All the Presidents Ranked

Here’s how my rankings of the pre-modern and modern presidents look on a single list. For explanations of the rankings, see here and here.

Fuchsia = Excellent
Blue = Good
Dark Green = Average
Olive Green = Poor
Brown = Bad
Black = Atrocious

 

1. George Washington

2. John Tyler

3. Rutherford Hayes

4. John Quincy Adams

5. Jimmy Carter

6. Warren Harding

7. Grover Cleveland

8. Dwight Eisenhower

9. Martin Van Buren

10. Calvin Coolidge

11. Bill Clinton

12. James Monroe

13. Chester Arthur

14. Gerald Ford

15. Benjamin Harrison

16. Millard Fillmore

17. John F. Kennedy

18. Andrew Johnson

19. Ulysses Grant

20. Herbert Hoover

21. Theodore Roosevelt

22. William Taft

23. Richard Nixon

24. James Buchanan

25. Franklin Pierce

26. Lyndon Johnson

27. John Adams

28. Thomas Jefferson

29. James Madison

30. Barack Obama

31. Franklin D. Roosevelt

32. Andrew Jackson

33. James Polk

34. Ronald Reagan

35. George H.W. Bush

36. Abraham Lincoln

37. William McKinley

38. Harry Truman

39. George W. Bush

40. Donald Trump (a guess based on his record so far)

41. Woodrow Wilson

 

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The Modern Presidents: From McKinley to Obama (with a prediction for Trump)

One thing became clear to me in ranking the modern presidents: it’s hard to be a good leader. Of the 20 executives, there’s not a single one I can call excellent, and only six of them get a pass (either good or average). Most of them I judge to be either poor or bad, and two of them (Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush) are downright disgraceful.

My commentaries are lengthier than my entries under the pre-modern presidents, because presidents do a lot more than they used to. McKinley started America down a path from which it has seldom looked back, and the result is an executive branch with more and more power, well beyond what the founders and Constitution envisioned.

As before, I use Ivan Eland’s criteria as the best available. Presidents should be ranked not by their management style or charisma or leadership skills, but by what they actually did. Specifically, what they did for causes of peace, prosperity, and liberty — which pretty much everyone agrees should be the goals of the American government. This is Eland’s 60-point system, based on a potential of 20 for each of the three categories:

53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
35-42 = Average
25-34 = Poor
9-24 = Bad
1-8 = Atrocious

I dispute some of Eland’s scores, but the only serious disagreement we have is over Kennedy. At the end, I predict what my ranking for Donald Trump will look like. Usually it’s hard to judge a president less than a year into his term, but Trump has already done so much that is so wrong that predicting his score isn’t too difficult.

 

1. Jimmy Carter. 39th President (1977-1981). Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49/60 = Good.

— Believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president of the post World-War II era. Avoided war in the Horn of Africa. Refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. Criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. Scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). Finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive for a president in the 20th century. For prosperity he scores even better. If Nixon was the last liberal president (until Obama), then Carter was the first conservative president (since Coolidge). This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. Was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. Promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, advocated the deregulation of industries, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk (his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment) would cost him the support of many Democrats, which is why he didn’t get reelected. Created the Department of Education. Supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society. Avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations.

2. Warren Harding. 29th President (1921-1923). Peace (20), Prosperity (16), Liberty (13); Total score = 49/60 = Good.

— Everyone hates Harding, but when he died the people loved him. It was only later, when details of his sexual activities and the Teapot Dome scandal came to light that his reputation went down. As with Bill Clinton, our obsession with a politician’s sex life obscures the truth of a good presidency. Harding does deserve to be docked for the behavior of his underlings in the Teapot affair, but not to the usual extent. Their bribes had to with venal greed, not the constitutional betrayals of Watergate in the Nixon years and the Iran-Contra scandal under Reagan. Harding returned the nation to peace, and negotiated one of the first multilateral arms limitation agreements (the Washington Naval Conference), aimed at reducing the number of battleships in the world. Put the federal government on a budget for the first time and set the conditions for the economic expansion of the Roaring Twenties. Established the Office of the Budget. Was an early advocate for civil rights, and addressed severe racial tensions that the war stirred up thanks to his racist predecessor Wilson. Supported anti-lynching laws. “Democracy is a lie,” he said, “without political equality for black citizens.” In his disfavor, he came out in favor of eugenics. Cooled anarchist and labor violence, the height of which included bombs exploding across the country at the homes of top political officials. Freed hundreds of political prisoners, repairing the severe wounds wrought by the Espionage and Sedition acts of 1917 and 1918 under Wilson which had been among the worst assaults on free speech. Harding called himself “a man of limited talents.” He was way too hard on himself. Our obsession with his sex life and the minor greed of his underlings has completely overshadowed his tremendous impact on a war-ravaged economy, astute foreign policy, and sound liberty record. Eland ranks him the best of the modern presidents and Jimmy Carter second. I reverse them: my scoring at 49 points each puts them at a tie, but I give Carter the edge since his executive restraint is all the more impressive when judged as a post World-War II president.

3. Dwight Eisenhower. 34th President (1953-1961). Peace (15), Prosperity (17), Liberty (13); Total score = 45/60 = Good.

— Realized that the price of winning the Korean War wasn’t worth it and thus ended it, saving many lives on both sides of a strategically unimportant conflict. Unlike Truman before him and the Cold War presidents after him, did not overstate the Soviet threat. As a military man, he knew what the others did not: that the basis of military power is a thriving economy, which the Soviets never had. On six occasions, he rejected the unanimous opinion of his advisors to go to war: over the Korean armistice negotiations in 1953; Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954; the Quemoy and Matsu islands in the Strait of Formosa in 1955; the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; the Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt in 1956; Berlin in 1959; and the downing of the U-2 spy plane in Sovet airspace in 1960. This needs massive underscoring, because, absurdly, presidents seldom get credit for avoiding wars. Eisenhower boasted that under his administration, not a single soldier had been lost, and for a military man that’s doubly impressive. The only exception to his policy of military restraint was his put down of a Muslim rebellion in Lebanon, at the request of the nation’s Christian president. And he did rely on a lot of CIA covert action, which set a bad precedent for future Cold War presidents. He warned famously against a military industrial complex (a permanent peacetime military) that would threaten human liberty, and has been proven a prophet. Thanks to his rigorous fiscal policies, he presided over two whole terms of prosperity and a balanced budget, and an economy with negligible inflation — something no 20th century president can boast for an eight year stretch. His liberty record isn’t bad, but is somewhat marred by his refusal to publicly support the 1954 Supreme Court decision which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Never denounced McCarthy’s witch hunts for communists, though he was vindicated in this, for he correctly believed that McCarthy would eventually hang himself politically.

4. Calvin Coolidge. 30th President (1923-1929). Peace (18), Prosperity (14), Liberty (12); Total score = 44/60 = Good.

— Was called “Silent Cal” for being a man of few words, and proof that being a good president doesn’t depend on charisma or oratory skills. Used restraint in foreign policy and stayed out of unneeded wars. Initiated a strategy of large tax and spending reductions to improve the economy. Harding had reduced the top income tax rate from 71% to 46%, but Coolidge’s three revenue acts in 1924, 1926 and 1928 brought it down to 25%. He continued Harding’s tight fiscal policy which kept the Roaring Twenties booming along, though he also pursued a liberal monetary policy (by expanding its supply) which contributed somewhat to the Great Depression after he left office. Quality of life improved hugely under Coolidge. As production costs declined for businesses and incomes rose for consumers, more people than ever were able to purchase goods that are common in households today — cars, indoor flush toilets, electricity. Criticized by historians as a  “do-nothing president”, yet it was precisely by making sure the government did less that Coolidge left room for citizens to do more as businesses thrived. In this period, the rich, while paying at a lower rate, also paid a greater share of the income tax than they had under the higher rates. The middle class also prospered. Vocally opposed racism and supported anti-lynching legislation which led to the decline of the second KKK. On the other hand, he didn’t always rush to protect the rights of African Americans. Favored laws which limited the number of hours children could work. On whole, a very good president, and the kind we desperately need in the 21st century.

5. Bill Clinton. 42nd President (1993-2001). Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41/60 = Average.

— Usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. The case of Somalia was probably the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century. Intervened in Bosnia, partly on humanitarian grounds but for political reasons too, as there were for the subsequent bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. Got somewhat lucky with Kosovo, when Serbian forces were withdrawn because the Russians suddenly stopped supporting Serbia. Got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung, and former president Jimmy Carter had to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. Pounded al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough, though doing more than George W. Bush later did. Took office during the recession which resulted from the sins of Reagan and Bush, who gave fake tax cuts to benefit their rich Republican constituents without meaningful spending cuts. Clinton immediately reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Eisenhower and Carter (and the previous heads of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan), to produce the prosperity of the mid to late ’90s. Worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. Expanded the Earned Income tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. Created the World Trade Organization which on whole increased world trade flows. On the downside, was responsible for the David Koresh incident, in which many of the Branch Davidians were killed including children. To his credit, he wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage. To be fair, he was boxed in by his opponents on this issue, but in recent years Clinton has admitted that he was simply wrong to sign DOMA.

6. Gerald Ford. 38th President (1974-1977). Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38/60 = Average.

— The perfect example of an average president. Had one of the most commendably restrained foreign policies of any modern president. Engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors. Maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam. Did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy in the war’s aftermath. Created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. Kept most of Nixon’s programs going (which I consider mostly good), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower. Pardoned Nixon, which doesn’t do well for his liberty record, though that decision was not as bad as some make it out to be. Where Bill Clinton is average because his pros and cons counterbalance each other, Ford is pretty much average across the board.

7. John F. Kennedy. 35th President (1961-1963). Peace (10), Prosperity (13), Liberty (11); Total score = 34/60 = Poor.

— Inspired people with speeches, widely loved for his charisma, but on the merits of his presidency left much to be desired. Launched the Bay of Pigs invasion — sending into Cuba a force of 1,500 Cuban exiles against an opposition force of 25,000 — a hopeless endeavor to begin with, made all the more egregious by the knowledge that Castro knew in advance that the CIA were training Cuban exiles. After his embarrassing failure (especially after refusing to supply air power to rescue the Cuban exiles he trained), Kennedy needed to prove himself and so almost destroyed the world so as not to appear weak: The Soviet leader decided to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, which was in response to what America had done in putting missiles in Turkey, Italy and Japan. Instead of simply accepting this, Kennedy provoked a conflict that nearly ushered in Armageddon. His peace rating is saved only because he rejected the counsel of his advisors to order an airstrike or invasion to remove the Soviet missiles (which would have surely resulted in nuclear disaster), opting instead for a naval blockade to prevent missiles from arriving, and also because he started the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps is by far Kennedy’s best accomplishment, but unfortunately it wasn’t motivated by humanitarian concerns, but rather by propagandist designs to prove to the world that America could aid poverty-stricken countries better than communist ones. The Peace Corps has endured and remains one of America’s best programs (I am proud to have served  in it), but given the “cold war” motivations behind its inception — and because even a peace program makes Kennedy look only so good when he came close to incinerating the world — I can’t let it count as high as it should (16-18 points by rights). Especially when Kennedy also overthrew South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, which resulted in greater hands-on American involvement in Vietnam; and authorized a coup against the pro-Soviet military leader of Iraq. For prosperity, he helped modestly to end the recession of 1960-61. Signed the Equal Pay Act of 1963, a promising step toward ending wage discrimination based on gender. Signed an increase in Social Security benefits, and allowed collective bargaining among federal employees. For his liberty record, he sent federal marshals to protect Freedom Riders, and troops to defend college students, and called for a ban on racial discrimination. On the downside, he wasn’t the best friend of civil rights, because when those Freedom Rides started, he demanded that the riders get off the buses. Eventually called for a Civil Rights Act. Eland ranks Kennedy way down at the bottom, with an atrocious score of 8, which I think misrepresents his overall record.

8. Herbert Hoover. 31st President (1929-1933). Peace (20), Prosperity (3), Liberty (8); Total score = 31/60 = Poor.

— Did great things prior to becoming president, the most notable being the campaign he launched during World War I that was without precedent in the history of warfare: a large-scale humanitarian effort to rescue a country (Belgium) from starvation, long before the U.S. had even entered the war. Hoover created the Committee for the Relief of Belgium, which consumed years of his life, and he succeeded in pressuring diplomats, heads of state, and thousands of American and European citizens to donate and distribute food to starving Belgians. Contrast this with his presidential legacy during the Great Depression. On the one hand he is known as a Nero Caesar (say the liberals) who refused to offer any relief as more and more destitute Americans crowded into shantytowns; on the other he is called (by the conservatives) a government activist who pushed an already demolished economy over the cliff, by signing the Smoot-Hawley tariff. That act raised tariffs to their highest level in American history, triggering a worldwide economic retaliation. His peace record, however, is flawless (a whopping 20). His liberty record leaves something to be desired, as he violated privacy by ordering the Treasury Department to publish the names of taxpayers who got large tax refunds from the government and also ordered the Justice Department to publish the names of those who had lobbied for the appointment of federal judges. Even worse, he zealously enforced Prohibition against the production and sale of alcohol.

9. Theodore Roosevelt. 26th President (1901-1909). Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (8); Total score = 30/60 = Poor.

— Enlarged the military and engaged in six incidents of ludicrous gunboat diplomacy, risking unnecessary wars over unimportant issues: opposed Britain and Germany over the small possibility that Germany might establish a toehold in Venezuela; sent the Great White Fleet (four squadrons of battleships) to intimidate the Japanese over a minor integration and immigration issue in San Fransisco; stole the Panama Canal Zone from Columbia (even his advisors were appalled, calling it a “rape”, and a “sleek and underhanded piece of national bank robbery”); sent navy ships to Turkey just because the sultan refused to give American missionaries the same privileges as European missionaries; pressured the sultan of Morocco into negotiating with a terrorist who had kidnapped someone he thought was a U.S. citizen but was actually a Greek (the kidnapper continued to think he was American, and so Roosevelt kept intervening because in his mind, the kidnapper was in effect insulting the United States); intervened in a Cuban insurrection without Congressional approval. In other words, Roosevelt expanded on McKinley’s quest for a trans-world empire. On the plus side, however, and unlike McKinley, he also resolved some major international disputes peacefully, such as mediating between the Russians and Japanese (for which he actually won a Nobel Prize in 1906), and then, even more importantly, avoided getting dragged into a European conflict over Morocco (which Germany wanted to wrest from France), which would have triggered World War I nine years in advance, and when Germany was at the height of its power; Roosevelt wisely proposed a compromise between Germany and France that worked. A fair prosperity record. On the one hand, presided over the Panic of 1907, but did other things to his credit: established national parks, started the Wildlife Refuge system, placing 230 million acres of land into public trust; promoted safe handling regulations for food and drugs, and passed the Pure Food and Drug Act; fought against misleading advertising; encouraged arbitration between businesses and unions. Had a mixed record on race relations, on the one hand believing that blacks were inferior to whites because of “natural limitations”, and even in the case of a group of black soldiers assumed they were guilty before proven innocent and wrongfully discharged them. On the other, he enraged the South by inviting Booker T. Washington (an African American author and educator) to the White House, the first time in history a black was a guest there, and took other actions in their favor. Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t deserve to have his face on Mount Rushmore, though he wasn’t entirely bad.

10. William Taft. 27th President (1909-1913). Peace (12), Prosperity (10), Liberty (8); Total score = 30/60 = Poor.

— Less aggressive than his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt, but still intervened in Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. Basically imitated the policy started by McKinley and followed by Roosevelt — the “dollar diplomacy” of expanding business overseas. Reduced Japanese influence in China and was rightly criticized for his blatant neomercantilism (messing with a neutral market for one’s own purposes). On the plus side, tried to create an international framework in which countries could arbitrate disputes that might otherwise lead to war. Pursued policies about as progressive as Roosevelt’s, but was less local in criticizing weathly capitalists. Proposed and got enacted the Sixteenth Amendment, which allowed the reinstitution of the income tax, which is arguably the worst thing he did; the income tax requires taxpayers to open their private lives to the government to make sure they aren’t hiding income, a violation of privacy. Proposed and got enacted the Publicity Act, which allowed the public to examine records of donors to campaigns for candidates to Congress. Sunshine laws are preferable to regulating campaign contributions. Taft should be commended for requiring transparency of contributions (instead of limiting contributions) to help fight corruption and backroom dealing. On whole, basically about as good and bad as his predecessor, with whom he is tied for an overall score.

11. Richard Nixon. 37th President (1969-1974). Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (6); Total score =28/60 = Poor.

— Should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. Escalated the war in other ways, by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. On the plus side, had an otherwise humble and commendable foreign policy. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that requires people of a certain age and gender to be forced to enter a dangerous occupation for little pay. Agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons. Gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. Created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts — all big pluses. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, and expanded national parks. That adds up to a very progressive track record, brought down only by the fact that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy. Impeached for Watergate: spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. Launched the obscene war on drugs, which criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders. Watergate and the drug war alone sink his liberty rating all the way down to 4, but I award him 2 more  for endorsing a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes. Because of his activism Congress passed laws including the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act, and more than any modern president, Nixon changed the course that had driven vast numbers of Indians into poverty. It’s worth remembering that as Nixon was getting kicked out of the White House, the Indians were singing his praises.

12. Lyndon Johnson. 36th President (1963-1969). Peace (1), Prosperity (7), Liberty (16); Total score = 24/60 = Bad.

— Escalated involvement in Vietnam to monstrous proportions — even knowing, in his own words, that it was a hopeless war not worth fighting — because he feared the Republican Right would censure him and another McCarthy might arise. Never aimed for victory in Vietnam, but for a negotiations settlement, and so bombed the North in a graduated campaign which prolonged the war even more. At the same time, escalated the conflict by provoking the North Vietnamese to attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, so that he could take any measures necessary against the Viet Cong as he saw fit. Throughout his term, the U.S. engaged in massive war crimes in Southeast Asia, and the war cost hundred of billions of dollars. His colossal mess in Vietnam is rivaled only by George W. Bush’s fiasco in Iraq. I throw Johnson a single peace point for showing restraint in China (he considered bombing nuclear installations there but didn’t), but obviously his Vietnam campaign utterly torpedoes his legacy. His Great Society vision had hits and misses. The programs did help reduce poverty, but on the other hand created a permanent underclass dependent on the government for their livelihood. To his immense credit, got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, a landmark piece of legislation outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origins, and also prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations. By the end of 1966, there were only four states in the South where fewer than 50% of African Americans were registered to vote. Against his liberty rating, on the other hand, is the fact that the Vietnam War (like most big wars) led to government abuses of civil liberties at home. Johnson did considerable spying on domestic antiwar protesters, and he had the FBI make recordings of his opponents’ telephone calls at conventions, and placed bugs at embassies and businesses — a lot like Nixon’s behavior in Watergate.

13. Barack Obama. 44th President (2009-2017). Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.

— A barely improved version of George W. Bush in matters of foreign policy. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint and normality. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. Thus his peace score of 4 over Bush’s rotten goose-egg. For prosperity, the Affordable Health Care Act is a huge positive achievement, though he must be downgraded for his complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class, for which reason Donald Trump was elected. His stimulus package was a mixed bag — a fiscal monster on the one hand, but reduced unemployment and prevented a significant increase in poverty in the short term. For liberty, he continued Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. Was just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He deserves credit, however, for stopping the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. Got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. For all of this he would get a liberty rating of about 9, but must be downgraded for doing nothing for the drug war, which is beyond reprehensible for African American president, especially given the increased demands at this time for legalization.

14. Franklin D. Roosevelt. 32nd President (1933-1945). Peace (12), Prosperity (3), Liberty (4); Total score = 19/60 = Bad.

— Had mesmerizing charisma; since his term presidents have been evaluated more on their personas than their presidencies. Imposed an oil embargo against the Japanese to make them attack the U.S., resulting in 2500 American deaths at Pearl Harbor, which then allowed him to “justifiably” enter World War II. Feared that if Germany defeated the British and gained access to their fleet, the Germans could isolate the U.S. He certainly did not oppose Hitler for Nazi human rights violations. Hitler didn’t start his mass executions until well into 1942, and if a moral crusade was the point — that is, if the U.S. really had to side with one totalitarian regime over another — one could make the case, given what America knew at the time, to side with Germany over the Russians. Stalin murdered millions in the 1930s, and America knew about this before entering the war in 1941. (And yet FDR referred to Stalin affectionately as “Uncle Joe”.) It’s true that America did end up on the morally superior side of the war: the combined expansionist evil of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan effectively made Russia the lesser of two evils. But this can only be seen from a hindsight perspective. FDR got “lucky” choosing the right side, as it turns out, for wrong reasons. To his credit, he at least won the war, which ended Axis power in the world, and that jacks up his peace rating considerably. However, though his war crimes paled in comparison to those of the Axis powers, he did commit serious war crimes nonetheless. For prosperity, he exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, with an aggressive governmental interventionist program that had no real form or content. The New Deal provided relief work for the unemployed, but only about one in six, and only offering minimal wages under harsh working conditions. The poor ended up being the chief victims of the New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act cut back production and forced wages above market levels, making it more expensive for employers to hire people; African Americans alone lost about 500,000 jobs because of the act. His Agricultural Adjustment Act cut back farm production and devastated tenant farmers who needed work. The great myth is that FDR’s New Deal pulled the nation out of the Great Depression, but even pro-FDR scholars acknowledge this now to be a myth. It wasn’t government spending, but government shrinkage — sharp reductions in spending, taxes and regulation at the end of World War II — that finally ended the Great Depression. Did not want to promote civil rights for African Americans, despite the fact that his wife was a crusader on this front. (One of the keys to his New Deal legislation was its expansion among white southerners, and civil rights agendas would have killed that electoral support.) Issued an executive order that threw 70,000 Japanese American citizens, and tens of thousands of Japanese resident aliens, into crowded prison camps without charges or trials — just because of their ethnic heritage, not because they were accused of spying or sabotage. Denied entry to Jewish refugees fleeing the horrors of the Third Reich. Invited British agents to help him tap phones, intercept mail, crack safes, and kidnap people in a campaign against “isolationists” who opposed the war. Had the government censor radio programs and newspapers, some of which were banned altogether. Tried stacking the Supreme Court with justices favorable to his New Deal Program, one of the most egregious acts of executive overreach in the nation’s history: the bill would have granted the president power to appoint up to six additional justices to a total of fifteen. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is not only a hugely overrated president, he was quite bad.

15. Ronald Reagan. 40th President (1981-1989). Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13/60 = Bad.

— Reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, with his anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup. Raised the specter of nuclear war. Failed to win the Cold War, despite his swaggering anticommunist rhetoric. The Soviet empire collapsed because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere. Sent forces to Lebanon. Invaded Grenada. Attacked Libya. All without congressional approval as required by the Constitution. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders, even macho-men like Reagan, tend to beat a hasty retreat.) He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; in fact there was no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. For prosperity, his conservative fiscal image is a myth. Was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his Star Wars program. Gave the largest tax cut in American history, but his tax cuts were fake since they weren’t accompanied by spending cuts. Tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. (Because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich.) The ones responsible for ’80s prosperity were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. For liberty, the Iran-Contra scandal was as bad as Watergate. In return for the release of hostages, Reagan sold heavy weapons to Iran (a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism) and used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua (in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government). First of all, this was in violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act which carried criminal penalties. Second, only Congress can appropriate money for government activities; Reagan’s short-cut was as much a Constitutional violation as Nixon’s misuse of security agencies. Even worse than Nixon, Reagan escalated the war on drugs. Attempted to stack the Supreme Court with justices who were less committed to interpreting the Constitution than in legislating conservative mores from the bench. On the other hand, he also appointed Antonin Scalia, and as a result citizens retained the right to burn the American flag, not to mention other liberties. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure, fiscally irresponsible, with pseudo concerns about liberty. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.

16. George H.W. Bush. 41st President (1989-1993). Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12/60 = Bad.

— Colossally failed to return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), yet Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. Invaded Panama for little reason. Went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War, left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We are still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East. Presided over a terrible recession. Ballooned the federal budget deficit, and did nothing constructive to alleviate the problem. To his credit, signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho; the residents were acquitted of all crimes, and the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders, and yet of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy. Pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s nefarious Iran-Contra scandal. Appointed the unqualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court, one of the worst appointments in the cause of liberty, and clearly intended as a token African American to replace Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, he appointed David Souter, who turned out to be one of the best justices of the post World-War II era.

17. William McKinley. 25th President (1897-1901). Peace (0), Prosperity (9), Liberty (2); Total score = 11/60 = Bad.

— Laid the foundations for the modern presidency as we know it. His Spanish-American War began America’s quest for a trans-world empire, having huge and disastrous implications. Unlike Grant and Cleveland who had refused to become involved with Cuba, McKinley intervened in the Cuban struggle for independence, even though the conflict had no relevance to U.S. security. Perversely, the United States, which had once been a colonial possession, and which after obtaining its independence had wisely stayed out of most of the Old World’s disputes, now entered the race among British, Europeans, and Japanese for colonies abroad. After crushing the Spanish, America became a world military power for the first time — acquiring Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii. It’s impossible to overstate McKinley’s influence from this point on. The Spanish-American War set the precedent for military interventions in Latin America and the two world wars, and for the creation of a global empire during and after the Cold War. For this McKinley’s peace rating is zero. He followed the crackpot theory that capitalist economies produced more than they could consume and thus needed to open up overseas markets for their goods; if they couldn’t access foreign markets, their home economies would collapse, and under this logic McKinley began using its military to coerce the opening of foreign markets. For example, he sent the Marines to China as a supposed “relief mission” but in reality to suppress an indigenous movement that was interfering with the coerced trade with the west. Forced trade is unethical, and it’s not even cost-effective besides (given the cost of developing, operating, and maintaining a large military presence). Increased taxes, and used the government to help businesses. On the plus side, he put the nation on a gold standard which curbed inflation and gave an economic boom, which saves his score somewhat (keeping him out of the atrocious category with George W. Bush and Woodrow Wilson). As for as his liberty record, it’s appalling, as he trampled on the liberties of peoples abroad that he was trying to “liberate”, like in the Philippines. The tragedy of all this is that McKinley was a nice man loved by everyone; he even begged, on his own deathbed, the authorities to forgive his assassin. But his policies were pernicious and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and he changed the face of the nation so the founding fathers would hardly recognize it. America was now emulating the power it had revolted against.

18. Harry Truman. 33rd President (1945-1953). Peace (0), Prosperity (7), Liberty (3); Total score = 10/60 = Bad.

—  Created the imperial presidency, which is still with us. Some argue that Truman is the worst U.S. president in history, and they have a case. The America that is hated around the globe was made permanent on Truman’s watch. This is when the U.S. became the world policeman. The foundations were laid by McKinley, and Wilson ran riot with it, but at least the U.S. returned to a policy of military restraint after World War I. Not so after World War II. Truman, the supposed “liberal Democrat”, started the Cold War, which led to the first large permanent peacetime military in U.S. history. He began the informal policies of armed interventions, alliances, foreign aid, and military bases as a response to the (perceived) Soviet threat. In reality the Soviets were not a threat; their economy was too poor and they were in no position to challenge America for world primacy. In 1947, aided Turkey and Greece in a battle against communist insurgents, and by doing so he was making a momentous change in foreign policy by meddling in European affairs during peacetime. Signed the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, an organization that would go on to interfere in other nations’ internal politics, organize coups, perform assassinations, and install regimes of torture for several decades. Started the Korean War in 1950. Although the Vietnam War was messier, longer, and resulted in more American lives lost (58,000 vs. 37,000 in Korea), the Korean War was more historically important and fatal: it showed the U.S. was willing to commit large numbers of troops on the ground to wage war in unimportant backwater areas of the world. He started the Korean war, moreover, without consulting Congress, beginning the tradition of getting approval from the United Nations and then presenting Congress with it fait accompli — one of the worst things a president has ever done to expand executive power while stripping Congress’ check on him. Campaigned for the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. The Allies should have carved out a section of Germany (the nation responsible for the Holocaust) for the Jews, instead of uprooting Arabs for sake of a religiously inspired “Promised Land”. Many Jews hadn’t lived in Palestine for two millennia, and they certainly didn’t have a rightful claim on it after all this time. Islamists are worse than Zionists, but Zionism is still unacceptable in the modern age; Truman has much to answer for the ongoing mess in Middle East. As if all this weren’t bad enough, one of his first acts as president was to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), killing 250,000 Japanese, 90% of them civilians, many of whom took months or years to die from radiation sickness and cancer. It can be argued that an extreme measure like this is necessary when fighting a war against a deadly power. The problem is that the Japanese had made overtures to surrender to the Soviet Union, three full weeks before Truman’s decision. His dropping of the bombs went against the advice of his military leaders, and is unquestionably one of America’s worst war crimes. Eland rates Truman in the atrocious category of presidents, with an overall score of 3 (0/1/2), but I think he fudges on the prosperity score. Truman cut back government spending considerably after World War II, which avoided a post-war recession and saw a rise in incomes, standards of living, and levels of education. True, he should have cut back further to the interwar levels instead of continuing with some of FDR’s problematic New Deal enterprises, but he deserves more than a 1 for prosperity. As for liberty, domestic surveillance became even worse than under FDR during WWII, now applied to sniffing out “commie-lovers”. Instituted an invasive loyalty program for government employees, which his advisors later admitted were for purely political reasons and not security ones. It was Truman and the Democrats — not McCarthy and the Republicans — who began the witch hunts of alleged communists. To his singular credit, he gave a powerful speech for civil rights, but that hardly atones for the damage he did, during his term and the decades to come, as people suffered and died across the world because of his policies.

19. George W. Bush. 43rd President (2001-2009). Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (3); Total score = 4/60 = Atrocious.

— Invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) His economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which made the economy even worse in the longer run. Tried expanding the powers of the presidency in the mold of Caesar presidents like Lincoln, McKinley, Wilson, and Truman. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of habeas corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions. An atrocious president in every way.

20. Woodrow Wilson. 28th President (1913-1921). Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (1); Total score = 2/60 = Atrocious.

— Ruined the 20th century and beyond. Believed that the president should act like a prime minister and propose legislation to Congress. Prior to Wilson, presidents shunned such pretensions because of the way they resembled king’s speeches before parliament and eroded the constitutional separation of powers. Invented the presidential press conference, which inflated the president’s bully pulpit. Intervened in World War I, and thus altered its likely peaceful outcome. Had the U.S. stayed out of the war, the French and British would have been forced to take the settlement offered by the Germans in 1916. American involvement in the war resulted in disaster for the world, bringing to power the monstrous dictatorships of Hitler, and Lenin/Stalin. After the war, Wilson pushed for the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, removing a major obstacle to Hitler, who fed off the economic crisis and humiliation of the German peoples. He also triggered the Russian Revolution, because the Russian army sympathized with the Bolsheviks — the only party that wanted to withdraw from the war. If Wilson had not bribed the Provisionals to staying in the war, that government would have survived and Lenin and Stalin would have been nobodies. Because of Wilson, Europe was torn apart in a needless war, the Nazis replaced a fairly democratic system under the German kaisers, and the American-hating communists seized power in Russia, which paved the way to the Cold War. This catastrophic intervention in World War I was his worst but not only offense: Wilson was the most interventionist president in U.S. history. For example, he turned a minor incident with Mexico into a needless hissy-fit that exploded into warfare. This happened because the Mexicans had made a natural mistake in arresting a group of American sailors; they quickly released them and apologized for it, but Wilson (unbelievably) would settle for nothing less than a formal apology and a twenty-one gun salute to the U.S. Navy. He was a proud, vain ass who had no business sitting the Oval Office. On top of this, he was a virulent white supremacist, and tried to get Congress to pass legislation to restrict the civil liberties of African Americans. Put whites in jobs that his Republican predecessors had given to blacks. Thanks to the tone of his presidency, lynchings and race riots spiked, and the second KKK emerged. Arrested women suffragists, though later, under their pressure, campaigned for the Nineteenth Amendment which gave women the right to vote in 1920. If not for that single act, his liberty rating would be zero. In all of American history, World War I and its aftermath were the worst times for the assault on civil liberties. Conscription was resurrected from the Civil War: the Selective Service Act of 1917 authorized Wilson to draft men against their will. The Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were the worst attacks on liberty since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 in the days of John Adams. Wilson ordered the War Department to censor all telegraph notes and telephone calls. Arrested, convicted, and imprisoned thousands of socialists under the Espionage Act. Had Robert Goldstein sentenced to ten years in prison for making a film on the American Revolution, which portrayed Britain in the appropriate bad light, but which incensed Wilson as the British were now his allies. Had people sentenced to prison for 10-20 years for simply criticizing the war. It is obscene that Wilson is often ranked among the best presidents, when he is in fact the very worst, not only of the 20th century presidents, but of the modern and pre-modern combined. His only positive achievements were his tariff reduction (for prosperity) and his (very reluctant) support for women’s suffrage (for liberty). Those achievements utterly pale in comparison to the pain and horror and poverty and fury and loss of freedom he inflicted on Americans and the rest of the world.

 

* Donald Trump. 45th President (2017-?). Total score = (Less than 9?) = Atrocious (Predicted).

— Trump’s peace record so far isn’t encouraging. Engaged in brinksmanship with China, by allowing his secretary of State nominee to pledge that America would block China’s access to its disputed islands in the South China Sea. If the promise were kept, it would mean war. Continues to campaign for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, to the detriment of relations between the two countries. Launched a missile strike against the Assad regime, to the cheers of ISIS, as Trump (like Bush and Obama before him) shows himself willing to act as the jihadis’ air force. Also like Bush and Obama, is committed to stay in Afghanistan, which was a misadventure from the start. The Taliban will never give up, and there was never a chance that Afghanistan could become a stable secular republic granting equality of rights to women and non-Muslims. Numerous American troops have been murdered by their Afghan “allies” whom they were trying to train, and there is no way to distinguish Afghan forces who are actually on the side of Americans from jihadist infiltrators. Until recently, Trump showed more promise than Bush and Obama on this point, but now he has decided to increase our commitment which will only destroy more lives and waste more money. He should be pulling out our troops and working on a strategy of containment against the jihadis. His prosperity record is even worse. Appointed heads of departments whose agendas oppose those departments — the Labor Department is run by a serial violator of labor law; the Education Department by a woman with contempt for the public education sector; the Environment Protection Agency by a climate change denier; the Energy Department by a man who had called for its abolition. Supported a health-care bill that would have thrown 24 million Americans under the bus, cut Medicaid by $880 billion, and dramatically increased the cost of health care for older low-income people. (Despite his campaign promise to pass a new health care law that would “cover everyone”, leave Medicaid’s funding untouched, and offer relief to the “forgotten men and women” of middle America.) Allowed his budget director to argue that cutting funding to Meals on Wheels is an act of compassion. Threatened to sabotage America’s insurance markets as a means of coercing Democrats into voting for his plan to finance a large tax cut for the rich by throwing millions off Medicaid. Undermined international cooperation on climate change, which has jeopardized America’s credibility. His liberty record is appalling. Regularly complains about protestors and media journalists whose acts of free speech are “unfair”. Drafted countless of executive orders during his early weeks in office, making Obama’s executive activism look tame by comparison. Ordered the Department of Homeland Security to issue a weekly list of crimes allegedly committed by undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities, which serves no purpose other than to incite fear of minority groups. Used his authority over border control to keep out thousands of Muslim immigrants. His moratoriums (“bans”) were hardly justifiable in the interest of security, and they did not even target the countries where most jihadis come from (most notably Saudia Arabia). All Trump did was thoughtlessly lift a template from the executive order signed by Obama against those seven particular countries two years before. Launched the war on objective reality with “alternative facts”. Praised cable-newsman Bill O’Reilly after he was fired for sexual harassment. Claimed there was equivalent blame on both sides of a demonstration in Charlottesville, where a neo-Nazi plowed a car into a crowd of anti-racist protestors. Probably colluded with Russia in the 2016 presidential election. It hasn’t been proven yet, but it is likely. Fired FBI Director James Comey for personal disloyalty. (Before Trump, the president’s authority to fire an FBI director had only been exercised once, by Bill Clinton, because the director had been found guilty of ethical violations.) Asked the director of National Intelligence and the director of the CIA to undermine the FBI’s investigation into Russia.

If this track record persists, I can’t see Trump acquiring the minimal 9 points out of 60 to keep him out of the atrocious category. I predict with confidence that he will join Dubya and Wilson as disgraces to the nation.

 

Appendix

Here are my rankings compared to Eland’s in Recarving Rushmore.

Rosson Eland
1. Jimmy Carter

2. Warren Harding

3. Dwight Eisenhower

4. Calvin Coolidge

5. Bill Clinton

6. Gerald Ford

7. John F. Kennedy

8. Herbert Hoover

9. Theodore Roosevelt

10. William Taft

11. Richard Nixon

12. Lyndon Johnson

13. Barack Obama

14. Franklin D. Roosevelt

15. Ronald Reagan

16. George H.W. Bush

17. William McKinley

18. Harry Truman

19. George W. Bush

20. Woodrow Wilson

1. Warren Harding

2. Jimmy Carter

3. Dwight Eisenhower

4. Calvin Coolidge

5. Bill Clinton

6. Gerald Ford

7. Herbert Hoover

8. William Taft

9. Theodore Roosevelt

10. Richard Nixon

11. Franklin D. Roosevelt

12. Lyndon Johnson

13. George H.W. Bush

14. Barack Obama

15. Ronald Reagan

16. John F. Kennedy

17. George W. Bush

18. William McKinley

19. Harry Truman

20. Woodrow Wilson

 

The Pre-Modern Presidents: From Washington to Cleveland

Back in February I ranked the U.S. presidents who served during my lifetime. Today I use the same criteria to rank the 18th-19th century presidents.

To review, most historians rank presidents by an implied criteria which I will call the ECA — the “Effectiveness”, “Charisma”, and “Activism” biases. This, to me, is astonishing. Effective presidents may be successful at accomplishing their goals, but those goals could be terrible, and they often are. Scoring a president high for his effectiveness amounts to little more than praising him for his management style. Charismatic leaders may inspire us with speeches, but that’s meaningless. Some of the worst leaders in history have been charismatics. Presidents who respond actively to crises may be overreaching their executive purview, and even when they are not, historians seldom note that the crisis in question could have been averted if the president had done something different or nothing at all.

I am unaware of any other field of study where such superficial criteria are used as primary indices of good leadership. Do scholars rate the emperors of Rome this way? The kings and queens of England? Leaders should be judged on the basis of their policies and programs — in other words, what they actually did for their constituents.

Against the ECA criteria, historian Ivan Eland uses the best criteria I’ve seen in his book Recarving Rushmore. He ranks the presidents based on what they do for causes of “Peace”, “Prosperity”, and “Liberty” (PPL). After all, these were the prime objectives of the American founders, and most people when asked say they want to live safe lives, be able to provide for themselves, and enjoy freedom. Management skills and charisma may be nice bonuses, but they do not factor in Eland’s rankings. This is his 60-point system, based on a potential of 20 each for peace, prosperity, and liberty:

53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
35-42 = Average
25-34 = Poor
9-24 = Bad
1-8 = Atrocious

Following Eland’s assessments, but with some differences, I rank the 20 presidents from George Washington to Grover Cleveland. (William McKinley in 1897 marked a new era in the presidency, laying the foundations for the United States becoming a trans-world empire; I’ll cover the modern presidents in a future post.) I exclude three presidents from consideration because they served less than half a single term: William Henry Harrison (the 9th), Zachary Taylor (the 12th), and James Garfield (the 20th).

 

1. George Washington. 1st President (1789-1797). Peace (17), Prosperity (16), Liberty (20); Bonus (+5); Total score = 58/60 = Excellent.

— Stayed out of foreign wars and overseas alliances that would tangle the new nation in conflicts. Broke alliance with France when it declared war on Britain. Suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion without killing anyone, and then pardoned the rioters. Was a respecter of all faiths (wrote to a rabbi: “May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”). Was firmly committed to respecting the checks and balances of the government. Deferred to Congress on most legislation, and used his veto power only when he believed a bill was unconstitutional. Recommended the Bill of Rights, one of the most important contributions to American thought. Refused to become a king, by stepping down and setting the precedent for maximum two-year service. In sum, for ensuring the survival of the new constitutional system, he earns bonus points and the #1 slot for getting this new system of liberty through a rocky stage.

2. John Tyler. 10th President (1841-1845). Peace (19), Prosperity (20), Liberty (17); Total score = 56/60 = Excellent.

— Fought his own party (the Whigs) to preserve the limited role of government, which ruined his chances for a second term. Stood against the Whigs continually and vetoed bills on many important issues, especially high tariffs. Ended the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history (the Second Seminole War) by allowing several hundred Seminoles to stay on their reservation in Florida instead of being sent to lands west of the Mississippi. Cut the number of troops in the American army by 33% (from 12,000 to 8,0000). Used military restraint in dealing the Rhode Island rebellion, which resulted in an improvement over the status quo without more violence. Reached an agreement with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on slave trade. In sum, a hugely underrated leader with no serious presidential flaws.

3. Rutherford Hayes. 19th President (1877-1881). Peace (16), Prosperity (20), Liberty (17); Total score = 53/60 = Excellent.

— Had a remarkably progressive attitude towards the Native American Indians, particularly after the 1876 disaster of Custer at the Bighorn. Pushed for the assimilation of Indians into mainstream America, irrespective of racial barriers that prevented this. Fought against the anti-Chinese racism that was building in the country, and vetoed a bill restricting Chinese immigration. Defeated congressional attempts to force him to remove voting rights from African Americans. Took a hammer to political corruption in government employment, and began the move to a nonpartisan civil service. Pursued other civil service reforms. Favored a hard money policy that limited inflation. Fulfilled his constitutional obligation to protect states against domestic violence when they asked for help, but refused to intervene in violent railroad strikes, believing those issues to be under the jurisdiction of governors and mayors. On his watch federal troops didn’t suppress rioters or wound or kill a single person. By far the best post-Civil War president before the 20th century.

4. John Quincy Adams. 6th President (1825-1829). Peace (18), Prosperity (13), Liberty (19); Total score = 50/60 = Good.

— Fought inflation and reached several commercial agreements with European and Latin American neighbors. Refused to hand out spoils to fellow party members, and appointed people to federal positions on the basis of merit. Opposed slavery, and single-handedly led the fight to lift the gag rule that prohibited discussion of slavery on the House floor. Had surprisingly enlightened views on the Native American Indians for his time. Wanted to guarantee Indian rights in the west, but was rejected by Congress; his successor Andrew Jackson would set the trend of ethnic cleansing policies promoted by Thomas Jefferson. Was not hostile to Muslim peoples, but called out Islam (rightly) as an inherently dangerous religion. An underappreciated president who tends to get buried under the more famous (and bad) ones, because he “didn’t do much” (the activist bias). Restraint is more often than not the wise course in preserving peace, prosperity, and liberty, and Quincy Adams understood this better than most.

5. Grover Cleveland. 22nd & 24th President (1885-1889; 1893-1897). Peace (15), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 47/60 = Good.

— Used admirable restraint in all things — reducing government spending, staying out of foreign affairs, and vetoing unconstitutional bills more often than any other president up to that point. Known for saying, “I did not come to legislate.” Crusaded for the gold standard, and restored it during his second term, to guarantee a stable currency. His tight money policies pulled the country out of the recession caused by his predecessor Benjamin Harrison. Tried to protect native American land in Indian Territory (today Oklahoma), with some success. Gave Indians citizenship and reservation land to farm, with mixed results; he meant well, but the act did allow whites to get control of millions of acres of Indian land. In his slight disfavor, he smashed the Pullman Strike with an unconstitutional use of military force, continued the naval build up of Harrison, and risked war with Britain over a minor Venezuelan dispute.

6. Martin Van Buren. 8th President (1837-1841). Peace (19), Prosperity (20), Liberty (5); Total score = 44/60 = Good.

— Established the best banking system in U.S. history. Established an independent federal treasury to replace Andrew Jackson’s federal deposits in state-chartered private banks. Also established the Independent Treasury, which led to deregulation and had the effect of gradually centralizing financial power in the federal government; and which also led to the Federal Reserve System, a quasi-central bank. Avoided several potential wars, and diffused hostilities over the clashes with Britain over Canada. Also avoided war with Mexico, unlike the later Polk. He would be one of the best presidents of all time (in the excellent category) if not for his shameful policies towards the Native American Indians. The forced Indian march to Oklahoma in 1838-39 was the worst the Cherokee nation experienced, and the horrendous Second Seminole War was underway when he took office and still going on when he left.

7. James Monroe. 5th President (1817-1825). Peace (13), Prosperity (17), Liberty (11); Total score = 41/60 = Average.

— Steered the country out of the depression of 1819-20 and into prosperity. Reduced the national debt. On the downside, drifted away from the republican ideal by increasing the nation’s military and laying the first seeds of an American empire. Created the Monroe Doctrine, which intended to keep new colonies in North America and Latin America free from European intervention. Eland comes down hard on Monroe for some of these things (rating Monroe as a bad president with 22 points total), and I think unjustifiably. Monroe wasn’t that bad. His two term period was known as the Era of Good Feelings for good reason, as American citizens could finally afford to be more isolationist and worry less about European political and military affairs. On the other hand, Monroe is not the great president praised by some historians; thus my average rating.

8. Chester Arthur. 21st President (1881-1885). Peace (12), Prosperity (18), Liberty (10); Total score = 40/60 = Average.

— Had good economic policies, and signed the Pendleton Act which created a commission to hire civil servants on the basis of merit, rather than whoever the ruling class proposed regardless of qualifications. In addition, the act gave civil servants job security. On the downside, converted the defensive American navy into an offensive one. For this he is known as the “Father of the U.S. Navy”, which is a strike against him in the peace category. Without his efforts, William McKinley would probably not have had the means to attack the Spanish in 1898 and lay the foundations for the 20th century imperial presidency. Had mediocre records on policies towards minorities.

9. Benjamin Harrison. 23rd President (1889-1893). Peace (11), Prosperity (11), Liberty (15); Total score = 37/60 = Average.

— Often considered the best president between Lincoln and the 20th century, because he “did the most” in this period. This shows the activist bias of many historians. Just because an executive does a lot doesn’t mean it’s good, and in Harrison’s case, his deeds are fairly overrated. He enlarged the navy even more than Chester Arthur, making the first U.S. imperial strike under William McKinley (the Spanish-American War of 1898) now a near guarantee. Set mediocre monetary policies. The presidential records of Hayes, Arthur, and Cleveland are more impressive than that of Harrison. He was pretty much the definition of average.

10. Millard Fillmore. 13th President (1850-1853). Peace (17), Prosperity (13), Liberty (6); Total score = 36/60 = Average.

— Avoided an earlier Civil War and preserved peace by signing the Compromise of 1850, but at a cost, for the compromise contained the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that escaped slaves had to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law. If that provision had been avoided, the North could have (would have) become a haven and depleted the South of slaves. Ordered Commodore Matthew Perry to take his fleet to Japan and intimidate the Japanese into trade. On the plus side, improved relations with Latin America (which James Polk had shattered) and Mexico as well.

11. Andrew Johnson. 17th President (1865-1869). Peace (9), Prosperity (17), Liberty (7); Total score = 33/60 = Poor.

— A racist to the core, but was correct in warning that the harshness of northern military rule would cause a backlash against southern blacks after the Civil War. Advised the use of federal civilians in the South instead of the military. Johnson’s voice of reason is to be commended, but his racism got the better of him, as he was unwilling to compromise with the Republicans by giving blacks any limited rights. (Johnson basically thought it was more important to reintegrate the South back into the nation than to integrate African Americans whom he thought unfit for full citizenship.) As a result, instead of approving a civilian presence, the Republicans unleashed a harsh unconstitutional military occupation. Johnson was good, however, on economic policy. Some economists rank him as one of the top three presidents for the way national productivity climbed exponentially as he transferred resources from the government back to the private sector.

12. Ulysses Grant. 18th President (1869-1877). Peace (9), Prosperity (17), Liberty (5); Total score = 31/60 = Poor.

— The inverse of Johnson: a staunch supporter for the rights of African Americans (for which he should be commended), but by using an unconstitutional military rule to guarantee the blacks’ new rights in the South after the Civil War, he made things worse for them. This is what happens when “nation building at gunpoint” is attempted anywhere — like in Vietnam and Iraq. When an outside power tries to change the culture of an unenlightened region using brute force, it’s bound to fail and produce a backlash. Thanks to the harsh Reconstruction efforts (1865-1877) of Grant and Republicans before him, the South got the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow laws, and the remedy would not come until the Civil Rights Movement a century later. Like Johnson, Grant has a good prosperity rating and is ranked extremely high by some economists for reducing the national debt accrued through the Civil War. Lincoln had financed the war by printing greenbacks which caused runaway inflation; Grant paid down the national debt in gold, vetoing greenback bills to Congress’ fury, with the result that America prospered with a hard money policy for decades.

13. James Buchanan. 15th President (1857-1861). Peace (8), Prosperity (9), Liberty (9); Total score = 26/60 = Poor.

— Like his predecessor Pierce, a doughface, who personally opposed slavery but believed that abolitionists were to blame for the strife that was tearing apart the country. Often regarded as one of the worst presidents in history for not preventing the Civil War and actually helping to cause it. Both charges are true to an extent, but he gets too much blame for a crisis that had been brewing since the dawn of the nation, and for happening to be the last president before it came to a head. His principle fault is that when secession became inevitable, he didn’t carry his pro-South beliefs to their logical conclusion and let the South secede in peace. Instead he went for half-assed measures, allowing the South time to arm itself and take over federal arsenals and forts. By stalling and then dumping the mess on Lincoln — who would prove to be belligerent and catastrophic in the worst ways — Buchanan created a very bad situation. Supported the illegitimate pro-slavery government in Lecompton Kansas (who were outnumbered by the anti-slave faction 4 to 1) and used bribes and threats to get Congress to approve it (the Senate passed it but the House voted it down). Fiscally irresponsible, increasing federal expenditures by 15%.

14. Franklin Pierce. 14th President (1853-1857). Peace (8), Prosperity (10), Liberty (7); Total score = 25/60 = Poor.

— A doughface (a northerner who stuck up for the South and slavery). Endorsed the incendiary Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed the two territories to determine whether they would be slave or free states, even though they were above the lattitude which by rights made them free. Even worse, tried to pervert the territories’ decision-making process by allowing pro-slavery border ruffians to cross into Kansas from Missouri and set up a pro-slavery government, which he then approved. Repeatedly appointed pro-slavery governors in the Kansas and Nebraska territories, angering the anti-slave majorities in these territories and triggering a mini civil war in Kansas before the actual Civil War began. Used federal troops to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which his predecessor Fillmore only threatened to do. Had it not been enforced, the North could have become a runaway haven for slaves. Supported the coerced trade deal with Japan in 1854, which Commodore Perry had intimidated the Japanese into signing under Fillmore’s orders.

15. John Adams. 2nd President (1797-1801). Peace (15), Prosperity (9), Liberty (0); Total score = 24/60 = Bad.

— Created one of the worst threats to constitutionally guaranteed liberties in U.S. history, with the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The four acts made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act); allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), or to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act); and then criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act). These were supposedly “security measures” because the nation was engaged in a semi-naval war with France, but in reality were all domestic measures; Adams was simply trying to insulate his Federalist Party and crush all opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. Punished journalists and others who spoke out against the government with huge fines and prison sentences. All of this alone qualifies him as one of the worst presidents of all time; what saves him somewhat is the way he sacrificed his political career to avoid a war with France that America was not equipped to fight (thus a high peace rating).

16. Thomas Jefferson. 3rd President (1801-1809). Peace (12), Prosperity (7), Liberty (2); Total score = 21/60 = Bad.

— Did great things in his early career (wrote the Declaration of Independence), but as a president was horrible. Was a vocal proponent of limited government but never practiced what he preached, wielding executive power all over the place. Placed an embargo on U.S. international commerce and coastal U.S. trade in response to British and French violations of U.S. neutrality in the Naploeonic wars — devastating the American economy while having virtually no effect on the British and French. American exports dropped 80% and imports dropped 60%, resulting in massive unemployment and Americans starving. It’s rare in American history that the population has starved due to government policy, and this alone makes Jefferson one of the worst presidents of all time. On top of that, the Embargo Act placed the entire country under military rule, which led to searches, seizures, and arrests without warrants and with the slightest suspicion of someone exporting goods. (Irony being that while Jefferson ended the persecution of free speech under the Alien and Sedition Acts during the Adams administration, he committed just as many violations of civil liberties on his own watch.) Set the ugly precedent for ethnic cleansing, arguing that if the Native American Indians would not assimilate into white society, they had to be removed from their ancestral homelands and relocated to less desirable land further west. This would not be implemented on a large scale until Andrew Jackson, but it is Jefferson we have to thank for it.

17. James Madison. 4th President (1809-1817). Peace (0), Prosperity (8), Liberty (12); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.

— Like Jefferson, did great things prior to becoming president (created the blueprint for the Constitution), but as a president was a disaster. Took a new and weak nation into a completely unnecessary war with the British naval superpower, for no other reason than pride, resulting in the only time in history a foreign power invaded the U.S. (and on top of that burned Washington D.C.). Disregarded the ideals of the republic by enlarging the army and drafting men into the militia, and creating a national bank to finance the war debt. Though many historians call the War of 1812 a draw, or even a U.S. victory, that’s laughable — it only resulted in the invasion of American soil without any change in relations with Britain. The only victorious outcome of the war was that the British stopped supporting Native American Indians in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to stay out of Canada. In other words, the War of 1812 ensured that American whites would be able to steal Indian land with impunity. So if the War of 1812 was a victory it was a poisonous one. To his credit, Madison did not restrict civil liberties during the war, which is highly unusual during wars in American history, but that’s certainly not enough to rescue his overall bad rating.

18. Andrew Jackson. 7th President (1829-1837). Peace (5), Prosperity (10), Liberty (4); Total score = 19/60 = Bad.

— Responded belligerently to the nullification crisis in South Carolina. Shamelessly abused the veto power of the president, rejecting bills not because they were unconstitutional but because they conflicted with his personal views. (His 12 vetoes were more than the vetoes of all previous presidents combined.) Implemented Jefferson’s ethnic-cleansing policy on a grand scale: got Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, driving Indians off lands that had been guaranteed to them by more than ninety treaties, using state militia to evict them from their homes, and sending them out on the infamous Trail of Tears, to die by the thousands en route to their new homes in the west. Made presidential elections democratic in the way we think of them today, and is usually praised for this, but the catch is that popular opinion can be as treacherous as governmental tyranny (witness the election of a president like Donald Trump); the American Founders believed democracy could be a threat to liberty, and so they designed only one sixth of the federal government — half of the legislative branch, namely the House of Representatives — to be voted in democratically by the American citizens.

19. James Polk. 11th President (1845-1849). Peace (0), Prosperity (7), Liberty (8); Total score = 15/60 = Bad.

— Often considered a great president, because he accomplished his stated goals. Using this logic, any leader who succeeds in implementing a program, no matter how bad (like Stalin), is a great leader. And yet this is repeatedly how American presidents are evaluated by mainstream historians (the effectiveness bias). Polk started the Mexican War just to steal territory from a weaker country, in the name of manifest destiny. The desertion rate was 8%, the highest for any foreign war in American history. Antiwar sentiments built as the war dragged on without conclusion, and after two years Congress passed a resolution that condemned Polk for “a war unnecessarily and unconstitutionally begun by the president”. More than 12,000 Americans died in Mexico, one of the highest casualty rates in American wartime history. In the process of his belligerent land-grabbing, Polk expanded presidential power beyond what the founders envisioned, and used that power to effectively remove the power to declare war from Congress. Like Jefferson, Madison, and Jackson before him, Polk paid lip-service to a restricted role for the federal government but in practice deviated from that so widely and set such terrible precedents that he’s in fact one of the worst presidents. To his credit, he did promote policies which fought inflation, and he followed the Constitution in maintaining that tariffs should be used only to raise revenues for the government and not protect industries (especially when tariffs tend to be regressive taxes that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor). Unfortunately his obscene war effort sucked most of the prosperity out of these policies, as war efforts do.

20. Abraham Lincoln. 16th President (1861-1865). Peace (3), Prosperity (2), Liberty (6); Total score = 11/60 = Bad.

— Maneuvered the South into starting the Civil War which devastated the country, killing 600,000 Americans, 38,000 of whom were African Americans. If Lincoln wanted to preserve the union (which he did: it was his main reason for the war), he could have offered southern slave owners compensation for a gradual emancipation of slaves. Many other countries had already ended slavery by these measures, and Lincoln himself had made such proposals earlier in his career. Or he could have simply let the southern states go, and get Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery. Either option would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of Jim Crow laws and organizations like the KKK. After the war and union occupation, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act would heal these wounds. Lincoln seized 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. Cheated the Sioux out their lands and afterwards signed off on the largest mass execution of Indians (or anyone) in U.S. history. Arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, threw them into prison, and closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, even deporting an opposing congressman (only Woodrow Wilson showed more flagrant contempt for free speech than Lincoln). Physically attacked and removed a peace movement. Disappeared citizens without arrest warrants, forbidding them the right to challenge their detention, a violation of habeas corpus (George W. Bush was the only other president to do this). His liberty rating would be an absolute zero if not for the fact that he was fighting for the slaves’ liberation. By far the worst president of the 18th-19th centuries, and yet praised by many as the best. For my full explanation why apologists for Lincoln are as wrong as Confederate revisionists, see here.

Appendix

Here are my rankings compared to Eland’s in Recarving Rushmore. He and I are pretty close. The only two we disagree about significantly are Washington and Monroe. Mainstream historians would invert many of our rankings. Our Big Bads (in brown) — especially Jefferson, Jackson, Polk, and Lincoln — are usually ranked at the top.

Rosson Eland
1. George Washington

2. John Tyler

3. Rutherford Hayes

4. John Quincy Adams

5. Grover Cleveland

6. Martin Van Buren

7. James Monroe

8. Chester Arthur

9. Benjamin Harrison

10. Millard Fillmore

11. Andrew Johnson

12. Ulysses Grant

13. James Buchanan

14. Franklin Pierce

15. John Adams

16. Thomas Jefferson

17. James Madison

18. Andrew Jackson

19. James Polk

20. Abraham Lincoln

1. John Tyler

2. Grover Cleveland

3. Martin Van Buren

4. Rutherford Hayes

5. Chester Arthur

6. George Washington

7. John Quincy Adams

8. Millard Fillmore

9. Benjamin Harrison

10. Andrew Johnson

11. Ulysses Grant

12. John Adams

13. James Buchanan

14. Franklin Pierce

15. James Monroe

16. Thomas Jefferson

17. Andrew Jackson

18. James Madison

19. Abraham Lincoln

20. James Polk

Assessing Lincoln: Slavery, the Indians, and Civil Liberties

This week a congressman out of North Carolina claimed that Abraham Lincoln was like Adolf Hitler. A crackpot claim, to be sure, but perhaps not a surprising one, given that extremes call forth extremes. After all, Lincoln is usually rated the best president in American history, and has attained a mythological status that makes it almost criminal to question his sanctity. It doesn’t help matters that the ones who do question it are usually either crackpots like Larry Pittman, or revisionists with Confederate sympathies.

The worst revisionist claim is that the South fought for states’ rights and not slavery, which has been thoroughly debunked. Not only was the South very obviously trying to protect slavery, but whenever the rule of law had interfered with maintaining slavery in the past, the South became a burning advocate for federal power. Only after the executive branch was no longer friendly to slavery (i.e. after Lincoln’s election), did the South begin to harp on states’ rights.

Revisionists over-vilify Lincoln for his “unconstitutional” suppression of the South. While it is arguable that Lincoln should have acted in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence and let the South peacefully secede, he did have the authority, under the mildly centralizing Constitution, to put down the southern insurrection. So the war effort was not itself unconstitutional. That he maneuvered the South into starting the war, on the other hand, by making them fire the first shot — a point widely accepted, even by scholarly giants like Shelby Foote and Bruce Catton — was certainly unethical. But that’s actually a minor offense. The real point is that the Civil War should not have been fought at all.

Here’s the run-down of what I consider to be Lincoln’s worst sins. They fall under what he did for slavery, the Indians, and civil liberties. He fails in all categories.

1. Slavery. If the Civil War ended slavery, African Americans hardly experienced more freedom in the face of white southerners who were bitter over it. In Ivan Eland’s view, peaceful alternatives to Lincoln’s policies would have achieved better results and far more quickly. Recarving Rushmore supplies those alternatives:

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

(2) Or he could have simply let the southern states go, and get Congress to repeal the Fugitive Slave Act, which prosecuted those who did not return escaped slaves to their owners. Abolitionists had already made this proposal anyway and it would have easily passed, making the northern states a haven for escaped slaves, in time emptying the South of slaves. This option would have honored the spirit of the Declaration of Independence for the South, which is based on free government and self-determination, while also choking off slavery.

Either option would have ended slavery without producing the backlash of “Jim Crow” laws and organizations like the KKK. After the war and union occupation, African Americans were subject to a discrimination that was almost as bad as in the slave times, and it would be an entire century before the Civil Rights Act came in remedy. This is what admirers of Lincoln ignore. The North’s ruthless war tactics and post-war reconstruction policies produced exactly what happens anywhere else we try to “build democracy”, like in Vietnam and Iraq. When outside powers attempt to change culture through military occupation, the results are never good.

Slavery was doomed and Lincoln knew it. The British Empire had eliminated it in the 1833-38 period, even “backwater” Mexico has ended the practice in 1829, and other parts of the world too. And it was ended without resorting to bloody wars. Lincoln himself had entertained the compensation option, so this isn’t an unfair hindsight judgment. He was aware of how the world was moving, both at home and abroad.

2. The Indians. Try asking them what they think of Lincoln. They say he was one of the Five Worst Presidents for the Native American Tribes, and they’re obviously right. Even by 19th-century manifest-destiny standards, Lincoln was a demon. He seized 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. When this kind of thing happens in places like Bosnia and Dafur, we call it ethnic cleansing. The journey for the Indians was a death march, a lot like the Trail of Tears under Andrew Jackson: thousands of them were herded across a scorching desert, “escorted” by Lincoln’s army who killed those who lagged behind. The survivors who made it to the reservation were shoved into squalid camps infested with disease.

No one would excuse this behavior if it weren’t the president named Abraham Lincoln we were talking about, who has been mythologized to the extent that he can’t possibly, really, have been this bad. But he was. He worked against the Indian tribes them at every turn, and with more ruthlessness than most of the 19th century presidents. He cheated the Sioux out their lands as well, and when they revolted, he unleashed General Pope on them, who promised to exterminate the Sioux, who were “maniacs and wild beasts, and by no means people with whom treaties or compromise can be made”. Lincoln afterwards signed off on 38 Indian prisoners in Mankato, Minnesota, and on December 26, 1862 the largest mass execution in United States history took place under his authority. Only a dishonest apologist could salvage anything for Lincoln’s reputation out of this.

3. Civil Liberties. Lincoln was an enemy of the First Amendment. He arrested journalists, newspaper publishers, and critics of the war, and threw them into prison. He closed the mail to publications which opposed his war policies, and he deported an opposing congressman. On top of all that, he physically attacked and removed a peace movement. There have been only two other presidents with this level of contempt for free speech: John Adams and Woodrow Wilson. Today, Donald Trump shows himself to be on the same page as Adams, Lincoln, and Wilson.

Lincoln likewise “disappeared citizens” without arrest warrants, or in other words detained them without allowing them to challenge their detention (a violation of habeas corpus). To date there has been only one other president who has claimed and exercised this right — you guessed it, George W. Bush. In Lincoln’s case, he simply ignored Supreme Court Justice Robert Taney’s order that habeas corpus could be suspended only by Congress and not the president. Lincoln played the dictator and suspended it anyway. As if that weren’t bad enough, he also created military tribunals to prosecute civilians who were discouraging people from enlisting in union armies. Those civilians were simply exercising their free-speech rights.

“Tear down the memorial”

It’s always easy to judge by hindsight and fancy how we could do better. I’m under no illusion that I would make a good president. But I’ll say this: As president I sure as hell would never start an unnecessary war by making the other side fire first, and then use the federal army to kill hundreds of thousands of people, cripple tens of thousands more for life, destroy their economy, burn their towns to the ground, abolish my own people’s civil liberties, and inflict all the other miserable costs of war, just to prevent certain states from leaving the goddamn union. Yes, Lincoln did have the Constitutional right to suppress the South (against what Confederate revisionists claim), but that doesn’t mean he should have; and I would not have. As president I hope I would have had the wisdom to pursue one of the two options entertained by Eland:

“Lincoln should have let the South go in peace, as the abolitionists advocated, or offered southerners compensation for the emancipation of slaves. Under the first option, industrialization and rising moral objections likely would have peacefully eliminated slavery in the South — as they did in most other places of the world — helped out by a slave haven in the free North. In sum, a close study of Lincoln’s presidency leads to thoughts of tearing down the Lincoln Memorial.” (Recarving Rushmore, p 130)

Lincoln was no Hitler (only a crackpot would say that), nor was he the villain of Southern revisionism. But he was indeed a bad president — one of the worst, I believe, in our nation’s history.

President’s Day Special: From Nixon to Obama

bush-obamaI would say “Happy President’s Day”, except the presidency right now isn’t cause for joy. No matter, we’ll celebrate in a special look-back. Even the worst presidents are saints compared to Donald Trump.

In this post I rank the presidents who served during my lifetime according to their record. That’s eight presidents — from Nixon to Obama — and when I say “according to their record”, I mean for what they did for causes of peace, fiscal security, and a free society, not on the basis of their charisma or reputation. In Recarving Rushmore Ivan Eland has criticized the bizarre logic that leads historians to favor charismatic heroes who give great speeches and/or happen to serve in times of crisis, even when not for the better. He scores each president, from George Washington to Barack Obama, on a 60-point system as follows:

53-60 = Excellent
43-52 = Good
35-42 = Average
25-34 = Poor
9-24 = Bad
1-8 = Atrocious

To see his rankings of all the presidents since Washington, see my earlier post. These are my revised rankings of Eland for the last eight presidents:

1. Jimmy Carter (Good) — Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49
2. Bill Clinton (Average) — Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41
3. Gerald Ford (Average) — Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38
4. Richard Nixon (Poor) — Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (6); Total score = 28
5. Barack Obama (Bad) — Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20
6. Ronald Reagan (Bad) — Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13
7. George H.W. Bush (Bad) — Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12
8. George W. Bush (Atrocious) — Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (3); Total score = 4

I agree with Eland that Carter was the best (and only good) president in my lifetime and George W. the worst. My surprise came with Nixon. An examination of his record doesn’t show him to be quite as bad as I’d always thought. Eland has George H.W. above Obama and Reagan, whereas I rank him the worst of the “Bad’s”. Otherwise our hierarchies are the same. My individual scores are either the same or close to Eland’s, the two exceptions being the “prosperity” categories for Nixon and Obama, which I award much higher. I explain everything in the commentaries below.

richard-nixonRichard Nixon, 1969-1974. Peace (8), Prosperity (14), Liberty (6); Total score = 28/60 = Poor.

Peace (8/20): Nixon was a beast in Southeast Asia. He should have ended the Vietnam War right away, but spent four years and 22,000 additional American lives (out of the 58,000 total between 1961-75) to get a peace settlement. Even as he winded down in Vietnam, he escalated the war in other ways — by bombing Cambodia and supporting a Vietnamese invasion of Laos, each without Congressional approval. On the plus side, Nixon had an otherwise humble and commendable foreign policy. His visit to China not only resulted in improved relations with that country, but made the Soviets want friendly and peaceful relations with America. To his serious credit, he ended the draft, which had been in place since 1940, thereby removing the stain on a free society that requires people of a certain age and gender to be forced to enter a dangerous occupation for little pay. Also, he agreed to destroy U.S. biological and chemical weapons.

Prosperity (14/20): Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in this category, but as a fiscal moderate I see the good as much as the bad, and so jack him up 10 points. He’s known as the “last liberal president” (until Obama), despite his conservative image, for his spending on social programs. He gave elderly people an increase on social security benefits, and proposed universal medical insurance that provided even stronger coverage than Obama’s later Affordable Health Care Act. He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the war on cancer, and a federal subsidization of the arts — all big pluses. He forced car makers to reduce emissions under the Clean Air Act, signed the Endangered Species Act, and expanded national parks. That adds up to a very progressive track record, brought down only by the fact that some of Nixon’s federal spending was too unrestrained and ended up contributing to a problematic economy.

Liberty (6/20): Watergate has defined Nixon and that’s not unfair. Spying on his enemies (or perceived enemies) was a serious offense because it undermined American liberty through the use of illegal tricks, misuse of security agencies, and obstruction of justice in trying to cover up crimes. But even worse than Watergate, in my view, is the war that Nixon launched on drugs. It’s still with us today, and obscenely criminalizes non-violent addicts (who need help, not jail) while causing violent criminals to go on parole in order to make room in prison for the drug offenders. Eland gives Nixon only 4 points in the liberty category, and that is just, but I have to bump him up 2 extra points for his treatment of Native American Indians. He endorsed a self-determination plan for the Indian tribes, and because of his activism Congress passed laws including the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act. More than any modern president, Nixon changed the course that had driven vast numbers of Indians into poverty. It’s worth bearing in mind that as Nixon was being kicked out of the White House, the Native Americans were singing his praises.

gerald_ford_official_presidential_photoGerald Ford, 1974-1977. Peace (15), Prosperity (11), Liberty (12); Total score = 38/60 = Average.

Peace (15/20): Ford had one of the most commendably restrained foreign policies of any modern president. He engaged militarily overseas only a few times in minor ways, and for the most part resisted the counsel of his hawkish advisors — Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Kissinger, all of whom would later advise George W. Bush, who unlike Ford would follow their atrocious advice. He maintained Nixon’s detente policy with China and the Soviet Union, and he removed American support from the racist governments of South Africa and Rhodesia. On the downside, he increased defense spending, despite the end of the Vietnam War, and briefly attempted to get America re-involved in helping South Vietnam.

Prosperity (11/20): Ford inherited the mess of the Vietnam War which had dragged for eternity. Like all wars it caused inflation since it was funded by taxes, borrowing money, and printing money, and Ford did about as much good as harm in trying to alleviate the bad economy. He created government jobs to help the unemployment problem, arguably for better and worse. He kept most of Nixon’s programs going (which I consider mostly good), but used his veto power to stop the creation of more given the bad economy (which is reasonable). Some of his vetoes were overridden, but on whole they did have the result of the lowest annual spending increases since Eisenhower.

Liberty (12/20): Eland gives Ford only 8 points in this category, docking him a monster 12 solely on the basis of his pardon of Nixon. That’s too harsh. Many historians actually commend Ford for pardoning Nixon in the interest of American morale, and you can make a case for the lesson cutting both ways. I see no reason to dock Ford more than 8 points in the liberty category, and so I score him 12.

jimmycarterportrait2Jimmy Carter, 1977-1981. Peace (17), Prosperity (18), Liberty (14); Total score = 49/60 = Good.

Peace (17/20): Carter believed that America shouldn’t police the globe, showing rare wisdom for a president in the post World-War II era. He avoided war in the Horn of Africa. He refused to support Somali aggression against the Soviets, thus avoiding confrontation with the nuclear-armed Soviet Union. He got Congress to ratify an end to the neocolonial U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone in Panama. He criticized both sides in the Nicaraguan civil war and stopped U.S. aid to the right-wing dictatorship. He scaled back involvement in this region (unlike Reagan who would zealously support a covert war favoring the right-wingers against the left). He finished normalizing relations with China, and terminated the U.S.-Taiwanese defense alliance (unlike George W. Bush who would later recklessly pledge to defend Taiwan from a nuclear attack, thereby putting American cities at risk). On the downside, Carter failed to successfully negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iran, though without negative long-term effects (U.S. policy in Iran was doomed to failure before Carter took office). His biggest blunder was overreacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and allowing his National Security Advisor to initiate the campaign which supported the mujaheddin in both Afghanistan and Pakistan — promoting, in other words, Islamism to fight Communist forces. Reagan would increase support for these jihadists on an insane level, but it began with Carter, and these U.S. funded Islamists would go on to spawn al-Qaeda. On whole, this record is extremely impressive for a president in the 20th century.

Prosperity (18/20): If Nixon was the last liberal president (until Obama), then Carter was the first conservative president (since Coolidge). This despite the fact that Nixon has the conservative image, and Carter the liberal one. In fact, Carter was a monetary tight-ass in a climate of concern. He promoted individuals taking responsibility for themselves, pushed for reducing the federal deficit, advocated the deregulation of industries, and believed that welfare was bad for the family and work ethic. Ford left him a rather stagnate economy; Carter’s conservative policies led to the prosperity of the Reagan years (not Reagan’s policies, on which see below), and they would set the precedent for later tight-money policies that led to prosperity in the Clinton years. Carter’s principled stand as a budget-hawk (his priority was lowering inflation, not reducing unemployment) would cost him the support of many Democrats, which is why he didn’t get reelected. In this sense he was a lot like the tenth U.S. president John Tyler, a Whig who stood courageously alone against his fellow Whigs and lost support. Carter also created the Department of Education, for which Eland downgrades him (for governmental expansion and intrusion), but which I strongly endorse and thus award Carter 3 extra prosperity points for a total of 18.

Liberty (14/20): Carter was near perfect on liberty issues and by rights deserves a score of 20. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which aimed to ensure that women were treated equally in society. He avoided the tendency of post World War II presidents to support communist-hating dictatorships that committed human rights violations. But sometimes Carter’s criticisms of other nations did harm. For example, his blasting of South Africa’s racist policies caused its white supremacists to persecute blacks even more, and their fury at Carter is precisely what caused the election of Prime Minister John Vorster, who believed in apartheid. If Carter showed military and economic restraint, he didn’t always show restraint as a spokesman. For the most part, however, he has a good liberty record.

official_portrait_of_president_reagan_1981Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989. Peace (2), Prosperity (5), Liberty (6); Total score = 13/60 = Bad.

Peace (2/20): Eland’s chapter on Reagan should be required reading for those who treat him like a demigod. He was a terrible president. His anti-Soviet policies and massive defense buildup reversed Nixon’s friendly detente policy with the Soviets, and raised the specter of nuclear war. For all his swaggering anticommunist rhetoric, Reagan didn’t even win the Cold War. The Soviet empire collapsed because of its poor economic performance and over-extending itself in other countries. And as the Soviets were in decline, Reagan launched needless and harmful missions elsewhere. He sent forces to Lebanon. He invaded Grenada. He attacked Libya. All without congressional approval as required by the Constitution. In Lebanon, he actually cut and ran after Shi’ite jihadists killed hundreds of American troops (Osama Bin Laden would remember the way western leaders, even macho-men like Reagan, tend to beat a hasty retreat.) He then went to Grenada in a silly “rescue” of medical students from a supposed Cuban takeover; in fact there was no viable threat in that region at all. Then he picked the fight with Gaddafi in Libya, creating a new enemy for no good reason. Gaddafi was a tyrant, to be sure, but not nearly as bad as the Islamic jihadists whom Reagan zealously supported so that they would fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Out of that manipulative mess would step a very pissed-off Osama Bin Laden. In sum, Reagan was an incompetent, leftist-hating, war-hungry failure. And he was the first of a new dynasty of Republicans that began a long slide to where the GOP is today: in shambles.

Prosperity (5/20): Reagan’s conservative fiscal image is a myth, and one that I once believed. He was more fiscally liberal than Carter and Clinton, and spent loads, not least on defense and his ridiculous 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 Eland points out time and again, tax cuts without spending reductions mean nothing, because either the taxes have to be raised at a later date (which they were), government borrowing has to increase, or the government has to print money to cause inflation. (Because of bracket creep and inflation, Reagan’s tax reductions ended up benefiting only the rich.) Reagan was not responsible for ’80s prosperity in any case. The ones responsible were the heads of the Federal Reserve System — Paul Volcker under Carter, and Alan Greenspan under Reagan — who sucked inflation out of the system with tight-ass money policies. Greenspan was appointed by Reagan but didn’t follow his lead; he followed the tight policies of Volcker his predecessor. The prosperity of the Reagan years came not from Reagan himself but despite Reagan and his heavy spending and fake tax cuts, and this is lost on devotees who actually believe he was a fiscal conservative.

Liberty (6/20): The Iran-Contra scandal was as bad as Watergate. In return for the release of hostages, Reagan sold heavy weapons to Iran (a state sponsor of Islamic terrorism) and used the profits to fund the Contras in Nicaragua (in their war against the Marxist Sandinista government). First of all, this was in violation of the arms embargo against Iran and the Arms Export Control Act which carried criminal penalties. Second, only Congress can appropriate money for government activities; Reagan’s short-cut was as much a Constitutional violation as Nixon’s misuse of security agencies. Even worse than Nixon, Reagan escalated the war on drugs. He attempted to stack the Supreme Court with justices who were less committed to interpreting the Constitution than in legislating conservative mores from the bench. On the other hand, he also appointed Antonin Scalia, and as a result citizens retained the right to burn the American flag, not to mention other liberties. It’s difficult to say whether or not Scalia was a misfire on Reagan’s part, but because Scalia ended up being an important champion of Constitutional liberties, I’m awarding Reagan 6 liberty points instead of 4.

220px-george_h-_w-_bush_president_of_the_united_states_1989_official_portraitGeorge H.W. Bush, 1989-1993. Peace (3), Prosperity (1), Liberty (8); Total score = 12/60 = Bad.

Peace (3/20): Bush’s colossal failure was that he didn’t return to a policy of military restraint when the opportunity presented itself (like Ford did considerably after Vietnam, and as Carter did especially after him). There was no great power to take the place of the communist threat (when the Berlin Wall fell in ’89 and the Soviet Union dissolved in ’91), but Bush kept on with aggressive overseas policies. He invaded Panama for little reason. He went to war with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, worried that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia (and threaten the oil supply), even though there was no evidence indicating Saddam had such designs. After the Gulf War he left behind an unneeded military presence in the Persian Gulf, which infuriated Osama Bin Laden (on his return home to Saudi Arabia after fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan). We’re still today reaping the consequences of the elder Bush’s pointless excursions in the Middle-East.

Prosperity (1/20): Eland gives Bush a putrid score of 1, for the terrible recession Bush presided over, for ballooning the federal budget deficit, and for doing nothing constructive to alleviate the problem.

Liberty (8/20): To Bush’s credit, he signed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But on his watch the FBI covered up federal misconduct when residents were shot at the Ruby Ridge property in Idaho; the residents were acquitted of all crimes, and the FBI snipers had been given illegal shoot-to-kill orders, and yet of the shooters was promoted to the #2 job in the FBI hierarchy. Bush also pardoned high-ranking officials who were involved in Reagan’s nefarious Iran-Contra scandal. His choice of the unqualified Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court is one of the worst appointments in the cause of liberty, and clearly intended as a “token African American” to replace Thurgood Marshall. On the other hand, he appointed David Souter, who turned out to be one of the best justices of the post World-War II era.

800px-44_bill_clinton_3x4 Bill Clinton, 1993-2001. Peace (14), Prosperity (15), Liberty (12); Total score = 41/60 = Average.

Peace (14/20): Clinton usually kept military efforts under control and was reluctant to use ground troops after the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. In the case of Somalia (Clinton’s first overseas involvement), Eland calls it the one legitimately humanitarian U.S. military intervention in the last century, and he’s probably right. Clinton also intervened in Bosnia, and while that was partly on humanitarian grounds there were political reasons too, as there were for the subsequent bombing of Serbia and Kosovo. Clinton got somewhat lucky with Kosovo, when Serbian forces were withdrawn because the Russians suddenly stopped supporting Serbia. Clinton also got lucky with North Korea, when he threatened war against Kim Il Sung. Fortunately Jimmy Carter had been invited by Kim to North Korea, and the former president was able to smooth things over and get Kim to freeze his nuclear program. When al Qaeda bombed the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Clinton replied with cruise missiles, pounding al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Sudan, taking steps to kill Osama Bin Laden but not persisting enough (though doing more than George W. Bush later did).

Prosperity (15/20): Clinton took office during the recession which resulted from the sins of Reagan and Bush, who gave fake tax cuts to benefit their rich Republican constituents without meaningful spending cuts. Clinton immediately reigned in government spending and became a budget hawk in the mold of Eisenhower and Carter (and the previous heads of the Federal Reserve System, Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan), to produce the prosperity of the mid to late ’90s. He worked with Republicans to curb welfare and converted a permanent underclass into temporary aid recipients who had to work while getting assistance. He expanded the Earned Income tax Credit, which lowered taxes for people just above poverty line which encouraged them to keep working instead of going on welfare. He created the World Trade Organization which on whole increased world trade flows.

Liberty (12/20): The David Koresh incident is a blight on Clinton’s administration; many of the Branch Davidians were killed in the standoff, some of them children. To Clinton’s credit, he wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military, but had to compromise with the silly “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that prevented the military from rooting out gays but required gays to stay in the closet. Worse was his signing the Defense of Marriage Act, which stalled progress on gay marriage. To be fair, he was boxed in by his opponents on this issue, but in recent years Clinton has admitted that he was simply wrong to sign DOMA. In general his liberty record is okay.

george-w-bushGeorge W. Bush, 2001-2009. Peace (0), Prosperity (1), Liberty (3); Total score = 4/60 = Atrocious.

Peace (0/20): George W. was not only the worst president in my lifetime, he was one of the worst in history. If I were put in charge of building an “anti-Mount Rushmore”, I would carve his face on it, next to those of Lincoln, McKinley, and Wilson. (Trump will likely oust one of these four.) Bush invaded Iraq for no legitimate reason at all, and bogged America down in a new Vietnam. Scholars are in wide agreement that the Iraq War was one of the hugest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. Not only was it a distraction from the critical task of focusing on the 9/11 attackers, it was based purely on Bush’s need to settle old scores with Saddam, and justified by manufactured evidence. He demanded that his advisors come up with proof that Saddam and al Qaeda were linked in cause, and that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction — neither of which was remotely true — and when they couldn’t, he sent them back to the drawing board, saying “Wrong answer.” The biggest anti-war protests in history broke out across the globe. By removing Saddam, moreover, Bush empowered Islamists and jihadists to fill the power void, who are far worse than Saddam. (In Saddam’s Iraq you were at least mostly safe if you stayed out of politics and played by Saddam’s rules.) Eland’s indictment of George W. is a zinger: “If Bush had been president when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the U.S., he probably would have gone to war against Argentina instead of Japan or Germany.” He earns a goose-egg in the peace category.

Prosperity (1/20): Bush’s economic and spending policies were hideous and the cause of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Like Reagan he gave fake tax cuts while letting federal spending spiral out of control. He used the 9/11 attacks to dramatically escalate the defense budget, and most of this money didn’t even go towards fighting terrorism. On top of that, he used a bailout which killed the economy worse in the longer run.

Liberty (3/20): Bush tried expanding the powers of the presidency in ways that make the Caesar-presidents of the 20th century (esp. McKinley and Wilson) look benign. He (and Dick Cheney) disdained Congressional checks on his authority, believing that as war commander in chief he was not subject to the constraints of the Constitution’s separation of powers. Like Abraham Lincoln (and no other president), Bush claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer. Also like Lincoln, he suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. According to the Constitution only Congress can suspend this right, and only in times of invasion or rebellion. For the first time in U.S. history, Bush declared that the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war don’t apply to terror suspects, and it took years for the Supreme Court to overrule him on this. Most notoriously, he and Cheney sanctioned the use of torture in overseas detention centers. Meanwhile on the domestic front, Bush signed three bills that restricted abortions.

440px-official_portrait_of_barack_obamaBarack Obama, 2009-2017. Peace (4), Prosperity (10), Liberty (6); Total score = 20/60 = Bad.

Peace (4/20): Eland calls Obama a “slightly improved version of George W. Bush”, and that’s pretty much right. Both presidents attacked countries for no good reason, escalated needless wars, and got vast numbers of American soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain. Like Bush, Obama waged these wars under the illusion that America could bring democracy to the Middle East by removing dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this in toppling Saddam, and Obama thought it when he helped bring down Mubarak in Egypt, and Gaddafi in Syria, and then Assad. The result was anarchy in Libya, instability in Egypt, and the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups who are much worse than the supplanted dictators. Obama was even worse than Bush on the subject of Islamism, for he outrageously ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. He also expanded, rather than reduced, Bush’s 9/11 drone wars, ramping them up in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. On the plus side he succeeded in killing Osama Bin Laden, but what he should have done at that point was declare the war on terror over, end the drone wars, and return America to a long-overdue policy of restraint and normalcy. Obama did none of these things. He deserves credit, however, for resisting strong pressures from American war hawks, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to pursue aggressive policies with Iran and Syria. Thus his score of 4 over Bush’s rotten goose-egg.

Prosperity (10/20): Eland gives Obama a score of 3, but I disagree for the same reasons I hold Nixon in higher esteem. As a left-libertarian I don’t share Eland’s hyper-hostility to government spending, and certainly not towards universal health care reform. So first I have to multiply Eland’s score by four to a score of 12, since I consider the Affordable Health Care Act a huge positive achievement. Then I have to downgrade Obama 4 points (and that’s being charitable) for his complete failure over two terms to address the plight of the middle class (for which reason we now have Donald Trump). That brings the score to 8. I add another 2 points though, because while Obama’s stimulus package was a fiscal monster, it did reduce unemployment and prevent a significant increase in poverty, at least in the short term. (George W., on the other hand, receives no positive adjustments from me for his liberal bailout program, since the recession was triggered by his own disastrous policies. You don’t get points for trashy bailout emergencies when you’re fixing your own mess.) So I say 10 prosperity points for Obama, though I admit that’s rather generous.

Liberty (6/20): Obama didn’t fulfill his promise to close Guantanamo, but Congress is to blame for that. On the other hand, Obama can’t blame anyone but himself for continuing Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He has been just as bad as Bush in killing people overseas without Congressional approval of hostilities, and in using domestic surveillance of American citizens without warrants. He did however stop the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA. On the domestic front, he got the military to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, just as he ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts, both of which had treated gays as second-class citizens. In view of his progress on torture and gay rights — and that he at least tried to close Guantanamo — Eland’s liberty score of 4 seems rather stingy. I’d be more inclined to say 9, except that I have to apply an automatic -3 penalty for a cause not mentioned by Eland: the drug war. It’s beyond reprehensible that an African American president did nothing for the drug war, given that (1) African Americans are the ones who suffer most from this obscene policy, and (2) increasing numbers of American citizens have been vocally demanding that drugs be legalized. My liberty score for Obama is thus a 6.

Democracy vs. Liberty

libertyAre the principles of democracy and liberty self-reinforcing, or do they stand in tension? Should the U.S. president be chosen by the people, or by a professional Constitutional-geared search committee?

In the original vision for America it was the latter. We often forget that the American Founders believed democracy could be as big a threat to liberty as governmental tyranny, and so they designed only one sixth of the federal government — half of the legislative branch, namely the House of Representatives — to be voted in democratically. Senators were chosen by their state legislatures (until 1913), Supreme Court justices were appointed by the president (and still are today), and the president was chosen by an electoral college (or by the House of Representatives if no candidate got votes from a majority of the electors). In the Founders’ vision only Representatives (Congressmen) were chosen by popular elections.

In the case of presidential elections, the Founders intended the electoral college to function essentially as a search committee that would forward a list of their top candidates for the presidency to the House. The Congressmen would then choose the president except in cases where there was a consensus among electors. The system never ended up working that way, but that was the original vision. In the nation’s first decades, the methods used by states to select their electors kept changing so that rather than having state legislatures choose them, they were chosen by the people directly. So in effect there was popular voting for the president despite the process outlined in the Constitution.

It was the seventh president Andrew Jackson (1829-37) who did the most by far to make presidential elections democratic in the way we think of them today. He is usually praised for this, but the catch is that popular opinion can be as treacherous as governmental tyranny. This has obviously been proven in the recent Brexit and Trump votes. (In America’s case, Trump lost the true popular vote, but the point is that in the hands of an electoral college operating in a manner envisioned by the Founders, someone like Trump would have never been nominated let alone win an election.) Jackson was a rather terrible president himself, though chosen and loved by “the masses”. It’s the story as old as Rome: democracy is a poisoned chalice. The historian Randall Holcombe says:

“What Andrew Jackson did not anticipate was that by making government officials more accountable to the general public, they would be more inclined to make decisions that pandered to popular opinion rather than sticking to the guidelines of the Constitution. The Founders had good reason for trying to insulate the actions of the federal government from the demands of popular opinion, but Jackson wanted to remove that insulation, making the federal government more accountable to the electorate. Jackson was successful, and his most lasting legacy is that he made the federal government more democratic and thus more oriented toward satisfying the demands of the voters than protecting their liberty.

“Jackson believed that liberty could be protected only by allowing the people to govern through majority rule. He saw democracy and liberty as self-reinforcing, because democratic oversight of the government would guard against its being taken over by a political elite and would prevent the elite government from pursuing policies that would benefit the elite few at the expense of the masses. The Founders felt otherwise, for two reasons. First, they did not believe that most people had the capacity to make thoughtful and informed decisions about their government. Second, they believed that rule by majority could be just as tyrannical as rule by a king, or rule by any elite group. Thus, they designed the government to be run by a political elite, constrained in its actions by the limiting powers of the Constitution.”

This cuts to the heart of my own duality. On the one hand I have a misanthropic streak favoring elitism. It may be a contemptuous thing to say, but people by and large are stupid and poorly informed and can be counted on to give up their liberties and/or vote against their own interests without realizing it. On the other hand I cherish the idea that every individual, no matter how ignorant, should have a say in who governs and leads them, and that they should participate in the voting process accordingly.

“With little imagination,” says Holcombe, “one can envision how American politics would be different today if the president were chosen by a search committee of knowledgeable electors not committed to any candidate, rather than by popular voting.” Certainly we wouldn’t have a disastrous Trump presidency. In any case, Andrew Jackson is the one largely to thank for the double-edged sword of our democratic presidential elections.

Quiz: Which President was most like Donald Trump?

Which president is MOST comparable to Donald Trump? No peeking at the answers below, until you choose.

(A) John Adams (2nd president)
(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president)
(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president)
(D) John Tyler (10th president)

 

joh(A) John Adams (2nd president, 1797-1801)

John Adams may be the last who comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump. He has a generally favorable image among most historians, but is rightfully censured by others. I consider him a terrible president. Like Trump he had a volcanic temper, exploding with little provocation. Many of Adams’ colleagues believed he was too unstable to be a leader, and that’s how many people feel about Trump.

The crucial commonality is tyranny, with respect to foreigners and also citizens who speak against the president and his policies. Adams used the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 with zeal. These four acts made it harder for an immigrant to become a citizen (Naturalization Act); allowed the president to imprison and deport any foreigners who were considered dangerous during peacetime (Alien Friends Act), or to imprison and deport any foreigners who had ties to a hostile nation (Alien Enemies Act); and then criminalized anyone, citizens included, who spoke out against the federal government (Sedition Act) — an egregious violation of free speech. One might wonder how these odious laws were even possible at such an early stage of American history. Supposedly they were “security” measures” because the nation was engaged in a semi-naval war with France, but in reality they were all domestic measures. Adams was just trying to insulate his Federalist Party and crush all opposition from the Democratic-Republicans. He punished journalists and others who spoke out against the government with huge fines and prison sentences.

Most of these laws, thankfully, were abolished when Jefferson took office in 1801 (though one of them, the Alien Enemies Act, is still on the books today, and was used by FDR in World War II). They were the worst assaults on civil liberties in all of American history (aside perhaps from Woodrow Wilson’s crackdowns during World War I). If Trump could get away with using laws like these today, he surely would, and he is already following their spirit. His hostility to immigrants and foreigners is beyond dispute, and he has openly disdained free speech and threatened to sue journalists and media figures (like Bill Maher) who “slander” him.

Award yourself 5 out of 5 points if you chose Adams. I believe he is the closest presidential analogy to Donald Trump.

j_quincy_adams__original(B) John Quincy Adams (6th president, 1825-1829)

Quincy-Adams and Trump share the commonality of pure self-allegiance — loyal to themselves and no one else or any party. Quincy-Adams was a Federalist who repeatedly sided with the Democratic-Republicans when it suited his purposes. Trump was once a Democrat but now a Republican; he was once pro-choice and now an anti-abortionist; etc.

But this is a rather superficial comparison. Quincy Adams was an average president, in Ivan Eland’s judgment for example, “never doing anything spectacularly good or spectacularly awful”. That description doesn’t fit the profile of Trump, who is spectacularly awful in every way.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Quincy Adams.

andrew-jackson-600(C) Andrew Jackson (7th president, 1829-1837)

Andrew Jackson will be the most obvious answer to many, and it’s even Trump’s own choice. It’s disturbing that he chose Jackson as “his” president to hang in the Oval Office. Perhaps he fancies himself a populist and champion of the common man, as Jackson was. Or maybe he emulates Jackson’s nasty temper; Jackson repeatedly got his way by intimidation, his opponents were terrified to cross him, and one biographer said that Jackson “hated with a Biblical fury and resorted to petty and vindictive acts to nurture his hatred”. Or it might be that Trump feels bonded to Jackson by voter-fraud paranoia; Jackson had claimed that the system was rigged after losing the first presidential bid in 1824. (Trump goes Jackson one better: he’s been bitching about the “rigged system” even after he won.)

But it could also well be that Trump feels inspired by Jackson’s worst claim to fame — the outrageous treatment of the Native American Indians, which aligns in some ways with his pernicious views of Hispanics and Muslims. Thomas Jefferson had set the precedent for ethnic cleansing over 20 years before Jackson, arguing that if the Indians would not assimilate into white society, then they had to be removed from their ancestral homelands and relocated to less desirable land further west. But Jackson was the president responsible for implementing Jefferson’s ethnic-cleansing policy on a grand scale. In 1830 he got Congress to pass the Indian Removal Act, driving Indians off lands that had been guaranteed to them by more than ninety treaties, using state militia to evict them from their homes, and sending them out on the infamous Trail of Tears, to die by the thousands en route to their new homes in the west. Incredibly, Jackson justified all this by saying that whites had left their homes to travel to new far-flung destinations, and the Indians were only being asked to do the same. This obviously ignores that (1) whites did this willingly, while the Indians were coerced and terrorized into doing so; and (2) whites were seeking advancement and better opportunities in the west, while Indians were being downgraded as they had to give up their homelands for poorer land in Oklahoma. One thing can certainly be said: Trump is just as anti-intellectual in rationalizing his bigoted policies for the Mexican wall and the moratoriums on Muslim countries.

Most of the similarities between Jackson and Trump are more apparent than real. When Trump entered the White House his approval rating was awful; it’s becoming clear to even those who voted for him that he is actually the opposite of a populist — a business man for the rich. Jackson was a populist in every way and revered by the people. Trump’s nastiness is that of a boor and a blowhard and a narcissist, and it’s unpredictably volcanic in the manner of someone like John Adams. Jackson’s temper was rooted in a genteel code of chauvinistic honor, that thoroughly disdained Trump-like vulgarity. He was a gentleman, in other words, when it came to women, and constantly fought hot-headed duels to protect their honor. If he had ever heard remarks about “pussy-grabbing”, he would have given Trump a thrashing without second thought. That leaves the Indian outrage as the only substantive point of contact — though that is an admittedly huge issue, as the bigotries of both presidents impact huge amounts of non-white peoples in ways that oppose what free societies stand for.

Award yourself 4 out of 5 points if you chose Jackson.

john-tyler(D) John Tyler (10th president, 1841-1845)

John Tyler and Donald Trump were belligerent kids: as a ten-year old, Tyler bound and gagged his schoolmaster and left him for dead; as a seven-year old, Trump punched his music teacher and gave him a black eye. In adulthood they became sexually coarse: as a 26-year old congressman, Tyler flung around lewd innuendos left and right, and when he took a second wife (who was 30 years younger than he), he openly bragged about his sexual prowess. Trump, of course, has become infamous for his “pussy-grabbing” statements.

But as with John Quincy Adams, the comparisons are superficial. On whole John Tyler was not only an excellent president, and vastly underrated, but in the judgment of a historian like Ivan Eland he was the #1 president of all time! He was cautious and restrained in his approaches to governing, and he courageously stood up to members of his own party (the Whigs) to preserve those ideals, which ruined his chances for a second term. He ended the longest Indian War in American history, and allowed the Seminoles to stay on their reservation in Florida rather than continue the Jeffersonian/Jacksonian ethnic-cleansing policy of sending them west of the Mississippi. He reduced troops in the U.S. army by 33%. And as a man with southern sympathies, he remarkably reached an agreement with Britain to jointly enforce a ban on the slave trade. If I were to rank the U.S. presidents, Tyler would easily make my top five.

Award yourself 2 out of 5 points if you chose Tyler, then dock yourself a point since Tyler was one of the best presidents of all time, if not the best (Trump will be one of the worst presidents of all time, if not the worst), for a total of 1 out of 5 points.

“Donald Adams Trump”?

In my opinion, Donald Trump is most like John Adams. Like the 2nd president, Trump has a dangerously unstable temperament, is hostile to immigrants and foreigners, and has no respect for free speech when he is the one being criticized. From here on, I’m calling him President Donald Adams Trump.