The Presidents Ranked in Brief Capsules (Trump Included)

After the 2020 election I decided to bring together my work on the presidents and condense the rankings into short capsules. So here they are, all on one page, with links (from their names) to the full analyses.

In order to qualify being ranked on this list, a president must have served at least two years (half of one term). So I do not rank the following three: William Henry Harrison (9th president, who died after serving only a month), Zachary Taylor (12th president, who died after serving a year and a half), or James Garfield (20th president, who was assassinated after serving six months). That leaves 41 presidents — from the unassailable John Tyler to the excremental Woodrow Wilson. It’s taken years for me to get a handle on evaluating presidents, and well, this is where the road took me.

1. John Tyler. (10th president, 1841-1845, Whig/Independent). Rating: Excellent. Tyler, the “accidental president” who never wanted the job, ended up being the best at it. He (1) ended the Seminole War, the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history, and allowed the Indians to stay on their ancestral land; (2) agreed with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on the high-seas slave trade (and Tyler was a Virginian southerner, no less); (3) vetoed the Third National Bank, against the wishes of his party the Whigs, as most American people didn’t want it (Tyler put the interests of the people above his party, which got him ostracized from the Whigs and cost him the re-election); (4) recognized and protected the Kingdom of Hawaii; (5) peacefully opened up China to free trade, which allowed the U.S. to begin leading in the Asian theater (America’s European rivals would struggle to catch up and get the same commercial and political benefits); and (6) diffused a rebellion in Rhode Island, by letting both sides know their actions could have serious consequences (because of this, the positive outcome was possible — an improvement over the status quo in Rhode Island without more violence). Tyler was a true leader, a Constitutional president, executively restrained, and virtually flawless. The only strike against him is Texas: he had been warned by the Mexicans that annexation would mean war, yet persisted in the face of those warnings, and so bears at least some responsibility for the Mexican War that happened under his successor James Polk.

2. Warren Harding. (29th president, 1921-1923, Republican). Rating: Excellent. He started an economic boom that would last for an entire decade (the “Roaring Twenties”). He was more fiscally austere than most any other president in history, and yet he used government funds to help those in need (like pregnant women and farmers), even in the face of protests about welfare. He cleaned up all of Woodrow Wilson’s damage and reversed Wilson’s racist policies. He campaigned in the south for blacks and gave them jobs in the federal government and high positions. He urged the passing of anti-lynching legislation, and appointed free speech and liberty-conscious Supreme Court justices. He pardoned hundreds of political prisoners who had been unjustly imprisoned under Woodrow Wilson (for simply speaking out against World War I), and kept the nation at peace. His foreign policy was immaculate. Of all the smear campaigns leveled against excellent presidents, none is more astonishing than the one that continues against Warren Harding.

3. George Washington. (1st president, 1789-1797, Federalist). Rating: Excellent. We owe this man a great debt for all he did, especially for recommending the Bill of Rights, and for getting a new Constitutional system through a very rocky stage. Most importantly, he stepped down from office after two terms. He could have easily kept the presidency until he died if he had wanted to; people loved him that much. But he established the important precedent so that America would not become a monarchy. Relinquishing the presidency when he could have kept it is the best and most important thing a president has ever done in his capacity as president. The only reason I rank Washington at #3 instead of #1 is because he bought into the vision of Alexander Hamilton, which carried some long-lasting negative consequences.

4. Rutherford Hayes. (19th president, 1877-1881, Republican). Rating: Excellent. Mark Twain, usually contemptuous of all politicians, pronounced Hayes a great president. Twain was right, but few people appreciate Hayes if they remember his name at all. He ended the military occupation of the south as it needed to be, intervened abroad only when necessary and did it well, pursued outstanding economic and domestic policies, and aside from waffling a bit on immigration, served the cause of liberty extremely well. He defied Congress on behalf of African Americans, Native American Indians, and poor children. He was a model of executive restraint, and thanks to his fiscal austerity presided over one of the highest economic growth periods in the nation’s history. He pledged at the outset to serve only one term, and there hasn’t been a president since who has done this.

5. Chester Arthur. (21st president, 1881-1885, Republican). Rating: Very good. He wisely avoided military intervention, while at the same time rebuilt the navy, since ships had been badly eroded. He went to bat for African Americans when the Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Most importantly, he advocated for and signed the Pendleton Act of 1883, also known as the Civil Service Act, which for the first time allowed government employees to be appointed on the basis of their skills, rather than their party affiliation. They no longer had to contribute money to party elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about new parties in the White House. The Pendleton Act was a landmark, but it alienated Arthur’s Stalwart Republican base and cost him the reelection. (On April 22, 2020, a Trump official stated that the Pendleton Act is unconstitutional, and that all two million federal employees should be Trump loyalists. In other words, Donald Trump tried resurrecting Andrew Jackson’s spoil system of rank amateurism.)

6. James Monroe. (5th president, 1817-1825, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Very good. He presided over the “Era of Good Feelings”, because he kept Americans prosperous and in harmony. This was a much needed kumbaya after the disastrous War of 1812, and before the ascendance of Andrew Jackson’s frontier politics. We need another executive like this today. He founded the Monroe Doctrine, which basically said that America would mind its business unless British or European powers tried encroaching on territory in the new world. That doctrine became perverted in the 20th century (especially under Teddy Roosevelt) to mean the U.S. could intervene over any perceived threat of encroachment, rather than waiting for an actual invasion. But at the start it was a sound doctrine. Monroe also has the honor of being one of the four top-notch presidents for national economic growth (along with Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, and Warren Harding).

7. Harry Truman. (33rd president, 1945-1953, Democrat). Rating: Very good. Much maligned by the woke left and hard-core libertarians, Harry Truman did what was necessary in bringing World War II to a close. Using the atomic bomb saved more lives than it destroyed. He built a national security apparatus, and made it independent of the military. He made America economically great again, after 16 years of depression under Hoover and FDR. He established a Committee on Civil Rights that would outline means of eliminating racial discrimination, and gave a famously thundering speech at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, saying that “the extension of civil rights today means not just protection of the people against the government, but protection of the people by the government”. He also asked Congress to satisfy the claims of Japanese Americans who treated horribly by FDR during World War II. He wasn’t perfect (witness the Korean War), but on whole he was very good, and remains the best Democrat president of the 20th-21st centuries.

8. Dwight Eisenhower. (34th president, 1953-1961, Republican). Rating: Very good. Precisely because he had been a military general in WWII and knew the cost of war, Eisenhower wisely kept the nation under military restraint for eight whole years. He is the unshakable proof that it is possible to stay out of war in the post-World War II era. His outstanding fiscal policies gave an era of prosperity rivaled only by the ‘20s and ‘90s. He was the last good Republican president, and would rank much higher if not for a few missteps, like siding with Egypt against Israel in the Suez crisis, and refusing to support desegregation in schools and universities.

9. Calvin Coolidge. (30th president, 1923-1929, Republican). Rating: Very good. He continued Warren Harding’s amazing fiscal policies that kept the Roaring Twenties going (see #2, above). When Coolidge left office in ’29, the amount of households with these “luxury items” had increased as follows: electric lights 35%-68%, central heating 1%-42%, indoor plumbing 20%-51%, vacuum cleaners 9%-30%, washing machines 8%-24%, automobiles 26%-60%. Like Harding he kept the nation at peace and free of entangling alliances. By rights he should rank up near the top with Harding, but sometimes he wasn’t as proactive as he could have been with African Americans and Native Americans. He also expanded the money supply, which contributed to Black Tuesday on October 29, 1929, causing an initial economic downturn before the Great Depression. (Though note: Coolidge did not cause the Great Depression; his successor Hoover caused it, and FDR prolonged it.)

10. Jimmy Carter. (39th president, 1977-1981, Democrat). Rating: Good. His landmark energy bills, causes for the environment, fiscal restraint, military restraint, and overall sound priorities testify to a much better legacy than his critics allow him. Like John Tyler (#1) and Chester Arthur (#5), he did the right thing for the country instead of what his party expected from him — he prioritized fighting inflation over unemployment — and that cost him the reelection, as it did for Tyler and Arthur. Carter appointed Paul Volcker to the Federal Reserve, whose tight money policies would eventually produce the prosperity in the ’80s and then renewed in the ‘90s. Carter gets a bum rap, and if not for his terrible foreign policy blunders (Camp David, Afghanistan, the Iran-Hostage crisis), he would place in my top 5.

11. John Quincy-Adams. (6th president, 1825-1829, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Good. Unlike his horrible father, John Quincy-Adams was a good and underrated chief executive. On his watch the nation was kept safe. He continued his predecessor James Monroe’s policy of staying out of foreign affairs. He stood up for African Americans and Native Americans (more than his predecessors and two successors did) and he spoke scathingly against the religion of Islam and Islamic oppression. In other words he applied social justice principles consistently. He didn’t whitewash a violent religion for fear of offending people. This is the kind of guy we need today. He did have domestic transgressions, being a Federalist at heart, and though they weren’t terrible ones, his Antebellum New Deal and ideas for expansive government provoked enough anger to guarantee the emergence of Andrew Jackson’s Democrat party. For this reason he places outside my top 10.

12. Millard Fillmore. (13th president, 1850-1853, Whig). Rating: Good. Often blasted for signing the Fugitive Slave Act, Fillmore was actually a damn good president. He personally loathed slavery but as president he knew it was his job to uphold laws until slavery could be peacefully abolished — and to get us much for the north as possible. That’s exactly what the Compromise of 1850 achieved; the North was the slam-dunk winner in that Compromise. The Fugitive Slave Act was the only Southern-friendly part that meant anything, and in any case should be seen as a good consequence, since the hunting of slaves was made more visible to people in the north, which woke people up and caused the required outrage. Fillmore did lots of other positives, facing down rebellion in both Texas and South Carolina. He began a good-neighbor policy with Latin America; avoided war with Cuba; pushed the French away from Hawaii and preserved Hawaiian independence. Negatively, he opened Japan to trade by military coercion, subsidized railroad building, and a few other black marks, but on whole he was good.

13. James Madison. (4th president, 1809-1817, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Good. Like Thomas Jefferson, Madison was great as a founding father (for his blueprint for the Constitution), but not necessarily an excellent president. He took the new and weak nation into war with Britain — the War of 1812, and because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). The war was justified, however, since Britain would have kept bullying the U.S. had it not stood up to them, and it did stop the impressment of sailors. He also (against his better judgment and wise principles) created the Second Bank of the United States. The best thing he did was preserve people’s civil liberties through the war, unlike almost every other president who presided during a major war (Adams, Lincoln, Wilson, FDR).

14. Thomas Jefferson. (3rd president, 1801-1809, Democrat-Republican). Rating: Average. Some presidents were great, others were terrible, and others were both great and terrible. Thomas Jefferson is a classic example of the mix. His first term was excellent: he turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated so massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech; he smashed the Barbary Pirates who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam — America’s first defensive war against jihad terror; he expanded American territory by purchasing the Louisiana region from France. All of this and more would earn him his place on Mount Rushmore. But his second term torpedoed that glowing executive image: the Embargo Act of 1807 was an act of commercial warfare meant to punish Britain and France, when it only punished Americans; they starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops and workers lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved due to presidential incompetence. To add insult to injury, Jefferson violated civil liberties by his oppressive measures to stop food smugglers who defied the embargo. Without warrants, his searches, seizures, and arrests were the acts of a police state, not a republic. We can praise Thomas Jefferson for the Declaration of Independence. But as a president he deserves praises and curses in equal measure.

15. Bill Clinton. (42nd president, 1993-2001, Democrat). Rating: Average. Clinton was both excellent and awful. The excellent: he reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk like Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower, and kept the Federal Reserve on tight money policies. The result was the immense prosperity of the ’90s. 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.) Clinton worked with Republicans to curb welfare and encouraged the lower classes to work. The result of his fiscal reforms was the lowest unemployment in thirty years. The awful: his needless, countless military interventions. He at least avoided ground troops and major wars (like Reagan, and unlike the two Bushes and Obama), but his military engagements were so numerous that it still downgrades his peace ranking considerably. He signed the Brady Bill (good), but also signed the Defense of Marriage Act (bad), and his anti-smoking crusade was wrongheaded and backwards.

16. Gerald Ford. (38th president, 1974-1977, Republican). Rating: Average. Unlike Jefferson and Clinton (who are average by virtue of being great and awful in different ways), Ford was average across the board. He wisely continued Nixon’s policies of detente with the Soviet Union and China. He signed the Helsinki Accords, which finally accepted the post-World War II borders in Europe, and which also called for the respect of human rights and basic freedoms. Inflation went down during his term, though only because of the recession/unemployment that Ford helped somewhat to exacerbate. He proposed spending cuts along with his tax cuts, and left the Federal Reserve alone to its natural policies, all of which was a vast improvement on Nixon. On the bad side, he pardoned Nixon.

17. John F. Kennedy. (35th president, 1961-1963, Democrat). Rating: Average. Kennedy deserves neither the hero worship nor the over-reactive censure that he tends to receive. To his credit, he resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis well, defended West Berlin’s freedom, and established the Peace Corps. To his shame, he was responsible for the Bay of Pigs and escalating conflict in Vietnam. His tax cuts were mostly positive, though they were unaccompanied by corresponding cuts to federal spending. He could have been better on civil rights, but he was better than a lot of people give him credit for.

18. William Howard Taft. (27th president, 1909-1913, Republican). Rating: Average. Taft was elected mostly to carry out Teddy Roosevelt’s programs, and while he did continue on in some ways that were detrimental, he wasn’t nearly as aggressive in foreign policy. And though he prosecuted anti-trust lawsuits like Roosevelt, his lawsuits were at least grounded in legality (and not capricious views about “a greater good”). Taft was in fact a vast improvement over Roosevelt (for whom the Constitution was anathema), but in truth that’s not saying much. On whole he was mediocre.

19. Benjamin Harrison. (23rd president, 1889-1893, Republican). Rating: Average. Harrison undid the damage of his predecessor Grover Cleveland, and provided aid to Civil War veterans. He crusaded for African American equality, and tried to get bills passed that protected black voting rights and funding for black schools (the Democrats in Congress blocked him). But Harrison was somewhat inconsistent on human rights, persistently calling for progressive legislation (for blacks) on the one hand, while also calling for unnecessary restrictions on Asian immigrants on the other. He didn’t have the best fiscal policies, supporting tariffs as well as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which depleted the nation’s gold standard. He wisely avoided conflicts with Chile, Italy, Britain, and Germany, but nefariously tired to annex Hawaii. For all his pros and cons I rank him towards the bottom of the average presidents.

20. Ronald Reagan. (40th president, 1981-1989, Republican). Rating: Average. Enshrined in myth as a demigod, Reagan isn’t that, though he’s not the demon of leftist narratives. On the upside, he was willing to call the Soviet Union what it was: an evil empire that enslaved its people in a system of poverty and despair (and without ever firing a shot); he kept the Federal Reserve in good hands on a tight leash; he declared a federal holiday for Martin Luther King, and appointed the two great Anthony’s (Scalia and Kennedy) to the Supreme Court; he gave an amnesty to millions of immigrants. On the downside, he escalated the drug war; funded jihadists to fight the invading Soviets in Afghanistan and Pakistan; engaged needlessly in Libya, Lebanon, and Grenada (though at least never committed ground troops to costly and wasteful “nation-building” strategies); and he cut taxes without cutting federal spending. On the last point in particular, Reagan aspired to be like his idol Calvin Coolidge (as well as Harding), but came up short. He did not win the Cold War, contrary to myth; the Soviet Union simply collapsed as it was fated to, from overextending itself and its bad economy. The biggest strike against his liberty record is the Iran-Contra Affair: he broke international law and usurped Congress’s power of the purse in order to continue a secret war even after he was told by Congress to end it.

21. Abraham Lincoln. (16th president, 1861-1865, Republican). Rating: Poor. He attains the #1 slot on most presidential ranking lists, but a careful study of “Honest Abe” shows that there is less to him than meets the eye. Some critics of Lincoln are southern/Confederate revisionists, and they have no credibility. But there are valid reasons to criticize Lincoln, not least because the Civil War may have been unnecessary. Lincoln could have (1) let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists urged, or (2) offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves, which other countries (like Britain and Mexico) had done. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South, helped out by a slave haven in the free North. Under the second option (which I’d have preferred), Lincoln would have ended slavery as other countries had ended it (Britain in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico in 1829). 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. Lincoln treated the Native Americans horribly, even by 19th-century standards, seizing one of the largest portions of land from the Indians, running the Navajos and Mescalero Apaches out of their New Mexico territory and into a reservation 450 miles away. He authorized the largest mass execution in United States history, which totaled 38 Indians. On top of this, he was an enemy of the First Amendment, arresting journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and throwing them into prison; he closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies; he “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). However, the end result of the Civil War was the liberation of the slaves — in itself obviously a praiseworthy and momentous event. And to be fair, Lincoln did offer the border states emancipation (though not the offer to secede), and so there was no reason to expect the southern states to agree either. But he did nefariously maneuver the south into firing first. An objective assessment of Lincoln puts him right in the middle of the ranking, leaving much to be desired, though also achieving something of legendary importance.

22. Herbert Hoover. (31st president, 1929-1933, Republican). Rating: Poor. Contrary to liberal myth, Hoover didn’t “do nothing” about the nation’s recession, but just the opposite, and not for the better. He took many actions that interfered with the economy’s tendency to right itself naturally. It was he who created the Great Depression, which FDR prolonged. If Hoover didn’t create the welfare state, he was certainly its precursor, paving the way for FDR. For all of his rhetoric about individual freedom, he set direct precedents for FDR’s programs. He also zealously enforced prohibition, and catered to American xenophobia by stopping immigration (though immigrants would have helped the economy). What saves Hoover from ranking much lower is his immaculate foreign policy record, second only to Warren Harding’s.

23. George H.W. Bush. (41st president, 1989-1993, Republican). Rating: Poor. The Elder Bush’s foreign policy ventures (in Iraq and Panama) were disastrous and effectively resurrected Wilsonian interventionism for sake of making America the world policeman. By planting permanent troops in the Middle-East (for no good reason; Saddam posed no threat to the U.S., 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. It set a precedent for even worse interventions under the Younger Bush and Obama. His bank bailout was another horrible precedent. What saves him from the bad category are his surprising enlightened views for a (post-Eisenhower) Republican president: he was a free trade advocate (unlike Reagan, W Bush, and Trump who supported tariffs), and raised taxes in order to heal the budget. He even signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (which set voluntary curbs on greenhouse gases), the Ryan White CARE Act (the largest federally funded program for AIDS and HIV patients), the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Immigration Act of 1990.

24. Andrew Johnson. (17th president, 1865-1869, Democrat). Rating: Poor. No one likes this guy and he’s hard to rate objectively. He gets high marks for opposing a military occupation of the south, but then low marks for advocating this cause in a completely racist way (which called down the wrath of Republican military measures). He gets very high marks for his fiscal and economic polices (he’s one of the four best presidents in this regard, alongside James Monroe, Ulysses Grant, and Warren Harding), but then abysmal scores for his racist vetoes, and for lobbying states to not ratify the 14th Amendment. His impeachment proceedings were a farce; even the Supreme Court ruled his favor afterwards.

25. Ulysses Grant. (18th president, 1869-1877, Republican). Rating: Poor. His heart was in the right place, but the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. By trying to pass laws and enforcing them at gunpoint in the South, Grant (and Congress) made things worse for the African Americans they were trying to defend. The KKK evolved into a terrorist group as a result, and Jim Crow laws were foreordained. (Nation building at gunpoint never works, and always produces backlash, whether in foreign countries like Vietnam and Iraq, or on home turf in the South.) Grant is also responsible for the horribly disproportionate Indian slaughters that happened on his watch. He deserves credit for signing progressive legislation for blacks and supporting the 15th Amendment, but those efforts were substantially torpedoed by his inability to uphold them in any meaningful way. The best thing about him was his fiscal and economic policies; he’s one of the four best presidents in this regard (alongside James Monroe, Andrew Johnson, and Warren Harding).

26. Grover Cleveland. (22nd & 24th president, 1885-1889 & 1893-1897, Democrat). Rating: Poor. He was president during the progressive era in the 1890s, but he shat on almost everyone who wasn’t white and male — African Americans, Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, women, union workers. He did give the Indians full citizenship, but that actually ended up harming the Indian cause far more than helping it, since the Natives had to accept farming roles alien to them. He was both good and bad for the economy. The best thing about him was that he kept the nation at peace with excellent foreign policy, and refused to annex Hawaii. (The native Hawaiians didn’t want to be a part of the United States, and the treaty signed by Cleveland’s predecessor Benjamin Harrison had been foully obtained.) The worst thing was his veto-happy pen: he vetoed 584 fucking bills, thereby making himself a one-man tyrant over an entire legislative body.

27. Richard Nixon. (37th president, 1969-1974, Republican). Rating: Poor. Most people think of Nixon as a conservative, but he was a flaming liberal. He was a strong activist for environmental protection. He ended the military draft, creating the voluntary army we have today. He ended public school segregation in the South. He was the best and most effective president for the Native American Indian cause. That’s the upside of his liberalism. The downside is that he was also a fiscal liberal — the last Keynesian president until George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He spent huge amounts on welfare (even more than Lyndon Johnson had for his “Great Society”) and alongside his loose money policies, this ended up causing the great stagflation of the ’70s. Foreign policy wise, he was a mixed bag: a war-monger in Southeast Asia, but a dove elsewhere, establishing good relations with China and making the Soviets want better relations with America. He also started the drug war, however, and that added to Watergate brings down his ranking considerably.

28. Martin Van Buren. (8th president, 1837-1841, Democrat). Rating: Poor. Libertarians love this guy, and I’m somewhat of a libertarian myself, but Martin Van Buren was actually a rather dismal president. Yes, he avoided conflict, which is usually a good thing, but he did so at all costs, which in his case amounted to leaving serious problems for future presidents to solve under worse conditions. He helped the economy by creating the Independent Treasury, but that only helped to an extent 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 horribly, even by 19th-century standards. Van Buren is almost as responsible for the Trail of Tears as his predecessor Andrew Jackson; and the way he handled the Amistad incident was reprehensible.

29. William McKinley. (25th president, 1897-1901, Republican). Rating: Bad. McKinley brought immense prosperity to America (by going on the gold standard) and this is what keeps him from ranking among the very worst presidents on my list. His Spanish-American War (over Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam) was one of the worst wars ever fought, putting America on the road to becoming a trans-world empire. The Cuban crisis had no relevance to the Monroe Doctrine, since it was a preexisting Spanish Colony. While McKinley’s intentions in the Philippines may have been benign, they were also imperialistic, and his pure intentions didn’t matter in any case: when the Philippines put forth their own guerilla independence movement, the U.S. responded with horrendous atrocities against the Philippine people. It was because of McKinley’s precedent that the U.S. in the 20th century evolved into the world policeman. And his decisions resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

30. Franklin Pierce. (14th president, 1853-1857, Democrat). Rating: Bad. His notorious claim to fame was endorsing the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed those two vast territories to determine whether or not they would be slave states. But Pierce was a doughface (a northerner who went to bat for the southern cause), and actually injected himself into the territories’ decision-making process — encouraging pro-slavery border thugs to cross from Missouri into Kansas and set up a pro-slavery government. He then recognized this government, and appointed countless pro-slavery governors in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Northerners were so pissed that a mini-civil war broke out in Kansas. Thus was born the Republican Party (in 1854), in opposition to the causes of slavery. What keeps Pierce out of the very bad rankings is his fiscal record: he paid down the national debt by an amazing 83%.

31. James Polk. (11th president, 1845-1849, Democrat). Rating: Bad. Polk is usually praised by historians for accomplishing all of his stated goals, even though those goals were terrible. He recklessly courted war with two countries at once (Mexico and Britain), and unethically provoked the weaker one (Mexico), for what he perceived as a God-given right. The term manifest destiny gained traction on his watch, as critics ridiculed him for his “God given rights”, and for waging a war which the American citizens and Congressmen resented. Polk actively promoted slavery: not only did the Mexican War itself advance that cause, but he took part in crushing the Wilmot Proviso of 1846, which would have at least banned slavery in newly acquired territories. Saving him from the cellar of this ranking is that he respected people’s civil liberties during wartime (which is rare in U.S. history), and he also successfully fought inflation and opposed tariffs.

32. Theodore Roosevelt. (26th president, 1901-1909, Republican). Rating: Bad. Teddy is on Mount Rushmore, but he absolutely shouldn’t be. He was not a constitutional president and he brazenly flouted the document. He set an extremely dangerous precedent — that it was okay for the president to ignore or go beyond the document he swore to uphold. He was blasted by legislature officials for this, but Teddy was unfazed, stating that he could do whatever he wanted “for the greater good”. (Donald Trump has been similarly drunk on his own self regard.) Teddy perverted the Monroe Doctrine and constantly meddled in other countries for no good reason. He believed that African Americans were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”, outrageously declaring a group of black soldiers guilty until proven innocent. On the plus side, Teddy got Congress to pass reforms like The Meat Inspection Act (1906) and the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906), which served the much needed cause of sanitation and the proper labeling of ingredients in food and drugs. He was also an environmental conservationist and set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust — for national monuments, parks, forests, bird refuges, and game preserves.

33. Barack Obama. (44th president, 2009-2017, Democrat). Rating: Bad. Obama was George W. the Second, though a slightly improved version of Dubya. Foreign policy wise, Obama repeated Bush’s disasters as if trying to outdo him. Bush removed Saddam; Obama removed Mubarak and Gaddafi. The result was the same: Islamists/jihadists stepped in and made things worse. Bush used drone attacks; Obama increased the drones tenfold. Bush peddled Islam as a religion of peace; Obama carried the propaganda to irresponsible lengths, even ordering a purge of any mention of “Islam” from counter-terrorism training, blinding intelligence agencies to the cause of jihad terror. To his credit he killed Bin Laden, but did nothing to stop the covert war on terror after killing him. Domestically, Obama followed Bush’s playbook in using toxic bailout/stimulus relief strategies; and like Dubya printed money to kingdom come. He put health care first and the economy second, contrary to the public’s priorities, and the Affordable Health Care was a mixed bag to say the least. Other Bush-sins include detentions without trial, domestic spying, and warrantless searches. To his credit, Obama stopped torture overseas, refused to suspend habeas corpus, made a couple of moves for gay rights, and did some good things for the environment. But he did nothing to combat the drug war (for a black president in the 21st century that’s a major strike on his liberty record) and nothing to help the middle class, which fueled the rise of Donald Trump.

34. Lyndon Johnson. (36th president, 1963-1969, Democrat). Rating: Bad. He was the most effective president in U.S. history (James Polk was a close second), and not for the better, accomplishing his goals by doing the wrong things in the worst possible situations. The only good thing he did was push for and sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — fully accepting that he was sacrificing his own party in the South — and that critical landmark keeps Johnson from falling in the bottom category of this list as a complete failure. Everything else was disaster. He fought the Vietnam war, which he knew and acknowledged was stupid and wrong, and for purely political purposes; then he escalated it to the point of getting 58,000 American soldiers killed — one of the most reprehensible acts of any Commander in Chief. His Great Society program was a train wreck, promising the abolition of poverty, where in fact Johnson had no idea how to abolish poverty (any more than anyone does). In his mind there were no limits and he acted like Santa Clause.

35. Donald Trump. (45th president, 2017-2021, Republican). Rating: Very bad. Trump gets 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. He made Obamacare non-mandatory. Those are non-trivial points. But the rest of Trump’s record is abysmal. He gave fake tax cuts (like Reagan and the Younger Bush) without making cuts to federal spending; he supported tariffs, which protect businessmen but not free trade; his Muslim travel suspensions were Constitutional (and rightly upheld by the Supreme Court), but they were needless and toothless (not least since Saudi Arabia wasn’t included in the blacklist); his wall along the Mexican border was absurd, and his mass detentions and separating children from their parents was an appallingly inhumane way to handle illegal border crossings; he withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement; he was no friend of the Native Indians, nor a friend of something so basic as clean water; he fired the Pandemic Response Team and mismanaged the Covid crisis; he undermined institutions by appointing leaders whose agendas opposed their mandate — the Department of Education, the Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the EPA, etc. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Trump openly flouted the Constitution, by making fastuous appeals to the Constitution itself, which on his reading gave him the right to do whatever he pleased. In the final days of his term, he incited violence, prompting rioters to storm the Capitol in an attempt to overturn his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. It’s true that this was not an actual attempted coup (the military was not involved), and it was put down swiftly by the Trump administration itself, but a dark stain nonetheless.

36. John Adams. (2nd president, 1797-1801, Federalist). Rating: Very bad. He almost brought a ruinous war down on America. Strangely, he is usually given credit for avoiding that war with France, but it was he who stoked up the battle fever to begin with. His notorious sins involve committing some of the worst crimes against liberty in American history, with The Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams enforced these acts with zeal. The 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), and (4) criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act). Before he left office, he pulled a 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. John Adams was a disgrace, and the fact that he was the second president shows how vulnerable the republic was in its earliest years, even with the hatred of British tyranny still hot on people’s minds.

37. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (32nd president, 1933-1945, Democrat). Rating: Very bad. Like Ronald Reagan, FDR has been enshrined in myth as a demigod, but the myths are even deeper and the offenses more egregious. School teachers tell kids that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, Roosevelt 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, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president. The best part of his presidency is that he won World War II, which (from our hindsight perspective) needed to be won; but to get there he provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed. Aside from a few provisions, most of the New Deal was disastrous to the economy and prolonged the recession. As far as his treatment of minorities, he issued one good executive order, stating that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin. Outside of that singular positive deed, he avoided African American injustices like the plague, sent Jews back to Europe as if they were the plague, and contained Japanese Americans in camps as if they had the plague. During the war he used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested. He assaulted the Supreme Court by filling it with friendlies. FDR, to say the least, was a disgrace.

38. Andrew Jackson. (7th president, 1829-1837, Democrat). Rating: Very bad. The best thing Andrew Jackson did — vetoing the Second National Bank — he did for the worst reason.  But at least he did it, and for decades the American people were better off. The problem with the national bank is that it had no accountability to the American people, and was essentially an independent fourth branch of government — dominating the economy while operating completely free of any checks and balances. It had the power to destroy state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans; it gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk; it was knee-deep in corruption, bribing government officials and making sweet deals with congressmen newspaper editors. But Jackson had supported the 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. From then on, he was on a crusade to kill the bank simply to spite his arch-enemy Henry Clay. Which he did. Also, Jackson was the only president in history who balanced the federal budget to the point that there was no national debt at all. Big kudos there. But unfortunately everything else he did was pernicious. His fiscal war with Nicolas Biddle and his specie circular were the primary causes of the Panic of 1837. He began the spoils system, resulting in amateurism and unearned privileges in civil service, which wouldn’t be fixed until Chester Arthur’s Pendleton Act in 1883. He was the first active pro-slavery president, ramming through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal, and infringing on free speech. He signed the Indian Removal Act, and was responsible for more pain and suffering on the part of the Natives than any other president. He gave the middle finger to the Supreme Court, the highest authority in the land, in order to uphold a state’s right to nullify Indian treaties.

39. James Buchanan. (15th president, 1857-1861, Democrat). Rating: Complete Failure. Buchanan was like Franklin Pierce — a northerner who went out of his way to accommodate, encourage, and inflame the pro-slavery cause of the South — but even worse than Pierce, and with none of the fiscal positives that keeps Pierce out of my lowest tier. Picking up where Pierce left off, Buchanan wreaked chaos on the battleground of the Kansas Territory: A pro-slavery faction in Lecompton had drafted a constitution that allowed slavery, and they encouraged pro-slavery residents of Missouri to state-hop and vote illegally in Kansas, while denying Kansas residents a vote if they favored a free state. On top of that, the Lecompton government made it a felony to criticize slavery. Anti-slave forces were bullshit with rage by this perversion of democracy and set up their own alternate government in Topeka. Buchanan openly favored Lecompton over Topeka, and sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress to be approved — using bribes and threatening peoples’ jobs to get the thing passed. His bribes came in all forms: cash, commissions, even whores. Because of Buchanan’s appalling shenanigans, the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions. Pierce’s shenanigans had already caused enough outrage that the Republican Party was born; Buchanan enraged the northern Democrats to a breaking point. Buchanan then took the worst of both worlds. Once Lincoln was elected, and southern states started to secede, Buchanan sent a message to congress stating (1) that secession was illegal, but (2) that the Constitution didn’t allow him to force a state to stay in the union. He was dead wrong on both counts. If a president so chooses, he can act in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and allow states to secede. But he also has the authority, under the mildly centralizing powers of the Constitution, to put down secession attempts — again, if he so chooses. So Buchanan could have done either. He could have let the South go, or he could have done as Millard Fillmore did (see #12), by strengthening southern forts and sending in military forces to stop secession. Either option would have averted the imminent Civil War. Instead, Buchanan sat on his worthless ass, and said that his hands were tied.

40. George W. Bush. (43rd president, 2001-2009, Republican). Rating: Complete Failure. Aside from Woodrow Wilson, George W. Bush has the most catastrophic foreign policy record of any American president in history. He was responsible for the 9/11 attacks, because he could have prevented them. He was responsible for ISIS, because he deposed the lesser evil of Saddam Hussein. He was responsible for peddling a rosy view of Islam, which impedes an understanding of the motivations of jihadists — the religious ideology that drives groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, just as it drove the Barbary Pirates in the days of Thomas Jefferson (who unlike Bush knew how to properly smash jihadists). He was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 American soldiers and 100,000 indigenous peoples in Iraq, for a war entirely without cause. The largest antiwar protests in history exploded over the globe. Bush’s domestic policies were just as outrageous. He caused the Great Recession (the worst hit since the Great Depression) and made it worse with bailouts — a horrendous policy on many levels, not least because it encourages more reckless decisions in the future by corporations who feel they can rely on Uncle Sam to save them from extinction. He tyrannically expanded the powers of the presidency, disdaining Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as commander in chief he wasn’t subject to the separation of powers. He claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. Most notoriously, he created CIA detention centers overseas, and the Guantanamo prison in Cuba, where he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture. He violated the Fourth Amendment with glee. He appointed the worst Supreme Court Justice, Samuel Alito, who is still the worst and has repeatedly trampled on the First Amendment. There was nothing redeeming to his presidency. Nothing at all.

41. Woodrow Wilson. (28th president, 1913-1921, Democrat). Rating: Complete Failure. Wilson ruined the 20th century and beyond. If he had kept America out of World War I, the war would have ended sooner and for the better of all involved, and history would have turned out much differently. Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin were all monsters born of Woodrow Wilson’s policies. Even aside from World War I, Wilson aggressively intervened elsewhere; he was the most devastatingly interventionist president in U.S. history. He invaded Mexico, because — incredibly — a Mexican general refused to give a U.S. naval officer a twenty-one gun salute; he invaded Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, and then Mexico again, repeatedly. These invasions were justified on the propaganda of “spreading democracy”, but really served neo-colonial interests like oil (in Mexico), collecting bank revenue (in Haiti and Cuba), and other greedy drives. Then there was the Spanish Flu. Donald Trump was not the first president who mismanaged a deadly pandemic. Wilson downplayed the impact of the Spanish Flu and refused to implement extensive health measures that medical professionals were recommending that would help slow its spread. Between October 1918 and April 2020, 675,000 Americans were killed by the flu. Wilson created the Federal Reserve, which shafts the working class with perpetual inflation and cheap credit, excessively expands the money supply, devalues the nation’s currency, is responsible for routine bailouts, and is unable to generate long-lasting economic recovery. Then there was racism. Even by early 20th century standards, Wilson was a virulent white supremacist. He pushed for legislation to restrict the civil liberties of blacks. He put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks, and he encouraged some of his cabinet members to re-institute racial segregation in federal agencies. Racial violence escalated during his administration, along with lynchings, anti-black race riots, and of course the birth of the second Ku Klux Klan. For that matter, Wilson’s presidency was the worst time in U.S. history for anyone’s civil liberties. Conscription was resurrected from the Civil War: the Selective Service Act of 1917 authorized Wilson to draft men against their will. The Constitution doesn’t authorize a military draft, and the Thirteenth Amendment prohibits involuntary service. This act has never been repealed, and to this day American men are required to register for the draft. The Espionage Act of 1917 made protests against the draft illegal, as well as criticism of American allies. The Sedition Act of 1918 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. John Adams (during the Quasi-War with France) and Abraham Lincoln (during the Civil War) were atrocious like this too, but Woodrow Wilson outdid even them.

 

Excellent

1. John Tyler (I)
2. Warren Harding (R)
3. George Washington (F)
4. Rutherford Hayes (R)

Very Good

5. Chester Arthur (R)
6. James Monroe (D-R)
7. Harry Truman (D)
8. Dwight Eisenhower (R)
9. Calvin Coolidge (R)

Good

10. Jimmy Carter (D)
11. John Quincy-Adams (D-R)
12. Millard Fillmore (W)
13. James Madison (D-R)

Average

14. Thomas Jefferson (D-R)
15. Bill Clinton (D)
16. Gerald Ford (R)
17. John F. Kennedy (D)
18. William Howard Taft (R)
19. Benjamin Harrison (R)
20. Ronald Reagan (R)

Poor

21. Abraham Lincoln (R)
22. Herbert Hoover (R)
23. George H. W. Bush (R)
24. Andrew Johnson (D)
25. Ulysses Grant (R)
26. Grover Cleveland (D)
27. Richard Nixon (R)
28. Martin Van Buren (D)

Bad

29. William McKinley (R)
30. Franklin Pierce (D)
31. James Polk (D)
32. Theodore Roosevelt (R)
33. Barack Obama (D)
34. Lyndon Johnson (D)

Very Bad

35. Donald Trump (R)
36. John Adams (F)
37. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D)
38. Andrew Jackson (D)

Complete Failure

39. James Buchanan (D)
40. George W. Bush (R)
41. Woodrow Wilson (D)

10 thoughts on “The Presidents Ranked in Brief Capsules (Trump Included)

  1. My list:
    1. Calvin Coolidge
    2. George Washington
    3. John Tyler
    4. Warren Harding
    5. Dwight Eisenhower
    6. James Monroe
    7. Thomas Jefferson
    8. Chester Arthur
    9. John Quincy Adams
    10. Rutherford Hayes
    11. Zachary Taylor
    12. Jimmy Carter
    13. Millard Fillmore
    14. James Madison
    15. Harry Truman
    16. Ulysses Grant
    17. William Howard Taft
    18. Gerald Ford
    19. Bill Clinton
    20. JFK
    21. Teddy Roosevelt
    22. Grover Cleveland
    23. John Adams
    24. Benjamin Harrison
    25. Herbert Hoover
    26. Martin van Buren
    27. Ronald Reagan
    28. Abraham Lincoln
    29. Richard Nixon
    30. George H.W. Bush
    31. George W. Bush
    32. Franklin Pierce
    33. Andrew Jackson
    34. James Knox Polk
    35. William Mckinley
    36. James Buchanan
    37. LBJ
    38. FDR
    39. Woodrow Wilson

  2. Hi, I agree with most of your rankings, but with Truman it seems like you believe the narrative that the atomic bombs were dropped to avoid an invasion of Japan? In reality an invasion of Japan was off the table even before the atomic bombs were developed, it was considered unnecessary because Japan’s military had been defeated and a naval blockade established, the US could just sit it out.

    Truman in fact prolonged the war by pushing for unconditional surrender, then unnecessarily dropped two bombs killing thousands of innocents to no effect. Japan only surrendered after they were offered the condition they wanted which was the preservation of the Imperial Ministry and after Russia had invaded which left them with no other diplomatic alternatives. Truman’s primary motivation for dropping the bombs seems to have been to try to get Japan to unconditionally surrender before Russia invaded Manchuria. The Japanese leadership didn’t care about civilians or the fact a couple more cities were destroyed, the only thing they were interested in was saving face so the bombs were unnecessary and all the available evidence suggests Truman new this. This massively downgrades him for me.

  3. “bribing government officials and making sweet deals with congressmen newspaper editors.” Rosson, what’s the source on this?

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