Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Rating the Presidents

In commemoration of President’s Day, I was recently asked to participate in a historians’ survey of presidential rankings sponsored by my friends at Franklin’s Opus. The cumulative results may be found at the link and are fairly unique for surveys of this type in that they are significantly more introspective than the typical surveys of this sort. Rather than affirming the typical selections that adorn various coins and federal reserve notes, this particular survey rescued a number of commonly overlooked presidents from obscurity while also penalizing several recognized “greats” for under-acknowledged faults.

My personal rankings were fairly close to the overall scores (for instance my #1, Grover Cleveland, finished a close second overall). I thought I’d share a few of my ratings and rationales though given the discussions that these types of exercises tend to provoke.

Top 5 Presidents (descending order):

1. Grover Cleveland – He comes the closest of any president to fulfilling his campaign pledges of sound economics, limited government, and non-intervention abroad.

2. John Tyler – A traditionally underrated president who deserves great credit for his vigorous exercise of the veto pen and his steadfast obstruction of the Whig economic system even in the face of expulsion from his party and a congressionally orchestrated resignation of his entire cabinet. In a proslavery era (and though a slaveowner himself), he also deserves a small amount of credit for the Webster-Ashburton Treaty’s formal international convention against the slave trade.

3. Martin Van Buren – A defender of sound money and resistor of federal intervention upon a National Bank-created recession who later lent his name to the free soil cause.

4. Calvin Coolidge – Though his reputation slides a little in my books from his support for protective tariffs, he is the closest thing the 20th century has to a non-interventionist in both domestic and foreign affairs.

5. Warren G. Harding – Another consistently underrated president on account of his “do-nothing” reputation, which in my book is actually a credit. He also presided over the Washington Naval Conference, which somewhat successfully rolled back the international military escalation that occurred at the outset of World War I.

 

Bottom 5 Presidents (Getting progressively worse, and excluding Obama)

5. Ulysses S. Grant – An inept manager, territory-clamoring colonialist, and complicit enabler of the giant graft machine that was postbellum Republican Party.

4. Richard Nixon – The father of the modern “war on drugs” and the dangerous, deadly, and racist militarized state of policing that followed.

3. Woodrow Wilson – A racist scientific “progressive” internationalist run amok – he gave us the income tax, the federal reserve, American entry into World War I and the disastrous settlement of war debts, a segregated civil service, and tacit approval of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

2. Lyndon Johnson – A cutthroat and publicly crass politician, he gave us the modern entitlement state that is the root of the current national debt and an aggressive military escalation of Vietnam.

1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt – I could easily cite any number of faults in his destructive economic policies, his dangerously naive relationship with Stalin, and his aggressive assertions of executive power at the expense of constitutional constraints on the presidency. But his issuance of executive order 9066 authorizing the forcible internment of over 100,000 innocent people of Japanese descent into race based concentration camps is more than sufficient alone to qualify this monster as the worst president in American history.

Also an answer to a question that might have some readers wondering:

Where does Abraham Lincoln rank in the mix?

I placed him in the middle of the pack – basically with other presidents who did some genuinely good things and some bad. I credited Lincoln for 1) taking action to end slavery and 2) leadership insofar as he possessed masterful articulation of the principles of self-government. But I also knocked him for not always living up to those principles, for his overly zealous willingness to compromise civil liberties during the Civil War, and for his sometimes blunderous and deadly strategies in pursuing that war. This places him above most of the generally disastrous 20th century presidents, tied in the middle along side such figures as George Washington and James K. Polk, and just behind Rutherford B. Hayes and, of course, Mark Twain’s least disappointing president Chester A. Arthur.


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