The Problem of Ranking U. S. Presidents

recarving_2nd_1800x2700Ivan Eland has offered a new approach to ranking the U.S. presidents, and it’s one that I both applaud and have reservations about.

His book is called Recovering Rushmore (2014, now updated to include Obama) and its hall of fame/shame is based on (1) the degree to which a president’s policies promoted peace, prosperity and liberty, and (2) the president’s adherence to the Constitution’s limitations on presidential powers. This opposes the criteria used by most historians, who tend to reward a president who happens to serve in a time of crisis and by expanding his presidential power. And herein lies the rub. As a libertarian I largely approve Eland’s criteria, but as a left-leaning libertarian I’m not as hostile to executive activism when it comes to fiscal benefits (the prosperity category) for the common good.

I agree with Eland entirely when he criticizes rankings based on a president’s charisma, oratory skill, and/or management style. People who want an inspiring speaker basically want a class president instead of a real president. Charisma is a nice bonus, but that’s it.

Eland also scores for non-partisanship. For example, he skewers the Republican Bush and Democrat Obama for their many indistinguishable policies. Both started and escalated needless wars, toppling Islamic dictators which paved the way for jihadist groups that have been far worse. Both restricted civil liberties in the fight against terrorism, and both ignored the plight of the working middle class. Precisely because of all of this we now have a demagogue (Trump) who will likely be the worst president in history.

Meanwhile, in Eland’s judgment, the Republican Eisenhower and Democrat Carter come off rather well. Eisenhower minimized American involvement and intervention, and made sound decisions that helped the economy. Carter, while inheriting the stagnation caused by the Vietnam War, fostered economic policies that eventually led to the prosperity of the Reagan years and set a precedent for renewed prosperity during the Clinton years.

Anyway, here’s Eland’s list, followed by a list from the American Political Science Association for comparison. The greatest value to be taken from Eland is his critique of charismatic activists. As a species I believe we are drawn to such figures. We experience the pull of “good leaders”, forgetting that bland personalities who show executive restraint can be just as good leaders — and often better ones. Right now we have a president who doesn’t understand the meaning of restraint at all, and precedents for executive overreach don’t help matters.

The Excellent

1. John Tyler (1841-1845)
2. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889; 1893-1897)
3. Martin van Buren (1837-1841)
4. Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

The Good

5. Chester Arthur (1881-1885)
6. Warren Harding (1921-1923)
7. George Washington (1789-1797)
8. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
9. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)
10. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

The Average

11. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
12. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)
13. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
14. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

The Poor

15. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
16. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)
17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)
18. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)
19. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
20. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)
21. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)
22. John Adams (1797-1801)
23. James Buchanan (1857-1861)
24. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

The Bad

25. James Monroe (1817-1825)
26. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
27. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)
28. James Madison (1809-1817)
29. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)
30. Richard Nixon (1969-1974)
31. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945)
32. Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969)
33. George H.W. Bush (1989-1993)
34. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
35. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
36. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
37. George W. Bush (2001-2009)

The Atrocious

38. James Polk (1845-1849)
39. William McKinley (1897-1901)
40. Harry Truman (1945-1953)
41. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

What catches the eye in the “Bad” category are the placements of figures like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. According to Eland, Jefferson claimed to be for small government, but did things that proved otherwise, such as imposing a trade embargo that stifled liberties and led to hunger and starvation. His Louisiana Purchase was unconstitutional, and his ethnic cleansing of the Native American Indians set a bad precedent (followed especially by Andrew Jackson). As for Lincoln, he pursued the Civil War ineptly, and if it ended slavery, African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white southerners who were bitter over the war. In Eland’s very strong view, peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly.

As for the last four, they earn their shameful slots on Eland’s list for steering America into completely needless wars that changed us for the worst. (1) Polk started a war with Mexico to steal a third of its land and by doing so inflamed regional tensions that eventually led to the Civil War. (2) McKinley made America into an imperialist Britain by prosecuting the Spanish-American War and acquiring colonies. (3) Truman turned a local war in Greece into a cold war against the Soviets, which led to the creation of the security state, an imperial presidency, and trashed the traditional requirement that the American people, rather than the president, decide if war is needed. (4) Wilson (besides being an overt racist) took America into the disastrous World War I, which laid the seeds for the Bolshevik Revolution and Hitler’s rise to power. I think Eland is too hard on Truman, but most of this is right, and in particular McKinley is the one who laid the foundations for turning America into a trans-world empire.

The American Political Science Association

Compare Eland’s list to a more standard ranking from the American Political Science Association based on a survey of historians and scholars.

Someday…

… I may do my own ranking of the presidents, which would mediate between the approach of Eland and the one above. The peace/liberty criteria is at odds with the hero/hands-on model, yet I believe each has its place.

I can at least agree with the combined assessments of Recovering Rushmore and The American Political Science Association on this point: Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were the best two presidents of my lifetime (post-1968), and George W. Bush was the worst. So they’re each doing something right.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem of Ranking U. S. Presidents

  1. Very interesting. With the end of another presidency, I was thinking about how I would rank US presidents myself. I confess that I don’t feel at all qualified to rank the ones prior to 1900, since I haven’t studied 19C America very deeply. Odd that all of the top five were nineteenth century presidents.

    Just a few scattered thoughts:

    I wouldn’t have thought about putting McKinley so low on the list, though I certainly think the Spanish American War was a complete travesty. Perhaps he does deserve a low spot. Contrary to your view, though, I would place FDR much lower. His total disregard for the Constitution as well as his being at least somewhat responsible for our entry into WWII put him, in my mind, on a similar plane to W.

    I certainly agree with Wilson being down at the very bottom. Odd to see Harding so high up, given his general reputation.

    I tend to think that Clinton gets more credit than he really deserves. In my opinion he took advantage of the legacy that was left him by Reagan and GHW Bush. My opinion of GHW Bush has risen considerably since he left office.

    And poor Garfield, getting left off the list. A watched the PBS biopic on him last year. Such a tragedy.

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