Making Things Worse: Ulysses Grant (1869-1877)

The first thing to say about Ulysses Grant is that despite his Republicanism, he was in some ways a kindred soul to his predecessor and political enemy Andrew Johnson. I was surprised when my scoring for Grant added up to the same as Johnson’s, and even more shocked when I learned about the similarities in both men’s personal views of African Americans. Historians seem rather blind to this.

The second thing to say is that Grant (like Warren Harding) is usually smeared for the wrong reasons. It’s true there was corruption in his administration, but those graft scandals came to light precisely because Grant took an active role in rooting them out. There was the Credit Mobilier scandal (directors of the Union Pacific Company paid themselves using government subsidies), the Whiskey Ring scandal (the treasury department gave whiskey distillers tax cuts in return for them funding Republican campaigns), and the Indian Ring Scandal (Grant’s Secretary of War, William Belknap, received kickback payments from a tradership, and Belknap resigned when he was caught). These scandals amounted to personal greed, and while greed is bad, it doesn’t compare to the evils of Constitutional offenses that threaten peoples’ rights. We’re a long way from Watergate or Iran-Contra with Ulysses Grant. In my scoring, Grant gets only minimally docked for the graft scandals.

Reconstruction and backlash

To his credit, Grant advocated for the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the government from denying voting rights to citizens based on race. It was ratified in 1870. He also signed the Enforcement Act of 1870 (which prohibited discrimination in voter registration and outlined penalties for voter interference), the Enforcement Act of 1871 (permitted federal oversight of local and state elections if at least two citizens request it), and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (provided for equal treatment in public accommodations, public transportation and prohibited exclusion from juries). The Civil Rights Act of 1875 wasn’t effectively enforced, however, and was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1883.

Grant created the Department of Justice in 1870 to fight terrorist groups in the South, and it began prosecuting members of the KKK. This was good in itself, but the irony tends to be lost: the KKK had turned into a terrorist organization precisely because of the harshness of the northern military occupation. The Klan had been founded in December 1865 as a social club; it was only after the Republicans sent in the military in March 1867 that the Klan became a violent political group. By 1868 the Klan’s backlash was in full force.

Grant was able to break the Klan in 1872 (it would be revived in 1915 under the calamitous presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the worst president ever), but Reconstruction was an overall failure. Nation-building strategies at gunpoint always are. Grant’s successor Rutherford Hayes wisely ended the occupation in 1877, but the damage had been done. Thanks to the military rule enforced by Grant and the Republican Congress, Jim Crow was waiting in the wings. The scars are felt to this day.

(Note: This is not to say that Lincoln and Johnson’s preference for appeasing the South was a better option than Congress and Grant’s. What was needed was something in-between an appeasement policy and a military occupation.)

Deporting the blacks

There is another stain on Grant’s record that often goes unmentioned. For all his support of civil rights legislation, he didn’t believe that blacks and whites could co-exist (in this he wasn’t far from Andrew Johnson). He wanted blacks deported off the American continent. To this end, in 1869 he tried to annex Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) as a United States territory with the promise of eventual statehood. He liked the idea of a strategic naval location in the Caribbean, but what he really wanted was to deport African Americans — more than four million ex-slaves — to the island, so they could be “safe and prosper” away from the American continent. By choosing a scheme to get blacks out of the country, Grant was fundamentally undermining his own Republican cause for liberty. Rather than defend the rights of black Americans and ensure that they enjoyed the full protection of the law, he planned to ship them away.

The Dominican president Buenaventura Báez was more than happy to sell his country for a profit, and Grant submitted his treaty for annexation in 1870. Thankfully it didn’t pass. Senate Chairman Sumner blasted Grant for bullying an impoverished weak nation into selling out its independence, and for attempting to graft an “imperial system” onto the American form of government. Grant’s proposal caused the division of the Republican party into two factions — the Radical Republicans loyal to Grant, and the Liberal Republicans allied with Sumner.

The Indians

Grant wasn’t much better here. He projected an outward face of benevolence to the Indians, but it was condescending in the extreme, and on his watch the Indians ended up suffering some of the worst massacres and injustices in history. He vocally opposed genocide, but had no problems with ethnic cleansing on a large scale as its “peaceful” alternative. All presidents must be judged by the context of their times, but even by 19th-century standards, Grant doesn’t look good. For all his rhetoric against genocide, his “peace policies” resulted in some of the most disproportionate slaughters of Indians in U.S. history.


On this point Grant’s praises can be sung. First he 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.

His greatest accomplishment was reversing Abraham Lincoln’s easy-money policy. To finance the Civil War, Lincoln had printed greenbacks which caused runaway inflation. By 1873 Grant had seriously reduced the greenback supply, but in 1874 Congress passed a bill to print more greenbacks — one hundred million dollars worth to “stimulate” the economy — which Grant courageously vetoed. His veto was actually upheld, and the greenbacks were eventually phased out. Thanks to Ulysses Grant (and his successor Rutherford Hayes, who continued the hard-money efforts), America prospered with a hard money policy for decades.

Some economists rank Grant as one of the top four fiscal presidents, the other three being Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, and James Monroe. Grant well deserves his place on this “Fiscal Mount Rushmore”. It goes a long way in keeping him out of the presidential cellar.


Grant is a somewhat tragic figure. I wish I could rank him higher.

His peace rating is quite bad. By trying to pass laws and enforcing them at gunpoint in the South, he (and Congress) made things worse for the blacks they were trying to defend. The KKK became a terrorist group and Jim Crow laws were foreordained. He must be further downgraded for the horribly disproportionate Indian slaughters that happened on his watch.

For prosperity and domestic policy he would deserve a perfect score of 20, but I dock him 2 for the graft scandals: a half point each for Credit Mobilier and Whiskey Ring; one point for Indian Ring, which involved his own appointment of Secretary of War. He doesn’t deserve to lose any more than that. Most historians would probably shave off 15 points for the graft scandals. But petty corruption isn’t as dangerous to a republic as bad policy or constitutional perversion.

For liberty 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 (and the Civil Rights Act of 1875 would be overturned less than a decade later). The South wasn’t ready to be radically socially re-engineered; and thanks largely to harsh reconstruction efforts, the real Civil Rights movement wouldn’t come for another 90 years. On top of that, Grant hardly believed in what he was fighting for; he tried having the southern blacks deported off the American continent.

Peace — 4/20
Prosperity — 18/20
Liberty — 7/20

TOTAL SCORE = 29/60 = Poor


The Guy No One Likes: Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

According to the C-Span historians, the two presidents who served right before and after the Civil War were the worst in history. I agree that James Buchanan was a failure in every way, but Andrew Johnson doesn’t quite belong in the cellar. He was an unsatisfactory president, not an abysmal one.

He was a virulent racist, and no one wants to go to bat for someone like that. But he is misjudged in ways that need correction. I will assess Johnson on the same basis I do the other presidents: on what his policies did for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty. His racism obviously matters, but only to the degree that it intrudes on his policies for the detriment of society.


Let’s get this part out of the way. Johnson was one of three presidents (four including Trump, at the time of this writing) who faced impeachment proceedings. Like Bill Clinton, he was impeached by the House but then acquitted by the Senate. Richard Nixon resigned before the House could impeach him. Nixon was only one who deserved to be impeached, as Watergate was a serious Constitutional offense. Clinton was rightfully acquitted: lying under oath about a sex scandal was a crime, but not a high crime or misdemeanor against the state. As for Johnson, the impeachment against him was a joke. All he was doing was rightfully defending the Constitution. And Congress hated him for it.

He vetoed the Tenure of Office Act of 1867, which prohibited a president from firing presidential office holders without the approval of the Senate. The Radical Republicans had passed this law only because they feared that Johnson would fire Edward Stanton, the Secretary of War — who was the Republicans’ spy in Johnson’s cabinet. Congress overrode his veto; Johnson, undaunted, fired Stanton in February ’68, and days later, the House impeached him.

Johnson rightfully argued that the whole affair was crassly unconstitutional, using precedents going back to 1789. As a check on presidential power, the Senate must approve presidential appointees, just as the Constitution requires. But a president should certainly be able to remove an officeholder without anyone else’s approval; a president needs people he can trust, pure and simple. (The Supreme Court finally vindicated Johnson’s reasoning in 1926.) It’s no surprise that Johnson was acquitted, even by Senators who loathed him.

For obviously, the real reason why Congress wanted Johnson gone is because he opposed their harsh Reconstruction policies in the South. Johnson’s impeachment was about politics, and only nominally for “crimes against the state”. He and Congress had a completely different view of how the South should be treated after the Civil War.

Reconstruction after the Civil War

Johnson, like Lincoln before him, believed in a kind Reconstruction policy in the South. Lincoln had wanted to welcome the southerners back into the union with minimal punishments and requirements, and that’s what Johnson pushed for after his boss’s assassination. He granted amnesty to white southerners who took a loyalty oath, and proposed to appoint governors to the defeated states; under their direction, new constitutions would be drafted abolishing slavery. However, Johnson thought it was far more important to re-integrate the South than to integrate African Americans, whom he considered inferior. In the first two years of his term, he vetoed legislation that would have helped blacks considerably. Most deplorably, he advised the states not to ratify the 14th Amendment, which established the full citizenship of blacks.

The Republican Congress, dissatisfied with Johnson, wanted a harsh Reconstruction policy — one that would socially re-engineer and completely overhaul a South that wasn’t even close to being ready for such change. They succeeded in implementing such a policy in March 1867. With the Military Reconstruction Acts, the south came under northern military rule for a whole decade. This was a grievous mistake.

And here is where Johnson is misunderstood. The common wisdom is that Johnson’s lenient policies in 1865-66 led to southern arrogance and the birth of the KKK. But the KKK had begun (on Christmas Eve, 1865) as a mere social club. It was only after the harsh military occupation in 1867 that the KKK evolved into something else. From 1868-72 the Klan became the band of terrorists we think of today, precisely in backlash against northern militancy.

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. Johnson was no help there; he 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 was a terrible idea. Whenever the U.S. tries nation-building strategies (“building democracy” at gunpoint), it fails. It failed in the South, just as it would later fail in countries like Vietnam and Iraq.

The North won the war, but the South unfortunately won the Peace. What should have happened after the war, in my view, is something between Lincoln and Johnson’s overly kind attitude to the South, and the severity of Republican Reconstructionism — a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash against African Americans. This is what Ivan Eland suggests:

“If southern states had respected the repeal of slavery, black voting rights, and civilian federal officials carrying out federal functions in the South, they could have been restored to representation in Congress. Universal pardons, with rare exceptions for war atrocities, could have been given to Confederate rebels. However, draconian military rule, social re-engineering of the South, and attempts at confiscation of southern land and property should have been avoided. Instead of confiscating the land belonging to southerners, both presidents Johnson and Grant should have identified the considerable amount of unowned land in the South and distributed it to African Americans.” (Recarving Rushmore, pp 133-34)

Had we gone in a direction like that, the KKK may have died in its crib, Jim Crow never come to pass, and the plight of African Americans made considerably less arduous.

The Economy

Times were good under Johnson. If historians rank him in the cellar, some economists put him on Mount Rushmore. One such ranking places him among the four best presidents for national economic growth (along with Warren Harding, Ulysses Grant, and James Monroe). To be fair, Johnson had the luxury of being a post-war president, when there was a large transfer of resources from the government back to the private sector. But he still made remarkably good fiscal choices and fought inflation.

Also to his credit, he purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867. And despite all his racist vetoes of progressive legislation, he signed the extension of the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave public land in five states (Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida) to white and black settlers, on a completely non-discriminatory basis.


Andrew Johnson is hard to pin down. For a peace rating he deserves credit for opposing a military occupation of the south, but I downgrade him severely for advocating this cause in a completely racist way that called down the wrath of Republican military measures. For prosperity he’s near perfect, but I give him 15 instead of 20 points, because he had an easy advantage being a president after a major war. His liberty rating is appalling (for all his racist vetoes, and for lobbying states to not ratify the 14th Amendment), but I throw him 2 points for for the extension of the Homestead Act, and 4 points for holding his ground against the ridiculous and unconstitutional attempt to impeach him.

Peace — 8/20
Prosperity — 15/20
Liberty — 6/20

TOTAL SCORE = 29/60 = Poor

The Second Doughface: James Buchanan (1857-1861)

People are saying that if Pete Buttigieg is elected in 2020, he will become the first openly gay president, but they obviously don’t know about James Buchanan. The fifteenth president’s intimate friendship with William Rufus King of Alabama, plus his lifelong bachelorhood, have pegged him as gay in the eyes of many historians. So there’s my gossip for today.

Getting down to what matters, James Buchanan was a presidential disaster; one of the worst chief executives in American history, and indeed a complete failure. This is widely agreed on, and so this entry will hardly be seen as controversial by most people, save perhaps on a couple of points.

Buchanan has nothing going for him; nothing at all. His predecessor Franklin Pierce could at least boast a robust fiscal policy that kept the nation well off. Buchanan irresponsibly increased the federal budge by 15% over his term, and his administration was one of the most corrupt in American history. The Panic of 1857 began six months into his term, and Buchanan just made things worse and caused a four-year recession.

Dreadful Dred Scott

In all other ways, Buchanan was like Pierce — a northerner who went out of his way to accommodate, encourage, and inflame the southern cause — and even worse. When he took office, the Supreme Court was considering the famous case of the slave Dred Scott, who was suing for his freedom. His master had moved from Missouri (a slave state) to Illinois and Wisconsin (free regions), then back to Missouri again; Scott claimed that he and his wife should be granted their freedom because they had lived in Illinois and Wisconsin Territory for four years. The laws in those places stated that slaveholders gave up their rights to slaves if they stayed there for a long time. In a 7-2 decision — and one of the worst (if not the worst) Supreme Court decision of all time — the justices ruled that Scott’s temporary residence outside Missouri did not emancipate him. In fact they declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to be unconstitutional, as it would “improperly deprive slave owners of their legal property”. That ruling was bad enough, but Buchanan’s lobbying for this result was appalling. He violated the separation of powers by using his executive clout to sway the court.

Buchanan’s support for the South got so extreme that it divided the Democratic Party, and he made no effort to heal that rift. On the contrary, he inflamed it, choosing like-minded Democrats for his cabinet — four from the south, and three doughfaces from the north who approved the southern cause. Then came the next outrage.

The Lecompton Affair

Picking up where Franklin Pierce left off, Buchanan showed his doughface in the Kansas crisis. Ever since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the Kansas Territory had become a battleground. Pro slavery forces and abolitionists were at each others’ throats. A pro-slavery faction in Lecompton, Kansas drafted a constitution that allowed slavery, and they encouraged pro-slavery residents of Missouri to state-hop and vote illegally in Kansas, while even denying Kansas residents a vote if they favored a free state. The Lecompton government adopted a slave code that allowed only pro-slavery people to be office holders, and 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 (of course) favored Lecompton over Topeka, and sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress to be approved — using bribes and threatening jobs to get the thing passed. His bribes came in all forms: cash, commissions, even whores.

The Senate passed the Lecompton constitution in 1858, but the House voted it down. Buchanan refused to give up, and tried bribing Kansas, promising to get them their statehood fast if they accepted the Lecompton constitution. Kansas, utterly incensed with Buchanan by this point, said no and adopted instead the antislavery Wyandotte constitution, entering the union as a free state in 1861.

Thanks to Buchanan, the Democratic Party split between northern and southern factions. Pierce’s shenanigans had caused enough outrage that the Republican Party was born. Buchanan — by trying to ram through an admission of a slave-state Kansas against the wish of its own people, and by using every fraudulent means at hand — had enraged the northern Democrats to a breaking point.

It was Pierce and Buchanan’s appalling interventions in Kansas that pushed the nation to Civil War, not slavery per se. And at the end of Buchanan’s term, the South wanted out.

To secede or not to secede…

Buchanan 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 the Articles of Confederation) 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 in 1850, by strengthening southern forts and sending in military forces to stop secession. Either option would have averted the imminent war. Instead, Buchanan sat on his laurels and said his hands were tied.

Hating on the Mormons

Of course, Buchanan knew very well that the had the right to put down secession if he so chose. His action against the Mormons in Utah proves it. Going on the flimsiest rumors, he assumed the Mormon government to be in revolt, and immediately dispatched a 2,500-man army and a federal governor to replace Brigham Young. He didn’t hesitate for a moment to crush (what he perceived to be) the “Mormon rebellion”. But then Buchanan hated the Mormons, and loved the South.

Aggressive foreign policies

Everyone hated Buchanan. He wanted Congress to give him the authority to gather a military force for a “preventive invasion of Mexico”, and to erect military posts across the border from Arizona. Republicans and northern Democrats — and even some southern Democrats — opposed this crass belligerence, and Congress refused him.

He tried to buy Alaska from Russia but failed, and he wanted Cuba too (to make both slave states). He negotiated a treaty with Nicaragua that would have allowed the U.S. to dispatch military forces as it saw fit, but the Senate rejected it. Buchanan was as bellicose as he was nefarious.


In sum, James Buchanan has the honor of being one of three presidents on my list (the other two being Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush) who was a complete failure.

Peace — 4/20
Prosperity — 3/20
Liberty — 0/20

TOTAL SCORE = 7/60 = Complete Failure

The First Doughface: Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)

The only U.S. President from my home state is rather embarrassing. He ran for office against a hero he had served under in the Mexican War, but he was certainly no hero himself, and the butt of endless jokes: widely ridiculed for falling of his horse, fainting in battle, and loving booze more than his wife — the “hero of many a well-fought bottle”. But he did win the election, against the odds, and the tragedy is that he could have been a fairly decent executive if not for his doughface shenanigans.

Franklin Pierce was fiscally prudent and paid down the national debt by an astonishing 83%. This you can say for him: he merits a high prosperity rating. But everything else torpedoes his overall ranking.

Crusading for the South

He bought the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico (1854) — tracts of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico — nominally to build railroads to the Pacific, but really to expand southern areas in his ongoing cause to stick a knife in anti-slavery whenever he could. He wasn’t just a northerner who stuck up for southern slave rights. He actively crusaded for the southern cause.

That’s why he tried to acquire Cuba — to make it a slave state. The southern states feared the Spanish were about to free their slaves in Cuba, which might give American slaves rebellious ideas. To increase southern voting power, Pierce threatened the Spanish to give up Cuba. The northern states were absolutely opposed to adding Cuba the union, let alone by force, and it didn’t happen. On the other hand, when presented with the opportunity to add Hawaii to the union, Pierce refused. Hawaii, after all, would have almost certainly entered as a free state.

And those aren’t the worst of his doughface sins. Pierce endorsed the calamitous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed those two vast territories (click on the right map to enlarge) to determine whether or not they would be slave states. The Compromise of 1850 had allowed the same decision for the New Mexico and Utah territories, but that was a hollow victory for the south given that nearby Mexico had outlawed slavery, there wasn’t an abundance of slaves around those regions anyway, and the land itself in those regions wasn’t conducive to a slave industry. The Kansas Nebraska territories threw the door wide open to awful possibilities.

Pierce went out of his way to make those possibilities real. It wasn’t enough for him to endorse the legislation. He actually injected himself into the territories’ decision-making process, by 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, and a mini-civil war broke out in Kansas. Thus was born the Republican Party (in 1854), in opposition to the causes of slavery.

Fillmore vs. Pierce

Historians usually say that it was Millard Fillmore’s signing of the Compromise of 1850, which contained the Fugitive Slave Act, that made the Civil War inevitable. That’s not true at all. It was rather Pierce’s appalling shenanigans in the Kansas-Nebraska territories that put the nation on the road to war.

Even at the point of 1854, however, it’s inaccurate to say that the Civil War was inevitable. It was starting to look very likely, with increasing numbers of hotheads on both sides, but there were still alternatives. The British Empire had eliminated slavery in the 1833-38 period, and even “backwater” Mexico had ended the practice in 1829, and they both did so without resorting to war. A good president could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. The cost of such an emancipation would have been far less than the financial costs of the Civil War, not to mention the colossal cost of human lives (600,000, including 38,000 African Americans). Alas, Pierce’s shenanigans didn’t allow for calmer minds to prevail.

There is one good thing you can say for Pierce’s peace record. He signed the Canadian Reciprocity Treaty, thereby ending a long-standing dispute with Canada over fishing rights. The treaty also specified clearer borders between the nations, and got rid of tariffs on products traded between America and Canada. That, and Pierce’s good fiscal management, is pretty much all there is in his favor.

Peace — 4/20
Prosperity — 17/20
Liberty — 2/20

TOTAL SCORE = 23/60 = Poor

Hidden Strength: Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Millard Fillmore doesn’t have the best reputation among scholars. He’s often lumped uncritically with the doughfaces that followed him, but in fact he was a much better and stronger president than either Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. Let’s review his record.

The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise had the following provisions:

  • California would bypass the territory phase and enter the union as a free state
  • New Mexico and Utah would determine for themselves whether they would be slave or free states
  • Texas would cede certain territory to New Mexico, and in return Texas’s debts would be paid
  • Slave trade (but not slave owning itself) would be banned in Washington DC
  • The Fugitive Slave Act would require people to return escaped slaves to their owners, and would be enforced by federal marshals, not the states.

Historians have blasted Fillmore for the last part — the Fugitive Slave Act — saying that it was a trigger for the Civil War, inciting northerners against slavery. There are three problems with this indictment.

(1) The Fugitive Slave Act certainly did make the hunting of slaves more visible to people in the north. It woke people up and caused outrage. Turning people in the north against slavery was a good result of Fillmore’s presidency, not a bad one. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which had profound effects on northern passions. But the Civil War itself was certainly not inevitable at this point.

(2) The North was the slam-dunk winner in the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act was the singular Southern-friendly part that meant anything. The other parts either favored the north or threw the south crumbs. Slavery would be allowed in New Mexico and Utah, but slavery had been outlawed by the Mexican government, so there were no slaves around there at the time, and the land was badly suited for slavery in any case. No one operating in real-world politics can call the Fugitive Slave Act a sell-out with a straight face.

(3) Historians say that Fillmore shouldn’t have put slavery in a Constitutional framework, but a moral one. That’s impossible to take seriously, given that these same specialists never hold the twelve presidents before Fillmore to the same standard. Fillmore was a man of his time, just like his predecessors.

Fillmore should be commended. He was personally against slavery, but as president he knew it was his job to uphold the laws until slavery could be peacefully abolished, and to get us much for the north as possible. That’s what the Compromise of 1850 achieved.

Facing Down Rebels, Opening Japan, Protecting Hawaii, Mending Relations with Latin America, Avoiding War with Cuba

All of that, yes. In his short two and a half years as president, Fillmore was on a roll:

Texas. Before the Compromise of 1850 passed, Texas had threatened to seize a disputed area in New Mexico. Civil war threatened, but Fillmore diffused the situation by sending troops to New Mexico and a warning to Texas.

South Carolina. After the Compromise of 1850 was passed, South Carolina made preparations to secede from the union. Fillmore reinforced forts around Charleston and sent troops to the Carolina regions which prompted outrage. He held his ground, saying that as Commander and Chief he could station troops where he bloody well pleased if he believed it was in the nation’s best interest. This was the second time Fillmore diffused a tinderbox situation that could have exploded into civil war.

Japan. In 1852 he ordered Commodore Perry to open Japan to trade. Japan had been an isolated nation since 1639, and Fillmore wanted to change that, not only for trade but so that American ships could stop and resupply in Japan while en route to China and Southeast Asia. He also wanted the Japanese to stop abusing American shipwrecked sailors who were stranded on Japanese shores. Perry arrived in Tokyo Bay in 1853, and eventually negotiated the Treaty of Kanagawa (signing it in 1854, after Fillmore left office) which gave the U.S. the right to trade and resupply in the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate. Japan also agreed to protect shipwrecked sailors. The only bad part about the opening of Japan is that it was done by coercion: Fillmore ordered Perry to use gunboat diplomacy if necessary.

Hawaii. Napoleon III had seized Honolulu in 1849, and then withdrew. Fillmore resisted demands for annexation, and then in 1851 the French made a list of demands on the Hawaiian king that would have established a French protectorate. Wisely enforcing the Monroe Doctrine, Fillmore pushed the French away, and they interfered no more. Hawaiian independence was preserved.

Latin America. James Polk had strained relations with this region by making the Canal Zone a virtual U.S. Colony — a less than admirable use of the Monroe Doctrine. (Polk’s foreign policy was basically the Monroe Doctrine on steroids.) Fillmore began a good-neighbor policy toward the region, and improved relations with Mexico, arranging for American businessmen to buy Peruvian dung for fertilizer instead of getting it by force.

Cuba. Back in 1849 a Venezuelan named Narciso Lopez had recruited Americans from the South to liberate Cuba from Spain. The Southerners were running out of ways to expand slavery on the continent, and wanted to add Cuba to the union as another slave state. President Zachary Taylor prevented the attempt. When they tried it again on Fillmore’s watch, he warned sternly that he would not protect anyone captured by Spain for trying to overthrow its colonial government. Things went ahead anyway, and badly, and the Spanish executed two American citizens. Fillmore lived up to his word, wisely avoiding retaliation and war, while also working out a settlement where the American prisoners were released from Cuba.


Historians deride James Buchanan a failure (and they are correct) for doing nothing when states started rebelling and seceding from the union. Yet they treat Millard Fillmore as another Buchanan, when Fillmore faced down rebellion not once, but twice, in Texas and Southern Carolina. These historians then ignore Fillmore’s other impressive accomplishments — with Japan, Hawaii, Latin America, and Cuba. And they fault him for the Compromise of 1850, instead of giving him the praise he deserves.

I dock him two peace points for opening Japan by means of coercion. Other than that, his peace record is flawless. For prosperity, he did okay. However, he did heavily subsidize railroad construction in the west, and there were plenty of private railroads to make this welfare unnecessary; it basically amounted to taxpayer money being redirected into the pockets of rich railroad barons. For liberty, Fillmore does deserve to be docked some for the Fugitive Slave Act — its nature being what it is — but not nearly to the extent most historians would have it, for the reasons explained above. For a compromise, the Compromise of 1850 was a resounding victory for the north, kept the nation at peace, and made northerners care about the African American plight in the south.

Peace — 18/20
Prosperity — 11/20
Liberty — 15/20

TOTAL SCORE = 44/60 = Good

This isn’t the record of a bad president at all, nor even a mediocre one. Fillmore was pretty damn good.

The Eighties Era: Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

I came of age in the eighties, and so Ronald Reagan was the first president I had meaningful opinions about. Those opinions were less than flattering, I assure you. Everything bad about the ’80s I associated with Reaganism: the exaggerated Communist menace; fake tax cuts for the rich; the return to ’50s family values and the importance of the nuclear family, over against the creative and transgressive individualism of the ’70s. All of this permeated outside the realm of politics — into art, film, TV, and music. From the age of 12 to 20 I took in these evils, as I saw them, and lamented not growing up in the more liberating decades of the ’60s and ’70s; under any other president (except Nixon).

My parents, friends, like-minded liberals, and I thought Reagan was a war-monger, out for communist blood at every turn. He made the rich richer and the poor poorer. He was a crook; the televised Iran-Contra hearings made it plain. And he was a fascist above all, escalating the war on drugs to insane levels. If you had asked me to score Reagan when he left office back in ’89, on the scale I’m using throughout this president series, I would have thrown him no more than 3 out of 20 points each for the causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty — for a total grade of perhaps 9/60; a lousy president indeed. And that’s pretty much how Ivan Eland grades him in Recarving Rushmore: peace 2, prosperity 5, and liberty 3, for 10/60, which puts Reagan down in the presidential cellar at #35.

More recently, my opinions of Reagan have undergone something of a reassessment. Not only is he not as bad as I once thought, he ranks in the top half of my list. When this series is finally done, he will place at #18 (as an “average” president).

It’s hard to be objective about Reagan because he’s enshrined in so much myth — sort of like FDR. Roosevelt had been his hero before ’62 (when Reagan converted to Republicanism), and it showed in some of the ways he mimicked FDR, like with charismatic one-liners. “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” became embedded in our ’80s conscious like Roosevelt’s, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Like FDR, Reagan is venerated by fans and demonized by foes. I just gave you the demonic Reagan I believed in growing up.

I will assess the trio of Reagan myths, in their positive and negative spins, and try to get at what the “real Reagan” did for causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty.

1. Foreign Policy

The first myth, in its positive spin, is that Reagan won the Cold War. The counter myth, held by enemies, is that he was a war-monger. Neither is true.

(a) The Cold War

Like Carter before him, Reagan believed that Communism was an immoral system that crushed people’s liberties, and was bound to implode. He was right about this, and so it’s astonishing that he didn’t have the courage of his convictions to just let the Soviet empire to collapse on its own. Instead he reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets (one of Nixon’s rare commendable foreign achievements) and raised the specter of nuclear war. Yet for all his strident anti-Soviet rhetoric, Reagan didn’t “win” the Cold War.

The Soviet Union collapsed because of its overextension and lousy economy. That economy had begun to weaken as early as the ’60s; by the ’80s the nation was practically a Third-World status. Communism is 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. This was something Dwight Eisenhower understood: possessions, not weapons, would win the Cold War; communism not only made people poor, it kept them poor forever and ate its own tail. It’s a tragedy that presidents after Eisenhower didn’t just wait out the Soviet Union — to know that capitalism would triumph over communism without resorting to huge amounts of military spending in order to “contain” communism. Excessive military spending, in any case, undermines investment in the civilian economy which is critical to a healthy republic.

Eisenhower was a prophet, and in mid-1989 (well after Reagan left office in January, and shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall in November), Gorbachev faced the music. The Red Army and $40 billion in annual subsidies could no longer prop up and stabilize Eastern Europe’s communist regimes. Two and a half years later (in December 1991) the Soviet Empire dissolved. This outcome had naught to do with Reagan; his military buildup didn’t accelerate that slide. According to Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, “The idea that the Reagan defense buildup somehow spent the Soviets into collapse is a legend of remarkable untruth. The now-open Soviet archives also prove there never was a Soviet-defense spending offensive.” The Soviets collapsed because they kept over-extending themselves into breadbasket countries; they had been declining since the ’60s, and kept declining during the ’80s — regardless of any provocation from the U.S.

(b) War on other fronts

And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched missions elsewhere. He attacked Libya in ’81. He sent forces to Lebanon in ’82. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops in October ’83. (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders tend to beat a hasty retreat.) His invasion of Grenada two days later followed as a diversion from the Lebanon fiasco: a “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; there was actually no viable threat in that region at all. Later in ’86, he picked another fight with Gaddafi in Libya. The common wisdom is that Reagan “put Gaddafi back in his box” and made him give up terrorism, but Gaddafi just went underground and used proxy groups to keep terrorizing. Prior to Reagan’s provocations, Gaddafi focused on non-U.S. targets, but now he began targeting Americans, resulting in the 1988 bombing of U.S.-bound flight Pan Am 103. (I attended Bishop Guertin High School with Steve Boland, one of the victims on the flight.)

Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but it made little sense for Reagan to go after him, especially when he was hypocritically supporting Islamic jihadists who were far worse. Continuing where Jimmy Carter left off, Reagan kept funding the mujaheddin (Islamic guerilla fighters) in Afghanistan and Pakistan, promoting Islamism to fight the Soviets who had invaded. Out of that manipulative mess, of course, would step Osama Bin Laden.

In spite of all this, however, Reagan was no war-monger. He only looks that way in the wake of Ford and Carter, who had pursued policies of remarkable restraint. When compared to the Johnson and Nixon eras, and the most recent Bush and Obama eras, Reagan emerges as a surprisingly moderate interventionist. Under him, at least, we weren’t bogged down in an equivalent to the Southeast Asian or Middle-East fiascos that drained the American economy and got outrageously high numbers of peoples slaughtered for no good reason.

For that matter, even when compared to his successor, Reagan doesn’t look too terrible. The elder Bush began a downward spiraling of events to which there would be no end in sight. He planted a permanent military presence on the ground in the Persian Gulf, and we’re still reaping the consequences of that decision today. Reagan, for all his serious “war faults”, was neither a war monger like Johnson and Nixon, nor a hawk like both Bushes and Obama.

2. Domestic Policy

The second myth is that Reagan was a fiscal conservative, cut of the same cloth as Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. There is less to this claim than meets the eye.

Fiscal image

In fact, Reagan was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton (both Democrats, ironically), and he spent loads, not least on defense and his Star Wars program. He gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. As economists often point out, tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either (a) the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), (b) government borrowing has to increase, or (c) the government has to print money to cause inflation. Any of these methods rob the productive sector. Also, because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting mostly the rich.

There is irony here, considering Reagan’s president of choice: Calvin Coolidge. He placed Coolidge’s portrait in the Cabinet Room of the White House, and looked to Coolidge as a model. Coolidge is indeed a superb role model, as was Warren Harding before him. Both Harding and Coolidge gave America the Roaring Twenties prosperity, the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since. Reagan aspired to be like these men but fell short. He cut taxes like they did, but only Harding and Coolidge also cut federal spending, without which, again, tax cuts are meaningless. Of all post-World War II Republican presidents, Reagan actually ended up having the least annual net tax cuts as a percentage of U.S. economic output (called gross domestic product or GDP). He simply raised taxes in less conspicuous portions of the government revenue stream, giving major tax increases in all but two years of an eight-year presidency. Frankly, I marvel at “conservatives” who make taxes their single-voting issue, but are then very easily duped by sly, unobtrusive tax increases and federal spending as a portion of GDP. Reagan increased federal spending at an average of 2.5% per year.

In contrast, Harding, Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Clinton all reduced federal spending as a percentage of GDP. (They were the only 20th-century presidents to do this.) To be fair, Harding, Eisenhower, and Clinton had the advantage of being presidents serving right after a war or cold war had ended, which obviously allowed them more freedom in spending cuts. But they could have easily done what other post-war presidents do, by simply redirecting military spending to government initiatives. They didn’t.

In short: Reagan’s defense spending, fake tax cuts, and vast accumulation of government debt puts to bed the myth of his fiscal conservatism. By the time the elder Bush took office, his administration was complaining loudly that Reagan’s sins had over-stressed the budget. It’s funny that Reagan had always derided those who wanted a free lunch. That’s precisely what he gave himself by slashing taxes while spending to his heart’s content. He left a deficit mess for Bush and Clinton to clean up, which Clinton did. As Alan Greenspan later said: “The hard truth was that Reagan had borrowed from Clinton, and Clinton had to pay it back.”

And yet…

There is no denying the ’80s prosperity, and the thanks goes largely to the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker (under Carter and Reagan), and then Alan Greenspan (under Reagan’s final two years), two budget hawks who sucked inflation out of the system with tight money policies. Jimmy Carter deserves the foremost credit for hiring Volcker to begin with (and infuriating the Democrats so badly that it killed his chances at a second term). But Reagan deserves plenty of credit too. He kept Volcker on for six years, despite protests from his inner circle. He allowed Volcker (and then Greenspan) to do their dirty but necessary work of tight money policies.

In other words, the ’80s were prosperous because of Reagan, but also despite him. The Fed was kept under a conservative management while the executive worked at liberal purpose.

3. Liberty

The third myth says that Reagan’s scandals have been exaggerated. Others say the opposite, that Reagan was an anti-liberty fascist. Neither is true.

(a) The Iran-Contra Scandal

I don’t believe in blowing administrative scandals out of proportion unless they really need to be. Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding, for example, have been way over-maligned. Their graft scandals had to do with money-grubbing greed, not constitutional treachery. Neither Grant nor Harding were implicated in their scandals; they were ultimately responsible for appointing some dishonest men. So what? Name a single presidential administration that doesn’t have problems like that.

But unlike the graft scandals of Grant and Harding, the Watergate scandal of Nixon and the Iran-Contra scandal of Reagan amounted to serious constitutional offenses. The Nixon administration tried using security agencies to spy on people and cover up its dirty tricks. The Regan administration violated a criminal law and its own international arms embargo by selling weapons at high prices to a terrorist sponsoring nation (Iran), in order to ransom hostages held in Lebanon by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group. Even aside from the criminality, this was a shockingly bad policy decision, as it simply led to the kidnapping of more hostages. It also gave lie to Reagan’s claims that he didn’t negotiate with terrorists. Reagan then used the inflated proceeds from the sales they made to Iran to violate an explicit congressional ban on providing assistance to the Contra rebels, who were trying to overthrow the Sandinista Marxists in Nicaragua. Funding a secret war in violation of a congressional ban is an assault on the American checks and balances system, and it emasculates Congress of its most important power: to direct where federal money is spent.

In sum, Reagan broke international law and usurped Congress’ power of the purse in order to continue a secret war even after he was told by Congress to end it. That’s a very serious offense, and I remember the day this all went public — Thanksgiving Eve in ’86. By May ’87 Reagan had owned up to the fact that the Iran-Contra affair was all his idea.

(b) The Drug War

The second major stain on Reagan’s liberty record involves another comparison to Nixon, who had launched the drug war in June ’71. The drug war was scaled back in the Carter years (Carter had favored the decriminalization of marijuana), and then Reagan zealously escalated the war, starting a long period of relentless incarceration. The drug war represents one of the worst liberty assaults in America’s history. Aside from free speech, there is no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully steward the contents of one’s own consciousness. Ruining the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them, at enormous expense, is alone an embarrassing national failure. That we make room for these people in our prisons by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters is obscene.

The public was brainwashed into accepting the obscenity throughout the ’80s, thanks mostly to media portrayals of people addicted to the smokeable form of cocaine (“crack”), and also to Nancy Reagan’s widely publicized anti-drug campaign. By the end of Reagan’s two terms, polls showed that (yes) 64% of Americans saw drug abuse as the nation’s number one problem. Seriously.

(c) Martin Luther King Day

The drug war and Iran-Contra Affair so permeated our consciousness in the ’80s that it seemed almost impossible to put “Reagan” and “liberty” in the same sentence without negative qualifiers. But it turns out that Reagan did significant things for the cause of liberty. First he approved Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday (though he had initially opposed it), signing it into effect on November 2, 1983. It went to effect three years later, in January ’86, and has been since celebrated as a federal holiday every January. Equally important is what this triggered on the state level. Prior to ’83, only 13 states (Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Kentucky, Ohio, Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, and California) observed MLK Day. With the federal holiday signed into law, Reagan started a domino effect of state acceptance. Watch the domino effect play out on this map. Increasing numbers of schools closed to celebrate the holiday, and more government employees got paid leave. There was increased awareness of racial injustice.

(d) Immigration

Reagan also signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to almost 3 million illegal aliens — the largest amnesty ever granted to hard working immigrants. This is sometimes swept under the rug by modern Reaganites who are hostile to immigration, but it is to Reagan’s immense credit that he supported immigrants to this degree. From an American perspective, of course, welcoming immigrants is a mark of enlightened thinking. The nation was founded by immigrants and has prided itself on being open to diversity. But even from the more mercenary perspective, immigration has always been the life’s blood of the U.S., infusing new ideas and skills into the market. Immigration gives the country new jobs, new businesses, new inventions. The immigrants create new populations of people who buy things. People tend to fear job competition in times of hardship or depression — and the threat of having jobs “stolen” from them — but the fact is that a bigger workforce means more consumption and more demand.

(e) The Supreme Court: The “Two Anthony’s”

Reagan deserves immense credit for two of his appointments to the Supreme Court: “the two Anthony’s”, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. They served exactly 30 years a piece (Scalia from 1986-2016, Kennedy from 1988-2018) and we can now fully appreciate the influence each has had in the cause of judicial liberty. For Scalia it was originalism that mattered; interpreting the law with respect to the framers’ intentions, and not legislating from the bench for desired outcomes. For Kennedy, it was about ensuring that the liberty enshrined in the Constitution be given its full meaning, for the liberty of all citizens, and not just white heterosexual men.

Here’s a handful of noteworthy court opinions by Scalia and Kennedy.

Flag-burning (Scalia and Kennedy):  In 1989, both Scalia and Kennedy joined the three liberals on the Court to protect the right to burn the American flag (Texas v. Johnson). While people wondered if Kennedy might swing in this direction, no one predicted that an arch-conservative like Scalia would not only join the liberals, but unreservedly — without even filing a separate opinion. And it’s noteworthy that Scalia later said that he personally wished that he could put flag-burners in jail, but that the First Amendment didn’t allow him that. This showed him to be far more principled than his accusers ever gave him credit for. Texas v. Johnson was a narrow 5-4 case, and if not for Reagan justices Scalia and Kennedy, I’m sure the outcome would have been different. Today the greatest threats to the First Amendment come from the left, but back in the ’80s they came from the right; I remember us all worrying that flag-burning would actually become illegal. Thanks to the two Anthonys — who both ruled against the grain of their rightist views — that’s not the case.

Abortion (Kennedy):  In 1992, Kennedy was the swing voter who reaffirmed the right to abortion. Planned Parenthood v. Casey was a landmark decision that upheld an earlier decision (Roe v. Wade), on both a constitutional basis and the importance of precedent. The idea is that prior judicial rulings should be upheld even if they are unpopular (unless there is a change in the fundamental reasoning involved in the previous decision). In this case, an entire generation of women had come of age free to assume the concept of liberty enshrined in Roe v. Wade, and it’s a liberty that should be protected. (Scalia dissented, showing the problems when his originalism was applied too narrowly.)

Terror Suspects (Scalia): In 2004, Scalia on the one hand dissented against the majority’s ruling that foreign detainees at Guantanamo should have access to U.S. federal courts (in Rasul v. Bush), arguing (rightly in my view) that detention policy and practice is an executive function during wartime, and not subject to judicial review. On the other hand, on the same day, Scalia went the other way (in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld), dissenting in the most liberal way possible — in favor of full due process for detainees who are actual American citizens. The case involved Yaser Hamdi, an American who grew up in Saudi Arabia and was captured by Taliban fighters in 2001, then later taken and detained in South Carolina as an enemy combatant. Scalia was one of only two justices (Stevens was the other) who was willing to take the uncompromising (and most liberal) stand that an American citizen could not be detained as an enemy combatant; he must either be charged and tried under normal criminal law, or be freed altogether. His view (again the correct one in my view) was that there could be no middle ground, and that the court’s only job is to determine whether or not an arrest is constitutional or not, and then order the person’s release or proper arrest — not to invent a new process for detention, as the majority ended up doing. Because of that majority, for the first time ever, the Supreme Court had on the one hand conferred constitutional rights to non-Americans (in Rasul), while on the other hand restricting American rights of due process (in Hamdi). Scalia’s positions show how his originalist doctrine has been unfairly maligned as overly-conservative. Originalism, as the cases of Rasul and Hamdi show, is blind to conservative/liberal outcomes; it favors the result it must.

Violent Videogames (Scalia): In 2011, Scalia wrote for the majority (Brown v. Entertainment Merchants) against the state of California’s attempt to criminalize the sale of violent video games to minors. California was trying to treat violent games like cigarettes and alcohol, and Scalia, even as a parental conservative, would have none of it, declaring that video games — like movies, books, music and all other art forms — are are protected by the First Amendment.

Gay Marriage (Kennedy):  In 2015, Kennedy wrote for the majority, explaining that the Due Process Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment make same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. It’s important to note that gay marriage was upheld on the basis of the Constitution itself, in the same way that Loving vs. Virginia invalidated bans on interracial unions in 1967, and that Turner vs. Safley did the same for prisoners in 1987. The right to freedom of contract has long been understood as a most basic liberty protected by the Constitution, and from the government’s point of view, that’s all marriage is: a contract. (Scalia dissented on the basis of his originalism, begging the question, and as with Planned Parenthood, showing the limits of originalism when embraced too literally.)

Whatever Reagan saw in Scalia and Kennedy, the fact is that he appointed them, and the cause of liberty was overwhelmingly better for it for three decades. The impact of these justices on legal thought can hardly be overstated. Had Reagan appointed more garden-variety conservatives, the texture of today’s jurisprudence would be far less robust. And Scalia’s legacy lives on in his replacement: the Trump appointment of Neil Gorsuch has given the court another originalist who has shown himself willing to side with liberal justices as often as with the other conservatives, wherever the law takes him.


As much as the TV series Stranger Things has enabled me to rediscover good things about growing up in the ’80s, a careful study of all the presidents has cast Reagan in a better light when seen from a distance. Here’s how I score him:

Peace (foreign policy). For going after the weak non-strategic countries of Libya, Lebanon, and Grenada (almost as if to prove that the Vietnam Syndrome was in the past, yet America is “still tough”), I dock him a point each for those needless excursions. For the arms race (that cost the taxpayers dearly) and for raising the specter of nuclear war with the Soviets, when the Soviet empire was doing a fine job killing itself on its own, I dock him 4 points. And for using Islamic jihadists to fight communist forces, another 4 points (just as I docked Carter). He left much to be desired in foreign policy, but he was not abysmal like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W Bush, and Barack Obama.

Prosperity (domestic policy). For a decade of prosperity, Reagan deserves a strong measure of credit, especially for leaving the Fed in the hands of Volcker and Greenspan. I dock him for that prosperity being slanted towards the already wealthy (-2), and because it was offset by Reagan’s own extremely liberal spending policies (-4).

Liberty. If you had asked me in the ’80s to score the liberty record of a man who approved the Iran-Contra affair and escalated the drug war, I might have given the goose egg. But Reagan deserves credit for the federal MLK holiday (which encouraged more states to swiftly follow suit), his amnesty to millions of immigrants, and for appointing excellent Supreme Court judges who have had important and lasting effect.

Peace — 9/20
Prosperity — 14/20
Liberty — 10/20

TOTAL SCORE = 33/60 = Average

My scores are thus considerably higher than Ivan Eland’s (peace 2, prosperity 5, liberty 3, for a total of 10/60). Eland does a good job demolishing the positive myths of Reagan, but he tends to swallow the negative myths whole. I admit that it’s hard to shed those negative feelings. Reagan has an entrenched image that makes an objective assessment hard. But not impossible. If Reagan was not an overall good president, he was not an overall bad one either.

The Understated Greatness of Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881)

Rutherford Hayes is like other presidents of the Gilded Age — easily forgotten, and dismissed as an executive placeholder who supposedly didn’t do much. The C-Span historians rank him in the bottom quarter of their list. I rank him in the top four (for a place on Mount Rushmore, no less), and agree entirely with Mark Twain, who, usually contemptuous of politicians, pronounced Hayes a great president.

Hayes took office during a stormy time, on the heels of the “Civil War aftermath” presidents (Johnson and Grant), and he steered the nation into a period of immense peace and prosperity, while holding his ground against a pernicious and racist Congress. This is the kind of president enlightened Americans want and love.

The End of Reconstruction

The most controversial part of Hayes’ presidency was his first action: to end the military occupation of the south. Historians are divided on the question. The objectors say that Reconstruction shouldn’t have ended, and that Hayes’s decision to pull out gave us 80 years of Jim Crow and the racial traumas that continue today.

That’s actually backwards. It was precisely the harshness of northern military rule that caused a backlash in the South, producing the KKK (as early as December 1865, half a year into Reconstruction) along with other supremacy groups. By 1877 Jim Crow was waiting in the wings. The North had won the war, but the South won the peace. This is the pattern we see anywhere in the world where the U.S. tries nation-building strategies — “building democracy” at gunpoint — like in Vietnam and Iraq. It’s always bound to fail.

What should have happened after the Civil War is something between Lincoln and Johnson’s overly benevolent attitude to the South, and the severity of radical Reconstructionism — a moderate course that could have brought gradual change in the South without backlash against African Americans. For example, if southern states had respected the repeal of slavery, black voting rights, and civilian (not military) federal officials carrying out federal functions in the south, then (and only then) they could have been restored to representation in Congress. And instead of confiscating land belonging to Southerners, Johnson and Grant could have identified huge portions of unowned land in the south and distributed it to African Americans. Basically, military rule, social re-engineering, and confiscation of land could have been avoided in favor of other measures. Had the government gone that route, there may not have ever been the KKK or Jim Crow.

The military occupation of the south had to end, and in any case, Ulysses Grant had already withdrawn the support from most of the southern states before Hayes took over. Only Louisiana and South Carolina maintained a northern military presence by Hayes’s term. It wasn’t a question of if but when the occupation had to end — and the sooner the better. Hayes may have been a bit naive in accepting the Democratic pledges (to protect the voting and civil rights of African Americans, which of course they didn’t), but he had no viable alternative. He should be applauded for ending Reconstruction. He did what was long overdue.

The Indians

Hayes tried his damnedest to treat the Native American Indians fairly and avoid excessive military action against the tribes. By 19th-century manifest destiny standards, that’s a tall order, and in the first part of Hayes’s term, unfortunately, several Indian wars could not be prevented. To his credit, he prevented the War Department from taking over the Indian Bureau. His Secretary of Interior, Carl Schurz, took a more enlightened view than the army’s that “the only good Indian was a dead Indian”. Of course, by today’s standards, Hayes’s and Schurz’s views don’t seem very enlightened: they supported the assimilation of the Indians into mainstream America by ignoring racial barriers, and also supported Christianizing the Indians through cultural laws which suppressed their native traditions. Still, this was better than genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Schurz routinely castigated the greed of frontiersmen that he felt was responsible for so much Indian bloodshed, and he refused to give up the Indian prisoners of the Nez Perce War (June-October 1877) to be executed, for which he was blasted by journalists. Later in 1879, a Ute uprising had to be out down, and Schurz again saved an explosive situation by negotiating with the Utes to prevent the citizens of Colorado from taking murderous revenge on the Indians.

Hayes must be docked, however, for the treatment of the Cheyenne tribe in January 1879: when the Cheyennes tried returning to the Black Hills in South Dakota, they were massacred by the army under General Philip Sheridan. The government had promised the Cheyenne that they could return to the Black Hills if they didn’t like the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, but Sheridan broke that promise. Hayes was outraged by this, but he still bears the responsibility.

When the Ponca Indians were removed from their lands in northeastern Nebraska and southeastern Dakota territory, Hayes tried to stop the removal policy. He also announced (in April 1879) that any whites attempting to settle in Indian Territory would be evicted — and when Captain David Payne led a bunch of white settlers to do exactly that in April 1880, Hayes had him prosecuted.

Finally fed up, Hayes presented a report to Congress in 1881, on behalf of the Indians, saying:

“Nothing should be left undone to show the Indians that the Government of the United States regards their rights as equally sacred with those of its citizens. The time has come when the policy should be to place the Indians as rapidly as possible on the same footing as the other permanent inhabitants of our country.”

Hayes could only be so effective by these measures, but he was far better than most 19th-century presidents on the Indian question.

Foreign Policy

Of the two major foreign policy issues Hayes had to deal with, he handled both well. He gave the U.S. army power to pursue Mexican bandits even into Mexico, which almost led to an international incident with the Diaz government, but thanks to Hayes’s diplomacy and shrewdness, the U.S. came out ahead. Hayes resisted going to war, recognized the Diaz government, restored order to the border, eventually revoked his hot-pursuit order, and developed trade and rail service links with Mexico during the peace that followed.

His other accomplishment was the arbitration of a territorial dispute between Argentina and Paraguay. He awarded the land to Paraguay, and the Paraguayans still honor him for it today.

Hayes’s foreign policy record isn’t spotless though. He declared any canal in Central America to be under U.S. protection, which I take to be a perversion of the Monroe Doctrine. Teddy Roosevelt would run riot with the perversion, but the seeds of it go back to Hayes.


Thanks to Hayes’s hard money policy, his term was one of the highest growth periods in all of American history. First, he supported the Specie Resumption Act of 1875 which called for all greenbacks to be redeemed in gold, and then second, when Congress overrode his veto to the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 (he had vetoed it rightfully fearing inflation), he controlled the damage by instructing his treasurer to coin the least amount of silver possible.

On other domestic fronts, he took the first steps to converting a partisan civil service into a non-partisan one. The spoils system had been entrenched since Andrew Jackson, and Hayes was determined to get rid of favoritism by which politicians “took care” of each other. Chester Arthur would perfect on these reforms when he took office next.

Hayes also served as an excellent model of how an executive should deal with labor unrest. In the worst railroad strike in U.S. history (extending from July 14 -September 4, 1877), Hayes waited for the governors of the various states (West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Illinois, Missouri) to ask him for help, and only then did he send in the federal military. He acted properly this way in ending the riots and restoring law and order. The federal troops didn’t suppress a single rioter, or wound or kill anyone.


Hayes held his ground against Congressional Democrats, first when the Democrats passed an army appropriation bill with a rider on it that was designed to destroy laws enforcing civil rights and voting rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, and which repealed the Enforcement Acts (which had been used to suppress the KKK and other supremacy groups in the south). Hayes vetoed the toxic bill and congress failed to override it. The Democrats passed another bill with the same rider in it, Hayes vetoed the new bill, and the process was repeated three more times, until the racist Democrats finally relented and passed appropriations bills without the riders.

Although Hayes’ policy failed to secure obedience to the Reconstruction amendments (again because of congressional hostility), he never abandoned his commitment to civil rights, and to equal educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. As we saw above, he did his damnedest for the Indian cause. He was very humane individual, and petitioned that federal subsidies be given to poor states and territories so that children everywhere could receive quality education.

He also stood against the Democrats in Congress when they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in violation of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty, which allowed unrestricted Chinese immigration. He commendably vetoed the bill, though his follow-up wasn’t so admirable: he negotiated a new treaty with China which allowed the restriction (though not end) of Chinese immigration.


In sum, Hayes was an excellent president, because he ended the military occupation of the south as it needed to be, intervened abroad only when necessary and did it well (save in Central America), pursued outstanding economic and domestic policies, and aside from waffling a bit on immigration, served the cause of liberty extremely well, passionately defying Congress on behalf of African Americans, Native American Indians, and poor children.

In this case, my scoring is basically the same as Ivan Eland’s. For peace I dock Hayes for his presumptuous assertions over Central America (-2) and for Sheridan’s treatment of the Cheyenne (-2). For prosperity he gets a perfect rating. And for liberty, I dock him for allowing Chinese immigration only to restrict it (-3).

Peace — 16/20
Prosperity — 20/20
Liberty — 17/20

TOTAL SCORE = 53/60 = Excellent

No surprise that Mark Twain esteemed Hayes so highly. The time has come for Rutherford Hayes to take his place among the very top presidents. For me, he ranks in the top 4, and I would place him on Mount Rushmore.