Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Presidential Survey – Rating the Middle of the Pack

Last week I took part in a President’s Day Survey to rate the historical performance of the previous occupants of the White House. I elaborated briefly upon my choices for the top and the bottom of the list, though my findings were also somewhat atypical for such surveys – including historians of both the left and right – as they dispersed a number of figures who are traditionally ranked as “great” presidents, including a number who fell in the middle of the pack

I commented previously on one such president who I both thoroughly respect for his strengths and analytically criticize in areas of shortcoming: Abraham Lincoln. In a similar vein I wanted to elaborate on a few others who joined him near the executive branch median. So here are a few select presidential rankings for the “upper-middle of the pack.”

9. Chester A. Arthur – Another from the praiseworthy category of do-nothingness that leads me to similarly commend Warren G. Harding. I give the oft-forgotten Arthur high marks though for the same reason that Mark Twain deemed him a great president: he entered into office with exceedingly low expectations but managed to greatly exceed them. In particular he oversaw a mild scaling back of economic intervention during the high water mark of Gilded Age crony capitalism, restrained the Republican Party’s graft machine (of which he had once been a public face), dumped the internationally meddlesome and corrupt James G. Blaine from the State Department, and exercised his veto pen against some of the more punitive anti-Chinese immigration measures that came out of Congress from his own party. Also while many presidents are enlisted by their successors to justify generally awful policies, nobody in the present day ever claims precedent in anything done by Chester Arthur.

12. George Washington – I credit him for the political precedent he set by voluntarily relinquishing the presidency, for his restraint in the exercise of power where less scrupulous people would have succumbed, and for his cautioning against foreign entanglement, even as he did not always live up to this ideal. His counteracting faults include the political patronage he  extended to Alexander Hamilton and his almost single-handed sustenance of Hamilton’s political career long after the other leading minds of that era had grown wise to his constant and deadly mischief-making. And while his refusal to seize monarchical powers merits political recognition for the precedent it set, commending him for not doing something he was legally and morally obliged not to do also strikes me as somewhat akin to praising a serial shoplifter for emerging from the store a single time with empty pockets.

14. Abraham Lincoln – As previously noted, 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.

15. James K. Polk – In terms of pure leadership Polk probably ranks the single most successful president in history. He came into office on a simple platform of cutting the tariff, gutting the monetary manipulation left over from the national bank system, and expanding U.S. territory. He succeeded in all three, left office after a single term with nothing more to do, and died a few months into his retirement. While the first two were positive developments, the latter involved a bloody war of territorial acquisition (although in slight mitigation here his Mexican adversary Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – a vehement xenophobe with a Napoleonic complex – was both a significantly worse person and a more directly culpable party in the causes and escalation of the war), and with distinct pro-slavery undertones. Polk’s positives thus all come from his political successes, though his negatives are a reflection of the extended harm from one of those successes.

17. James Monroe – There is much to praise about Monroe’s presidency, including his vetoes of internal improvement spending and his initial resistance to the protective tariff. He did however sign the protective Tariff of 1824, which set the events into motion that later caused the nullification crisis and which contributed to Henry Clay’s generally regrettable political ascendancy. The famous Monroe Doctrine may also be the quintessential “mixed bag” of all presidential actions. Its praise derives from its function as a convention against of European military and colonial intervention in the Americas. But this proved a double edged sword, as it also provided cover for later American meddling in the affairs of its neighbors.

 


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