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 applaud with some reservations.

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.

Eland is correct to criticize rankings based on a president’s charisma, oratory skill, and/or management style. People who want an inspiring speaker basically want a high-school class president instead of a real president. Charisma is a nice bonus, but that has nothing to do with the presidential record.

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 surely be one of the worst presidents 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.

Here is Eland’s list. The greatest value to be taken from it 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 are 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 (with which I agree), 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. Polk started a war with Mexico to steal a third of its land, which resulted in the highest desertion rate for any foreign war in American history. McKinley made America into an imperialist Britain by prosecuting the Spanish-American War and acquiring colonies — laying the foundations, in other words, for turning America into a trans-world empire. The overtly racist Wilson believed the president should be like Britain’s prime minister, and took America into the disastrous World War I, which laid the seeds for the Bolshevik Revolution and Hitler’s rise to power. 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. I think Eland is a bit too hard on Truman. For the 19th century presidents, Polk was indeed very bad, but I would put both Andrew Jackson and Lincoln below him. And I would certainly rate George W. Bush in the rock-bottom atrocious category. But most of Eland’s assessments are on target, and I agree wholeheartedly that Wilson was the worst president of all time.

I also agree with him that for the duration of my lifetime (post 1968), Jimmy Carter was the only good president, followed by Bill Clinton, who was average. All the others were mediocre (Ford), poor (Nixon), bad (Reagan, H.W. Bush, Obama), or atrocious (W. Bush).


3 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.

  2. The Eland rankings are a bit odd. Tyler is 1st & Van Buren 2nd, but they perused opposite programs:

    1)Van Buren prosecuted the Second Seminole War throughout his presidency, the longest Indian war ever, Tyler simply ended this costly war.
    2) Van Buren left the border issues with Canada simmering throughout his term, Tyler negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
    3) Van Buren refused to annex Texas, he even forgave Mexican debts for no reason, which could have been used as leverage in the Texas question, Tyler annexed Texas
    4) Van Buren created the Independent Treasury, Tyler repealed it.
    5) Tyler raised tariffs, where Van Buren had left them low.

    As you can see Tyler & Van Buren differed greatly on the issues, their rankings really can’t be reconciled against one another.

    Carter also gets undue credit for Volker and economy. Carter appointed Volker because he was for a loose monetary policy under Nixon, and Carter was hoping Volker would pump a lot of inflationary money into the market curing the recession. Carter was looking for a short term quick fix to the economy to help his re-election chances, not long term stability. Volker did the opposite, and he worked with Reagan to fix the economy with a tight monetary policy. Carter did do some deregulation, but not enough to make up for his creation of the Department of Defense and Education, which came with all their rules, regulations and bureaucracies. Carter also passed the windfall profits tax as well. Carter made the economy worse not better. The only reason why he didn’t pass more big government programs was because he was incompetent, not unwilling.

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