe.  However, most historians fail to note that the act was repealed before Jefferson left office in early 1809.  Jefferson’s greatness as a man (with great flaws) along with his lasting contribution towards the creation of our nation is the primary reason as to why his face is carved on Mount Rushmore.  Nevertheless, his vision as President, if not perfectly accomplished during his administration, was at least a model for all Presidents to come.  RANKING: 6th of 42 Presidents.

James Madison, 1809-1817: Simply being a founding father does not qualify one to be President.  Try to comprehend what the reaction would have been of historians if Washington D.C. had been occupied by enemy combatants and the White House burned to the ground during George W. Bush’s Presidency.  I believe they would have been much less forgiving than they have been to Madison.  What’s more, Madison declared war on the British while not having the armed services fully prepared.  In fact, Madison was never really able to bring popular support to any items of his agenda and did next to nothing to improve the infrastructure of the country.  Madison could likely be considered our most overrated President.  RANKING: 38th of 42 Presidents.

James Monroe, 1817-1825: Monroe issued in the Era of Good Feeling simply by being a different President than his predecessor.  Monroe also may be remembered fondly by historians simply because he faced almost no opposition during the two times that he was elected President (a practice that was soon to end after Andrew Jackson came upon the scene).  Monroe was the first President to make a goodwill tour of territories of the U.S.  Perhaps Monroe’s most significant accomplishment was the Missouri Compromise, which eliminated slavery from being implemented in many (but not all) new territories in the country.  Monroe was the first executive to at least address the issue of slavery.  Regarding foreign policy, Monroe’s name is on the Monroe Doctrine which disallowed further European colonization in any place in the Western Hemisphere and has still had a dramatic impact on global politics after two-hundred years.  The Seminole War in pursuit of hostile Indians, popular among southern settlers at the time, was in hindsight a blemish on his administration.   RANKING: 12th of 42 Presidents.

John Quincy Adams, 1825-1829: Adams' Presidency was almost over from the start as he was never able to overcome the charge that he and Henry Clay made a corrupt arrangement so that Adams could steal the Presidency and appoint Clay as Secretary of State in the process.  Whatever actually happened in the 1824 election, Adams will be more fondly remembered for his life following his Presidency including his seventeen year stint in Congress and his outspoken defense of abolitionism (in particular, his defense of the freed slaves in the Amistad case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court).  Adams supported enlarging the federal government to such a degree that states’ rights advocates withdrew any political support.  Adams only legislative accomplishment was to pass a tariff that proved to be unpopular in the south.  The younger Adams nevertheless was a humanitarian far ahead of his time in his attitude towards those of a different race.  Unlike Jackson, Adams wanted to implement a policy that was friendly toward the Cherokee tribe.  Not surprisingly, this was opposed by those living in regions like Georgia where the Cherokee populated.  Ultimately, Adams was unpopular as President because he was viewed as a Washington insider and because he was not a gifted statesman.  RANKING: 24th of 42 Presidents.

Andrew Jackson, 1829-1837: Old Hickory was a natural leader and somewhat power-hungry individual.  Jackson had the most forceful and fascinating of personalities of any President and he was never plagued by self-doubt.  Earlier in his life, Jackson survived imprisonment by the British and had participated in a number of duals.   During his Presidency he survived a physical assault and an assassination attempt.  Partly due to his reckless personality Jackson took on the federal banks and won a dubious victory.  Though he succeeded in abolishing the bank, no one is sure how much economic fallout and other consequences resulted because of this.  Jackson’s temper often got the best of him, and he was pushing for war with France (and almost got his wish) until Vice President Van Buren managed to smooth things over.  And the infamous “trail of tears,” the removal of American Indians from their land to reservations, foremost was the responsibility of the Jackson’ administration.  Jackson had a positive side.  Jackson did stave off a secessionist movement brewing in the South.  He was also an extremely popular President and was only defeated in the election of 1824 due to the chicanery of the Monroe administration.  That he began the Spoils System in American politics is greatly overstated.  The Monroe and Quincy Adams administrations before him made public participation in the political process almost impossible.  It was Jackson’s popularity and his reputation as a political outsider that turned the United States away from a nation of one-party rule to one where popular elections were held every four years.  We are a truer democracy today because of the Jackson' Presidency.  RANKING: 18th of 42 Presidents.

Martin Van Buren, 1837-1841: Van Buren was much more than Jackson’s puppet.  In many ways he was more Jeffersonian than Jefferson ever was.  Van Buren avoided a repeat war with Britain and at least forestalled a war with Mexico.  Van Buren resolved the economic depression he inherited from the Jackson administration without an increase in government expansion.  Van Buren had a gifted mind for the intricacies of politics, but unfortunately did not have the forceful personality of his predecessor to always get what he wanted.  Where Van Buren especially failed was in his reluctance to end the Indian wars; and as a supposed abolitionist in earlier years, he went along with the institution of slavery as President and was openly willing to compromise with southern interests (and received notoriety in the Amistad case where he appeared willing to send freed slaves back to slaveholders in Africa).  Thus, Van Buren’s Presidency was a mixed blessing.  RANKING: 17th of 42 Presidents.

William Henry Harrison, 1841: Harrison had an ambitious agenda that would have included undoing many of the policies implemented during the Jackson and Van Buren administrations – in particular, Harrison desired to reestablish the federal bank.  Harrison had the promise of doing something special in the White House so it is indeed unfortunate that he (1) rode his horse to the inauguration, and (2) gave the longest inaugural speech in history out in the rain.  Harrison served exactly one month as President, and much of that he spent ill in bed.  RANKING: 19th of 42 Presidents.

John Tyler, 1841-1845: Tyler, the “Accidental President,” was the first and possibly most outspoken “States Rights” President.  His drive for the annexation of Texas was in great part due to his desire to expand the institution of slavery to areas where it could not be meddled with by abolitionists in the north.  (This has been partially excused by apologists because it was thought that the spreading of slavery out would alleviate desires of secessionism by slave states.)  Tyler wanted to expand commercialism to Hawaii and Asian markets, and was accused of desiring this so that the United States could exploit the resources and citizens of those territories.  Tyler’s inability to comprehend the full significance of slavery (and he was as blind to the horrors of slavery as any President ever) should be his legacy - rather than being the first Vice-President to take the office of the Presidency due to the death of his predecessor.  RANKING: 37th of 42 Presidents.

James Knox Polk, 1845-1849: Polk’s Presidency was a mixture of good and bad and as such has been overly praised by the historians who admire activist Presidents - without paying attention to what that activism represented.  Polk did decrease tariffs which increased trade between the U.S. and other nations.  At the same time, he was an expansionist and could be described as our first true imperialist President.  All the baggage that comes along with imperialist policies was present during his administration.  Polk could have easily lost the war with Mexico if not for the fact the U.S. had good military leadership – including a General named Zachary Taylor soon to be sitting in the White House.  And for all his warlike posturing against Britain and his actual sending of troops to Mexico, Polk completely shied away from the major domestic issue of the day – which was slavery.  RANKING: 29th of 42 Presidents.

Zachary Taylor, 1849-1850: Though barely literate, Taylor was an intelligent and pragmatic man.  Though not a visionary, it was tragic that his Presidency was cut short.  Taylor was nominated by the Whigs, despite that party having little idea where Taylor actually stood upon the issues.  But if the Whigs had thought Taylor would lay down to the party establishment, they were badly mistaken.  In the little more than a year he sat in office, Taylor did everything in his power to basically dismantle the party.  Though a slave owner, he did not appease the south with his “moderate” stand on the issue, and Taylor offended the south even more by moving to have California and New Mexico added as free-states.  Taylor, unlike his predecessor, had no desire to create complications by having the U.S. become entangled in foreign affairs.  Taylor has been badly underappreciated by peers and the historians, and could have been one of our best early Presidents - if he had only lived.  RANKING: 10th of 42 Presidents.

Millard Fillmore, 1850-1853: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that Fillmore signed into law right away was an indication that he was an entirely different President than Taylor.  Fillmore wanted to save the Whig Party by appeasing all sides and throwing in the towel on the slavery issue.  Fillmore did continue the policies of Taylor in one respect in that he continued the policy of not becoming entangled in foreign affairs - with one great exception: Admiral Peary was sent by him to Japan to open up relationships between the two nations – to this day no one is sure why Fillmore thought such a move was necessary.  But Fillmore did show a surprising streak of tolerance by his acceptance of Mormons as citizens of the United States.  This may be the one thing that he did do right during his administration.  RANKING: 36th of 42 Presidents.

Franklin Pierce, 1853-1857: One of our least-known Presidents that, more than Buchanan should be remembered for doing nothing to avert the pending Civil War.  (As an aside, Franklin Pierce was the only President to say “I solemnly affirm” rather than “I solemnly swear” at his inauguration - possibly due to religious doubts.)  And though claiming in his inaugural address that the slavery issue was “at rest,” Pierce may have exasperated matters by not taking any stance as to whether Kansas or Nebraska should be free or slave states when entering into the union.  Pierce said that he preferred to let the settlers of those territories settle the matter for themselves.  Pierce’s nonchalance concerning slavery in these territories was unprecedented since every other President followed the dictates of the Missouri Compromise – implemented in 1820 and abolishing slavery in states purchased through the Louisiana Purchase.  Pierce unwittingly split the Democratic Party by this decision (or indecision), and ultimately many Democrats fled to the new Republican Party.  Through his policies, the United States annexed a large number of islands in the Pacific.  Through the infamous Onstead Manifesto, the Pierce administration more or less threatened war in order to entice Spain to sell the island of Cuba.   Fortunately, Pierce was forced to abandon the plan when Pierce’s idea of turning Cuba into another slave state became public knowledge.  Pierce was not a popular President as he had over half of his vetoes overridden.  Some historians have said that Pierce was indecisive.  He was not indecisive, but most of his decisions (even ones not made while under the influence of bourbon) have now been shown to be disastrously wrong.  RANKING: 41st of 42 Presidents.

James Buchanan, 1857-1861: Buchanan has so often been touted as our worst President that one almost feels sorry for him.  Buchanan felt the south could not legally succeed from the Union, but that the north had no constitutional recourse to take military action to prevent this from happening.  Pronouncing his belief in governmental restraint at a time when the nation was pulling itself a part was probably the wrong message to send to the public.  Buchanan was convinced that the Dred Scott decision (probably the worst decision ever made by the United States Supreme Court) would sufficiently put the south at ease.  Though claiming that a state like Pennsylvania had the right to remain a free state, Buchanan at the same time claimed the need of such states to respect the desires of her slave state “sisters.”  Buchanan even went so far as to blame northern abolitionists for the tensions between the north and south.  Under Buchanan, the economy of the south prospered while the north met severe economic times.  And during his final days in office, Buchanan had the privilege of seeing large numbers of federal troops surrender to the seven states known as the Confederate States of America.  Buchanan, consistent to a fault, did nothing.  Rumor has it that Buchanan needed a shot of brandy to steady his nerves before his inauguration.  One shouldn’t be surprised by this.  Probably Buchanan’s only defense could be that he recognized how bloody a Civil War would be if the Union fought to stop succession.  War never did come about during his administration.  RANKING: 40th of 42 Presidents.

Abraham Lincoln, 1861-1865: Whatever personal demons plagued the man (and there were many), Lincoln was the closest we ever had to a gifted statesman and politician of character.  Though always sounding self-assured when making his pronouncements, he questioned his own assumptions and was willing to grow as a leader.  Lincoln’s personal history was distorted by the fairytale perception of him in Carl Sandburg’s biography.  The man that sat in the White House during the entire course of the American Civil War could at times be ruthless.  Using his war powers as an excuse, Lincoln suspended civil liberties, ordered a blockade that placed most of the citizens of southern states in a situation of economic deprivation and imprisoned Confederate sympathizers without trial.  As charismatic as Lincoln was as a public speaker, he was also willing to face public criticism, put political aspirations aside and risk forever losing half of the nation on a principled stand against slavery.  RANKING: 1st of 42 Presidents.

Andrew Johnson, 1865-1869: Johnson was a decisive and stubborn man who suddenly inherited the worst job in the world when his predecessor was assassinated.  Johnson was in fact so decisive that he had more vetoes overridden than any other President in history.  Reconstruction did not go smooth under his tenure.  Nobody wanted Johnson as President in either the North or the South and he made matters worse by having few diplomatic skills.  Johnson did try to appease both sides but he failed in this pursuit.  In fact, many thought Johnson left the south off of the hook and put the former slaves in almost as bad of a situation as if they still were owned.  Probably Lincoln would have handled the cleanup following the Civil War better, but we will never know that for sure.  And maybe nobody that took the office of Presidency would ever have been up to that task.  RANKING: 25th of 42 Presidents.

Ulysses Simpson Grant, 1869-1877: Since graft has been such a significant indicator for ranking of Presidents, it’s no surprise that the Grant administration has been consistently listed low by the scholars.  But the historians have been absurdly short-sighted by putting the Whiskey Ring on par with the passage of the 15th Amendment.  Grant was the first civil rights President and, for all practical purposes, the last true one until LBJ became President.  The corruption during his administration cannot be understated because it did lead to economic turmoil by allowing a great deal of speculation in silver and gold.  And the sheer number of scandals is significant.  But Grant was far ahead of his time in his dealing with minorities (especially blacks and American Indians) and in his determined effort to keep religious interests from influencing governmental interests.  For whatever its worth, Grant was an intelligent and decent man who drank too much and trusted too much in those he appointed to cabinet positions.  He certainly was not a failure as President.   RANKING: 9th of 42 Presidents.

Rutherford Birchard Hayes, 1877-1881: To return the favor of winning three contested states in the 1876 Presidential election, Hayes then proceeded to dismantle reconstruction policies that were prevalent under the Grant administration.  There would be no more significant efforts to help blacks better their lives in the south until after the 1960s.  Appearance wise in any case, Hayes distanced himself from the scandals that plagued the Grant administration.  Hayes implemented legislation that disallowed government workers from participating in political campaigns and created various civil service reforms.  Because of this he is now called an honest President.  That does not make up for the so-called Compromise of 1877RANKING: 28th of 42 Presidents.

James Abram Garfield, 1881: Garfield spent almost as much of his Presidency greatly incapacitated by a bullet wound as he did actually governing the United States.  His most noteworthy achievement in the time he did serve was in calling for civil service reform legislation.  Ironically, it was an assassin’s bullet that made this legislation deemed necessary.  Other than some squabbling inside the cabinet during his administration that Garfield was able to resolve, Garfield’s Presidency up to the time of the assassination seemed relatively uneventful.  Garfield was probably one of the most intelligent of men to ever assume the Presidency.  A Major Brigadier General and War hero in his early thirties, he purportedly could write in Latin and Greek simultaneously with one pencil in the left hand and the another in the right, and he was a gifted mathematician as evidenced by a corollary he added to the Pythagorean Theory for which he receives full credit.  He died before his fiftieth birthday.  RANKING: 20th of 42 Presidents.

Chester Alan Arthur, 1881-1885: Because Arthur’s name was on the lips of Garfield’s assassin at the time that Garfield was shot Arthur came into office under the auspices of suspicion.  Perhaps because of this his agenda was never greatly different from that of Garfield.  Arthur, originally a Stalwart (Republican’s that believed in political patronage or the Spoils’ system) ended up being a champion of civil service reform.  Arthur went against his own party’s wishes and attempted to lower tariffs.  He had a mixed record on civil rights in that he signed in the first immigration law, but also signed a law excluding Chinese immigrants from coming to America.  Arthur called for reform concerning treatment of American Indians, but he did next to nothing to eliminate the use of Jim Crow laws.  Arthur was never re-nominated, which was probably just as well as he would die only a few years later from Bright’s disease.  However, his reputation leaving office was better than when he came in.  RANKING: 21st of 42 Presidents.

Grover Cleveland, 1885-1889, 1893-1897: Grover Cleveland vetoed 414 bills during his first term alone, more than twice the number of vetoes issued by all other Presidents before him.  Besides his vetoes, Cleveland also lowered tariffs possibly making him our most fiscally conservative President ever.  Cleveland was willing to take on his own party by his opposition to “free silver” and by his intervention in strikes (which angered labor unions).  When it came to personal character, however, Cleveland resembled another President, Bill Clinton, who would take office a century later.  Rather than go off to the Civil War Cleveland hired someone to go in his place (which was legal at the time).  Cleveland fathered an illegitimate child which was used against him in Presidential campaigns. (“Ma, ma, where’s my pa?  Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”)  Sadly, when it came to race relations Cleveland was still a product of the times.  Cleveland saw no reason to return to the age of reconstruction, actively sought to eliminate Chinese immigration, and signed into law the Dawes Act (which allegedly was to alleviate the poor conditions of Indians on reservations, but is now seen as a means of further depriving the Indian Tribes of their land).  If not for his disappointing record in this area, Cleveland would have had a legitimate chance to be known as a great President.  RANKING: 5th of 42 Presidents.

Benjamin Harrison, 1889-1893: Harrison was mostly known as the President stuck between the two separate terms of Cleveland.  Claiming to be an honest man who avoided the mistake of placing his friends in positions of high-office (though he had a pension for pork-barrel spending and mostly dismantled the civil service reforms enacted under Cleveland), the economic depression that occurred during his single term doomed him to losing to Cleveland in their Presidential rematch.  How much the depression was due to Harrison’s support of high, high tariffs is debatable.  Trade in the 1890s was not as important as it is today.  He did preside over what was called the billion dollar Congress where U.S. Treasury reserves were almost depleted.  Harrison was not the worst on civil rights of any President in that he did open the doors for Chinese emigration and did speak out about lynchings of blacks in the south (though he never stepped up to end the practice).  Overall, Harrison should be known for implementing economic policies that were borderline catastrophic.  Despite being a Republican and viewed as pro-business, Harrison (unlike Cleveland) was incapable of saying No to most spending requests.  RANKING: 34th of 42 Presidents.

William McKinley, 1897-1901: He was not the first President to speak on a regular basis to God, but he certainly was the one that claimed to hear the voice of God the most often.  McKinley appointed many an old friend to cabinet positions, issued in gold as currency and raised tariffs to such a height as to make global trade increasingly prohibitive.  But even this domestic agenda showed more foresight than his desire to “civilize” the remainder of the world.  Though his unwillingness to improve domestic matters concerning race relations in the United States might have seemed uncharitable, his determination to rescue the damned in Cuba, Hawaii and the Philippines under the banner of Manifest Destiny and American Imperialism made Christianity appear unpalatable almost everywhere.   RANKING: 39th of 42 Presidents.


July 26, 2010
© Robert S. Miller 2010

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