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, he did okay. However, he did heavily subsidize 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 — 11/20
Liberty — 15/20

TOTAL SCORE = 44/60 = 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. When this series is finally done, he will place at #20 (as an “average” president).

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 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 immense 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 (-2), 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, 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 excellent Supreme Court judges who have had important and lasting effect.

Peace — 13/20
Prosperity — 14/20
Liberty — 10/20

TOTAL SCORE = 37/60 = 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 an almost perfect 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 completely 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 — 19/20
Liberty — 17/20

TOTAL SCORE = 45/60 = 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.

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 = Bad

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