Time Magazine has run an article called “Loving Your Country Means Teaching It Honestly”, and I couldn’t agree more. One reason I did a thorough ranking of the U.S. Presidents was to show the deficiencies of blind patriotism on the one hand, and leftist mudslinging on the other, and to show why many of the presidents commonly thought of as excellent or good were in fact only average or bad, and vice versa. Today, for Independence Day, I spotlight ten presidents who have been immortalized in our collective memory — whether on dollar bills, coins, Mount Rushmore, or memorials — and show how these leaders were average at best, disasters at worst.
He’s on Mount Rushmore, the $2 dollar bill, and the nickel. He admittedly deserves these honors when judged by what he did prior to his presidency and during his first term. But he doesn’t deserve them when judged by his second term.
Why we should kneel before him
- Wrote the Declaration of Independence (prior to his presidency).
- Turned around a political system that under John Adams had deviated massively from the promises of the founding fathers, not least in the suppression of free speech.
- Smashed the Barbary Pirates who were attacking innocents in the name of Islam — America’s first defensive war against jihad terror.
- Expanded American territory by purchasing the Louisiana region from France.
Why we might piss on his grave
- Zealously enforced the Embargo Act of 1807 — an act of commercial warfare meant to punish Britain and France, but which only punished the United States. The American people starved thanks to Jefferson. Farmers couldn’t export their crops and workers lost their jobs. Under few presidents has the American population actually starved directly because of presidential incompetence.
- Violated civil liberties, 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 is widely known today for being a proponent of limited government, but in his second term he wielded executive power with abusive glee.
He’s on the $5000 dollar bill. (I’ll bet you all have one of those.) Like Jefferson, Madison was great as a founding father, but left a bit to be desired as president.
Why he was a giant
- Wrote the blueprint for the U.S. Constitution (prior to his presidency).
- Preserved people’s liberties through the War of 1812, unlike almost every other president who presided during a major war (John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt).
Why he was small and ineffectual
- Took the new and weak American nation into war with Britain — the War of 1812, which was unnecessary and avoidable.
- Because of this, the American homeland was invaded for the only time in its 240-year history (aside from 9/11). Washington DC was burned, and when the war was over, little had been solved. The Star Spangled Banner (composed toward the end of the war) may sound inspiring, but there was nothing inspiring about the war’s cause or Madison’s leadership during the crisis.
He’s on the $20 dollar bill. He needs to be effaced, and the native hero Osceola imprinted in his place. Jackson was truly a piece of shit. Even when he did the occasional right thing (like vetoing the Second National Bank), he did it for the wrong reasons — to settle personal scores with political rivals whom he wanted to kill.
What made him good for the nation’s welfare
- Vetoed the Second National Bank. For decades afterwards the American people were better off without this corrupt national banking system which destroyed state banks at a stroke by calling in their loans, and gave wealthy owners a large return with little risk.
- Balanced the federal budget to a zero national debt. Jackson was the only president in history who did this.
What made him a flaming asshole
- Began the spoils system, resulting in rank amateurism and unearned privileges in civil service, which wouldn’t be fixed until 54 years later, with Chester Arthur’s Pendleton Act (in 1883).
- Rammed through the House a gag rule that made bringing any anti-slavery petitions illegal, and infringing on free speech. All presidents before Jackson accepted slavery (more or less) as an institution of the times, but Jackson was the first active pro-slavery president.
- Signed the Indian Removal Act, leading to the Trail of Tears. Jackson 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.
- Started a reckless fiscal war with Nicolas Biddle (the last president of the Second National Bank), which led to the Depression of 1837.
He’s on Mount Rushmore, the $5 dollar bill, and the penny. He’s also enshrined as a demigod, and almost always rated the #1 president on presidential ranking lists. But there is far less to this son of a bitch than meets the eye. Kids are never taught about the real “Honest Abe” in school. Thanks to the Civil War and subsequent military Reconstruction of the South (under Grant, see below), there was the prolonged backlash of the KKK and Jim Crow laws, both of which ensured that blacks would be subject to a discrimination almost as bad as in slave times. It would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act (of 1964) came in remedy.
His great legacy
- Liberated the slaves. Even though he did this in the worst way possible — in a needless war that got hundreds of thousands of people killed, including blacks — he did put an end to the abominable practice that is anathema to a free society.
His mountain of shit that most Americans are blind to
- Maneuvered the South into starting the Civil War and making them fire the first shot. The Civil War was absolutely unnecessary to free the slaves. 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 would have eventually 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 Blacks.
- 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. On top of that, Lincoln authorized the largest mass execution in United States history, which totaled 38 Indians.
- Arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the Civil War, and threw them into prison; closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and also disappeared citizens without arrest warrants, detaining them without allowing them to challenge their detention — a violation of habeas corpus. The only other president who trampled on habeas corpus was George W. Bush.
- Brought the pernicious “American System” (invented by Federalist Alexander Hamilton and promoted by Whig Henry Clay) into full-blown fruition, mostly in order to finance his needless Civil War. The program involved government subsidies financed by high tariffs, and a runaway money supply of printed greenbacks that weren’t redeemable by gold or silver; the result was massive inflation.
He’s on the $50 dollar bill. While his heart was in the right place, the road to Hell is often paved with good intentions.
Why we should sing his praises
- Intervened in the Black Friday Gold Panic of 1869, when two investors tried to corner the market. Thanks to Grant’s intervention, a national recession was averted.
- Reversed Lincoln’s easy-money policy (see above). Thanks to Grant (and his successor Rutherford Hayes), America prospered for decades with a hard money policy.
Why we should curse him to Hell
- Tried to pass laws and enforce them at gunpoint in the South. Grant made things worse for the blacks he was trying to defend. Because of his harsh Reconstruction efforts, the KKK became a terrorist group and Jim Crow laws were foreordained.
- Was unable to uphold the progressive bills he signed for blacks in any meaningful way. On top of that, Grant was hypocritical; he tried having the southern blacks deported off the American continent to the Dominican Republic.
- Was responsible for some of the worst Indian massacres and injustices in history. He vocally opposed genocide, but it was mostly for show, and he had no problems with ethnic cleansing on a large scale as its “peaceful” alternative.
He’s on the $1000 dollar bill. He was president during the progressive era in the 1890s, but he black-heartedly opposed that agenda.
What made him a benevolent leader
- 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.)
- Brought back the gold standard and hard money policies.
What made him a pile of manure
- Vetoed 584 bills, making himself a one-man tyrant over an entire legislative body. No other president in history (save FDR) came close to wielding veto power like that.
- Refused to help Civil War veterans, refused basically to help anyone at all, and refused to lift a goddamn finger to aid Americans suffering from natural disaster.
- Shat on all the underdogs — blacks (he supported segregation as Constitutional, and refused to enforce the voting rights of African Americans), Chinese immigrants (he lobbied Congress to pass the Scott Act of 1888, which barred Chinese from reentering the U.S. if they left), women (he believed women had no place in politics and condemned the suffrage movement), and union workers (sent troops to break up the Pullman Strike of 1894, which was both shameful and illegal, as the governor of Illinois didn’t request any military aid). While Cleveland did give the Indians full citizenship, that actually ended up harming the Indian cause far more than helping it, since the Natives had to accept farming roles alien to them.
This mammoth example of misguided intentions is on the $500 dollar bill. Because of him, America became a trans-world empire, and his decisions to “rescue” other nations resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
How he made America better
- Brought immense prosperity by going on the gold standard.
How he made America toxic
- Set the nation on a path to becoming the world’s policeman. His Spanish-American War (over Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam) was one of the worst wars ever fought, resulting in needless death and torture. And if the U.S. was in the Philippines to ensure that its people enjoyed peace and order, why not extend that logic to making the U.S. responsible for the peace and well-being of every nation on the planet? That’s indeed the logic that would come to dominate in the 20th and 21st centuries.
- Sent troops to China for the Boxer Rebellion without Congressional approval, setting yet another bad precedent that would be followed by war-mongering presidents in the 20th and 21st centuries.
- Annexed Hawaii on the pretext that Hawaiians could not govern themselves, against the wishes of the Hawaiians and Queen Liliuokalani. At first Congress rejected McKinley’s annexation treaty (for violating the spirit of the Declaration of Independence), but they hypocritically ended up approving it for strategic reasons, once the Spanish American War began.
He’s on Mount Rushmore but absolutely shouldn’t be. If McKinley set the precedent for America becoming the world policeman, Teddy Roosevelt set an even worse precedent — that it was okay for the president to ignore the Constitution he swore to uphold.
- Urged the passing of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which was long overdue for the cause of sanitation and proper food labeling.
- Set aside 230 million acres of land into public trust, for national monuments, parks, forests, bird refugees, and game preserves. Teddy was a good environmental conservationist.
- Perverted the Monroe Doctrine and constantly meddled in other countries for lousy reasons.
- Declared a group of black soldiers guilty until proven innocent. Teddy believed that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”.
- Repeatedly flouted the Constitution, stating boldly that he could do anything he wanted “for the greater good”. While many presidents have flouted the Constitution, they usually try to obscure it or justify it somehow. Teddy was openly honest, stating that he could do what he wanted “for the greater good”. (Donald Trump is the first president since Teddy to be so drunk on his own self-regard; he too stated that he could “do whatever he wanted” as president — and that the Constitution itself gave him that license!)
This colossal zero is on the colossal one-hundred-thousand-dollar bill, and perhaps that’s fitting. Wilson symbolizes the massive amounts of dollars printed by the Federal Reserve. But he was an absolute zero — the absolute worst president in history — and it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see an executive disaster on this level again.
The good he did
- Virtually nothing at all. He lowered tariffs; that’s about it. Some would say that he pushed for the Nineteenth Amendment, but that’s being too charitable. Wilson reluctantly advocated for women’s voting rights out of concern for his image, only after punishing such women.
The harm he did
- Everything. He ruined the 20th century and beyond, and we’re still feeling the fallout today. If Wilson had kept America out of World War I (which he obviously should have), then the war would have ended sooner and for the better of all involved. History would have unfolded much differently. Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin were all monsters born of Woodrow Wilson’s policies.
- Intervened elsewhere, just as aggressively and needlessly. Wilson was the most catastrophically 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.
- Mismanaged the Spanish Flu. He downplayed the impact of this deadly virus and refused to implement extensive health measures that medical professionals were recommending to help slow its spread. Between October 1918 and April 2020, 675,000 Americans were killed by the Spanish Flu.
- 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.
- Crusaded for racist causes. 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.
- Made his presidency the worst time in American history for civil liberties. 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 any 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 of citizens for criticizing the war. He even outdid John Adams and Abraham Lincoln in this regard.
- In sum, by pushing the precedent set by McKinley to its extremes, Woodrow Wilson became president of the world more than of the United States. His catastrophic effect on both cannot be exaggerated.
He’s only on the dime, but like Abraham Lincoln he has been enshrined in myth as a near demigod. 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.
FDR at his best
- Won the war. From our hindsight perspective, World War II needed to be fought and won. But this wasn’t obvious at time. Up to the end of 1941 (Hitler didn’t start his mass execution of the Jews until well into 1942), if you had been forced to side with either Germany or the Soviet Union on purely moral grounds, you should probably have sided with Germany. Stalin had murdered millions in the ’30s, and FDR knew of that when he decided to become Stalin’s bosom-buddy (and outrageously whitewashed his image as “Uncle Joe”). America ended up on the right side of the war quite by accident. All FDR cared about was Germany’s expansive ambitions. The important outcome was that he won the war, being on the right side, and prosecuted it very efficiently. He left it in the hands of competent generals (unlike Lincoln during the Civil War) and didn’t micromanage them.
FDR at his worst
- Provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed, thereby lying and sneaking America into a war that most Americans didn’t want to be involved in.
- Created the New Deal. Aside from a few provisions, most of the New Deal was bad for the economy and prolonged the recession.
- 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.
- Used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested the war.
- Assaulted the Supreme Court by filling it with friendlies, and tried to add six justices to the court.
Ever since FDR especially, presidents have been evaluated by their charisma more than their actual policies. JFK, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were all charismatics, and so was Donald Trump for that matter (albeit a very boorish and crude charismatic). But charisma does not a good president make. We haven’t had a bona fide good president since Jimmy Carter, and before him Dwight Eisenhower.
We clearly need better role models than the ten presidents I’ve presented here who have been immortalized. Jefferson and Madison were okay overall, but the other eight were pretty abysmal. The only immortalized president who fully deserves his honors is (of course) George Washington. There are other excellent presidents, to be sure, but kids don’t learn much about them in school — John Tyler, Rutherford Hayes, and Warren Harding, for example — or if they do hear about them, it’s through a very jaded lens.