Rating America’s Presidents

There’s a new book coming out, and it’s quite a treat: Rating America’s Presidents. The author, Robert Spencer, wrote the magisterial History of Jihad and many other books on Islam. A ranking of the U.S. presidents is outside his usual area, but he does a very good job where most others fail. Of the countless president rankings flooding the market, there has been only one that I find useful: Recarving Rushmore by Ivan Eland. Spencer’s book is now a second helpful remedy to the established mainstream views of which presidents were good and bad and somewhere in-between.

Mainstream historians tend to favor presidents who were (a) charismatics, (b) goal-oriented “managers”, (c) foreign interventionists, (d) big-government statists, and (e) globalists. Call these biases the (a) charisma bias, the (b) effectiveness bias, and the (c-d-e) activist biases. I’ve said this many times before: Just because a leader is charismatic and can move you with speeches, doesn’t say anything about his policies and how good he was for the American people. That he accomplished his goals says nothing about how good those goals were. (James Polk and Lyndon Johnson were the two most effective presidents in history; they were also bad ones.) That he intervened militarily abroad, economically at home, and meddled in worldly affairs are just as likely bad signs as good ones, and usually more bad; it’s precisely when presidents “do too much”, instead of showing executive restraint, that America (and other nations) end up suffering for it.

Seriously: On the basis of charisma, effectiveness, and activism, some of the worst leaders in history would have to be pronounced great, not least Adolf Hitler. These are lousy criteria to judge our chief executives, and yet most everyone uses them, consciously or not. Human beings are suckers for charisma; we feel the pull of magnetically persuasive leaders like FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama (charismatics are usually Democrats, for whatever reason). We also like to focus on a president’s effectiveness (in achieving his goals, no matter what those goals are), because it allows us the illusion of neutrality, and to abstain from judgment and keep our politics private; but we can’t be apolitical in evaluating politicians. We have to get our hands dirty for the exercise to mean anything. Spencer’s cards, refreshingly, are all on the table. In his introduction he writes:

New criteria are needed—or more precisely, old criteria. In fact, what is needed is the oldest criterion of all for judging the success and failure of various presidents: were they good for America and Americans, or were they not?… What makes a great president is one who preserved, protected, and defended the Constitution of the United States. Or to put it even more simply, a great president is one who put America first.

The idea that all responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens primarily, rather than those of the world at large, has been out of fashion since World War II, and in many ways since World War I. It has been mislabeled, derided, and dismissed as ‘isolationism,’ a fear or unwillingness to engage with the wider world, even as it is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent. But it does not necessarily mean that America will withdraw from the world; it only means that in dealing with the world, American presidents will be looking out primarily for the good of Americans.

The term America First has also been associated, quite unfairly, with racism and anti-Semitism. The founding principles of the republic, notably the proposition that, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, ‘all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,’ shows that putting America First has nothing to do with such petty and irrational hatreds.

That will therefore be the principal criterion of the evaluations of the presidents in this book: Did he put America first? Was he good for Americans? Or did he leave us in a worse, poorer, more precarious, or more dangerous position than we were in before he assumed office?

Indeed, an “America First” criteria would seem so obvious, and I tend to frame that issue in the way Ivan Eland does in Recarving Rushmore. Presidents should be judged by what they did for the American causes of peace (foreign policy), prosperity (domestic policy), and liberty (freedom). After all, those are what most Americans want from life: to live in peace, to prosper, and to enjoy freedom. Though Spencer doesn’t spell out his criteria this way, they emerge implicitly in his assessments.

His grading scale is as follows. (There are no presidents who get a ‘3’ rating, so I’m not sure what that descriptor would be.)

10 – Great for America
9 — Very good for America
8 — Very good for America
7 — Good for America, but also did some harm
6 — Did good things for America, but also significant damage
5 — Did little good for America, but not much damage
4 — Harmful for America, but did some good
3 — ?
2 — Very damaging for America
1 — Disastrous for America
0 — Disastrous for America

To compare Spencer’s ratings with mine: In my blog series I graded the presidents on a scale of 0-60, but here I translate those scores into Spencer’s 0-10 scale. In most cases (26 presidents), our scores differ by 2 or less, usually boiling down to minor quibbles. For the other 14 presidents, our scores differ by 3 or more, but of those 14, only 6 represent dramatic disagreements: Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford Hayes, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump. Spencer scores Jackson, Lincoln, and Trump very high, where I score them quite low. Spencer scores Hayes, Carter, and Clinton very low, where I score them high. So on whole, Spencer and I agree quite a bit about what makes a good and bad president.

Here’s how it breaks down. I provide commentary for all the presidents where our scores differ by 3 or more, and also in a few cases where we closely agree, starting with Washington.

George Washington

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 9

— Everyone loves Washington, but often for superficial reasons, or just because he was the first president. As Spencer says, “the histories of the nations of the world are full of first chief executives who were not and never could be the political and moral exemplars of what the occupants of their office should be”. Washington did many good things — not least recommending the Bill of Rights — but his most important act often goes overlooked. Spencer highlights it:

“The importance of Washington’s voluntarily leaving office cannot be overstated. It was a sign of a certain degeneration of the American body politic that what had been a virtue and a hallmark of honest republican government, a voluntary safeguard against dynasties and demagogues, became a legal requirement, an element of morality that had to be legislated. Today, when the nation’s wealthiest areas are concentrated around Washington, DC, and congressmen and senators cling to power for decades if they can, often becoming millionaires in the process and creating their own private fiefdoms, the nation could benefit greatly from a few public servants who actually lived up to that term, and emulated Washington in relinquishing power instead of staying in office as long as they possibly can, more for their own benefit than anyone else’s.”

In other words, George Washington refused to become a king — something he could have easily done. Relinquishing the presidency is, I believe, one of the most important things a president has ever done in his capacity as president. For voluntarily establishing this precedent we owe Washington a great debt.

John Adams

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 3

Thomas Jefferson

Spencer — 7
Rosson — 7

— Jefferson has been a tough one for me to crack. Judged by most of his first term, he deserves a high 9. Judged by his second term he earns about a 4. Of course, his pre-presidential legacy — the Declaration of Independence — makes him one of the most important founding fathers. But a ranking of the presidents should be based exclusively on what the man did as president; the Declaration of Independence is really irrelevant here.

Indeed, according to Spencer, “without his illustrious pre-presidential record, Jefferson might have been compared unfavorably to other occupants of the White House” and never been carved on Mount Rushmore. I think Jefferson is a class-A example of the Peter Principle — that people who are promoted for their accomplishments at lower-level jobs fall short at higher level ones. Still, Jefferson’s first term was pretty solid; he began as a glowing model of executive restraint. He turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, especially in suppressing free speech. He avoided wars except a defensive one that was necessary, reversing Adams’ policy of paying tribute to Islamic jihadists who were terrorizing Americans for no good reason. Jefferson’s smashing of the Barbary pirates resulted in the first triumphant American victory over unprovoked jihad terror. He reduced the federal debt from 80 to 57 million. All very good.

But as Spencer notes, Jefferson then

“effaced his good work and threw a wrench into the American economy in 1807 with the Embargo Act. He vastly overestimated the importance of American products to Britain and France, and thereby did damage to the American economy that took years to repair. Even worse, in enforcing the Act, Jefferson abandoned his long-held principle of a limited federal government, becoming instead a strong advocate of centralization”.

Jefferson failed to hold true to his republican philosophy of limited government. He violated civil liberties under the Embargo Act, using oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. Jefferson had been the hero who had ended the Alien and Sedition Acts and the persecution of free speech under John Adams — freeing those who had been imprisoned for speaking their minds — but now he was the executive villain flouting the Fourth Amendment. The American people starved thanks to the embargo. Farmers couldn’t export their crops. Urban industrial workers, sailors and artisans lost their jobs. Jefferson also assaulted the judiciary system, by trying to get judges impeached for purely political reasons. All very bad.

“All in all,” says Spencer, “the strict constructionist Jefferson became one of the most activist of presidents” — and this is why I wasn’t sure how to rate him. In the end, I scored him 42/60, which translates into Spencer’s own 7/10, because I think the good eclipses the bad. He also made the Louisiana Purchase, which allowed America to become a great power. So I think Spencer gets Jefferson right.

James Madison

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 5

— To me, Madison is like Jefferson, another example of the Peter Principle. His blueprint of the Constitution makes him one of the most important founding fathers, but as a president he wasn’t so towering. He took the new and weak nation into an avoidable war with Britain, and because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in history, aside from 9/11. Washington DC was burned, and when the War of 1812 was over, little had been solved. Madison basically failed as commander in chief. But Spencer is right that he did some good things too, which scores him 5.

James Monroe

Spencer — 7
Rosson — 8

John Quincy Adams

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 7

Andrew Jackson

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 3

— Jackson represents our first real point of disagreement, and a wide one at that. Spencer mounts an interesting defense of the spoils system, noting that while the term is today synonymous with government corruption, “Jackson began it as a blow against corruption, preventing the establishment of an entrenched bureaucracy that would oppose the president”, and indeed that “the administration of Donald Trump has made it clear that such a bureaucracy determined to thwart the president at every turn is a genuine concern; it is time for a reconsideration of the spoils system”. I believe, however, that it is hard to overstate the cost to Jackson’s dismantling of elitist networks. The price was amateurism in civil service, and a system of patronage bestowing entirely unearned privileges.

I rank Jackson low for many reasons, one of them being that he was the first active pro-slavery president. There were presidents before him who happened to own slaves, of course, as was standard, and some of them not even liking the practice. Jackson was the first president to crusade for the actual cause of slavery. When abolitionists started sending anti-slavery mailings into the south in early 1835, Jackson’s postmaster general, Amos Kendall, allowed them to be burned. When Jackson learned of the anti-slavery mailings, he wanted the abolitionists blacklisted — their names recorded in newspapers — and attacked free speech and the press by recommending that Congress pass an act prohibiting abolitionist papers in the south. Then he rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal.

Then of course were the Indians. Spencer acknowledges the downside of Jackson’s Indian policy:

“In May 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act that made this recommendation the law of the land. This is today considered to be one of the black marks on his presidency and a shameful period in the history of the United States. This is a reasonable judgment, as this policy amounted to penalizing all Indians for the misdeeds of Indian warriors, and it led to untold suffering.”

But I docked Jackson much more for his treatments of the Native Americans, as they were extremely severe. Also, Jackson’s defiance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Cherokee Nation v Georgia was an impeachable offense. Like Spencer, I’m not big on impeachment (presidential impeachment attempts have often been groundless), but defying a Supreme Court decision is unquestionably an impeachable offense.

Spencer applauds Jackson for using force against South Carolina in the nullification crisis, as it made the point that “the United States was one nation, not a compact of many, and the central government had the right and the authority to pass laws and enforce them.” I agree that Jackson had the Constitutional right to use force against South Carolina, but he was a hypocrite for doing so, because he had always in the past sympathized with states rights to nullify. For example (to use the Cherokee incident again), the state of Georgia had years before nullified the federal treaty with the Cherokees and passed legislation to abolish Cherokee laws and government. Jackson was perfectly fine with Georgia’s nullification in this case, though he shouldn’t have been. Even on the assumption that nullification is a valid principle (which it isn’t), a state can only nullify what applies to its sphere of control. It cannot nullify Indian laws, because the Indians had been granted sovereignty by federal treaties, and the U.S. has the right to enter into treaties with Indians.

In other words, Jackson gave the finger to the Supreme Court — the highest authority in the land — in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties, which is plainly wrong. And yet when confronted by a rebellious South Carolina, he was making sweeping claims that nullification was wrong, period. His stated reason was that “nullification amounts to an assault on the foundations of democratic government”. That’s actually right, but Jackson never believed that in the past, and he almost certainly didn’t have a real change of heart now. He was only using force against South Carolina out of personal hatred for his vice president John Calhoun, whom he despised for perceived disloyalty.

I agree with Spencer that Jackson must be given serious credit for killing the national bank. Spencer writes: “Jackson’s opposition to the Bank destroyed the power of a moneyed elite that was manipulating politicians for its own ends. His example is salutary and instructive in an age when people of modest means get elected to Congress and walk away millionaires a few years later.” However, as with the nullification crisis in South Carolina, Jackson opposed the bank for the wrong reasons — to settle personal scores, in this case with his arch-enemy Henry Clay. Jackson had actually supported the national bank when he was Senator from Tennessee in 1823-1825, and only started turning against it when its branches in Kentucky (Henry Clay’s state) and Louisiana funneled funds to John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election campaign. But the end result is what matters most, regardless of his bad motives, and so I do give Jackson significant credit for vetoing the bank.

However, the way Jackson went about killing the bank was awful, and contributed to the Panic of 1837 — the worst depression in American history until the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Basically Jackson removed all federal funds from the bank and redistributed them to various state banks that were loyal to him. By flooding the economy with a massive surplus, he caused runaway inflation. The amount of paper money in circulation increased dramatically. Jackson then tried to dam the effect by putting through some hard money policies over the next two years, but they were counter-productive: by requiring that all government land sales needed to be done with gold or silver (in 1836), the market soon crashed.

On another plus side, Jackson did wipe out the national debt, and Spencer is right that this “set an example of fiscal responsibility that has been forgotten in our enlightened age”, and so Jackson deserves credit for that. But for me, Jackson’s bad policies (the spoils system, Indian removal, pro-slavery activism, dispersing funds to pet banks and flooding the economy with federal surplus) far outweigh his good ones.

Martin Van Buren

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 4

William Henry Harrison

Spencer — [not rated]
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

John Tyler

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 9

— Since John Tyler is my #1 president, I was glad to see Spencer rate him highly. Tyler’s two vetoes of bills that would have rechartered the Bank of the United States “saved America from the tyranny of an unelected elite class with the power to manipulate the political process”. Tyler’s support of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty “was statesmanlike, for it helped calm the relationship between the former colonies and their mother country and set the two nations on the path to a lasting alliance. The ban on the transatlantic slave trade was far-seeing coming from a slave-owning Southerner.” His humane policy toward the Indians was also exceptional for a president during these times. And in the treaty with China, says Spencer, “Tyler was operating on the principle of America First, opening up new trade possibilities without committing the nation to what could have proved to be a costly political alliance.” For these reasons and many more, I believe John Tyler was the best American president.

James Polk

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 4

Zachary Taylor

Spencer — 5
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

Millard Fillmore

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 7

Franklin Pierce

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 4

— I agree with the reasons Spencer grades Pierce so low. He was a doughface (a northerner who sympathized with the southern cause) who signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, accommodated pro-slavery forces who made that territory a battleground — and the real ignition of the Civil War: “Bleeding Kansas was appalling enough in itself, as was Pierce’s inability to bring the violence to a halt. But for abolitionists, presidential perfidy compounded presidential impotence. There are two kinds of failed presidents: those who were effective in imposing unwise and destructive policies upon the country, and those who failed to deal adequately with a crisis, thus making it even worse. Pierce managed to be both.”

Quite right, but I had to upgrade Pierce considerably for his fiscal prudence. He paid down the national debt by a whopping 83%. That’s not a trivial point; Spencer gave Andrew Jackson loads of credit for the same thing, so scoring Pierce a rock-bottom rating seems inconsistent. Also, Pierce got rid of tariffs on products traded between America and Canada, which I take as a good thing. (Spencer favors tariffs, which is a point of difference between us).

James Buchanan

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 1

Abraham Lincoln

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 3

Andrew Johnson

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 5

Ulysses Grant

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 5

Rutherford Hayes

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 9

— My most dramatic disagreement with Spencer lies in the run of presidents between Lincoln and Hayes, and the question of the Civil War and the Reconstruction.

First Lincoln: Many take-downs of him are the products of southern/Confederate revisionism, and I have no use for that nonsense, but there are very good reasons to criticize Lincoln, not least because the Civil War was unnecessary.

(1) If Lincoln had wanted to preserve the union above all (which he did, as Spencer rightly notes, being a pragmatist), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. The cost of this kind of emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the obscene cost of human lives, which by the end of the Civil War totaled 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans.

(2) Alternatively, Lincoln could have simply let the southern states go, and gotten Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery. This alternative wouldn’t have preserved the union, but it would have been a better solution, in my view, than the Civil War.

Either option (the first being the better one) would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of Jim Crow laws and terrorist organizations like the KKK. After the war and the Reconstruction efforts, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln and Grant curiously ignore. The North’s war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try nation-building strategies (“building democracy”), like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good. I’m a bit surprised at Spencer’s defense of Grant and censure of Hayes in this light, because in his many writings (his books, on Jihad Watch, etc., and also in this book on the presidents), he rightly criticizes nation-building strategies as vain and counterproductive; that’s what the Reconstruction was.

I endorse warfare and military action when it is necessary (like Thomas Jefferson’s smashing of the Barbary jihadists, Harry Truman’s dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, and Donald Trump’s strike against Soleimani), but not when it can be avoided, and the Civil War could have been easily avoided. Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even backwater Mexico had ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too — without resorting to warfare.

Lincoln showed his contempt for the First Amendment by arresting journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and throwing them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. (The only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech were John Adams and Woodrow Wilson.) Lincoln also suspended habeas corpus. (The only other president who ever did that was George W. Bush.)

Spencer defends Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus as follows:

“Lincoln ordered the suspension of habeas corpus in the areas of Maryland where the fervor to join the Confederacy was strongest. The Constitution gave Congress the authority to suspend habeas corpus ‘in cases of Rebellion or Invasion,’ but Congress was not in session at the time. Lincoln justified his action by arguing that time was of the essence, and only the president could act quickly, in his role as commander in chief of the armed forces, to preserve the Union in this time of large-scale insurrection.

Lincoln was called a dictator and a tyrant for this. Yet he had not seized powers that were not in the Constitution; he had assumed, in a time of crisis, powers that the Constitution delegated to Congress. Congress later ratified his actions. That he had no intention of becoming the dictator and tyrant that his detractors accused him of being was clear from the many things he did not do that characterized the behavior of real dictators: he did not suspend habeas corpus indefinitely or universally; he did not profit personally from his actions; he did not issue a sweeping decree abolishing slavery in the Union, but instead asked Congress for a constitutional amendment that would phase slavery out extremely gradually, ending with the institution’s extinction in 1900.”

But Chief Justice Robert Taney ruled that it was in fact only congress, not the president, who had the authority to suspend habeas corpus during wartime. Lincoln ignored the highest authority in the land and did as he pleased (in this sense Lincoln was like Andrew Jackson). For that matter, Lincoln created military tribunals to try civilians who had discouraged people from enlisting in union armies. The Constitution guarantees a jury trial for civilians, and these civilians were simply exercising their free speech rights.

After the Civil War was over in 1866, the Supreme Court rejected Lincoln’s argument that as commander in chief he held emergency powers during wartime that were outside the law or the Constitution. “Time being of the essence” is simply no warrant for the chief executive suspending a basic civil right. The point is larger in any case: habeas corpus shouldn’t have been suspended at all, whether by congress or the president. The writ of habeas corpus gives people the right to challenge their detention when they are jailed, and that is a fundamental right in a republic.

In sum, while it’s true that Lincoln had the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what southern revisionists today claim), I don’t believe he should have exercised this right with the better options available.

For Johnson and Grant: They each get a scoring of 5 from me, for different reasons, but the best thing about them was what they did for economic growth and fighting inflation. (Along with James Monroe and Warren Harding, they comprise the “Fiscal Mount Rushmore”, in the opinion of some conservative analysts.) And yes to Spencer’s point about Johnson’s impeachment, which was outrageous and precedent setting. I also agree with Spencer that Johnson was reprehensible in his view of African Americans, and that Grant’s heart was more in the right place. But in evaluating the presidents, it is results that matter more than intentions.

The Republicans were right that a northern presence was needed in the South — someone had to make sure that African Americans were integrated properly and their voting rights established, and Johnson was no help there. Johnson opposed slavery but didn’t care a whit about improving things for the blacks in any meaningful way. But Johnson was right (as Lincoln had been) that a military presence (i.e. nation-building) was a terrible idea. “Building democracy” at gunpoint always fails; it’s why the South won the peace.

What was needed was something between Lincoln and Johnson’s excessively benevolent attitude to the South, and the severity of Republican Reconstructionism, a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash (KKK, Jim Crow) against African Americans.

Finally, Rutherford Hayes, whom I judge an excellent president: I believe he was correct to end Reconstruction in the South, in the same way that Donald Trump was right to end the Bush-Obama quagmires and nation-building strategies in the Middle East. In Spencer’s chapter on Hayes, he says that the chronology doesn’t bear out the claim that Reconstruction gave rise to the KKK, because the KKK was founded in December of 1865. But the Klan began on that Christmas Eve in 1865 as a social club. It was only after the harsh military occupation began in 1867 that the organization evolved into something else. From 1868-72 it became the band of terrorists we think of today, precisely in backlash against northern militancy.

So obviously this segment of presidential history, from Lincoln to Hayes, is where Spencer and I disagree most.

James Garfield

Spencer — 5
Rosson — [not rated; served less than a 2-year term]

Chester Arthur

Spencer — 8
Rosson — 9

Grover Cleveland

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 5

Benjamin Harrison

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

William McKinley

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 4

Theodore Roosevelt

Spencer — 4
Rosson — 3

William Howard Taft

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Woodrow Wilson

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 0

— Worth noting is that I believe Woodrow Wilson was the absolute worst president ever. He’s the only one I give a rating of zero. Spencer dishes out quite a few zeroes (Buchanan, Wilson, Hoover, Carter, Clinton, Obama), but I’m glad he slices down Wilson with an especially nasty razor. He concludes: “Wilson was president of the world more than he was president of the United States. Consequently, his presidency was an unmitigated disaster for the country he had been elected to govern.” Indeed, there was no president more catastrophically interventionist, domestically pernicious, and having such utter contempt for African Americans, free speech, and liberty in general than Woodrow Wilson.

Warren Harding

Spencer — 9
Rosson — 9

— Warren Harding is my #2 president, but like John Tyler has been incredibly maligned in mainstream opinion. Spencer gets him right: “About the only things that Americans today remember about Harding, if they remember anything at all, are that he had a mistress, his presidency was engulfed in scandal, and he was out of his depth as president, winning the election only because he was handsome and women had just been given the right to vote.” But moral rectitude isn’t a constitutional duty, and the Teapot Dome scandal has been way overblown.

In fact Harding had a near perfect policy record. He reversed nearly all of Woodrow Wilson’s toxic policies. He rejected the League of Nations and brought the nation under a consistently applied military restraint. He got the economy booming, with policies that ushered in the Roaring Twenties — a time of immense prosperity. He campaigned in the south for African Americans, gave them jobs in federal government (and high positions), urged the passage of anti-lynching legislation, appointing liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices, and pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly criminalized by Wilson for speaking against World War I.

Honestly, what was not good about Harding? As Spencer says, “The country was much better off with the simple and humble Harding in the White House than it was when the renowned intellectual and crusader for civilization (Woodrow Wilson) was there. Harding’s presidency deserves an honest reassessment, but that is unlikely to happen given the fact that most historians today share Wilson’s messianic globalism and visions of massive state control.”

To be fair, there are some mainstream historians who do Harding justice, like James Robenalt, who, writing for the Washington Post, says that our obsession with Harding’s sex life and corrupt underlings have obscured the plain truth: that the man was a damn good president. But historians like Robenalt are few and far between. It is time, as I said in my piece on Harding, to let the real Warren Harding take his place among the nation’s greatest presidents, and Spencer does just that.

Calvin Coolidge

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 8

— Again, as with the above two, we agree closely, but it’s worth some commentary give that Coolidge is one of the four presidents Spencer puts on Mount Rushmore. Like Harding, Coolidge was a model president —

“– a lifelong opponent of the now-fashionable idea that it is the government’s responsibility to ensure not just equality of access to services and opportunities, but equality of outcomes despite difference in individual interests, abilities, and aptitudes. Said Coolidge: ‘Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.’ Indeed. The history of totalitarian regimes throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries shows Coolidge to have been correct: state-enforced egalitarianism is not actually good for everybody, or anybody; it only makes everyone poor, with the exception of the elites that hold political power, and creates a gargantuan government that oppresses its own people.”

Quite true. And also like Harding, Coolidge wisely rejected the League of Nations, not because he was an “isolationist”, but simply to protect American sovereignty and to avoid being involved in ongoing warfare. Like Harding again, he was fiscally prudent, and kept the economy booming and the Roaring Twenties roaring along.

I dock Coolidge a couple of points, however, because for all his fiscal prudence he did expand the money supply, which contributed to the stock market crash on Black Tuesday. However, it is incorrect to say — as many historians insist on saying — that Coolidge “caused” the Great Depression. Coolidge helped, rather, to cause the initial economic downturn of 1929-31, which was just a typical recession, and indeed much less severe than the recession Woodrow Wilson dumped in Warren Harding’s lap back in ’21. The recession of ’29-’31 devolved into the Great Depression — and lasted all the way through the ’30s and up to World War II — not because of anything Coolidge did or didn’t do, but because his successors Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t allow market forces to naturally restore equilibrium. It was these two presidents who deepened, exacerbated, and prolonged the situation, and created the Great Depression.

It’s an important point, because Roosevelt is lionized as a near saint (he was anything but), and is often given credit for pulling America out of the Depression (he did the opposite), with all the blame being transferred to Coolidge. That’s a gross misreading of history. Spencer reads the history right.

Herbert Hoover

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 5

— Sort of like with Pierce, I agree with most of the reasons why Spencer rates him low, but on foreign policy he was as non-interventionist as his predecessors Harding and Coolidge. So while Hoover was bad overall, I think a bottom-of-the-barrel score is too harsh.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 3

— We agree closely here, but FDR deserves comment, given that most historians rank him as one of the greatest of the greats. He was in fact one of the worst. The great myth is that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, FDR lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression with most of his New Deal policies, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president. Spencer crucifies FDR as he deserves.

Harry Truman

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 8

— Interestingly, Truman is the highest ranking Democrat (in the 20th-21st centuries) for both of us. No modern Democrat scores higher than 6 for Spencer, nor higher than 8 for me.

Dwight Eisenhower

Spencer — 6
Rosson — 8

John F. Kennedy

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Lyndon Johnson

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 3

— For me, the Civil Rights Bill keeps LBJ out of the lowest cellar.

Richard Nixon

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 4

Gerald Ford

Spencer — 5
Rosson — 6

Jimmy Carter

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 7

— A wide chasm here. I agree with most of Spencer’s critique of Carter’s foreign policy, but in other ways Carter shined. I believe he was the last good president.

Ronald Reagan

Spencer — 9
Rosson — 6

— For Reagan, I agree with much of Spencer’s critique: Reagan escalated the drug war; in Afghanistan and Pakistan he funded jihadists to fight the invading Soviets; he cut taxes without cutting federal spending. On the last point in particular, Reagan aspired to be like Coolidge (and Harding) but came up a bit short. But since Spencer agrees that these are Reagan’s faults, his rating of “9” seems way too generous.

Our major disagreement has to do with who gets credit for ending the Cold War, to which I say no one person. I don’t think Reagan deserves any more credit for this than Gorbachev or the pope, because the Soviet Union collapsed from overextending itself and its bad economy. The handwriting was on the wall as early as the ’60s, and by the ’80s the nation was practically a Third-World status. Communism is an inherently 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, and this was something Eisenhower understood — that possessions, not weapons, would win the Cold War. Communism made people poor and kept them poor forever, eating its own tail. 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.) Also revealing are the statements of 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 other countries.

Reagan does deserve more credit than I ever gave him back in the ’80s, and Spencer is right that he should be commended (instead of excoriated) for being willing to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that enslaved its people in a system of poverty and despair. In my college years (’87-’91) saying that communism was an evil or dysfunctional system was like saying today that Islam is a religion of violence; both statements should be non-controversial. And while Reagan did engage in needless military excursions (like Libya and Grenada) he didn’t engage in Wilsonian attempts to police the globe with lasting military presences on the ground (like H.W. Bush, W. Bush, and Obama). Compared to most of his successors, Reagan was surprisingly moderate interventionist; he kept us from being bogged down in an equivalent of the Southeast Asian fiascos of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the Middle-East fiascos of the two Bushes and Obama, that drained the American economy and got vast numbers of peoples killed for no good reason.

George H.W. Bush

Spencer — 2
Rosson — 5

— Spencer and I agree that the Elder Bush’s foreign policy ventures were disastrous (Iraq, Panama), and that Bush resurrected Wilsonian interventionism for sake of making America the world police. By planting permanent troops in the Middle-East (for no good reason; Saddam posed no threat to the U.S., and as Spencer notes, Bush seemed more interested in serving the United Nations rather than the United States), he initiated a chain of events that we’re still reaping the consequences of today.

But I believe that Bush’s tax-raising strategies, against the wishes of his own constituency, speak for rather against him, in the same way that (1) John Tyler’s killing the bank angered his own Whig party, (2) Chester Arthur’s civil service reform angered his own Stalwart Republican base, and (3) Jimmy Carter’s fighting inflation over unemployment made the Democrats turn on him. In all these cases, the chief executives did what was best for the country rather than cater to their constituencies, and it cost them each a second term. Doing the right thing entails a price. And the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act went a way toward deficit reduction, which had ballooned under Reagan, so this is also a plus for Bush in my view. Then too, he was a free trade advocate (unlike Reagan and the Younger Bush, who supported tariffs), which I also applaud, but Spencer does not.

Where I believe that Bush failed domestically was in his bank bailout. Instead of taking the free market approach of allowing the savings and loan banks to go broke (as Harding and Coolidge would have done), he approved the largest federal bailout in all of American history — the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989 — costing the government $300 billion over ten years.

Spencer and I also agree about Bush’s escalation of the drug war (bad) and his appointment of Justice Clarence Thomas (good).

Bill Clinton

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 7

— I was surprised by Spencer’s goose-egg.  It’s true that Clinton left much to be desired foreign-policy wise. He backed the worst side in the Serbian War (Kosovo), which he shouldn’t have gotten involved with in any case, on any side. Somalia was unnecessary. Etc., etc.

But he deserves immense credit for the ’90s prosperity. He reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and kept the Federal Reserve on tight money policies. He slashed federal spending and turned a huge deficit from the Reagan and Bush eras into surplus. If this trend of budget surpluses had continued, all national debt would have been liquidated by 2013. (The Younger Bush and Obama would kill this streak with nation-building wars and fiscally toxic bailout/stimulus packages.)

Also like Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, Clinton was the fourth (and last) president of the 20th-21st centuries who reduced federal spending as a portion of GDP. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He also encouraged the lower classes to work, by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, which lowered taxes for those just above poverty line, thus encouraging them to keep working instead of going on welfare. The result of his welfare reforms was low unemployment (the lowest in thirty years), sinking poverty rates, and contracting welfare rolls. He may have initially opposed some of these efforts, as Spencer says, but he supported others, and the bills that the Republican congress passed he signed.

Much as I dislike the Clinton dynasty, I have to give Bill loads of credit for the ’90s prosperity.

George W. Bush

Spencer — 1
Rosson — 1

Barack Obama

Spencer — 0
Rosson — 3

— Not much to dispute here; I agree with almost everything Spencer says in blasting Obama. But I do give Obama points for some positive environmental achievements; unlike Bush, Obama never suspended habeas corpus; he stopped torture overseas and made a couple of moves for gay rights. But aside from that, he was essentially George W the Second.

Donald Trump [from January 2017- February 2020]

Spencer — 10
Rosson — 2

— A huge chasm here. Spencer’s chapter on Trump will probably draw the most attention, as it puts Trump on Mount Rushmore (along with Washington, Lincoln, and Coolidge, the other presidents whom Spencer scores a rating of 10). [Note: The following analysis covers Trump’s policy record up through February 2020, since that’s when Spencer’s book was submitted to the press.]

I give Donald Trump due credit: He kept America out of war and put an end to the vain, costly, and counterproductive nation-building strategies of Bush and Obama, which had made things worse in the Mid-East and indeed for the world. He knew when to strike appropriately (against Soleimani), and he commendably withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Deal. He appointed Neil Gorsuch, currently the best Supreme Court justice (no points for Kavanagh though), and since the Supreme Court is a big issue for me, that’s a huge score. He did other things that I applaud, which have been wrongly decried by the left. As Spencer notes, he rightly upheld the law passed by Congress in 1995, which stated that Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the state of Israel. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Israel should be treated no differently. They’ve controlled the city of Jerusalem since ’67, and if they want to make that their capital (which they did in 1980), no one can properly gainsay them. I also applaud Trump’s removal of the individual mandate in Obamacare provision that forced people to buy health insurance and fined them if they didn’t.

Trump’s tax cuts, however, were a mixed bag — not as bad as some have claimed, at least in principle, but again (as per Reagan), tax cuts mean nothing without cuts in federal spending. Trump has deficit spent to kingdom come. It’s puzzling to me when self-avowed fiscal conservatives (like Spencer) make tax-cutting a priority, but then overlook unobtrusive tax increases and massive federal spending. Trump was known as the King of Debt during his business career, and he’s even less an old-school Republican than Reagan was. Eisenhower was the last really good Republican in the mold of Harding and Coolidge. After him, no Republican president has cut federal spending as a portion of U.S. economic output (though the Democrat Bill Clinton did, and yet Spencer scores him a 0).

Like Reagan’s tax cuts, Trump’s could have been a very good thing — if he had cut federal spending significantly and if he had substantially paid down the the trillions of dollars of national debt. Only four presidents in the 20th-21st centuries did this when they cut taxes: Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and (the surprising Democrat) Clinton.

Spencer and I disagree about tariffs and free trade, and so naturally I think Trump fails on this point for the reasons Spencer applauds him. Trump called the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the worst trade deal ever made, where I think it was one of the best. Tariffs put American businesses first, rather than America first. They protect businessmen but are ultimately bad for free trade, as tariffs (a) increase the prices of imports to consumers and decrease their buying power, and (b) also cause U.S. exports to decline as other countries retaliate with tariffs of their own.

And we disagree on other things. While I do consider the Muslim travel suspensions Constitutional (and rightly upheld by the Supreme Court), I also thought they were needless and toothless, since Saudi Arabia wasn’t included in the blacklist. Other bad policies include the wall along the Mexican border, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has been no friend of the Native Indians, nor a friend of something so basic as clean water. He fired the Pandemic Response Team. He has undermined institutions by appointing leaders whose agendas oppose their mandate — the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the EPA, etc.  

Spencer’s claim that Trump’s presidency shows the need to resurrect Andrew Jackson’s spoils system as a means of civil service reform will surely be his most controversial one. I acknowledge that a president should have the right to fire or dismiss cabinet members (or anyone that he appoints) at will if he feels he can’t trust them for any reason, but I don’t think that right should extend to firing just any officers or career civil servants or special prosecutors, etc. The civil service reform under Chester Arthur (the Pendleton Act of 1883) is one of the most important landmarks in U.S. history. Frankly I never dreamed that I’d read an argument that it should be overthrown in favor of Jacksonian spoils. Spencer advocates the spoils system particularly on account of the “deep state” opposition to Trump:

“Trump encountered an entrenched coterie of bureaucrats at all levels who were determined to thwart his every move. While the media dismissed talk of a ‘deep state’ as a conspiracy theory, the New York Times admitted its existence on September 5, 2018, when it published an anonymous op-ed that proclaimed: ‘I work for the president but like-minded colleagues and I have vowed to thwart parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.’ The Times elaborated on these foes of Trump within his own administration in October 2019: ‘President Trump is right: The deep state is alive and well. But it is not the sinister, antidemocratic cabal of his fever dreams. It is, rather, a collection of patriotic public servants — career diplomats, scientists, intelligence officers and others — who, from within the bowels of this corrupt and corrupting administration, have somehow remembered that their duty is to protect the interests, not of a particular leader, but of the American people.’

Obama’s CIA director John Brennan also all but admitted its existence in October 2019, when he tweeted: ‘As in previous times of national peril, we rely on our military, diplomats, intelligence officials, law enforcement officers, & other courageous patriots to protect our liberties, freedom, & democracy.’ In this case, however, the diplomats, intelligence officials, and law enforcement officers in question were not protecting the nation from foreign enemies, but from what they considered to be the misguided policies of the man whom they were supposed to be serving, the president of the United States.

While this sounded high-minded, there is no doubt whatsoever that the New York Times and Brennan would have taken the opposite position if the federal bureaucracy had dared interfere with the Obama agenda.”

Spencer also dismisses Russiagate (Russia hacked the election US election; Trump and Russia colluded to defeat the Democrats) as a political farce:

“The apex of the deep state coup was the Democrats’ attempt to make Trump appear guilty of various misdeeds, which would lead to his impeachment. Before he was inaugurated, he began to be charged with being a tool of Russian president Vladimir Putin and colluding with Russia to fix the 2016 election. Trump agreed to appoint a special counsel, former FBI director Robert Mueller, to investigate this.

After a two-year investigation, Mueller found nothing for which Trump could be impeached. The Democrat-controlled House didn’t give up, however; it then fastened on a phone call Trump had in the summer of 2019 with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming that Trump had threatened to withhold U.S. aid to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to investigate Joe Biden, a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination. The transcript of the call showed this was not the case, Zelensky denied it, and Ukraine received the aid. But the Democrats charged ahead anyway, impeaching Trump on two counts, one of abuse of power for the Ukraine matter and one of obstruction of Congress, which wasn’t a crime in any code of law, for not cooperating with the sham investigation.”

It’s not only conservatives who find no evidence for collusion with Russia. Leftist Trump-haters like Aaron Mate find it baseless as well.

Regardless of the truth of Russiagate, the idea of resurrecting the spoils system is cause for alarm. The point of the Pendleton Act of 1883 is that civil servants should be serving society rather than parties. Whether they do a good job of that or not during a particular presidency doesn’t affect the necessity for such a system. But despite my disagreement with Spencer, I respect his reasoning. His defense of Trump isn’t the usual alt-right emptiness; it’s a compelling read, whether or not it persuades you.

But the worst danger of the Trump presidency goes unmentioned by Spencer: his unbridled authoritarianism. He has played the boorish king since his presidential campaign, and in the past year has defended his monarchical attitude with startling appeals to the constitution itself. In July 2019, he said that “Article II (of the U.S. Constitution) gives me the right to do whatever I want.” The article in question establishes the powers of the executive branch, as well as the powers of Congress to oversee the presidency. Obviously it doesn’t make the president a king.

More recently, in April 2020 (I realize this happened after Spencer finished writing his book), Trump reaffirmed that “the authority of the U.S. President is total”, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. He believes that he can decide when to lift quarantines and shutdown restrictions imposed by local officials. In fact, it is those same local officials — governors, mayors, and school district heads — who have the power to decide when to lift their own restrictions. There is no legislation that gives the president the power to override states’ public health measures. Trump can order federal employees to return to their offices, and to reopen national parks and other federal property, but he cannot order state, city, and district employees in the way that he imagines.

Trump’s declarations of executive supremacy actually aren’t terribly surprising to those who know American history. Other presidents have believed as Trump does and acted as if they were kings. Teddy Roosevelt — who is undeservedly enshrined on Mount Rushmore — openly flouted the Constitution, and was railroaded by congressmen for having no more use for the Constitution “than a tomcat has use for a marriage license”. The Democrat Woodrow Wilson maintained that it was actually his Constitutional job to do as he damn well pleased — that a president should behave more like a British prime minister, or even a king, than a leader constrained by the American system of checks and balances. Most presidents who have feelings of executive supremacy follow the Wilsonian tactic rather than Roosevelt’s. They at least try to preserve the illusion that they are doing their Constitutional duty, as they really expand their power that the document does not bestow on them. The Teddy Roosevelts and Donald Trumps are just more honest about it.

Verdict

Spencer has written another terrific book, and a very unexpected one given his usual subject matter. Even if I disagree with some of his presidential evaluations (and six in particular), that’s not the important point. Let’s face it, none of us will ever agree 100% with each other in a ranking of all the U.S. presidents. What really matters are the criteria being used to make those evaluations, and this is where mainstream historians have failed us. When Tyler and Harding are always at rock bottom, and FDR always at the pinnacle, there’s a problem. When Arthur and Coolidge are widely dismissed, and Wilson and LBJ are intoned as progressive visionaries, that’s another epic failure in judgment. Spencer exposes these problems acutely. Rating America’s Presidents is a solid guide to get people thinking about how our chief executives should be assessed, and I hope it will be widely read.

Appendix

Here I list Spencer’s rankings, followed by my own, and then also Ivan Eland’s from Recarving Rushmore, for comparative purposes. Interestingly, I have six major disagreements with both Spencer and Eland, but on completely different presidents. Spencer and I disagree on Jackson, Lincoln, Hayes, Carter, Clinton, and Trump. Eland and I disagree on Monroe, Van Buren, Cleveland, Truman, Kennedy, and Reagan. Which means that Spencer and Eland disagree on all those twelve.

All three of us agree on what matters most: the dangers of entangling alliances, the superiority of capitalism and fiscal conservatism, and the importance of American liberty.

Spencer (Mount Rushmore: Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Trump)

10 – Washington, Lincoln, Coolidge, Trump
9 — Harding, Reagan
8 — Jackson, Tyler, Grant, Arthur
7 — Jefferson, Monroe
6 — Van Buren, Cleveland, Truman, Eisenhower,

5 — Madison, Quincy-Adams, Taylor, Fillmore, Garfield, Harrison, Taft, Kennedy, Ford
4 — Adams, Polk, McKinley, T. Roosevelt
3 — [none]
2 — A. Johnson, Hayes, Nixon, H.W. Bush
1 — Pierce, F.D. Roosevelt, L. Johnson, W. Bush
0 — Buchanan, Wilson, Hoover, Carter, Clinton, Obama

Rosson (Mount Rushmore: Washington, Tyler, Hayes, Harding)

9 — Tyler, Harding, Washington, Hayes
8 ½ — Arthur, Monroe
8 — Truman, Eisenhower, Coolidge
7 ½ — Carter, Quincy-Adams,
7 — Fillmore
6 ½ — Jefferson, Clinton, Ford, Kennedy
6 — Reagan, Taft, Harrison
5 ½ — Madison

5 — Hoover, H.W. Bush, A. Johnson, Grant, Cleveland
4 ½ — Nixon, Van Buren
4 — McKinley, Pierce
3 ½ — Polk
3 — T. Roosevelt, Obama, L. Johnson
2 ½ — Adams, F.D. Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jackson, Trump
2 — [none]
1 ½ — [none]
1 — Buchanan
½ — W. Bush
0 — Wilson

Eland (Mount Rushmore: Van Buren, Tyler, Hayes, Cleveland)

10 — Tyler
9 ½ — Cleveland
9 — Van Buren, Hayes
8 ½ — Arthur
8 — Harding, Washington
7 ½ — Carter, Eisenhower, Coolidge
7 — Clinton
6 ½ — Quincy-Adams, Fillmore
6 — Harrison
5 ½ — Ford, A. Johnson, Hoover

5 — Grant, Taft, T. Roosevelt
4 ½ — Adams, Buchanan
4 — Pierce
3 ½ — Monroe, Jefferson, Jackson
3 — Madison, Lincoln
2 ½ — Nixon, F.D. Roosevelt
2 — L. Johnson, H.W. Bush, Obama
1 ½ — Reagan, Kennedy
1 — W. Bush, Polk
½ — McKinley, Truman
0 — Wilson

11 thoughts on “Rating America’s Presidents

  1. Good article with lots of insight. I am almost done with my individual write-ups on the presidents listed here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/

    My rankings are along the lines of these in theory: I only consider what they did as president and rank them based off of the net positive and negative of their terms. My top two, Washington & Eisenhower, largely rank first and second because they made no major mistakes. They served in times of peril: Washington was tasked with holding the fragile republic together in its infancy, Eisenhower with leading the country during a time of nuclear proliferation. My bottom two, Wilson & Jackson, rank as the two worst because they were the most damaging. Wilson gets the bottom spot because he was damaging on a global scale, Jackson was only damaging on a national scale.

    One of the big issues I have with the “expert” rankings not listed here is that they are inconsistent. LBJ gets great credit for civil rights, though you could argue that events were already set on their path before he became president, whereas Grant, Harrison, Harding & Coolidge get no credit what so ever. They also look at the economic failings of Hoover far differently than those of FDR. It seems that many rankers rank presidents on what they want to rank them on. If they like a president they ignore the bad aspects of his term. If they dislike a president they only focus on the bad things.

  2. It seems that many rankers rank presidents on what they want to rank them on. If they like a president they ignore the bad aspects of his term. If they dislike a president they only focus on the bad things.

    Exactly. Even when they like him for irrelevant reasons (especially charisma). It’s very hard to find objective rankings of the presidents. You do a good job of it, and I’m glad to hear your project is nearing completion.

  3. I’m interested to know what your opinions of the more popular presidents who you rate poorly, men like Lincoln and Teddy, what you think of them as people. I personally am a huge admirer of Ulysses Grant as a person despite his admittedly forgettable and unimpressive presidency because I relate to him as a person. I would imagine you are able to separate intelligence and personality from presidential performance. Do you like the presidents that you rate lower, or do you find yourself unable to admire men who you find to be bad presidents?

  4. Interesting question, Nick, and yes, there is no correlation between my assessments of the presidents and my feelings for them as people. For example, I loathe John Quincy Adams as a person; he was proud and sanctimonious in the extreme; but as a president I think he’s underrated. Conversely there’s a lot I like about Lincoln as a person, despite his awful presidency. Teddy I’m not wild about either way, but I agree with you that Grant was an inspiring individual. It would be an interesting exercise, at some point, to list all the “good presidents but bad people” and vice-versa.

  5. I coined the Fiscal Economic Mount Rushmore phrase. It’s based mostly on Vedder & Gallaway’s rankings of the presidents, which they base on the change in federal spending as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP), as well as the rate of inflation during the president’s term(s). V&G rank the top 4:

    1. Harding
    2. Johnson (A)
    3. Grant
    4. Monroe

    See the essay “Rating Presidential performance” in Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom, edited by John V. Denson.

  6. I remember devouring The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents: from Wilson to Obama about eight years ago. Although I knew Spencer would be similar to Stephen Hayward, I was still interested in his ratings, and whilst I could not look at the full book I still find it very interesting to see them.

    There are a few notable differences from Hayward, especially the Bushes. Glancing what I could of Spencer’s book, I find it a contradiction that whilst he discusses Supreme Court appointments from Scalia onwards, Spencer says not one word concerning previous appointments (not even Sandra Day O‘Connor). From a purely Republican perspective, Spencer’s omission of Earl Warren, William Brennan and John Paul Stevens, all Republican appointments excoriated by Hayward, is inconsistent with what he says about David Souter.

    However, if we follow from what RRH Elections says at https://rrhelections.com/index.php/2019/10/31/president-trumps-federal-judges-almost-entirely-a-resounding-success/, it makes extreme sense that Harding be ranked ahead of Coolidge. Harding’s four Supreme Court choices were all solid conservatives, whereas Coolidge’s only nomination, Harlan Stone, was very liberal and possibly saved the New Deal from being declared wholly unconstitutional. If Coolidge had nominated a conservative instead of Harlan Stone, FDR might have had to start the New Deal from scratch. Coolidge’s failure is more galling because it was the last Republican vacancy with a free hand in the Senate until 1981. This failure of Coolidge is inconsistently ignored by Hayward, and entirely omitted from Spencer’s book.

    • You have to realize that Supreme Court Justices weren’t chosen based upon their political leanings until FDR, when he chose only Justices that would support the New Deal. Republicans didn’t really appoint Justices based on politics until Reagan. Democrats try to blame Reagan for politicizing the court, even though it really started with FDR.

      • Actually, Republicans began attempting to systematically appoint Justices on political leanings with Nixon, whose 1968 campaign was extremely critical of liberal (and extremely unpopular) Court decisions like Engel v. Vitale.

        However, between 1968 and 1992 – a period without Democratic appointments to the Court – Democratic control over the Senate meant the most conservative candidates available usually could not be confirmed. There were exceptions like Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas (though there are reasons behind those) , and it is easy to argue that Nixon and Ford could minimally have attempted to confirm more rigorously conservative candidates than Blackmun, Powell and Stevens. In 1981, there existed at least one more conservative woman candidate than O’Connor in District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Sylvia Bacon. Omitting these facts is a definite mistake.

        Since the Republican Revolution, the Federalist Society has de facto controlled Republican appointments to the Supreme Court and the circuit courts. Without this control, it is much harder to be certain that a candidate is what is wanted ideologically and temperamentally suitable for Supreme Court work. Although the control of the Federalist Society is new, outside influence on Supreme Court appointments is not. William O. Douglas – the longest-serving and most left-leaning Court nominee in history – was chosen more by predecessor Louis Brandeis than FDR. In the Harding Administration, the Supreme Court appointments were effectively chosen by William Howard Taft, the sitting Chief Justice.

  7. You could say Nixon tried to appoint a conservative leaning court, but Ford didn’t consider ideology (JFK really didn’t either) which is why I say it started with Reagan, but you do make a good point. One could say that Wilson with Brandeis started the whole thing.

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