Hidden Strength: Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Millard Fillmore doesn’t have the best reputation among scholars. He’s often lumped uncritically with the doughfaces that followed him, but in fact he was a much better and stronger president than either Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. Let’s review his record.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise had the following provisions:

  • California would bypass the territory phase and enter the union as a free state
  • New Mexico and Utah would determine for themselves whether they would be slave or free states
  • Texas would cede certain territory to New Mexico, and in return Texas’s debts would be paid
  • Slave trade (but not slave owning itself) would be banned in Washington DC
  • The Fugitive Slave Act would require people to return escaped slaves to their owners, and would be enforced by federal marshals, not the states.

Historians have blasted Fillmore for the last part — the Fugitive Slave Act — saying that it was a trigger for the Civil War, inciting northerners against slavery. There are three problems with this indictment.

(1) The Fugitive Slave Act certainly did make the hunting of slaves more visible to people in the north. It woke people up and caused outrage. Turning people in the north against slavery was a good result of Fillmore’s presidency, not a bad one. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which had profound effects on northern passions. But the Civil War itself was certainly not inevitable at this point.

(2) The North was the slam-dunk winner in the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act was the singular Southern-friendly part that meant anything. The other parts either favored the north or threw the south crumbs. Slavery would be allowed in New Mexico and Utah, but slavery had been outlawed by the Mexican government, so there were no slaves around there at the time, and the land was badly suited for slavery in any case. No one operating in real-world politics can call the Fugitive Slave Act a sell-out with a straight face.

(3) Historians say that Fillmore shouldn’t have put slavery in a Constitutional framework, but a moral one. That’s impossible to take seriously, given that these same specialists never hold the twelve presidents before Fillmore to the same standard. Fillmore was a man of his time, just like his predecessors.

Fillmore should be commended. He was personally against slavery, but as president he knew it was his job to uphold the laws until slavery could be peacefully abolished, and to get us much for the north as possible. That’s what the Compromise of 1850 achieved.

Facing Down Rebels, Opening Japan, Protecting Hawaii, Mending Relations with Latin America, Avoiding War with Cuba

All of that, yes. In his short two and a half years as president, Fillmore was on a roll:

Texas. Before the Compromise of 1850 passed, Texas had threatened to seize a disputed area in New Mexico. Civil war threatened, but Fillmore diffused the situation by sending troops to New Mexico and a warning to Texas.

South Carolina. After the Compromise of 1850 was passed, South Carolina made preparations to secede from the union. Fillmore reinforced forts around Charleston and sent troops to the Carolina regions which prompted outrage. He held his ground, saying that as Commander and Chief he could station troops where he bloody well pleased if he believed it was in the nation’s best interest. This was the second time Fillmore diffused a tinderbox situation that could have exploded into civil war.

Japan. In 1852 he ordered Commodore Perry to open Japan to trade. Japan had been an isolated nation since 1639, and Fillmore wanted to change that, not only for trade but so that American ships could stop and resupply in Japan while en route to China and Southeast Asia. He also wanted the Japanese to stop abusing American shipwrecked sailors who were stranded on Japanese shores. Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853, and eventually negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa (signing it in 1854, after Fillmore left office) which gave the U.S. the right to trade and resupply in the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate. Japan also agreed to protect shipwrecked sailors. The only bad part about the opening of Japan is that it was done by coercion: Fillmore ordered Perry to use gunboat diplomacy if necessary.

Hawaii. Napoleon III had seized Honolulu in 1849, and then withdrew. Fillmore resisted demands for annexation, and then in 1851 the French made a list of demands on the Hawaiian king that would have established a French protectorate. Wisely enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, Fillmore pushed the French away, and they interfered no more. Hawaiian independence was preserved.

Latin America. James Polk had strained relations with this region by making the Canal Zone a virtual U.S. Colony — a less than admirable use of the Monroe Doctrine. (Polk’s foreign policy was basically the Monroe Doctrine on steroids.) Fillmore began a good-neighbor policy toward the region, and improved relations with Mexico, arranging for American businessmen to buy Peruvian dung for fertilizer instead of getting it by force.

Cuba. Back in 1849 a Venezuelan named Narciso Lopez had recruited Americans from the South to liberate Cuba from Spain. The Southerners were running out of ways to expand slavery on the continent, and wanted to add Cuba to the union as another slave state. President Zachary Taylor prevented the attempt. When they tried it again on Fillmore’s watch, he warned sternly that he would not protect anyone captured by Spain for trying to overthrow its colonial government. Things went ahead anyway, and badly, and the Spanish executed two American citizens. Fillmore lived up to his word, wisely avoiding retaliation and war, while also working out a settlement where the American prisoners were released from Cuba.


Historians deride James Buchanan a failure (and they are correct) for doing nothing when states started rebelling and seceding from the union. Yet they treat Millard Fillmore as another Buchanan, when Fillmore faced down rebellion not once, but twice, in Texas and Southern Carolina. These historians then ignore Fillmore’s other impressive accomplishments — with Japan, Hawaii, Latin America, and Cuba. And they fault him for the Compromise of 1850, instead of giving him the praise he deserves.

I dock him two peace points for opening Japan by means of coercion. Other than that, his peace record is flawless. For prosperity I split him down the middle. He heavily subsidized railroad construction in the west, and there were plenty of private railroads to make this welfare unnecessary; it basically amounted to taxpayer money being redirected into the pockets of rich railroad barons. For liberty, Fillmore does deserve to be docked some for the Fugitive Slave Act — its nature being what it is — but not nearly to the extent most historians would have it, for the reasons explained above. For a compromise, the Compromise of 1850 was a resounding victory for the north, kept the nation at peace, and made northerners care about the African American plight in the south.

Peace — 18/20
Prosperity — 10/20
Liberty — 15/20

TOTAL SCORE = 43/60 = Good

This isn’t the record of a bad president at all, nor even a mediocre one. Fillmore was pretty damn good.

The Eighties Era: Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

I came of age in the eighties, and so Ronald Reagan was the first president I had meaningful opinions about. Those opinions were less than flattering. Everything bad about the ’80s I associated with Reaganism: the exaggerated Communist menace; fake tax cuts for the rich; the return to ’50s family values and the importance of the nuclear family, over against the creative and transgressive individualism of the ’70s. All of this permeated outside the realm of politics — into art, film, TV, and music. From the age of 12 to 20 I took in these evils, as I saw them, and lamented not growing up in the more liberating decades of the ’60s and ’70s; under any other president (except Nixon).

My parents, friends, like-minded liberals, and I thought Reagan was a war-monger, out for communist blood at every turn. He made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He was a crook; the televised Iran-Contra hearings made it plain. And he was a fascist above all, escalating the war on drugs to insane levels. If you had asked me to score Reagan when he left office back in ’89, on the scale I’m using throughout this president series, I would have thrown him no more than 3 out of 20 points each for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty — for a total grade of perhaps 9/60; a lousy president indeed. And that’s pretty much how Ivan Eland grades him in Recarving Rushmore: peace 2, prosperity 5, and liberty 3, for 10/60, which puts Reagan down in the presidential cellar at #35.

More recently, my opinions of Reagan have undergone something of a reassessment. Not only is he not as bad as I once thought, he ranks in the top half of my list — though just barely. It’s hard to be objective about Reagan because he’s enshrined in so much myth, sort of like FDR. Roosevelt had been his hero before 1962 (when Reagan converted to Republicanism), and it showed in some of the ways he mimicked FDR, especially with charismatic one-liners. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” became embedded in our ’80s conscious like Roosevelt’s, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Like FDR, Reagan is venerated by fans and demonized by foes. I just gave you the demonic Reagan I believed in growing up.

I will assess the trio of Reagan myths, in their positive and negative spins, and try to get at what the “real Reagan” did for causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty.

1. Foreign Policy

The first myth, in its positive spin, is that Reagan won the Cold War. The counter myth, held by enemies, is that he was a war-monger. Neither is true.

(a) The Cold War

Like Carter before him, Reagan believed that Communism was an immoral system that crushed people’s liberties, and was bound to implode. He was right about this, and so it’s astonishing that he didn’t have the courage of his convictions to just let the Soviet empire to collapse on its own. Instead he reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets and raised the specter of nuclear war. Yet for all his strident anti-Soviet rhetoric, Reagan didn’t “win” the Cold War.

The Soviet Union collapsed because of its overextension and bad economy. That economy had begun to weaken as early as the ’60s; by the ’80s the nation was practically a Third-World status. Communism is a dysfunctional system because it gives no one any incentive to produce anything of value. The Soviet empire was bound to fail, no matter who was in charge, with or without an arms race like the one Reagan conducted. This was something Dwight Eisenhower understood: possessions, not weapons, would win the Cold War; communism made people poor and kept them poor forever, eating its own tail. Presidents after Eisenhower should have simply waited out the Soviet Union; capitalism is bound to triumph without resorting to huge amounts of military spending in order to “contain” communism. Excessive military spending, in any case, undermines investment in the civilian economy which is critical to a healthy republic.

Eisenhower was a prophet, and in mid-1989 (well after Reagan left office in January, and shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November), Gorbachev faced the music. The Red Army and $40 billion in annual subsidies could no longer prop up and stabilize Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. Two and a half years later (in December 1991) the Soviet Empire dissolved. This outcome had naught to do with Reagan; his military buildup didn’t accelerate that slide. According to Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, “The idea that the Reagan defense buildup somehow spent the Soviets into collapse is a legend of remarkable untruth. The now-open Soviet archives also prove there never was a Soviet-defense spending offensive.” The Soviets collapsed because they kept over-extending themselves into breadbasket countries.

(b) War on other fronts

And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched missions elsewhere. He attacked Libya in ’81. He sent forces to Lebanon in ’82. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops in October ’83. (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders tend to beat a hasty retreat.) His invasion of Grenada two days later followed as a diversion from the Lebanon fiasco: a “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; there was actually no viable threat in that region at all. Later in ’86, he picked another fight with Gaddafi in Libya. The common wisdom is that Reagan “put Gaddafi back in his box” and made him give up terrorism, but Gaddafi just went underground and used proxy groups to keep terrorizing. Prior to Reagan’s provocations, Gaddafi focused on non-U.S. targets, but now he began targeting Americans, resulting in the 1988 bombing of U.S.-bound flight Pan Am 103. (I attended Bishop Guertin High School with Steve Boland, one of the victims on the flight.)

Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but it made little sense for Reagan to go after him, especially when he was hypocritically supporting Islamic jihadists who were far worse. Continuing where Jimmy Carter left off, Reagan kept funding the mujaheddin (Islamic guerilla fighters) in Afghanistan and Pakistan, promoting Islamism to fight the Soviets who had invaded. Out of that manipulative mess, of course, would step Osama Bin Laden.

In spite of all this, however, Reagan was no war-monger. He only looks that way in the wake of Ford and Carter, who had pursued policies of remarkable restraint. When compared to the Johnson and Nixon eras, and the most recent Bush and Obama eras, Reagan emerges as a surprisingly moderate interventionist. Under him, at least, we weren’t bogged down in an equivalent to the Southeast Asian or Middle-East fiascos that drained the American economy and got outrageously high numbers of peoples slaughtered for no good reason.

For that matter, even when compared to his successor, Reagan doesn’t look too terrible. The elder Bush began a downward spiraling of events to which there would be no end in sight. He planted a permanent military presence on the ground in the Persian Gulf, and we’re still reaping the consequences of that decision today. Reagan, for all his serious “war faults”, was neither a war monger like Johnson and Nixon, nor a hawk like both Bushes and Obama.

2. Domestic Policy

The second myth is that Reagan was a fiscal conservative, cut of the same cloth as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. There is less to this claim than meets the eye.

Fiscal image

In fact, Reagan was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton (both Democrats, ironically), and he spent loads, not least on defense and his Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. As economists often point out, tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either (a) the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), (b) government borrowing has to increase, or (c) the government has to print money to cause inflation. Any of these methods rob the productive sector. Also, because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting mostly the rich.

There is irony here, considering Reagan’s president of choice: Calvin Coolidge. He placed Coolidge’s portrait in the Cabinet Room of the White House, and looked to Coolidge as a model. Coolidge is indeed a superb role model, as was Warren Harding before him. Both Harding and Coolidge gave America the Roaring Twenties prosperity, the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since. Reagan aspired to be like these men but fell short. He cut taxes like they did, but only Harding and Coolidge also cut federal spending, without which, again, tax cuts are meaningless. Of all post-World War II Republican presidents, Reagan actually ended up having the least annual net tax cuts as a percentage of U.S. economic output (called gross domestic product or GDP). He simply raised taxes in less conspicuous portions of the government revenue stream, giving major tax increases in all but two years of an eight-year presidency. Frankly, I marvel at “conservatives” who make taxes their single-voting issue, but are then very easily duped by sly, unobtrusive tax increases and federal spending as a portion of GDP. Reagan increased federal spending at an average of 2.5% per year.

In contrast, Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Clinton all reduced federal spending as a percentage of GDP. (They were the only 20th-century presidents to do this.) To be fair, Harding, Eisenhower, and Clinton had the advantage of being presidents serving right after a war or cold war had ended, which obviously allowed them more freedom in spending cuts. But they could have easily done what other post-war presidents do, by simply redirecting military spending to government initiatives. They didn’t.

In short: Reagan’s defense spending, fake tax cuts, and vast accumulation of government debt puts to bed the myth of his fiscal conservatism. By the time the elder Bush took office, his administration was complaining loudly that Reagan’s sins had over-stressed the budget. It’s funny that Reagan had always derided those who wanted a free lunch. That’s precisely what he gave himself by slashing taxes while spending to his heart’s content. He left a deficit mess for Bush and Clinton to clean up, which Clinton did. As Alan Greenspan later said: “The hard truth was that Reagan had borrowed from Clinton, and Clinton had to pay it back.”

And yet…

There is no denying the ’80s prosperity, and the thanks goes largely to the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker (under Carter and Reagan), and then Alan Greenspan (under Reagan’s final two years), two budget hawks who sucked inflation out of the system with tight money policies. Jimmy Carter deserves the foremost credit for hiring Volcker to begin with (and infuriating the Democrats so badly that it killed his chances at a second term). But Reagan deserves plenty of credit too. He kept Volcker on for six years, despite protests from his inner circle. He allowed Volcker (and then Greenspan) to do their dirty but necessary work of tight money policies.

In other words, the ’80s were prosperous because of Reagan, but also despite him. The Fed was kept under a conservative management while the executive worked at liberal purpose.

3. Liberty

The third myth says that Reagan’s scandals have been exaggerated. Others say the opposite, that Reagan was an anti-liberty fascist. Neither is true.

(a) The Iran-Contra Scandal

I don’t believe in blowing administrative scandals out of proportion unless they really need to be. Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding, for example, have been way over-maligned. Their graft scandals had to do with money-grubbing greed, not constitutional treachery. Neither Grant nor Harding were implicated in their scandals; they were ultimately responsible for appointing some dishonest men. So what? Name a single presidential administration that doesn’t have problems like that.

But unlike the graft scandals of Grant and Harding, the Watergate scandal of Nixon and the Iran-Contra scandal of Reagan amounted to serious constitutional offenses. The Nixon administration tried using security agencies to spy on people and cover up its dirty tricks. The Regan administration violated a criminal law and its own international arms embargo by selling weapons at high prices to a terrorist sponsoring nation (Iran), in order to ransom hostages held in Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. Even aside from the criminality, this was a shockingly bad policy decision, as it simply led to the kidnapping of more hostages. It also gave lie to Reagan’s claims that he didn’t negotiate with terrorists. Reagan then used the inflated proceeds from the sales they made to Iran to violate an explicit congressional ban on providing assistance to the Contra rebels, who were trying to overthrow the Sandinista Marxists in Nicaragua. Funding a secret war in violation of a congressional ban is an assault on the American checks and balances system, and it emasculates Congress of its most important power: to direct where federal money is spent.

In sum, Reagan broke international law and usurped Congress’ power of the purse in order to continue a secret war even after he was told by Congress to end it. That’s a very serious offense, and I remember the day this all went public — Thanksgiving Eve in ’86. By May ’87 Reagan had owned up to the fact that the Iran-Contra affair was all his idea.

(b) The Drug War

The second major stain on Reagan’s liberty record involves another comparison to Nixon, who had launched the drug war in June ’71. The drug war was scaled back in the Carter years (Carter had favored the decriminalization of marijuana), and then Reagan zealously escalated the war, starting a long period of relentless incarceration. The drug war represents one of the worst liberty assaults in America’s history. Aside from free speech, there is no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. Ruining the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, is alone an embarrassing national failure. That we make room for these people in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters is obscene.

The public was brainwashed into accepting the obscenity throughout the ’80s, thanks mostly to media portrayals of people addicted to the smokeable form of cocaine (“crack”), and also to Nancy Reagan’s widely publicized anti-drug campaign. By the end of Reagan’s two terms, polls showed that (yes) 64% of Americans saw drug abuse as the nation’s number one problem. Seriously.

(c) Martin Luther King Day

The drug war and Iran-Contra Affair so permeated our consciousness in the ’80s that it seemed almost impossible to put “Reagan” and “liberty” in the same sentence without negative qualifiers. But it turns out that Reagan did at least some significant things for the cause of liberty. First he approved Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday (though he had initially opposed it), signing it into effect on November 2, 1983. It went to effect three years later, in January ’86, and has been since celebrated as a federal holiday every January. Equally important is what this triggered on the state level. Prior to ’83, only 13 states (Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Ohio, Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, and California) observed MLK Day. With the federal holiday signed into law, Reagan started a domino effect of state acceptance. Watch the domino effect play out on this map. Increasing numbers of schools closed to celebrate the holiday, and more government employees got paid leave. There was increased awareness of racial injustice.

(d) Immigration

Reagan also signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to almost 3 million illegal aliens — the largest amnesty ever granted to hard working immigrants. This is sometimes swept under the rug by modern Reaganites who are hostile to immigration, but it is to Reagan’s immense credit that he supported immigrants to this degree. From an American perspective, of course, welcoming immigrants is a mark of enlightened thinking. The nation was founded by immigrants and has prided itself on being open to diversity. But even from the more mercenary perspective, immigration has always been the life’s blood of the U.S., infusing new ideas and skills into the market. Immigration gives the country new jobs, new businesses, new inventions. The immigrants create new populations of people who buy things. People tend to fear job competition in times of hardship or depression — and the threat of having jobs “stolen” from them — but the fact is that a bigger workforce means more consumption and more demand.

(e) The Supreme Court: The “Two Anthony’s”

Reagan deserves immense credit for two of his appointments to the Supreme Court: “the two Anthony’s”, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. They served exactly 30 years a piece (Scalia from 1986-2016, Kennedy from 1988-2018) and we can now fully appreciate the influence each has had in the cause of judicial liberty. For Scalia it was originalism that mattered; interpreting the law with respect to the framers’ intentions, and not legislating from the bench for desired outcomes. For Kennedy, it was about ensuring that the liberty enshrined in the Constitution be given its full meaning, for the liberty of all citizens, and not just white heterosexual men.

Here’s a handful of noteworthy court opinions by Scalia and Kennedy.

Flag-burning (Scalia and Kennedy):  In 1989, both Scalia and Kennedy joined the three liberals on the Court to protect the right to burn the American flag (Texas v. Johnson). While people wondered if Kennedy might swing in this direction, no one predicted that an arch-conservative like Scalia would not only join the liberals, but unreservedly — without even filing a separate opinion. And it’s noteworthy that Scalia later said that he personally wished that he could put flag-burners in jail, but that the First Amendment didn’t allow him that. This showed him to be far more principled than his accusers ever gave him credit for. Texas v. Johnson was a narrow 5-4 case, and if not for Reagan justices Scalia and Kennedy, I’m sure the outcome would have been different. Today the greatest threats to the First Amendment come from the left, but back in the ’80s they came from the right; I remember us all worrying that flag-burning would actually become illegal. Thanks to the two Anthonys — who both ruled against the grain of their rightist views — that’s not the case.

Abortion (Kennedy):  In 1992, Kennedy was the swing voter who reaffirmed the right to abortion. Planned Parenthood v. Casey was a landmark decision that upheld an earlier decision (Roe v. Wade), on both a constitutional basis and the importance of precedent. The idea is that prior judicial rulings should be upheld even if they are unpopular (unless there is a change in the fundamental reasoning involved in the previous decision). In this case, an entire generation of women had come of age free to assume the concept of liberty enshrined in Roe v. Wade, and it’s a liberty that should be protected. (Scalia dissented, showing the problems when his originalism was applied too narrowly.)

Terror Suspects (Scalia): In 2004, Scalia on the one hand dissented against the majority’s ruling that foreign detainees at Guantanamo should have access to U.S. federal courts (in Rasul v. Bush), arguing (rightly in my view) that detention policy and practice is an executive function during wartime, and not subject to judicial review. On the other hand, on the same day, Scalia went the other way (in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld), dissenting in the most liberal way possible — in favor of full due process for detainees who are actual American citizens. The case involved Yaser Hamdi, an American who grew up in Saudi Arabia and was captured by Taliban fighters in 2001, then later taken and detained in South Carolina as an enemy combatant. Scalia was one of only two justices (Stevens was the other) who was willing to take the uncompromising (and most liberal) stand that an American citizen could not be detained as an enemy combatant; he must either be charged and tried under normal criminal law, or be freed altogether. His view (again the correct one in my view) was that there could be no middle ground, and that the court’s only job is to determine whether or not an arrest is constitutional or not, and then order the person’s release or proper arrest — not to invent a new process for detention, as the majority ended up doing. Because of that majority, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court had on the one hand conferred constitutional rights to non-Americans (in Rasul), while on the other hand restricting American rights of due process (in Hamdi). Scalia’s positions show how his originalist doctrine has been unfairly maligned as overly-conservative. Originalism, as the cases of Rasul and Hamdi show, is blind to conservative/liberal outcomes; it favors the result it must.

Violent Videogames (Scalia): In 2011, Scalia wrote for the majority (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants) against the state of California’s attempt to criminalize the sale of violent video games to minors. California was trying to treat violent games like cigarettes and alcohol, and Scalia, even as a parental conservative, would have none of it, declaring that video games — like movies, books, music and all other art forms — are are protected by the First Amendment.

Gay Marriage (Kennedy):  In 2015, Kennedy wrote for the majority, explaining that the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment make same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. It’s important to note that gay marriage was upheld on the basis of the Constitution itself, in the same way that Loving vs. Virginia invalidated bans on interracial unions in 1967, and that Turner vs. Safley did the same for prisoners in 1987. The right to freedom of contract has long been understood as a most basic liberty protected by the Constitution, and from the government’s point of view, that’s all marriage is: a contract. (Scalia dissented on the basis of his originalism, begging the question, and as with Planned Parenthood, showing the limits of originalism when embraced too literally.)

Whatever Reagan saw in Scalia and Kennedy, the fact is that he appointed them, and the cause of liberty was overwhelmingly better for it for three decades. The impact of these justices on legal thought can hardly be overstated. Had Reagan appointed more garden-variety conservatives, the texture of today’s jurisprudence would be far less robust. And Scalia’s legacy lives on in his replacement: the Trump appointment of Neil Gorsuch has given the court another originalist who has shown himself willing to side with liberal justices as often as with the other conservatives, wherever the law takes him.


As much as the TV series Stranger Things has enabled me to rediscover good things about growing up in the ’80s, a careful study of all the presidents has cast Reagan in a better light when seen from a distance. Here’s how I score him:

Peace (foreign policy). For going after the weak non-strategic countries of Libya, Lebanon, and Grenada (almost as if to prove that the Vietnam Syndrome was in the past, yet America is “still tough”), I dock him a point each for those needless excursions. For using Islamic jihadists to fight communist forces, another 4 points (just as I docked Carter). He left much to be desired in foreign policy, but he was not really bad like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, the two Bushes, and Barack Obama. For calling out the Soviets as an evil empire that enslaved it’s people in a system of despair and poverty — and without ever firing a shot at them — he deserves solid credit.

Prosperity (domestic policy). For a decade of prosperity, Reagan deserves a strong measure of credit, especially for leaving the Fed in the hands of Volcker and Greenspan. I dock him for that prosperity being slanted towards the already wealthy (-3), and because it was offset by Reagan’s own extremely liberal spending policies (-4).

Liberty. If you had asked me in the ’80s to score the liberty record of a man who approved the Iran-Contra affair and escalated the drug war and didn’t do much for gays in the AIDS crisis, I might have given the goose egg. But Reagan deserves credit for the federal MLK holiday (which encouraged more states to swiftly follow suit), his amnesty to millions of immigrants, and for appointing two excellent Supreme Court judges who have had important and lasting effect.

Peace — 13/20
Prosperity — 13/20
Liberty — 7/20

TOTAL SCORE = 33/60 = Average

My scores are thus considerably higher than Ivan Eland’s (peace 2, prosperity 5, liberty 3, for a total of 10/60). Eland does a good job demolishing the positive myths of Reagan, but he tends to swallow the negative myths whole. I admit that it’s hard to shed those negative feelings. Reagan has an entrenched image that makes an objective assessment hard. But not impossible. If Reagan was not an overall good president, he was not an overall bad one either.

The Understated Greatness of Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

Rutherford Hayes is like other presidents of the Gilded Age — easily forgotten, and dismissed as an executive placeholder who supposedly didn’t do much. The C-Span historians rank him in the bottom quarter of their list. I rank him in the top four (for a place on Mount Rushmore, no less), and agree entirely with Mark Twain, who, usually contemptuous of politicians, pronounced Hayes a great president.

Hayes took office during a stormy time, on the heels of the “Civil War aftermath” presidents (Johnson and Grant), and he steered the nation into a period of immense peace and prosperity, while holding his ground against a pernicious and racist Congress. This is the kind of president enlightened Americans want and love.

The End of Reconstruction

The most controversial part of Hayes’ presidency was his first action: to end the military occupation of the south. Historians are divided on the question. The objectors say that Reconstruction shouldn’t have ended, and that Hayes’s decision to pull out gave us 80 years of Jim Crow and the racial traumas that continue today.

That’s actually backwards. It was precisely the harshness of northern military rule (beginning in 1867) that caused a backlash in the South, and the KKK to evolve into a political terrorist group. By 1877 Jim Crow was waiting in the wings. The North had won the war, but the South won the peace. This is the pattern we see anywhere in the world where the U.S. tries nation-building strategies — “building democracy” at gunpoint — like in Vietnam and Iraq. It’s always bound to fail.

What should have happened after the Civil War is something between Lincoln and Johnson’s overly benevolent attitude to the South, and the severity of radical Reconstructionism — a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash against African Americans. For example, if southern states had respected the repeal of slavery, black voting rights, and civilian (not military) federal officials carrying out federal functions in the south, then (and only then) they could have been restored to representation in Congress. And instead of confiscating land belonging to Southerners, Johnson and Grant could have identified huge portions of unowned land in the south and distributed it to African Americans. Basically, military rule, social re-engineering, and confiscation of land could have been avoided in favor of other measures. Had the government gone that route, there may not have ever been the KKK or Jim Crow.

The military occupation of the south had to end, and in any case, Ulysses Grant had already withdrawn the support from most of the southern states before Hayes took over. Only Louisiana and South Carolina maintained a northern military presence by Hayes’s term. It wasn’t a question of if but when the occupation had to end — and the sooner the better. Hayes may have been a bit naive in accepting the Democratic pledges (to protect the voting and civil rights of African Americans, which of course they didn’t), but he had no viable alternative. He should be applauded for ending Reconstruction. He did what was long overdue.

The Indians

Hayes tried his damnedest to treat the Native American Indians fairly and avoid excessive military action against the tribes. By 19th-century manifest destiny standards, that’s a tall order, and in the first part of Hayes’s term, unfortunately, several Indian wars could not be prevented. To his credit, he prevented the War Department from taking over the Indian Bureau. His Secretary of Interior, Carl Schurz, took a more enlightened view than the army’s that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian”. Of course, by today’s standards, Hayes’s and Schurz’s views don’t seem very enlightened: they supported the assimilation of the Indians into mainstream America by ignoring racial barriers, and also supported Christianizing the Indians through cultural laws which suppressed their native traditions. Still, this was better than genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Schurz routinely castigated the greed of frontiersmen that he felt was responsible for so much Indian bloodshed, and he refused to give up the Indian prisoners of the Nez Perce War (June-October 1877) to be executed, for which he was blasted by journalists. Later in 1879, a Ute uprising had to be out down, and Schurz again saved an explosive situation by negotiating with the Utes to prevent the citizens of Colorado from taking murderous revenge on the Indians.

Hayes must be docked, however, for the treatment of the Cheyenne tribe in January 1879: when the Cheyennes tried returning to the Black Hills in South Dakota, they were massacred by the army under General Philip Sheridan. The government had promised the Cheyenne that they could return to the Black Hills if they didn’t like the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, but Sheridan broke that promise. Hayes was outraged by this, but he still bears the responsibility.

When the Ponca Indians were removed from their lands in northeastern Nebraska and southeastern Dakota territory, Hayes tried to stop the removal policy. He also announced (in April 1879) that any whites attempting to settle in Indian Territory would be evicted — and when Captain David Payne led a bunch of white settlers to do exactly that in April 1880, Hayes had him prosecuted.

Finally fed up, Hayes presented a report to Congress in 1881, on behalf of the Indians, saying:

“Nothing should be left undone to show the Indians that the Government of the United States regards their rights as equally sacred with those of its citizens. The time has come when the policy should be to place the Indians as rapidly as possible on the same footing as the other permanent inhabitants of our country.”

Hayes could only be so effective by these measures, but he was far better than most 19th-century presidents on the Indian question.

Foreign Policy

Of the two major foreign policy issues Hayes had to deal with, he handled both well. He gave the U.S. army power to pursue Mexican bandits even into Mexico, which almost led to an international incident with the Diaz government, but thanks to Hayes’s diplomacy and shrewdness, the U.S. came out ahead. Hayes resisted going to war, recognized the Diaz government, restored order to the border, eventually revoked his hot-pursuit order, and developed trade and rail service links with Mexico during the peace that followed.

His other accomplishment was the arbitration of a territorial dispute between Argentina and Paraguay. He awarded the land to Paraguay, and the Paraguayans still honor him for it today.

Hayes’s foreign policy record isn’t spotless though. He declared any canal in Central America to be under U.S. protection, which I take to be a perversion of the Monroe Doctrine. Teddy Roosevelt would run riot with the perversion, but the seeds of it go back to Hayes.


Thanks to Hayes’s hard money policy, his term was one of the highest growth periods in all of American history. First, he supported the Specie Resumption Act of 1875 which called for all greenbacks to be redeemed in gold, and then second, when Congress overrode his veto to the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 (he had vetoed it rightfully fearing inflation), he controlled the damage by instructing his treasurer to coin the least amount of silver possible.

On other domestic fronts, he took the first steps to converting a partisan civil service into a non-partisan one. The spoils system had been entrenched since Andrew Jackson, and Hayes was determined to get rid of favoritism by which politicians “took care” of each other. Chester Arthur would perfect on these reforms when he took office next.

Hayes also served as an excellent model of how an executive should deal with labor unrest. In the worst railroad strike in U.S. history (extending from July 14 -September 4, 1877), Hayes waited for the governors of the various states (West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Missouri) to ask him for help, and only then did he send in the federal military. He acted properly this way in ending the riots and restoring law and order. The federal troops didn’t suppress a single rioter, or wound or kill anyone.


Hayes held his ground against Congressional Democrats, first when the Democrats passed an army appropriation bill with a rider on it that was designed to destroy laws enforcing civil rights and voting rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, and which repealed the Enforcement Acts (which had been used to suppress the KKK and other supremacy groups in the south). Hayes vetoed the toxic bill and congress failed to override it. The Democrats passed another bill with the same rider in it, Hayes vetoed the new bill, and the process was repeated three more times, until the racist Democrats finally relented and passed appropriations bills without the riders.

Although Hayes’ policy failed to secure obedience to the Reconstruction amendments (again because of congressional hostility), he never abandoned his commitment to civil rights, and to equal educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. As we saw above, he did his damnedest for the Indian cause. He was very humane individual, and petitioned that federal subsidies be given to poor states and territories so that children everywhere could receive quality education.

He also stood against the Democrats in Congress when they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in violation of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, which allowed unrestricted Chinese immigration. He commendably vetoed the bill, though his follow-up wasn’t so admirable: he negotiated a new treaty with China which allowed the restriction (though not end) of Chinese immigration.


In sum, Hayes was an excellent president, because he ended the military occupation of the south as it needed to be, intervened abroad only when necessary and did it well (save in Central America), pursued outstanding economic and domestic policies, and aside from waffling a bit on immigration, served the cause of liberty extremely well, passionately defying Congress on behalf of African Americans, Native American Indians, and poor children.

In this case, my scoring is basically the same as Ivan Eland’s. For peace I dock Hayes for his presumptuous assertions over Central America (-2) and for Sheridan’s treatment of the Cheyenne (-2). For prosperity he gets a perfect rating. And for liberty, I dock him for allowing Chinese immigration only to restrict it (-3).

Peace — 16/20
Prosperity — 20/20
Liberty — 17/20

TOTAL SCORE = 53/60 = Excellent

No surprise that Mark Twain esteemed Hayes so highly. The time has come for Rutherford Hayes to take his place among the very top presidents. For me, he ranks in the top 4, and I would place him on Mount Rushmore.

The Last Good President: Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)

There are four especially good presidents who have surprisingly bad reputations: John Tyler, Chester Arthur, Warren Harding, and Jimmy Carter. I have already covered John Tyler in depth, explaining why I think he was America’s best president. I will be taking on Arthur and Harding in due course. Today it’s Jimmy Carter.

Some biographers, to be sure, give Carter his due, and it’s worth citing two of them. These are valuable because the authors have no interest in apologetics or hagiography.

“It is conventional wisdom that Jimmy Carter was a weak and hapless president. But the single term served by the thirty-ninth president was one of the most consequential in modern history. Far from a failed presidency, he left behind concrete reforms and long-standing benefits to the people of the Unites States as well as the international order. It is time to redeem his presidency from the lingering memories of double-digit inflation and interest rates, of gasoline lines, as well as the scars left by the national humiliation of American diplomats held hostage by Iranian revolutionaries for more than one year. Let me be clear: I am not nominating Jimmy Carter for a place on Mount Rushmore. He was not a great president, but he was a good and productive one. He delivered results, many of which were realized only after he left office.” (Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter: The White House Years)

“The negative assessments that continue to haunt Carter are mostly a bum rap. If Richard Nixon was, contrary to his reputation, the last liberal president until Barack Obama, then Carter was surprisingly the first conservative chief executive since Calvin Coolidge. Carter was a transitional president at a time when the New Deal coalition, which had coalesced in the 1932 election, was being eclipsed by a growing conservative movement. Carter promoted individuals taking personal responsibility, opposed special interest groups feeding at the government trough, championed limiting the federal government and reducing the federal budget deficit, argued for greater local responsibility, advocated the deregulation of industries, and believed that welfare eroded the family and the work ethic. His policy achievements were greater than his policy failures and his occasional operational incompetence. Although he overreacted to the Soviet invasion of backwater Afghanistan, paid an exorbitant price for only partial peace in the Middle East, he generally exhibited restraint in foreign policy, had an admirable penchant for economic deregulation, and most important, appointed Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.” (Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore)

Accurate assessments. So why the persistence among so many historians in demonizing Carter? Two big reasons, I think. There is first the charisma bias that plagues most presidential assessments. Unlike FDR, Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama, Carter was not a charismatic. But charisma has no place in a presidential assessment. That Carter couldn’t rouse people with speeches is utterly irrelevant to his presidential record.

Second, Carter remained an outsider to politics when he took office; he did not become a “Washingtonian”, and because he wouldn’t play that game, he frequently took policy positions that angered the interest groups of his own party (the Democrats). Like John Tyler (who was ostracized by the Whigs) and Chester Arthur (who angered his fellow Republicans), he paid the price for that in the second election. But like Tyler and Arthur, Carter’s principled stands against his own party resound (as we will see) to his credit, not his detriment.

1. Foreign Policy

In general, Carter had good foreign policy. He believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing a rare executive wisdom for a president of the post World-War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa. He refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. He got Congress to ratify an end to the neo-colonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. He criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. He scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). He finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). This non-interventionist record is extremely impressive for a 20th-century president.

There are three stains, however, on Carter’s record, and they are not trivial: (a) the Camp David Accords and Israeli-Peace Treaty, (b) his intervention in Afghanistan, and (c) the Iran-Hostage crisis. Taken together, these sins go a long way to diminishing Carter’s otherwise excellent peace record.

(a) The Israeli-Egypt Treaty: A costly sham

Here is the darkest stain. It’s usually not seen that way. In the eyes of most analysts, the Camp David Accords of ’78 and Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty of ’79 were Carter’s greatest accomplishments. In fact they were his worst failures.

To back up a bit: The question of Israel is always frustrating, because on one hand the nation should have never been created, but on the other, since it was created, what’s done is done. The U.S. has naturally had a stake in Israel since Harry Truman aided its birth in 1947 at the United Nations. Despite my overall high regard for Truman (even higher than Carter), I think that was one of worst foreign policy snafus of the 20th century. The Jewish people deserve a homeland, but what the Allies should have done was carve out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust), instead of uprooting and inciting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land” — an idea that has no more place in the 20th century than the Islamic jihad. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they didn’t have a rightful claim on the land after all this time. Settling in hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives in a sea of Islam was, to put it mildly, a stupid idea. But again, what’s done is done. The state of Israel was created; generations have come and gone, and certainly a generation had passed by Carter’s time. Israel is the Jewish homeland now, for better or worse (I think mostly for the worse), and the U.S. has understandable interests in this island of democracy surrounded by autocratic Islamic regimes.

What Carter did was achieve the first peace between Israel and any Arab state — the Camp David Peace Accords (in September ’78) followed by the Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty (in March ’79). But the treaty he achieved was largely a sham. Islamic regimes have never accepted a Jewish state in their midst, and ultimately they never will. Understanding that is the key to any foreign policy decision in the Middle-East. Carter didn’t understand that (but then neither has any other president), and the treaty he engineered was empty. The Islamic mandate that Jews should be “driven out from where they drove you out” is a command that allows for no mitigation. The result was foreordained: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was ostracized by most of the Arab world, and then assassinated by jihadists in 1981, for daring to come to any agreement with Israel. To this day, Egypt has failed to honor certain commitments under the Camp David Accords. It has not ended hostile propaganda towards Israel, but rather increased it through its press, radio, and television.

Most people have a rosy view of the Camp David Accords and peace treaty, because on the surface Carter was able to bridge two mutually hostile powers. But aside from even the sham of that peace, Carter had to pay both parties billions of dollars a year in aid — payments that continue to this day — so that both Israel and Egypt could do what was entirely in their own interest. This outcome also ensured that America would continue to be sucked into any dustup in the Middle-East that might be perceived as threatening the American-mediated “peace process”.

Alliances should be a means to security, not to an end themselves. The alliance with Israel provides few tangible benefits to U.S. security, and it promises to drag America into brushfire wars in a non-strategic region. Our alliance with Egypt is worse. To date, the Unites States has given sixty billion dollars to Egypt, not to mention military aid, while Egypt continues to flout some of the Camp David Accords. Only by blind and twisted logic can Carter’s act of peace-brokering be called a “great accomplishment”.

(b) Afghanistan: Arming the mujahideen

As a rule, Carter was outstandingly non-interventionist, but there was an exception, and it’s a whopper. On Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and for whatever bizarre reason, Carter overreacted. In his final State of the Union address, January 23, 1980 — and quite out of character — Carter made a (ludicrous) case that “the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could pose the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War”. It’s the sort of comment one would later expect from his successor Ronald Reagan. Perhaps Carter felt the need to “man up” and show strength so soon after the hostages were taken in Iran (on which see below). Who knows.

Carter then allowed his National Security Advisor (Zbigniew Brzezinski) to initiate a campaign which supported the mujaheddin (Islamic guerilla fighters) in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Although it was Reagan who would increase support for these jihadists on a massive level, the policy began with Carter, and he bears a strong measure of responsibility for the outcome. That outcome is well known: the Soviet Union got its own Vietnam, and the U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda, resulting in the worst attack on the American homeland since the invasion of the War of 1812.

Carter (and Reagan) should have simply let the Soviets have Afghanistan. Like Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Nicaragua, and other Cold War battlegrounds, the country wasn’t worth fighting over — and certainly not by jihadist proxy. The Soviet Union was doomed to fall. All America had to do was allow the Soviets to overextend themselves in all these breadbasket countries. That over-extension is what finally brought about the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the late ’80s.

(c) Iran: Arms sales, revolution, and hostages

Carter’s most visible foreign policy failure was not his most critical one, at least in long-term effects. It is however what everyone remembers him for.

The first point to note is that Carter treated the Shah of Iran just as Nixon and Ford had. Since Nixon, the U.S. had treated Iran as the linchpin in maintaining stability in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, and so the Nixon and Ford administrations sold arms to the Shah. Carter continued those arms policies, despite his campaign for “human rights” and a softer arms sale policy. Carter was vilified by later administrations (not least Reagan’s) for his “human rights” naivete, but the fact is that in the case of Iran, Carter did not end up restricting arms sales. Just the opposite, he increased them to record levels. Even as the Shah entered his final days in mid-1978, another multi-billion dollar arms deal was being tabled with Iran. And in particular, when Carter approved the sale of the AWACS (the Airborne Warning and Control System, modified Boeing 707 jets), he went deeply against his own arms-control doctrine out of sheer pragmatism. He wasn’t naive; he and his advisers knew they needed to maintain Iran as a strong ally in a volatile region.

There was little Carter could have done to save the Shah when the Iranian people finally rose up and overthrew him, taking control of Iran on February 11, 1979, and installing Ayatollah Khomeini. If the Shah was a saint compared to the actual devout Muslim Khomeini, he was still a tyrant who had tortured people and ruled Iran ruthlessly. This is the pattern in the Islamic world. Carter didn’t “lose Iran”. The Shah lost his own country. Khomeini, like any other Islamic mullah, crystallized the fervor of devout Muslims who resented what the Shah represented in his lavish western lifestyle. There are limits to what the U.S. can do to save unpopular secular rulers who lord themselves over a Muslim nation.

Where Carter did fail was in offering the Shah sanctuary in America (in October ’79, eight months after the Shah fled Iran), instead of offering to help his old ally in a less visible way. This enraged Khomeini, and on November 4 (only two months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan), the hostage crisis began, in which 54 Americans were taken hostage in Iran for 444 days. Carter tried Operation Eagle Claw, a sloppy rescue attempt that failed, and the rest is the history that Carter never lived down.

2. Domestic Policy

Carter was a new breed of Democrat — not a New Deal or Great Society guy who believed government should inflate the economy and be so federally expansive. He wanted effective but not big government, and to prune programs, reduce regulations, and pull the Democratic Party (fiscally) from left to center. The few federal programs he did create (The Departments of Energy and Education) were for the better. As a fiscal conservative he concentrated on curbing hospital costs, welfare reform, and reforming the inequitable tax code. Granted his fiscal conservatism was not always good. He was a bigger union-buster than even Reagan, for example. But for the most part, he was a positive inversion of the last Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, who had slaughtered the economy. Despite the punishing inflation and unemployment during Carter’s term, economic growth was nearly as high as it was under Reagan, and he added less to the national debt as a percentage than either Reagan or George H.W. Bush.

Basically, Carter showed the potentials of a Democratic domestic policy when in good hands. Where other Democrats would have made their top priority something like national health care (not necessarily a bad thing), Carter made his the energy crisis.

(a) Energy: Landmark accomplishments felt still today

Carter wanted to reverse the nation’s wasteful habits of declining resources — the energy waste in gas-guzzling cars, and overheated, poorly insulated homes and work offices. The issue was made especially acute by the winter of 1976-77. It was one of the coldest on record, resulting in a a severe shortage of natural gas in the Northeast and Midwest.

With the National Energy Act, Carter set the country on a different energy course from which we still benefit today: incentives for home insulation and the first tax credits for solar and wind equipment; home inspections mandated for utilities to assess the cost and saving of energy conservation; $300 million to help pay for energy-conservation equipment in schools, hospitals, and government buildings; homeowners shielded from the immediate impact of rising prices by making industry absorb a good chunk of it; and a gas-guzzler tax on autos averaging less than thirteen miles per gallon.

The Act passed the House in August 1977, then stalled in the Senate for over a year, until it finally passed and Carter signed it into law in November 1978. In order to get the Senate on board, Carter embraced the deregulation of natural gas as a way to conserve the resource and distribute it more efficiently. Next year he was able to decontrol oil prices (tying it to a windfall profits tax), and then the following year got the Energy Security Act passed.

Taken together, these energy laws — the National Energy Act of 1978, Executive Order 12153, 1979 (decontrol of heavy oil), and the Energy Security Act of 1980 — made historic changes that have stood the test of time. As summed up by Eizenstat:

“Carter created a rational market-based system of pricing and selling crude oil and natural gas, a cleaner fuel that had too often been burned away in oil-field flares and now was available to industry nationwide, encouraging consumers to use less and producers to deliver more. On a broader public horizon, a conservation ethic was born in the minds of the public that permanently changed the way in which the American people and our industries and utilities consumer scarce energy resources. Things we now take for granted, everything from the way we drive to the way we live — from more fuel-efficient cars, homes, and appliances — were embedded in Carter’s new laws and eventually in our consciousness.” (President Carter: The White House Years, pp 238-39)

Of course, Carter barely got any credit for this during his term, since many of these benefits were felt only after he left office.

(b) The Environment: An Unsung Hero

Carter, strangely, is an unsung environmental hero. He was the first U.S. president to put conservation of the environment on the global agenda, starting in the summer of 1979 for what became The Global 2000 Report. He had run on a platform of clean air and water and to put an end to the godawful dams that were drying up the breeding grounds of hundreds of animal species. He properly vetoed more than a dozen dam projects across the country and designated more than forty new Wild and Scenic Rivers, protecting over 5,300 miles of National Park areas for rivers.

He also signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. To this date, it remains the single largest expansion of protected lands in history, more than double the size of the National Park system. It gave protection to national parks and forests, wildlife refuges, national monuments, scenic rivers, recreational areas, and conservation areas.

(c) The Great Stagflation: The crucial appointment of Paul Volcker

The economic purgatory of the ’70s was something never seen before or since in America. High unemployment, stagnant growth, and high inflation all came together at once, to produce what we now call stagflation. It contradicted what everyone believed — that inflation correlated with growth, and that unemployment led to less inflation. Economics 101 went right out the window, and no one knew what to do.

Let’s be sure we blame stagflation on the right people. It first goes to Lyndon Johnson, for his (overlong) funding of the obscene Vietnam War combined with his (over-ambitious) Great Society programs, without raising any taxes to pay for either. The blame then extends to Richard Nixon, for his imposition of wage and price controls, and his demands that Arthur Burns — whom he appointed as chair of the Federal Reserve — supply an expansionary monetary policy by printing massive amounts of money.

During the first part of his term, Carter rightly saw inflation (not unemployment) as the greatest threat to the nation’s growth. He tried everything to stop it: tight budgets, tough wage and price guidelines, a labor-management advisory board, and deregulation — it all amounted to throwing pebbles at a dinosaur. Finally he took the most courageous step in his entire presidential career: in August 1979 he appointed Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve. He chose Volcker in the full knowledge that this hyper-budget hawk would do exactly what it took to save the economy. Volcker’s tight money policies and high interest rates squeezed inflation out of the system at the cost of high unemployment — and guaranteed 100% to squeeze Jimmy Carter out of a second term. The Democrats cried for his blood.

The long term benefits to the country can’t be understated. Volcker’s tight money policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years in the ’80s, and it set the precedent for Alan Greenspan’s similar approach which led to the renewed prosperity of the Clinton years in the ’90s. The bum rap Carter gets comes from people who don’t know how to evaluate the economy. The effects of a president’s economic policies are often delayed, with the impact registering after the president leaves office. This is especially true of one-term presidents. Even though the economy was miserable during Carter’s term, the stagflation was caused by the sins of Johnson and Nixon. And even though Volcker’s tight money policies yielded the recession of 1981, that was the necessary phase which brought inflation all the way down from 13% to 4%. Since 1982 there have been only two recessions (’90-’91 and ’07-’09), and thanks to Volcker’s legacy, the U.S. economy performed better in the twenty years after Carter than in the twenty preceding him.

Carter’s advisors told him he was doomed, and he knew it. No president has ever been re-elected during a recession for which he can be blamed. His advisors even recommended federal spending increases and tax cuts to off-set the recession somewhat, but Carter commendably refused to enact any band-aid solutions. He stuck to fiscal restraint. Eizenstat’s judgment is a breath of fresh air and frankly common sense:

“Paul Volcker saved the country from economic disaster, and it is another of Jimmy Carter’s unheralded legacies that he overrode objections within the highest levels of his own administration to appoint him. Ronald Reagan is given due credit for standing behind Volcker even under pressure from the ideologues on his Republican team. Yet there is an unwillingness to give Carter anything close to equal billing. It was harder for Carter to show the restraint he did in an election cycle, never once criticizing Volcker’s strong medicine, than for Reagan to do so after his own election and long before he had to face the voters a second time.” (President Carter: The White House Years, p 340)

Absolutely right.

3. Liberty

If Carter was a fiscal conservative, he was a also a populist liberal who cared for the poor, and was committed to equal rights for minorities and women. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society. He pardoned protesters who avoided the draft. He favored the decriminalization of marijuana. He avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations. But sometimes Carter’s criticisms of other nations didn’t help, and in one case did considerable harm. His blasting of South Africa’s racist policies caused its white supremacists to persecute blacks even more, and their fury at Carter is precisely what caused the election of Prime Minister John Vorster, who believed in apartheid. If Carter showed military and economic restraint, he didn’t always show restraint as a spokesman. Still, on whole, his liberty record is very good.


The tragedy of Jimmy Carter is that his image was crushed by two purposeful figures: Ayatollah Khomeini and Paul Volcker. The latter resounds to Carter’s credit and unsung glory. The former he has never lived down. Here’s how I score him:

Peace (foreign policy). For a generally outstanding policy of military restraint, Carter would get high marks, but for his trio of sins which are not trivial — the Israel-Egypt treaty, arming Islamic radicals in Afghanistan, and the Iran hostage debacle — he must be downgraded a full 11 points (4/4/3, respectively), for a score of 9/20.

Prosperity (domestic policy). For his landmark energy bills, causes for the environment, fiscal restraint, overall sound priorities, and above all for appointing Volcker to the Federal Reserve, he gets a very high score. Carter saw that there was no remedy to stagflation except by painfully squeezing inflation out of the economy with higher interest rates and higher unemployment — by fighting inflation through a slowdown or even recession. It was a dark road to the nation’s redemption, but Carter said outright that he would rather lose the next election than leave the country an economic shambles. Any quibbles I have over his domestic policies (like union busting) are overshadowed by all of these positives, especially the last.

Liberty. An excellent record, though I dock him 3 points for his sometimes irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric, which in one particular case produced worse results.

Peace — 9/20
Prosperity — 18/20
Liberty — 17/20

TOTAL SCORE = 44/60 = Good

I hope that Eizenstat’s book will become the authoritative take on Carter. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he gets a lot right that most don’t, and he’s certainly correct that Carter way outshines the more widely cherished two-term Democrats like Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama.

James Madison (1809-1817): The burning of the American capital, thanks be to he

James Madison is a giant in American history and deserves to be. His blueprint of the Constitution makes him one of the most important founding fathers. But as a president he wasn’t so towering. Good in some ways, bad in others, and in this sense reminiscent of his predecessor Thomas Jefferson.

The worst thing he did was to take the new and weak nation into war with Britain — a war that was unnecessary and avoidable. Because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). Washington DC was burned, and when the war was over, little had been solved. It’s called “The War of 1812” for a reason; when you name a war by its year, it’s because there really wasn’t much, in the end, to say about it.

Most historians focus on impressment (impressed sailors) as the cause of the war: the British practice of sending its naval officers to board American ships and seize sailors accused of being deserters from British ships. There were large numbers of British fugitives due to the inhumane discipline and horrendous living conditions in the British Royal Navy. Most American officers rolled over and allowed the British to do their thing when they came on board; it got to the point that Britain wasn’t taking American independence seriously. Sometimes it even resulted in Americans being captured along with the British fugitives, as in the outrageous Chesapeake-Leopold Affair of 1807.

Thomas Jefferson had responded to that affair with the Embargo Act of 1807 (which punished Americans, not the British). Jefferson had known that America was in no position to go to war against the British Royal Navy, but his alternative solution was just as foolish. Americans starved thanks to Jefferson. Five years later James Madison finally took America into war. But impressment was only his nominal reason for doing so. The real reason was reprehensible.

The War of 1812 was in fact instigated by a “war hawk” Congress hell bent on snatching Canada (a possession of Britain) and western Indian lands. It was led (of course) by Henry Clay and John Calhoun, who came up with the propagandist slogan “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights”. No one was fooled by their rhetoric. The war hawks were all from southern and western regions, and they cared about territorial aggrandizement, not sailors’ rights. They threatened to abandon Madison in his bid for a second term if he didn’t declare war, and so Madison capitulated. The Northeast was furious, and refused to provide soldiers to fight against the British. New England actually almost seceded from the union, and had I been living in New Hampshire then as I am today, I may very well have advocated secession myself.

When the war ended two and a half years later, in February 1815, the capital had been burned, and a treaty signed that did nothing to bring the British to terms; America was lucky to get off without making loads of concessions. The treaty didn’t even mention impressment (the nominal cause of the war) and contained no suggestion that America had achieved anything of note. It simply provided for a return to the status quo. It turned out that impressment of sailors did stop after the war, but that had more to do with the Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo four months later (June 1815), not the War of 1812 itself. Waterloo is what brought a final close to the Napoleonic Wars, and ended the danger of attacks on American shipping (by either French or British forces). The only thing of lasting legacy that America got out of the War of 1812 was the Star-Spangled Banner (not the best national anthem, if I may say).

In short, James Madison failed as commander in chief. As Ivan Eland notes (in Recarving Rushmore), there were alternatives to war that Madison could have pursued:

1. He could have smoothed things over with Britain by making it harder for defecting British sailors to get U.S. naturalization papers, and by stopping the laundering of French trade through U.S. ports. Britain might then have less cause to impress sailors aboard U.S. ships and violate neutral U.S. shipping rights.

2. Or he could have used the French violations of U.S. neutrality to form a temporary alliance with Britain. If the U.S. had agreed to trade only with Britain and not France, then Britain would have taken a more benign policy towards the U.S. While not an ideal solution, it’s a plain reality that weak nations sometimes have to make pragmatic accommodations to stay secure. Certainly the northeast would have endorsed this alternative: the Federalists favored good relations with Britain for the sake of New England commerce, and very wisely. The problem is that the southerners hated the English and liked the French, and the war hawks wanted an excuse to seize Canada (a British possession). Had Madison stood up to his own tribe, he would have shown himself to be a great president.

He opted, however, for neither of these better options and instead took a divided and unprepared nation into war against a naval superpower, which resulted in the only invasion of the homeland in U.S. history (aside from 9/11). Even worse — and again against his own principles — he supported a national bank to finance the war debt. He and Thomas Jefferson had all along opposed the First National Bank (1791-1811) for good reasons, and when its charter ended in 1811, he vowed not to renew it. But in the aftermath of the war he (once again) capitulated to Henry Clay and John Calhoun, who wanted a central bank.

Civil liberties preserved

What redeems Madison are his liberty values — the values that he set forth in his blueprint of the Constitution and actually lived by. As I said before, I don’t rate the presidents for anything they did prior to or after their presidential terms. So Madison gets no credit for drafting the Constitution anymore than Jefferson gets credit for penning the Declaration of Independence, fabulous as these achievements are. As we saw in Jefferson’s case, his presidential behavior didn’t always live up to what he advocated as a founding father; his liberty rating was excellent in some ways (especially during his first term), and quite bad in others (especially during his second term).

In Madison’s case, he did practice what he preached. Remarkably, he did nothing to restrict anyone’s civil liberties during the War of 1812 — an astonishing rarity during times of war and crisis. Contrast with the following:

  • John Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800). (See here.)
  • Thomas Jefferson, while reversing the oppressive measures under John Adams, was no liberty saint himself. He seized and searched citizens without warrants under the Embargo Act (1807-09), and supported state actions for libel against newspaper editors who badmouthed his presidency. (See here.)
  • Abraham Lincoln denied citizens free speech during the Civil War (1861-65). He arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. On top of all that, he physically attacked and removed a peace movement. He created military tribunals to try civilians who had simply discouraged people from enlisting in the Union armies; He also “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, in other words detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention; in so doing, he outrageously ignored the Supreme Court’s order that only Congress, not the president, has the right to suspend habeas corpus during times of war. Finally, he drafted people — the first time forced conscription was used in the American republic. The Constitution doesn’t authorize a military draft, and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits involuntary service. (See here.)
  • Woodrow Wilson’s violations of civil liberties during America’s involvement in World War I (1917-18) were the worst of any president. He resurrected conscription from the Civil War, and used the Selective Service Act of 1917 to draft men against their will. (This act has never been repealed, and to this day American men are required to register for the draft, thanks to Wilson.) The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 clarified vague language in the Espionage Act, and made any speech, spoken or in print, illegal if it was critical of the war effort or the aims of the government. Wilson used the post office and Justice Department to suppress free speech, and ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph and telephone traffic. He fined and imprisoned thousands for criticizing the war. Filmmaker Robert Goldstein got a ten-year sentence for producing a movie on the American Revolution which portrayed the now-allied British in a naturally bad light. Even two years after the war, in 1920, Wilson vetoed Congress’ repeal of the Espionage and Sedition Acts. He was by far the worst presidential threat to liberty. (See here.)
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt was only marginally better than Wilson during America’s involvement in World War II (1941-45). While he did not suppress free speech with arrests and jail sentences, that was only because he had a conscientious Attorney General (Biddle) who urged him not to repeat Wilson’s sins. FDR often scorned Biddle at his cabinet meetings for his unwillingness to prosecute seditionists who spoke against the war, though he didn’t push the issue. He did, however, use British agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested the war. He denied Jews entry into America when they fled the terror of the holocaust; he threw tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens (let alone resident aliens) into prison camps just because of their ethnic heritage. If he was better than Wilson, he was still obscene. (See here.)

Unlike all of these executives and more, Madison preserved peoples’ liberties during the crisis he presided over. The War of 1812 was a blunder, but at least citizens didn’t pay for it with their liberty. That’s no small point and a huge mark of merit for Madison. The cliche that “in times of war, it’s inevitable that some liberties suffer,” isn’t true. All it takes is resolved leadership.

On the downside, Madison did try to create a national draft, but his proposal went nowhere; it was unacceptable to Congress and the public. During the War of 1812, America fought with an all-volunteer army; forced conscription wouldn’t be the way of things until the Civil War.


My scoring for Madison is as follows.

Peace. For taking a weak nation into an avoidable war, he gets docked 15 points off the bat. He keeps the remaining 5 since the result was at least a draw, rather than a loss, without any concessions having to be made. Had Madison lost the war, America would have given up quite a lot; it might have even become a vassal state. (Eland gives him a zero peace rating, but I think that’s not quite right.)

Prosperity. Throughout his term, Madison tried following Jefferson’s policies of low taxes and a reduction of the national debt whenever possible. The war interfered with these motives, and these motives are also weighed against the fact that he eventually (against his better judgment and wise principles) created the Second Bank of the United States. 8 points. (Which is Eland’s score.)

Liberty. This would be a perfect 20, though I dock Madison a single point for trying (vainly) to push through a draft. (Eland, bizarrely, awards him only 10 points, on grounds that “doing the right thing after a monstrous blunder — starting the war — shouldn’t merit too much praise”. On the contrary, it merits the praise as its own category, which is the whole point of the separate categories. Eland basically punishes Madison for the same fault twice, violating his own grading standard.)

Peace — 5/20
Prosperity — 8/20
Liberty — 19/20

TOTAL SCORE = 32/60 = Average

Which places Madison almost exactly in the middle of my presidential rankings. He was average (not bad, as Eland concludes). He will be close to the #20 slot on my final list, give or take, when I finish assessing all the presidents.

UPDATE (9/27/21): Upon further reflection, I was too harsh on Madison for the War of 1812. One of my readers pointed out that if Madison hadn’t stood up, then Britain would have kept picking on the U.S. forever. The war was also a success because it put an end to impressment; it ended the search and seizure of American ships (except during WWI), and Britain vacated forts on U.S. soil and stopped stirring up and arming the Indians. I give him 15 peace points instead of 5. He still could have tried the methods Eland mentions to avoid the war, but on whole he can’t be judged that harshly.

Peace — 15/20
Prosperity — 8/20
Liberty — 19/20


Martin Van Buren (1837-1841): Libertarian Hero or Jacksonian Yes Man?

I am puzzled by the libertarian love affair with Martin Van Buren. There’s less to him than meets the eye. Most historians give him mediocre to poor marks, and here I agree with the mainstream. This despite my own libertarian leanings.

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel goes so far as to rank Van Buren the #1 president of all time. From “Martin Van Buren: The American Gladstone”, this is his verdict:

“The case for Van Buren’s greatness goes beyond his being the least bad US president. While avoiding foreign wars, he did more than maintain the domestic status quo. He reduced the power and reach of central authority in the face of stiff resistance and thereby helped the American economy weather one of its most severe deflations. He also brought an ideological clarity to American politics that has seldom been equaled. Although the Democracy would stray in significant and reprehensible ways from the principled course he had charted, his imprint still left an enduring legacy. The Democratic Party remained the political alliance with the strongest affinity for laissez-faire, personal liberty, and free trade until almost the turn of the century. All will acknowledge, I believe, that Americans once enjoyed greater freedom from government intervention than any other people on the face of the earth. For that accomplishment, Martin Van Buren deserves as much credit as any other single individual — and certainly more credit than any other president of the United States.”

Then there is Ivan Eland, who ranks Van Buren at #3 in Recarving Rushmore, grading him as follows:

Peace — 17/20
Prosperity — 20/20
Liberty — 17/20

Total Score = 54/60 = Excellent (3rd best president)

These inflated estimations of Van Buren are way off base. The man was a rather dismal president when you get down to it. What Hummel and Eland call “avoiding conflict”, I call “leaving problems for other presidents to solve under worse conditions”. What Hummel and Eland think helped the American economy only helped so much, and brought its own problems. And if America was a bastion of liberty on Van Buren’s watch, it was only that for whites; Indians and blacks suffered unduly, even by 19th-century standards.

Evasion and avoidance (and war)

Hummel and Eland applaud Van Buren for avoiding war and conflict. He side-stepped war with Mexico, forgave Mexican debts, and refused Texas’s bid to be annexed after it became an independent republic in 1836. The president feared that admitting Texas into the union would exacerbate tensions between the north and south by bringing in a slave state; and Mexico would fight over Texas in any case. The problem with this logic is that annexation was foreordained at this point; the Texans wanted to be annexed; it was really just a matter of time. What Van Buren should have done is use the Mexican debts as a bargaining tool to annex Texas peacefully. By avoiding the problem and foolishly writing off Mexico’s debts, the eventual annexation (under John Tyler) led to the Mexican War (under James Polk), a horrible war which stirred up sentiments that made the Civil War inevitable.

Van Buren also diffused a potential battle with Britain over Canada. The British burned an American ship in 1837, and Americans retaliated by burning a British ship in 1838. Van Buren avoided war by a neutrality proclamation, and by soothing tempers on both sides, and disarming American hothead radicals crying for British blood. Van Buren should be given credit for all of this, but only so much, since his neutrality proclamation didn’t resolve anything. The border issue was left to a later president to resolve, which John Tyler did superbly with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.

And if Van Buren avoided wars with Britain and Mexico in less than admirable ways, he pushed full steam ahead with the the longest, costliest, and bloodiest Indian war in American history: the Second Seminole War. Van Buren kept the war churning throughout his whole term, and this is where Hummel and Eland have to fudge (to laughable lengths) in order to score him so highly. This is what Hummel writes:

“No president can be perfect. Martin Van Buren’s most morally egregious and fiscally exorbitant compromises with government coercion stemmed from his faithful adherence to Andrew Jackson’s ruthless program of Indian removal. The second Seminole war, having erupted in 1835 prior to Van Buren’s inauguration, degenerated into a vicious and unrelenting counterinsurgency struggle that was still raging as he left office. President Tyler finally ended what had become the US Army’s most costly and lengthy Indian war with a proclamation in 1842 that permitted three hundred surviving Seminoles to remain in Florida on reservations, essentially the same terms that Van Buren had rejected in 1838.”

To pass over the egregious crimes against the Indians because “no one is perfect”, and then to call such an offender the #1 greatest president of all time utterly torpedoes Hummel’s credibility.

Eland has the same problem. He somehow wrangles a high peace rating (17/20) out of Van Buren’s mediocrity and war-mongering (maintaining peace with Britain and Mexico in average to poor ways, while waging unrelenting war on the Seminoles). It’s beyond me to make sense of this.

Money, money

Hummel and Eland applaud Van Buren’s hard money policy, as do I. Andrew Jackson had left a mess: the Panic of 1837, which began only two months after Jackson left office. Thanks to (a) Jackson’s reckless bank war (in which he dispersed huge amounts of federal funds to his pet banks, which flooded the economy with a massive surplus and caused runaway inflation) and (b) his specie-circular executive order (which required that payment for the purchase of public lands be made exclusively in gold or silver), the country now faced the worst depression in its existence up to that point. Prices rose, businesses failed, bankruptcies were the norm, massive unemployment ensued, and people starved. There was a brief recovery in 1838, and then the panic resumed, running unrelieved from 1839-43.

Van Buren’s main counter to the depression was hard money. By restricting the supply, he dampened inflation and made the economic decisions of the private sector more predictable. It’s curious that historians often compare the Great Depression of 1929-33 with the deflation of 1839-43 — the two most most massive monetary contractions in American history, and which extended over the same length of time. But the similarities end there. Says Hummel:

“During the Great Depression, as unemployment peaked at 25% of the labor force in 1933, US production of goods and services collapsed by 30%. During the earlier nineteenth-century contraction, investment fell, but amazingly the economy’s total output did not. Quite the opposite; it actually rose between 6-16%. The American economy of the 1930s was characterized by prices, especially wages, that were rigid downwards, whereas in the 1840s, prices could fall fast and far enough quickly to restore equilibrium.”

In other words, things could have been far worse in the aftermath of Jackson’s sins. Van Buren’s hard money policy helped dam the disaster at least some.

More controversial is the Independent Treasury. Van Buren proposed the idea of an independent federal treasury — a “total separation of bank and state”, as he called it — which went into effect for one year (in 1840) before it was repealed; then it was later revived by President Polk in 1846, at which point it lasted until the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. According to Hummel, the Independent Treasury was the best banking system the United States ever had.

“Historians who dismiss the Independent Treasury as constraining the government ‘to accept payments and to make them in an antiquated medium’ more ‘suitable for the War of the Roses’ have never adequately explained the relative quiescence of monetary debates during its operation. The First and Second US Banks (1791-1811; 1816-1836) had divided political parties since the adoption of the Constitution. The Civil War’s national banking system and Greenbacks subsequently induced fresh convulsions over currency questions. If the Independent Treasury was in fact so obviously deficient, why did it provoke no similar political outcry? Moreover, its reenactment coincided with heavy expenditures for Polk’s war against Mexico, yet that military effort caused the economy less financial dislocation than any previous American war. During the nation’s next financial panic in 1857, the Treasury was effectively insulated from the bank suspension. There is also no evidence that the Independent Treasury hobbled the country’s economic growth.”

Eland, however, is more cautious, saying that “in the long term, Van Buren’s Independent Treasury had the effect of gradually centralizing financial power in the federal government, culminating in the Federal Reserve System — a quasi-central bank.” Eland does allow that the Independent Treasury was a better system than the two national banks that came before, and the Federal Reserve that came after… but it still wasn’t ideal.

I think Eland has the right of it. The best banking policy was that which had been consistently advocated by the Jeffersonian Democrats (Jefferson, Madison, Tyler) — that is, the use of state chartered private banks without a national bank or any centralized treasury. All of the centralized systems — whether the First National Bank (1791-1811), the Second National Bank (1816-1836), the Independent Treasury (1840, 1846-1913), or the Federal Reserve (1913-today) — produced widespread objections, except, as Hummel notes, for the Independent Treasury. The Independent Treasury was the least of the centralized evils, but it still wasn’t great.

The Indians and Blacks

If the Second Seminole War brings down Van Buren’s peace rating, the Trail of Tears all but kills his liberty rating. By Eland’s own admission, Van Buren set “shameful policies towards the Indians”, as he continued Andrew Jackson’s harsh policies on that infamous trail. Jackson had already sent most of the southwest Indians to the miserable territory in Oklahoma. The Cherokees had been able to delay their deportation, and now, on Van Buren’s watch in 1838-39, came the worst of the Trail of Tears. Thousands of Cherokees died on the march out west. I’m not saying that we should expect social-justice-warrior ideals from the 19th-century presidents; they must be weighed according to the standards of their day. But even by 19th-century standards the Trail of Tears was appalling.

For a northerner, Van Buren’s policies on slavery were too accommodating. To be sure, he wasn’t like the later doughfaces (Pierce, Buchanan) who went out their way to stick up for slavery, but he still left much to be desired. The real stain his record is the Amistad incident. In 1839 slaves owned by Spaniards seized control of the ship they were on (this was off the coast of Cuba), set sail for their African home, but winded up on Long Island instead. They were imprisoned in Connecticut, and Van Buren issued an executive order that the slaves be returned to the Spaniards. Some historians excuse Van Buren on grounds of diplomatic considerations, but that’s feeble, because the slaves were kidnapped from Africa illegally; the Spanish had broken international treaties against the slave trade. The Supreme Court correctly overruled Van Buren, freeing the Africans.


My scoring (26/60) doesn’t even come to half of Eland’s glowing tally of 54/60. Martin Van Buren was hardly an example of executive excellence.

Peace — 8/20
Prosperity — 12/20
Liberty — 6/20

TOTAL SCORE = 26/60 = Poor

So Martin Van Buren was better than his predecessor Andrew Jackson, whom I scored 18/60, but not by much.

From the Executive Cellar: John Adams (1797-1801)

For reasons strange and hollow, John Adams has a favorable reputation among historians. The most recent C-Span Survey ranks him at #19, above over half of the other presidents. I’d place him in the cellar; probably in the bottom five.

To start with, Adams almost brought a ruinous war down on America. He’s usually given credit for avoiding that war with France, but it was he who stoked up the battle fever to begin with. There’s something seriously deranged with a leader who goes out of his way to provoke a nation like France into war, while placating Muslim terrorists in the Barbary States with tribute payments. By the end of his term, Congress was paying 20% of the US’s annual revenue to the Muslim pirates. Jefferson would commendably proceed to smash the Barbary pirates as soon as he took office, but Adams had always insisted on appeasement and allowing America to be bullied around by jihadists. While fanning the flames against the French.

By 1799 he finally wised up and sent a peace commission to France, reversing himself and obtaining peace. It was the right move, to be sure — the U.S. at this time was in no position to war against a nation like France — but a president gets minimal credit for making right what he himself put wrong. All he was doing was cleaning up his own mess.

And before he swept up, he committed some of the worst sins against liberty in American history. With hyper-fears of enemy Frenchmen and spies infiltrating American society, the Federalist majority in Congress passed four laws in June-July 1798, known infamously as The Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams enforced these acts with zeal. These acts:

  1. made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act)
  2. allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act)
  3. allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act)
  4. criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act)

That last one was an egregious violation of free speech. These so-called “security” measures were in reality domestic measures. Adams was just trying to insulate his Federalists and crush any opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. He punished journalists and others who spoke out against the government with huge fines and prison sentences. (Thomas Jefferson would pardon these people when he took office in 1801.)

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison protested the acts right away, and most of them were thankfully abolished when Jefferson took office in 1801. The third one, however, the Alien Enemies Act, is still on the books today; it was used despicably by Franklin Delano Roosevelt during World War II, leading further to the internment of Japanese American citizens, no less. The Alien and Sedition Acts were the second worst assaults on civil liberties in American history — the only greater ones coming from Woodrow Wilson’s crackdowns during World War I.

Before he left office, Adams did another stunt that presaged FDR. After he lost the election to Jefferson, he took the last month of his term to stack the courts with partisan (Federalist) judges. He put 16 new judges in the circuit courts, 23 justices of the peace in Washington county and 19 in Alexandria county — all Federalists of course. Adams burned the midnight oil, right up through the night before Jefferson’s inauguration, to get his new judges on board. These were the “midnight appointments”, as they became known.

Ironically, there was one good thing that came of this last-minute Federalist court-stacking: the appointment of John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Marshall would hold this position until his death in 1835, and he shaped the court’s decisions like no other justice, guided by a strong conviction that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter in any Constitutional dispute. “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is,” he said later in the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). Our Supreme Court has functioned this way ever since, and that is as it should be. Contrary to what some Jeffersonians back then claimed (and what some libertarians today claim), Marshall wasn’t promoting a judicial supervision of society, far less advocating for what we today think of as judicial activism. He was mindful of the restraints on judicial power, and he insisted that the courts should fulfill a legal role, not a political one.


Aside from the appointment of John Marshall, just about every major thing Adams did was to the detriment of American citizens. Why he ranks well in expert opinion is beyond me.

My scoring for Adams is as follows. For pushing America to the brink of war with France, then barely saving the situation, and also for appeasing the Barbary pirates he should have smashed, he gets only 5 peace points. People weren’t terribly prosperous during his term; he had to create a heavy land tax on the American people to finance a military buildup that should not have been needed. 9 points for that category. His liberty rating would be an absolute zero (for enforcing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and for stacking the courts with partisan judges), but I throw him a couple of points for the appointment of John Marshall.

Peace — 5/20
Prosperity — 9/20
Liberty — 2/20

TOTAL SCORE = 16/60 = Very Bad

(His successor Thomas Jefferson rates much better, with a score of 42/60.)

The Great and Awful Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

Many presidents are easy to assess. I believe that John Tyler was excellent, while John Adams, Andrew Jackson and Woodrow Wilson were disasters. I could add others to the top tier with Tyler (like Washington and Harding), and to the gutter (like James Buchanan and George W. Bush) with just as much ease. Other chief executives were very good, pretty good, or just okay, or awful… but there are a handful that I have hard time getting closure on. These are the presidents who were both great and terrible at once. The quintessential example is Thomas Jefferson.

Bear in mind that in what follows, I assess Jefferson as I do any other president, on the basis of what he did as president, not before or after. The Declaration of Independence was one of Jefferson’s greatest achievements, but he penned that document outside his presidency, and so it doesn’t count in what follows. Also, I assess presidents for their actual policies, not for the number of women they slept with, or how adulterous, scandalous, or odious those liaisons were. It’s become vogue to rip Jefferson’s face over Sally Hemings, but that’s another discussion. A presidential ranking should be based not on the executive’s moral character (except insofar as how it might bear directly on his policies), or his charisma, or his management style. I base my rankings on what a president did for the causes of (1) peace, (2) prosperity, and (3) liberty, all of which are, at least nominally, the conditions under which most Americans want to live.

First term: The Good One (1801-1805)

If Jefferson had been a one-term president, he would have gone down as one of the unambiguous greats — one of the top four presidents of all time who truly deserves his place on Mount Rushmore. His first term was a glowing model of executive restraint. He turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech. His policies were signaled by executive humility right out of the gate. He refused the formal coach ride to his inaugural address and chose his feet, believing that walking placed him among the people where he belonged. During his administration he trimmed a lot of office trappings (like extravagant state dinners), and opened the front door himself to visitors when he could. Like Washington (though even more so), he went out of his way to make clear the presidency was not a kingship and the White House not a palace; it was the people’s home as much as his own.

In particular, he emphasized in his inaugural that the legislature was to be the most powerful branch of government. His job as the chief executive was to make recommendations, execute the laws of Congress, and no more than that. Now, all that rhetoric is fine and well, but did Jefferson’s actual policies align with what he made a big show of standing for? During his first term they did.

The First Barbary War

One of his first actions was going to war with the Barbary pirates, who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam. This was the right move, since it was a defensive war — and not only that, a defensive war against an act of religious terror.

Some historians claim the Barbary War was fought primarily for trade, but that’s a feeble manhandling of the truth. The origin of the Barbary War came sixteen years prior (in 1785), at the end of the Revolutionary War, when American trade ships sailing into the Mediterranean no longer had the protection of the British navy and were suddenly assaulted by Muslim pirates. Those taken hostage were tortured and wrote letters home begging the U.S. government and family members to pay the ransoms.

At that time Jefferson had been a delegate to Europe (along with John Adams), and he was flabbergasted at the unprovoked attacks, and wanted to know why the Barbary States were doing this. Tripoli’s (Libya’s) response came from Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja in 1786, when he met with Jefferson and Adams in London. Adja said that

“They were doing as Muhammad commanded; that it was the Muslim right to wage war on all nations who didn’t acknowledge Islamic rule, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; and that every Muslim who died in battle for this cause would go to paradise.”

If all of those reasons sound like modern ISIS or Al-Qaeda manifestos, there’s a good reason for that; it’s what Islam has been about since its inception in the seventh century, in all its mainstream forms. It’s a myth that jihadism was born of bad U.S. foreign policy. The Barbary Wars were over two centuries ago. At the time of President Jefferson, “U.S. foreign policy” didn’t even exist to speak of.

The reason for the unprovoked attacks was simple: Christian sailors were fair game, because they weren’t Muslims. The nature of Islam was beginning to dawn on Jefferson. He was certainly no anti-Muslim bigot. He supported the rights of Muslims as people, and he went out of his way to define Muslims as future American citizens. But neither was he a naive romantic. Unlike today’s regressive leftists, he came to see that the religion of Islam was oppressive and at odds with free inquiry.

As Jefferson’s co-delegate in the meeting of 1786 (not even Washington was president yet), Adams advised that America should pay tribute to the Barbary States. Jefferson, no war-monger by any means, disagreed, realizing that war was the only way to deal with a terrorist situation. Later, with the increased reports from the dungeons of Algiers and Tripoli — horrible mistreatments of captured men and women — Jefferson’s position gained momentum. By the time he was president, public opinion hardened in favor of war, and it was obviously the right decision.

The war went on for four years until the payoff on June 1805. Jefferson (unlike Adams) is to be commended for America’s first defeat of jihad terror. Though wars should be avoided whenever possible, it was clearly necessary in this case. The First Barbary War taught a more general lesson as well: that America was bound up with global affairs and could not afford to play the strict isolationist.

The Louisiana Purchase

Jefferson elsewhere avoided war, especially with Spain, and he expanded American land by buying the Louisiana territory from France. Some historians have called the Louisiana Purchase unconstitutional, but this judgment seems churlish. Jefferson did everything with congressional approval. He didn’t make the treaty by decree. It wasn’t an executive agreement with France (which would have indeed been tyrannical). He submitted a negotiated treaty to Congress for “advice and consent”. The Senate could have rejected the treaty, and the House could have refused to fund the purchase. Both approved the recommendation.

It’s true that the Constitution is silent on the matter of admitting foreign states, but in the Constitution the states had delegated foreign diplomacy to the government, and treaties had always been ratified without direct input from the people. Jefferson’s cabinet agreed in any case that a constitutional amendment wasn’t needed to add land to the country. By adding this land the U.S. doubled its land size. In my opinion the Louisiana Purchase is to Jefferson’s credit, not his detraction.

Other bonuses

Jefferson put in a plan to reduce the federal debt, and with great success: it would drop from 80 million to 57 million by the time he left office. And he commissioned the Lewis & Clark expedition, without which the U.S. would have never gotten the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. On whole, he favored executive prudence and restraint, unlike the Federalists and later Whigs.

Judiciary Impeachments

The single stain on Jefferson’s first term was his plan to impeach “unfit” judges. First he went after John Pickering on the Federal District Court, getting him charged with “mental instability” and intoxication on the bench. Pickering was impeached by the House in 1803 and removed by the Senate in 1804. Now, Pickering may well have been “unfit” to be a federal judge, but according to the Constitution, only “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” warrant impeachment. Pickering’s offenses weren’t impeachable ones, and if he could be removed for a reason like this, then any judge was fair game for capricious removal — even for rank political purposes. Which of course is exactly what happened next. Jefferson went after a Supreme Court judge, Justice Samuel Chase, who was impeached in 1804 simply for being obnoxious and a partisan Federalist. Thankfully the Senate acquitted him in 1805, setting a precedent that helped ensure the independence of the judiciary. Some of the senators declined to convict Chase despite their animosity towards him, because unlike Jefferson, they knew that was no reason to remove a judge.

Second Term: The Bad One (1805-1809)

The Embargo Act of 1807 turned Jefferson’s image upside down. His embargo was an act of commercial warfare, intended to punish Britain and France (fighting each other in the Napoleonic Wars), and force them to stop molesting American ships and respect U.S. neutrality. The logic (get this) was that by withholding American raw materials, Britain and France would be forced to trade on American terms, and stop harassing U.S. ships and sailors. One can only marvel at the depths of stupidity required for such “logic”. America obviously needed international trade as much as Britain and France did, and in any case, the British and French saw the world entirely in terms of the epic war they were fighting. They both cared more about winning their war than about maximizing any short term GDP. That ruinous war was “punishing” them enough as it was, and they had no intention of stopping.

The only people punished by the embargo were American citizens. They starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops. Urban industrial workers, sailors and artisans lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved due to governmental incompetence. The Embargo Act alone could qualify Jefferson as one of the worst presidents of all time.

To add insult to injury, Jefferson violated civil liberties by his oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. Furthermore, it’s ironic that citizens were prosecuted for sedition under Jefferson, just as they were under Adams. Jefferson was the hero who had ended the Alien and Sedition Acts and the persecution of free speech — freeing those who had been imprisoned in the Adams era for speaking their minds. Jefferson was almost as bad in trampling on civil liberties, especially with the Fourth Amendment; but sometimes also even with the First, when he encouraged the prosecution of Federalist journalists who bad-mouthed him.

Conclusion: Rating Thomas Jefferson

I’m a bit stumped on how to rank a president with Jefferson’s duality. Part of me says he deserves a high ranking for all the good he did and great examples he set; the other part says a low ranking for becoming the kind of demon he had always crusaded against. In the end, technically, he washes out as average:

For peace I give him a perfect rating of 20. He avoided unnecessary wars and prosecuted a necessary defensive war against the Barbary States.

For prosperity I split him right down the middle. He deserves a 20 for his first term, and an absolute zero for his second (for the Embargo Act), for an overall rating of 10.

For liberty I likewise split him down the middle. He cleaned up the free-speech oppression under John Adams, but then had many people (who were starving) searched and arrested without warrants, in addition to encouraging that Federalist journalists be brought up on sedition/libel charges.

Peace — 20/20
Prosperity — 10/20
Liberty — 10/20

Overall score — 40/60 = Average

Mind you, I’m not entirely happy with a ranking of “average” for Jefferson. “Average” seems to neutralize a leader’s excellent accomplishments and abysmal failures. But there you have it.

Beyond the Mountains of Madness

If there was ever a module with a slow build, it’s Call of Cthulhu’s Beyond the Mountains of Madness (1999). It’s a 440-page monster with 17 chapters, and if I were running it frankly, I’d start at the point of chapter 8. The events of the first seven (getting to Antarctica) can be easily summarized as a prologue, and for that matter, the final three (leaving Antarctica) are equally optional. By the end of chapter 14 the players will have been punished by lengthy multiple gaming sessions; any surviving PCs will be exhausted and horrified, not least by their own actions. The module is bleak by even Cthulhu standards, certainly excellent as its reputation suggests, but also a bit overdone.

It was published twenty years ago — exactly twenty years before the recent piece of awesomeness I just reviewed, Berlin: The Wicked City (2019) (they were both released in August) — but I can’t call this a retrospective, since everything about Call of Cthulhu is new to me. Knowing that Mountains of Madness is widely cherished, I will try to offer a perspective on it without simply parroting the standard praise.

First an amusing anecdote. There’s a guy I knew from high school who believes in the conspiracy theory known as Base 22 or “New Berlin”, a lost Atlantis-like city in Antarctica that became a secret Nazi base in 1939. According to the theory, the Germans discovered aliens and alien technology, and there are still in the 21st century Germans working secretly in cahoots with the Illuminati to launch a One World Government from the South Pole continent. Our government has been aware of this and consistently covering it up. Seriously.

In reality, of course, the German expedition of 1938-39 was a whaling expedition and nothing more. In preparing for war, Hitler feared being cut out of the whaling industry by Norway and Britain; whale oil was one of the main ingredients for margarine, and Germans ate a lot of it. But reality is too boring for the crackpot theorist. Others of us relieve our boredom not by rewriting reality but by retreating from it. Into RPGS, for example. Beyond the Mountains of Madness allows role-players to imagine the South Pole continent containing a secret so horrifying and deadly it makes the Illuminati look laughable.

While many Call of Cthulhu modules take direct inspiration from Lovecraft’s tales, this one is an actual sequel to one of his most popular stories. The setting is Antarctica in 1933, three years after the failed expedition narrated in At the Mountains of Madness. For those who haven’t read the novel — and it is a novel, by the way, at 40,881 words, not a “novelette”, as the module keeps referring to it — it’s about an expedition to Antarctica in 1930-31 that ends in a mysterious tragedy, the public account being that the base camp was wiped out by a storm. The real story, narrated by the geologist William Dyer (one of the few survivors), tells of ancient city filled with alien life forms dating to the pre-Cambrian period, about a billion years ago. The Elder Things. They’re not pleasant (see image below on the left side), and there are shoggoths too, either enslaved by the Elder Things, or lurking in rivalry far below the city.

Most of the people on the expedition were slain, and those who survived, like William Dyer, returned home insane. Dyer eventually wrote the truth of the events (narrated in At the Mountains of Madness), and intended to give it to his colleague William Moore, but the manuscript was stolen. Dyer, for his part, became increasingly mad, and took a leave of absence from the Miskatonic University. His current location is unknown.

Three Expeditions: The Follow-Up, the Millionaire Woman, and the Germans

Much of the adventure’s intrigue comes from rival expeditions who are exploring Antarctica for their own reasons. The PCs are part of the main (follow-up) expedition to the disaster of 1930-31. It’s led jointly by a famous wilderness guide, James Starkweather, and geologist professor William Moore (Dyer’s colleague and friend). Starkweather is in it for the fame, and Moore wants to learn what really happened to his colleagues. But their expedition is competing with another one led by a millionaire heiress, Acacia Lexington, who wants to be the first woman to stand at the South Pole. Starkweather despises women and doesn’t allow females on his expeditions. In this case, however, he is more than willing to make an exception and take on a female PC or two (though he will treat them with insufferable condescension), in hopes of beating Lexington so he can have the petty satisfaction of saying that the first woman to reach the South Pole was under his management. Finally, unbeknownst to these two rival groups, the Germans are launching an expedition of their own.

As I said at the start, I would start the campaign at the point of chapter 8, right after the arrival at Ross Island and the grudging alliance formed between the three expeditions. Chapters 8 and 9 deal with the unpleasant discoveries at Lake’s Camp, where the former expedition was wiped out. By the end of those chapters, the PCs will be aware of an unknown and dangerous species that dwells in the mountain range east of the camp. They will find both dead and preserved specimens of that species at the camp, and bloody evidence that these creatures slaughtered the members of the first expedition led by Percy Lake. They will also be presented with William Dyer’s written true account of what happened, and the journey he took with Paul Danforth into the Mountains of Madness. The module even suggests that the players read Lovecraft’s novel at this point (if they never have), once the NPC from the German expedition reveals the stolen copy. (Dyer’s manuscript had been intended for William’s Moore’s eyes, but Moore never got it until this point in the game.) For less ambitious players who don’t want to read a novel in between gaming sessions, the module supplies a helpful one-page summary of Dyer’s account, which the game master can distribute and fill in the gaps and answer questions as he or she sees fit.

The only way to find out if Dyer’s stupendous tale is true is to fly out to the mountain range (about 200 miles east of Lake’s camp). Assuming there are 6 PCs, they prepare to fly out with 12 NPCS, all divided into three prop planes (Boeing 247 models). Starkweather and Moore each command a plane (the PCs are divided between these two), and Lexington has her own; she takes three Germans, so that all of the expeditions are represented. Chapter 10 then takes the 18-person mission to the mountains — to an ancient city (at almost 25,000 feet altitude, requiring oxygen masks) and, of course, the Elder Things.

The City of the Elder Things

The city is vast: 300 miles long and 30 miles wide (see the purple strip on the above map; click to enlarge the map), and the PCs and their comrades will only have enough time and oxygen to investigate a small part of it. The surface level of the city is conveyed in majestic prose, with a blinding sense of desolation. One of the problems with Lovecraft is that for all his strong ideas and gifted imagination, he couldn’t write. The module authors can:

“The explorers stand on ancient ice, hard and smooth and clear. Everything is still, frozen in time for unguessed ages. The weight of years lies heavy on the City, thick and dark with forgotten lives. Change seems blasphemous here, human voices and movement unwanted intrusions in the sad dreaming of the stones. Overhead, thin high wisps of vapor are the only things that move, like fine veils drawn across the City, hiding it from the eyes of time. A thin high singing is the only sound, constant and eerie and mad, the sound of the wind in the high peaks, piping from far away.”

And at first, probably for a full day, the PCs can enjoy this wondrous interlude. The city they explore is a dreamlike testimony to a lost greatness. But that greatness wasn’t human-friendly, and there’s an unshakable feeling of being watched. Wherever the PCs walk, they sense covert movement in their peripheral vision and behind their backs — which vanishes immediately when they turn to look. They also experience weird time slips (fleeting glimpses of the city in ages past) and tempus fugits (seconds that feel like minutes).

Eventually the Elder Things strike, but slyly. They are a terrifying species (see left image), more intelligent than humans, and far more interested in abduction than slaughter — though they don’t hesitate to do the latter if necessary. Unless the party is really lucky, at least one member, and probably two, will be captured, and the party will need to give chase. That chase will take them further east to an immense tower in the middle of a storm vortex — though the chase will be complicated by the likely sabotage and destruction of one of the party’s three planes. And with the party down a plane, some will have to stay behind in the city (unless things go so catastrophically wrong that at least six people die).

The Tower and Wall of Skulls

Chapter 11 covers the Construct Tower and is the critical part of the campaign. The tower basically functions as a “God Trap” that has been caging a horrible entity for millions of years. If released from the construct cage, this god would wipe out all life on earth. What holds the cage in place is a bio-mechanical structure of mammal and human skulls requiring constant replenishment:

“… a massive structure of crystal, stone, and living tissue. Partly living, partly machine, it squats in its clearing like a massive pile of corrupt flesh, twitching and breathing slightly in the still air. Moisture glistens down its flanks and pools upon the floor; it smells of ancient disease. The hideous artifact stares at the intruders from thousands of dead staring eyes. Embedded in the fleshy frame are great numbers of heads. Some are the heads of birds; others belong to seals and walruses; but many are of men. They stare blindly in all directions, flesh blackened and withered with age beneath a protective coating of slime. Most are little more than grinning skulls, the flesh long sloughed away, and these no longer move. A few, however, show faint signs of life. They are the most horrible of all. In the center of the mass at eye level, facing directly toward the investigators, is all that is left of [a recently abducted PC or NPC]. His eyes are wide and empty, his slack jaw agape. Runnels of glistening moisture slide unnoticed across his eyeballs and pool inside his open mouth. His lips purse and twitch in time with the pulsing of the plants, as if he is trying to speak but cannot remember how.”

This “Wall of Skulls” is kept functional by two shoggoths: a corpse-eater and a gardener, both specially bred and enslaved by the Elder Things for particular tasks. The corpse eater dwells in a tub on the tower’s middle level, and is the one who removes the flesh of its victims, in preparation for their installment. The shoggoth crawls up a victim’s limbs and inside his/her clothing, eating away the flesh (except the face, which remains recognizable) until nothing is left but loose bones, the head, spine, and nervous web. The shoggoth then delivers this mass to the gardener shoggoth on the level above. The gardener plants the remains of the victim into the skull network, another “battery” to keep the cage secure.

The gardener shoggoth knows that the survival of the Construct Tower (and the world) is all that matters, and will defend the skull shrine to the death. What that means is that PCs may just as likely receive the creature’s help — if they are trying to patch up their own stupid attempt to rescue anyone from the skull network, which is what they will probably initially do.

The likely chain of events is that at first the PCs will try rescuing whoever from their party was captured in the City and is now in the skull structure. Such rescue attempts — or any attempt to move or dislodge a part of the corpse network — will call the shoggoth down on them furiously. Should they succeed in removing anyone, or dislodging any part of the network, then the apocalypse starts: earthquakes rip through the tower valley, all the way back to the City and even Lake’s Camp; the entire face of the mountain range crumbles, falling in on itself, and the sky grows wild with flickering auroras; time slips accelerate, warping one’s sense of time, occurring every three to five minutes; the Unknown God pushes out from its cage, tasting a freedom almost within reach; the PCs feel its presence by some malignant poison or vapor seeping out of the tower walls and into their very flesh. Some of them will surely have gone insane by this point — if not from encountering Elder Things and shoggoths, then surely from confronting the Wall of Skulls and feeling the Unknown God on the verge of breaking free. They have a very short time window to fix their blunder before the entity escapes the Construct and devastates the planet.

The PCs then might offer to fix the damage they caused, which means sacrificing one of themselves or one of their NPC comrades to the corpse-eating shoggoth. That’s assuming they can figure out what the hell is going on, and the function of the tower and the wall of skulls. If they do decide on this course of altruism, the gardener shoggoth will assist them in every way, and take on the delicate task of networking the martyr’s flesh-eaten corpse into the skull-structure. If the PCs have killed either shoggoth, then that’s not good. Without the corpse-eater, the PCs will have a messy time shedding someone’s flesh down to bones and nerves. Without the gardener shoggoth, they will have an extremely hard time installing a flesh-eaten victim into the skull network where it must be lodged with precision (something the gardener has trained on since birth).

The PCs, in other words, could all too easily hand over planet earth to the god of annihilation.

Back to the camp, then the City again

If the PCs patch up their own damage in time, they do stop the apocalypse and keep the Unknown God caged, but they aren’t done yet. The Elder Things are mighty pissed at them, and to make things worse, two terrified members of the German expedition have fled the tower in a plane without waiting for anyone else, intent on telling the world about all the horrors they’ve seen in Antarctica — the aliens, the City, the Tower, and the Wall of Skulls. If the players have any brains at all, they will realize this is to be prevented at all costs. It’s imperative that humanity doesn’t learn of the City of the Elder Things or the Tower. Scientists and military would descend in droves, and it would be a matter of time before the God was released. The Elder-Thing City isn’t meant to be seen by human beings.

The module presumes that the PCs will have the guts to do what it takes, even if it means murdering in cold blood anyone from the three expeditions who won’t swear to keep silent about the mountains’ horrors. Dyer’s original story — not the truth he related in At the Mountains of Madness, but the story he went public with, about a natural disaster — must be upheld. Chapters 12-13 deal with the PCs chasing the Germans back to Lake’s Camp, and perhaps even further west, in order to persuade, or more likely kill, any who won’t keep quiet.

Whatever the outcome of the players’ difficult decisions at this point, they will have to return to the City of the Elder Things to rescue those who were left behind. Chapter 14 is a tense one. The Elder Things are on full alert now and at an ugly standoff between those who remained behind. They will make a priority of destroying any other plane that returns to the city, dooming the PCs for good. By now, everyone just wants to go home, but there’s no escaping the standoff so easily. The Elder Things still want captives, but they will just as happily go for slaughter. If the party escapes the city, this is where I would end the campaign.


This is a rare campaign-sized module that actually feels Lovecraftian. Most lengthy scenarios fall short in reaching too high. Masks of Nyarlathotep is a fan favorite, but that’s really more an Indiana Jones adventure than a Cthulhu Mythos piece. Escape from Innsmouth is also widely loved, but it’s like Aliens — a lot of pumped up battle, with the PCs assisted by the military. Beyond the Mountains of Madness exudes the proper Alien-vibe that aligns with Cthulhu horror. It isolates the PCs in a terrifying setting, and guarantees that many (if not all) of them will be killed, driven mad, or forced into actions that will make them loathe themselves for the rest of their lives.

It’s not perfect though. It details too much supplementary adventure as if it were part of the main course. Those beginning and end chapters should have been condensed into a prologue and epilogue.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5.

Revelations: The Book of Revelation Applied to the Other 65 Books of the Bible

If I’d known adventure scenarios like this existed, I would have widened my scope beyond D&D a long time ago. Revelations brings the bible to life in a horridly twisted version of the apocalypse. The PCs will basically live the book of Revelation applied retroactively to the other 65 books of the bible. If that sounds confusing, read on. If it sounds messed up, it is. If it sounds like a nihilistic death scenario, it’s that too: PCs have a 90-99% of dying as the world goes to hell around them, and they can’t do a damn thing about it. Unless they’re really good.

The adventure is set in the small town of Toil, Illinois in 1938. The Dust Bowl setting and the time of the Depression is perfectly suited for what appears to be the biblical end times. Revelations is about the crushing despair triggered by a preacher’s loss of faith, and the devastating consequences of his attempt to make God active in the world as He was in biblical times. Stop reading now if you think you might play this. From this point on, game masters’ eyes only.

How did the end begin?

The backstory is the tragedy of Andrew Yearta. Andrew is a King-James-Bible-only fundamentalist preacher who believes God has deserted humanity. While biblical scholars and theologians speak of “Remnant Theology”, Andrew has formulated a “Deserter Theology”: that humanity’s sins have so offended the Lord that He has entirely given up on creation. God doesn’t even bother punishing the wicked anymore; there is no salvation to be had for anyone, let alone a faithful remnant. The parental love that sent Noah’s flood is dried up; God has washed His hands of humankind.

Andrew, in his insanity, believes that his own recent sin (fornicating with a young woman) was the straw that broke the camel’s back — the final sin that damned humanity. Instead of showing His love through apocalyptic rebuke, God simply wiped Himself from existence, removing his love and forgiveness from the world. Andrew thus believes that he is the slayer of his own God, and must therefore become the prophet of His resurrection. In desperation and despair, he launches an incredibly obscene plan to “bring God back”. He summons a Cthulhu-like god (Noought-Iss), binds it in a hideous ritual, and molds it into a devastating parody of the Judeo-Christian God. In this way, Andrew hopes to piss off Yahweh, make Him jealous, and provoke His return so that Biblical Truth can again hold sway in the world.

Andrew would infuriate his God back into existence by his blasphemous gall — by worshiping something so abhorrent and base that it escaped the notice of even the most brutal pagans. Thus, in an attempt to save his own soul, Andrew Yearta made Earth a living Hell.”

Andrew does this by sacrificing an innocent farmer and his family (by mutilating and dismembering them), and then casting a spell from an obscure tome found at a college divinity school — nominally a school for biblical studies, but one that also explores the theology of bizarre and heretical texts. The tome in question was written by a certain Klaus von Meinhoff, a German linguist in the early 1800s, who dealt with forbidden knowledge and realized that the god-creature Noought-Iss is the primary catalyst of all existence. Andrew Yearta tapped into this forbidden knowledge, to channel Noought-Iss into a copy of the King James Bible:

“Andrew has used what von Meinhoff called the ‘Objective Tongue’ to bind Noought-Iss to his will. Rather than serving as the bridge between all that IS NOT and all that IS, he has performed a sick, profane ritual that focuses Noought-Iss on a single copy of the King James Bible. His insane hope is that Noought-Iss will then rewrite his ‘Deserter God’ back into existence and save the doomed souls of mankind.”

The problem is that Noought-Iss is not meant for a task like this. The “god’s” intellect, if it has one, is cold and alien. It has no concern for humanity’s survival; no understanding of historical context, subjective interpretation, or inter-textuality. For Noought-Iss to attempt a feat like this would rewrite the laws of reality and result in an explosive apocalyptic nightmare. Reality would become a perversion of everything that happens in the King James Bible:

“Every line of the King James Bible is now being used as the code for a new reality, applied literally and without any regard for possible contradictions. The incongruities are tearing existence apart. Noought-Iss’ chaotic, bloody application of the new reality is causing existence itself to collapse.”

And so the skies are raining hail and fire (Rev 8:7); mobs are slitting people’s throats to perform sin offerings (Lev 10:12-20); people are eating ash as if it were bread and weeping hysterically (Ps 102: 9); other people are eating actual bread, but the loaves are turning to flesh that pulsate with sweaty skin and spurt blood when eaten (I Cor 11:23-32); frenzied worshipers, as they rave about the end of days, clamor to rip chunks from that living bread and guzzle bottles of blood; the weak are becoming slaves on the spot and obeying their new masters (Eph 6:5); the ten plagues of Egypt are decimating life everywhere; and countless other horrors that have been shifted and twisted from every page of the bible.

It’s like living the book of Revelation retroactively applied to the other 65 books of the bible.

Of course, not everything in the bible is bad, and much of what has been translated into existence is harmless, or even beneficial. There is a Tree of Life (Rev 22:2) outside the agricultural supply store, with fruit that magically heals all physical wounds, insanity, or any mental illness. The grocery store has an endless supply of bread and tuna (Mk 6:41): when a loaf is removed from the shelf, another takes its place; a single can of tuna could feed the entire town, as there is always more tuna in the can. But whatever is beneficial or mundane is hardly noticed under all the calamity.

The earth is now flat, thanks to Rev 7:1: “I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth”. When Noought-Iss made reality of those words, the result was a victory for flat-earthers (if they can live to enjoy it).

The PCs run around town in vain, witnessing horrors on every block, unable to do anything beyond helping an occasional victim. Indeed, the module encourages that the PCs (1) embrace their destruction: the scenario is apocalyptic, and so no one will win; at best, a few might survive. And to (2) accept their ignorance: the atmosphere of the module is one of escalating, unstoppable doom; players should expect not a shred of hand-holding from the game master; the apocalypse plays no favorites. And to (3) enjoy their fall: in good, nihilistic Call-of-Cthulhu fashion.

Impossible to stop?

The apocalypse can be stopped, and Noought-Iss banished back to his base state, but it will take an extremely shrewd group of players, and an altruistic PC. The solution is found at the farm at the western edge of town where Andrew sacrificed the innocent family and conducted his obscene ritual. At the farm the PCs will find an altar made of the family’s corpses:

“Disemboweled and dismembered, the farmer’s wife and children have been arranged into concentric circles around what appears at first to be a miniature tornado. In the eye of the storm, somehow contained by the human remains, a single leather bound book appears to float.”

That book is the King James Bible, and removing it from the vortex will stop the apocalypse. But that’s easier said than done:

“The bible appears to swirl in the vortex, but at the same times it blinks into the shimmering text of the word ‘book’ or ‘truth.’ The words written in the wind just as suddenly translate into hundreds of other languages, shriek the sound of those words, expand into verses that whip around, a dizzying flurry of language, sound, and raw meaning. Beholding the thing as it sprawls into every realm of perception simultaneously is maddening, and approaching the bloody nexus just makes things worse. Characters can feel their skin turn into the mere idea of skin. Each outstretched finger becomes the word ‘finger,’ letters curling away and being ripped into the maelstrom surrounding the book. To reach into the circle flays the body and mind at once, and there is no hope for any who dare to physically touch the nothingness that is Noought-Iss.”

To unmake the apocalypse and return Noought-Iss to his base state, one of the PCs must dislodge the bible from the vortex — which will irrevocably destroy the character’s body, mind, and soul. It’s an automatic act of suicide/martyrdom, and if one of the PCs makes this sacrifice, then he or she is unmade before the other PCs’ eyes. But with the book wrenched free, the day is saved: Noought-Iss expands outward to encompass all and everything again, and the events of the last day suddenly never were.

Which means that everyone who died under the perverted biblical apocalypse is completely fine and ignorant. All are alive and safe — except the person who removed the bible from the vortex. All traces of that hero have been erased from the world. There are no records of the character having ever existed; family and friends of the PC don’t recognize his or her name if mentioned. No one remembers the apocalypse happening, except for survivors who witnessed the removal of the King James Bible. They do remember everything, since it was their perception of the book’s removal that allowed normality to be restored. They live on as scarred witnesses (some of them may be insane by the end), and they must decide what to do with preacher Andrew Yearta, who is also alive and well. He could very well try casting the spell again. Since he doesn’t remember ever having done so, that is probably exactly what he will do… to infuriate his God back into existence…

Learning the Solution

I can guess what you’re thinking. Stopping the end of the world sounds rather easy: one of the players must simply become a martyr and remove the bible from the vortex. But why would any of them think to do that? The PCs will have no idea this bible is the source of the apocalypse. (For that matter, they may not know anything about Andrew Yearta, who is dead at home, unless they’ve searched his house.) There’s crazy shit to be seen everywhere in town; a bible floating inside a mini-tornado surrounded by a hacked up family is just par for the course. The question isn’t so much, “Will a PC be willing to sacrifice him or herself to remove the bible from the vortex?”, but rather, “Why would a PC try?”

There are two places where the PCs can learn the nature of what’s going on. The first is in Andrew Yearta’s house. Andrew himself is dead, having drunk the toxic “eucharist” wine appearing in bottles all over town. In his bedroom can be found the German tome (by Klaus von Meinhoff), which takes considerable time to read through and make sense of — and that’s assuming at least one of the PCs knows German. But there are also Andrew’s journals and notes, written in English, which describe Noought-Iss’ powers and what the preacher hoped to accomplish by channeling him through a King James Bible.

The second way to learn the truth is much more easy, though instantly fatal. Just as there is a Tree of Life (Rev 22:2) at the agricultural shop, there is a Tree of Knowledge (Gen 2:17) by the river running through the town. While the Tree of Life is beneficial, the Tree of Knowledge is beneficial and fatally terrifying at once:

“As this is the Tree of Knowledge, anyone eating of the fruit will get just that: Knowledge. Of everything. All at once. The omnipotence provided by the fruit is mind-meltingly powerful and utterly deadly. Characters eating of the fruit are doomed to a writhing, poisonous death on the ground, but they will learn all about preacher Andrew Yearta, the god Noought-Iss, and how to stop what is happening around town. Essentially the player is granted access to all GM information about the plot, and then told that they are very soon to die. What remains to be seen is if eater of the forbidden fruit will be able to convey this information to someone else before dying in agony from internal hemorrhaging and madness.”

If the PC can convey the solution — removing the bible from the vortex at the farmer’s house — before dying (and that’s a mighty big if), then the group may just succeed in stopping the apocalypse.


Revelations is everything demented I could ask for in a horror module. It’s perfect for Call of Cthulhu, and a special treat for game masters and players who are familiar with the more dramatic elements of the bible, of which there are plenty.

Rating: 5 stars out of 5.