Whenever I come across a ranking of the U.S. presidents, I run it through my initial litmus test:
(b) Are Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush in the bottom 10? They were the most abysmal presidents to date, and yet the official C-Span historian survey puts Wilson all the way up at #11, and does not put Bush in the bottom 10.
I have found this to be a very reliable gauge, and it condemns the vast majority of presidential rankings out of hand. Those that do pass aren’t beyond criticism but at least get their priorities straight. They don’t overreact to sex scandals and graft scandals; they don’t elevate charisma over policies; they actually care about the Constitution and what it stands for. Here are three in particular:
1. Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore passes the test. He has Tyler at #1, Harding at #6, the Younger Bush at #37, and Wilson the very worst at #41. To be sure, there is much I disagree with in Eland’s rankings. For example, he includes Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren in his Mount Rushmore (in the top 4), whereas I judge Cleveland and Van Buren to be very poor presidents. Conversely, he puts Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy at rock-bottom, where I think they belong in the top half. Nonetheless, Recarving Rushmore is an important contribution. It grades the presidents on their actual policies for a change — specifically, what they did for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty.
2. This blogger also passes my first swipe. He has Harding at #10 and Tyler at #11 (close enough), and Wilson as the very worst president. (He didn’t rate Bush, believing that at least two presidents need to pass through the White House to give an accurate ranking of any recent president.) I disagree with some of his rankings (the Senior Bush is way too high), but on whole it is a well thought out list, and far better than what mainstream historians have to offer.
3. Robert Spencer’s new book, Rating America’s Presidents, is another that passes at first glance (it will be published in August). In his blog preview, he lists Tyler and Harding in the top ten, Wilson and the Younger Bush in the bottom ten. Once again I have points of dispute, the most notable ones being Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump in the top 10, and Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton in the bottom 10. But even when I disagree with Spencer I respect his reasoning. Like the above two graders, he focuses on policies, not personalities or management styles — what the presidents did for the betterment of the American people. I’m looking forward to this book.
The problems with mainstream rankings
The establishment favors presidents who were charismatics, goal-oriented “managers”, foreign interventionists, and/or fiscally irresponsible globalists. I’ve been astonished by this. Ever since FDR especially, presidents have been evaluated primarily on the basis of their oratory skills, and their effectiveness in achieving ambitious goals — never mind whether those goals were good or bad. Take for example this statement from Stephen Ambrose in his book on Eisenhower:
“To say that Eisenhower was right about this or wrong about that is to do little more than announce one’s own political position. A more fruitful approach is to examine his years in the White House in his own terms, to make an assessment on the basis of how well he did in achieving the tasks and goals he set for himself at the time he took office.” (Eisenhower: Soldier and President, p 541)
This statement is absurd, but it could easily pass for boilerplate wisdom in the halls of the establishment. It’s absurd because you have to “announce your politics” when assessing political figures. You have to get your hands dirty. Otherwise your task has no meaning.
Here’s another one from Kenneth Davis’s rankings. In his analysis of James Polk, he gives him a perfect A, his lead reason being that Polk “stated what he was going to do and accomplished his goals”. (Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents, p 202). On that logic, any national leader can be great for simply doing what he sets out to do, no matter how dire his policies (not least Hitler and Stalin).
I see this stupid reasoning time and time again, and it finally led me to rank all of the presidents myself. Seriously, if no one else will do it right… I’m not interested in high-school class presidents who gave moving speeches or won popularity contests. Nor am I won over by global interventionists, spendthrifts, or those who curtailed freedom in the name of upholding it. I am impressed, rather, by chief executives who did what they swore to do in upholding the Constitution, and advanced the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty. For that reason, it is often (though not always) the presidents who are commonly judged worst who are in fact the best, and vice versa.