The Presidents Part 1: Above the Harrison Line
I like ranking things, and since the end of the Trump administration I’ve heard much speculation over whether or not he was the worst ever to hold the job. so I decided now would be a good time to tackle my definitive list of presidential greatness, but before I launch into the ranking, let me say a little about my process.
If you look at the Wikipedia page about presidential ranking, you’ll see that previous ranking projects have surveyed eminent historians, and they come up with criteria like Economic Management, International Policy, Relations with Congress, Moral Authority, and so on. They assign scores and try to create a mathematical approximation of greatness. Their end result seems to value impact on popular consciousness above all else. When I made my list, I cared about one thing, whether their actions created a net positive effect on the country and the world, or a net negative one. What could be a better measure of greatness?
This strategy, however, proves difficult because even minor presidents did complicated things with lots of repercussions that are hard to measure. Furthermore, my view shifted depending on what moral approach I took. I did not want to get locked into a limiting conception of morality or ethics. After all, if you dive deep into the darker decisions of any administration, you are bound to find gallons of spilt innocent blood. In the job of president, no one comes out clean, no matter by what time period’s morality you judge.
On the other hand, I did not want to make my judgements devoid of moral considerations. Consequently, I tried to stick to moral axioms that are the least controversial like actively propping up slavery is bad, starting illegal wars is bad, curing disease and spreading freedom are good. Stuff like that.
Another thing I tried to consider was effectiveness. Did they lead the country to a better place from whence they began? Did they make life better for their constituents? Did they move the country closer to the ideal outlined in the Declaration of the Independence?
Personally, I am a globalist. I do not believe I should care more about a random person I do not know in Idaho or Delaware than a random person I do not know in Nigeria or Vanuatu. People are people, and nationalism, while starting off well in helping throw of the yolk of monarchical empires, has been pretty destructive ever since. But since the president is elected by Americans for Americans, I was forced to give value to actions that bettered the situation of the United States even if they came at the expense of other peoples. However, I did factor in the level of moral egregiousness the action entailed.
You may disagree with me on this front, but I had to make a decision on how to handle that, and it is my list. You’re welcome to make your own.
And it’s all in good fun, right?
Now without further ado, Let’s get to it. From Best to Worst.
The Great Ones
1. Abraham Lincoln
No surprises here. The great emancipator. No other president did as much to push the United States toward the ideal vision of equality and opportunity the founders conceived in the Declaration of Independence, and then promptly failed to live up to in the Constitution. Lincoln saved the union and ended slavery, which were herculean accomplishments and most likely would not have been achieved by anyone else, not Seward, not Chase, and certainly not anyone from the Democratic party of the time, which would have capitulated to the South endlessly to avoid bloodshed. A true genius who understood politics, military tactics, and most importantly people, he put the country on his back in its darkest moment and carried it through only to be rewarded with an assassin’s bullet. He has a few troublesome marks on his resume, primarily his handling of the aftermath of the 1862 Dakota War, but as far as presidents go he’s as good as it gets.
2. George Washington
Some people might ask, what made George’s presidency so good? Sure he was the leader of the Continental Army, but not much happened during his presidency except the Whiskey Rebellion, and does kicking the crap out of some poor Western Pennsylvania moonshiners make you great? No it doesn’t. Even though quelling the Whiskey Rebellion was important for establishing a nascent government’s rule of law. The greatest achievement of Washington’s presidency was that it was smooth and boring. Washington is one of those characters that people either worship, or denigrate people worship him. When it comes to the creation of our country, he often takes a backseat to the big brains of Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison, or the diplomatic mastery of Benjamin Franklin. While it may be true that George was a bit of an intellectual lightweight (If you read his personal journals from the Revolutionary War, the only two things he seemed majorly concerned with were remodeling and redecorating his Mount Vernon home, and fox hunting), he was more than just a tall guy who looked good on horseback. A calm presence with an even-handed sensibility, he kept the peace between the squabbling factions of the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans, an astounding feat when you consider the hijinks they got up to as soon as George retired. George kept the country unified and on track during its crucial early years, and he also prevented the country from getting drawn in to the European turmoil surrounding the French Revolutionary Wars, somehow maintaining friendly relations with everyone. Last but not least, he modeled what a president should be: Not a king, but a first among equals who seeks unity and consensus over personal glory. As many have pointed out, his most important moment came when he decided to not run for a third term and voluntarily ceded power, creating the tradition of the peaceful transition. We take this for granted today, but we shouldn’t. All the rulers of Europe watched that moment with their mouths agape. Of course it cannot be forgotten that Washington was a slave owner, a fact that will tarnish him in the eyes of modern judges, and it should. He also should not be excused by the fact that he freed his slaves in his will, which just shows he knew it was wrong. Clearly that is a moral failure on his part, but as president he was exceptional, much better than he was at being a general at which he remained decidedly subpar.
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Nobody was elected more times than FDR. When confronted with crisis after crisis, he rose to the occasion and led the country through. He revolutionized American politics, convincing the populace that government could be a positive force for good in their lives. The New Deal led to the longest and largest sustained period of economic growth in American history, and tremendously shrank the gap between rich and poor. His policies led to the fairest version of America we’ve ever seen. Despite all the celebrated accomplishments of FDR, I do believe it’s important to acknowledge that he also has some shadows cast over his administration by Japanese interment and anti-Semitism. He also got played by Stalin at Yalta, much to Churchill’s dismay. In the end though, if we have to tally it up, Roosevelt remains one of the few presidents who did more good than harm.
The Almost Greats
4. Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy did so much to forge modern America. Sure he had a bit of bloodlust in him. He liked to kill things, but he also had a couple of qualities that turned him into a remarkable leader. He had the capacity to change his mind, despite the many reports that he acted impetuously, aggressively, and stubbornly. In actuality, his moves were preceded by a great deal of contemplation and planning, but once he decided what he thought was right, he pursued it with dogged tenacity. He also possessed deep wells of compassion. Thanks to muckraking journalists like Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair, this privileged son of New York aristocracy saw the horrible conditions suffered by the American working class, and turned into the best friend labor ever had up to that point. Teddy ushered in the progressive era, busting trusts, and regulating sprawling, corrupt corporations. Union membership doubled. Roosevelt laid the groundwork for the modern welfare state. His foreign policy exploits are a little more controversial and complicated. He was clearly a bully to America’s neighbors, but it’s hard to say that he didn’t accomplish great things. The Panama Canal was undeniably an enormous accomplishment that benefitted the world, but he didn’t really have to screw over Colombia so badly in the process. That aspect of his presidency is tougher to judge…but National Parks!
5. Ulysses S. Grant
Whoa! US Grant up this high? Wasn’t he a dangerous drunk who oversaw the most corrupt administration of all time? Not so fast! You have gotten drunk off the poisonous Flavor-Aid of Southern Historians who vilified Grant and deified Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The main downside to Grant’s presidency was that it ended too soon, and the Republicans capitulated to the Democrats and ended reconstruction. Grant, however, capitulated to no one. Against great opposition from Democrats, and southern states returning to the Union, he ensured the ratification of the 15th amendment. He created the Department of Justice, which he then used to vigorously prosecute the KKK, crushing them for a few generations. If he had a downfall, it was his tendency to trust and remain loyal to subordinates to whom he shouldn’t, leading to a number of small corruption scandals like The Whiskey Ring, and the Trading Post, but these pale in comparison to the corruption of other eras. In sum, Grant fought for the civil rights and equal protection of all Americans. Susan B. Anthony cast one vote in her lifetime. It was illegal, and it was for Grant. Frederick Douglass said about him: “a man too broad for prejudice, too humane to despise the humblest, too great to be small at any point. In him the Negro found a protector, the Indian a friend, a vanquished foe a brother, an imperiled nation a savior.” I’m just saying, there’s a reason why they gave him that great big tomb on the west side of Manhattan.
6. Dwight Eisenhower
When people like David Brooks write columns wistfully dreaming of civility and good governance by a strong and truly moderate leader, I suspect they had a wet dream about Eisenhower the night before. He was level headed, listened to everyone and got a surprising amount of positive things done. He spearheaded the construction of the interstate highway system, he went to Korea, and he may have not been a maverick for civil rights, but he didn’t stand in the way, and ended up signing the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. He also warned us of the growing military industrial complex. We didn’t listen, but he warned us, which was pretty impressive coming from a former five star general. One hiccup may have been overthrowing that democratically elected leader in Iran and restoring the Shah…yeah that didn’t work out so well.
7. Barack Obama
Most people will probably gripe that this way too high for Obama, but I think after more time is past, history will be kind to him. He’s beloved by moderate liberals everywhere, but people on the right have an irrational hatred of him, and it is in vogue with people on the left to blame him for not doing enough and dismiss him as a failure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a Bernie Bro sneer as he calls Obama neoliberal. But in my rankings, not meeting unrealistic expectations doesn’t count against you. When you look at Barry O’s presidency objectively he may not have wowed us, but his net impact was decidedly positive. Obamacare was the first major social legislation passed since Johnson, and as someone who has affordable health insurance because of it, I’m glad it happened. As presidential hands go, Obama was dealt one of the toughest, and he managed it. He pulled us out of the worst depression since the great one, and frankly I don’t think history will care that he didn’t do it the exact way the Democratic Socialists of America would have wanted. Obama also gets points for being an inspirational leader that increased regard and respect for the United States around the world. When we are a little further away from his time in office, I think fewer will question his placement in the top 10. Plus, consider his competition.
Success! But not without complications
8. Lyndon Baines Johnson
Crude, brash and borderline insane, LBJ dragged the Southern Democrats into the 20th century, signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He may have lost them to the Republican Party, but this consummate politician was more interested in doing what was right than what benefitted him or his party politically. He’s the Mitch McConnell of his age, if Mitch McConnell’s soul wasn’t tarred with the devil’s excrement. Speaking of excrement, Johnson used to do number two with the bathroom door open, and wouldn’t let his staffers leave. They had to keep talking to him while he pinched a loaf (ew, Lyndon!). Despite all the bad behavior, LBJ ranks this high because of The Great Society and the war on Poverty. Johnson’s ambitious domestic agenda led to the creation of Medicaid and Medicare. He improved Social Security and created food stamps. He signed the bills that created the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. He created PBS!! LBJ was the only President who stood up and said no one in this country should live in poverty, and then actually did something about it. He may not have achieved his ultimate goal, but he did a lot. The reason he’s not in the top tier is Vietnam, the issue that didn’t just plague his presidency, but also plagued him personally. Johnson was obsessed with not being the first American president to lose a war, resulting in more and more young men being drafted and sent to die in what was pretty much a senseless conflict. Furthermore, while he was a dynamo domestically, he was incredibly insecure when it came to military strategy and foreign policy, so he relied far too heavily on advisors and generals who did not steer him well. Vietnam took a heavy toll on Johnson. He died less than five years after leaving office, one day before Nixon announced the peace agreement ending the war.
9. John F. Kennedy
Most people have a heavily skewed, sanitized, over-idealization of JFK. The assassination added to this mystique, but you don’t get points for what you could have been. JFK ranks this high because he began many of the initiatives Johnson successfully passed, however, it is doubtful Kennedy could have broken through the conservative coalition that opposed him. Johnson’s experience and talent for political horse trading lies at the crux of his legislative success. Kennedy does get credit for successfully navigating the Cuban missile crisis, which was no small feat, and he showed surprising backbone and sharp instincts dealing with gung ho generals like Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay in the early days of Vietnam. Kennedy also gets credit for being Kennedy. The famous speeches, the ambition, they may only be fancy words, but those words inspired a whole generation to proudly struggle through the terror of the Cold war and the turbulence of the 60s and beyond. Does he deserve as much credit as he gets for the moon landing? No. But giving him a little seems right.
10. Harry S. Truman
Truman remains another guy who was dealt a pretty hard hand, and played it well. A virtual stranger, to the American people, he had to follow the toughest act of the 20th century. First off, he made the toughest decision anyone, anywhere has ever had to make (dropping the A-Bombs), and in hindsight it appears he made the right call. Most other options would have led to an extension of the war, far more death, and a post war scenario decidedly more advantageous to the Soviet Union. Some people still might say “But dropping a nuke is unforgivable!” I say tell that to my grandfather who was in training to redeploy in the Pacific following victory in Europe. It was a truly horrible decision to have to make. Beyond that Truman also cemented the legacy of the New Deal, ensuring it would persist after the war, sold congress on the Marshall Plan, and took a strong stance on civil rights, integrating the military. Speaking of the military, Truman doggedly insisted on civilian rule over the ascendant power of generals at their height after victory in WWII. General Douglas MacArthur flouted presidential authority more than any general since George McClellan, and Truman made the right call removing him. Truman didn’t do everything right. He tried to veto Taft-Hartley, which thankfully congress overrode, and even though he denounced the Red Scare, he purged left wing civil service employees who refused to disavow Communism. Many people admire Truman for being an honest, straight talker, but he also proved a savvy politician and extended what most people thought would be an accidental presidency into one of the better efforts.
11. James Monroe
The top ten was relatively easy. Now things get tough. Does James Monroe exhibit the genius and talent you’d expect of one deserving such a high place on this list? No. Did James Monroe prove to be an adequate leader who did not make any major mistakes during very favorable circumstances? Yes. Some guys have all the luck, and being president in a time period dubbed “The Era of Good Feelings” is pretty lucky. That being said, Monroe may not have been anything special, but he was careful, judicious, and generally made the right calls, maturing the US out of its angry toddler phase. In order to recover from the panic of 1819, Monroe built much needed infrastructure. He also signed treaties with Britain, cooling down relations after the war of 1812 by resolving border disputes and demilitarizing our northern borders with British territory. He also acquired Florida from Spain with the Adams-Onis Treaty. A long held goal by many American leaders. What Monroe is most famous for, however, is his eponymous doctrine. Highly sympathetic to the revolutions in Latin America led by Simón Bolívar and José De San Martín against Spanish and Portuguese colonizers, Monroe declared that any European powers trying to meddle in the affairs of the western hemisphere would have to reckon with the US. While some have argued these were empty words that the Europeans chose not to challenge due to their need to recover from the devastating Napoleonic Wars, others have pointed out that Spain was fully prepared to intervene in South America, and this threat was likely the factor that made it too an expensive a venture. One area where I wish he would have succeeded was that he tried to get rid of political parties. How nice would that have been? Oh well, c’est la vie. Clearly Monroe benefitted from good timing, but he didn’t screw it up, and that’s more than a lot of others can say.
12. Thomas Jefferson
In many presidential power rankings, Jefferson cracks the top 5. I find that curious. You’ll get no argument from me that Jefferson is the idea man behind the whole American project. Even though he didn’t live up to his own ideals, the fact that he laid them out so articulately remains of the utmost importance. After all, whose words does Lincoln refer to in the Gettysburg Address? Jefferson’s. Despite that, I’m not ranking important Americans, or Founding Fathers; I’m ranking presidents, and Jefferson’s presidency was pretty uneventful. Like Monroe he didn’t screw up much. He repealed the repugnant Alien and Sedition Acts (We’ll hear more about them later). He kept us out of the Napoleonic Wars, fought some pirates, and tried Aaron Burr for treason. Two undeniably good things he accomplished: (1) he criminalized the international slave trade, banning the importation of new slaves. He called it a “violation of human rights.” That might be cold comfort coming from a slave owner, but Jefferson was always the most emo of the slavers. (2) He made the greatest purchase of all time in a country that loves nothing more than buying things. Jefferson paid Napoleon $15 million (about $346 million in today’s money) in 1803 for the Louisiana territory. That land now comprises 13 states and is estimated to be worth $1.2 trillion. I’d say he got a pretty good deal.
13. Woodrow Wilson
Yes, he was racist. I know. Unfortunately, most of our presidents were. He’s also responsible for appointing one of the worst ever justices to the Supreme Court because he wanted to get rid of him as Attorney General (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtqgCRDr_gU). Taking all this into consideration, Wilson still ranks on the high side. He implemented the newly ratified income tax and used that revenue to pass a whole a slate of progressive legislation taking what Teddy Roosevelt had started and pushing it further. He created the Federal Reserve and the federal trade commission. He passed the Clayton Antitrust Act, Farm Loan Act, and the Adamson Act (establishing 8 hour work day on rail rods). Wilson was an idealist who tried to imbue his presidency with morality, which leads to some interesting contradictions. While he reinforced segregation in the bureaucracy, he also appointed the first Jewish Supreme Court justice (Louis Brandeis), for which he had to convince very suspicious members of his own party, and he got on board with women’s suffrage, working his powers of persuasion to get the 19th amendment passed in congress. Also, give him credit for vetoing the Volstead Act (prohibition enforcement), but it was overridden. At that time prohibition was a wave even a popular president couldn’t stop. Lastly, Wilson handled America’s involvement in WWI about as smoothly as one could wish. In the aftermath, his fourteen points, and idea for the League of Nations were ahead of their time, while they failed in the short term, they poured the foundation for the United Nations.
The Medium Place
14. Chester A. Arthur
I know right. Who’s Chester A. Arthur? He was president? People should know Arthur’s name, not only because he had epic facial hair, but also because his story is the best of the accidental presidents. Rifts in the Republican Party allowed an opportunity for a dark horse candidate, James A. Garfield from Ohio, to seize the nomination in 1880. In order to pull this off, he needed the support of Roscoe Conkling, Senate power broker, political machinist, and all around corrupt dude (This is the guy who famously and allegedly said, “You can always hire one half of the poor to kill the other half.”). While Garfield found Conkling unsavory, he hoped to make him his Vice President thereby garnering his support and putting him in a position where he could be marginalized, doing less damage to his administration, but Conkling was much too clever a lark for cages. Instead he demanded to be put in charge of the New York Customs House where he could put his dirty little fingers in all manner of pies. For Garfield’s VP, he offered up one of his creatures, Chester A. Arthur. When he ascended to Vice Presidency, everyone knew Arthur was just Conkling’s lackey. Then fate stepped in in the form of an assassin’s bullet. Charles J. Guiteau, a deranged man who believed he was key in getting Garfield elected, and subsequently miffed when he didn’t receive a plum position in the new administration, shot Garfield in the lower gut. As Arthur took over the top job, Conkling rubbed his greasy paws together thinking he was in the money now. He believed he would become the de facto president directing Arthur’s every move and appointing all his corrupt little friends to the best jobs, but what came next stunned everyone. Arthur turned on Conkling and picked up the banner of the fallen president. Maybe he was extremely disturbed over the assassination, but he threw himself whole hog behind the reform movement, passing the Pendleton Act to batter the spoils system that had so long been the primary source of political corruption in the American government, paving the way for the professionalization of the bureaucracy. Journalist Alexander McClure later wrote, "No man ever entered the presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever retired ... more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe." I like to think of Chester A. Arthur as the Mindy St. Claire of American presidents. He wasn’t the world’s greatest guy, but he did one really good thing, so he deserves his medium place.
The Well-Intentioned Failures (Oh! What Could Have Been?)
15. John Quincy Adams
A great Secretary of State and eminently qualified for the job, John Quincy Adams seemed to have everything required of a great president, but you make one backroom bargain to get the job, and all of a sudden Andrew Jackson makes it his raison d’etre to screw up your presidency. JQA set forth an ambitious agenda of internal improvement in the hopes of pushing the fledgling nation out of the nest to test its wings and fly. As a supporter of Henry Clay’s American System, JQA supported preserving the Bank of the United States, building a comprehensive system of roads and canals to ease movement of trade, and tariffs on European manufacturing in order to foster the American Industry. One such tariffs was dubbed by Southerners as the Tariff of Abominations because of its adverse effect on the cotton industry, and would lead to the Nullification Crisis in the Jackson administration. Tragically, JQA achieved little due to virulent opposition from a new alignment of political interests headed by Jackson and supported by John C. Calhoun and Martin Van Buren. This new alignment would become the Democratic Party, but it’s not like he got nothing done. The effect of Jackson in this regard is a bit overblown, JQA’s infrastructure work regarding roads and canals led to massive improvement and the rapid progress of western cities, such as Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Louisville, Some lesser known facts about JQA’s presidency: he passionately supported the sciences, Astronomy in particular; he was instrumental in the establishment of the US Naval Observatory, and gave his last public speech at the opening of the Cincinnati Observatory; he also suspended the disgusting Treaty of Indian Springs, forced upon the Muskogee peoples by the Governor of Georgia, which would have led to Indian removal. While JQA was a firm supporter of westward expansion, he believed Native Americans should be invited to participate and assimilate into the American Nation that may not seem perfect by today’s standards, but it made him a bona fide radical in his own time. JQA truly valued fairness and equal treatment for all. One of the reasons Southern politicians found him so odious was because they thought he was a secret abolitionist. I’m pretty sure he was too. Good for him.
16. James A. Garfield
The ultimate example of hard luck, Garfield’s presidency lasted only four months before he was shot, then he languished in agony for another two before finally succumbing to infections caused by the constant probing of his surgeons who could not locate the bullet. A reformer who believed deeply in civil rights and education, Garfield set forth an ambitious agenda. He wanted to do away with the spoils system, and he proposed a universal public school system. He also appointed several prominent African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, to positions in his administration. We have no way of knowing how his administration would have gone if he had lived, but at least he seemed to have good intentions, and didn’t have time to screw anything up.
17. Jimmy Carter
Oh Jimmy, poor Jimmy. Another intellectual idealist like JQA whose ambitions were hamstrung by circumstance and his inability to kowtow to the political meanness of his time. If you go back and watch Jimmy Carter’s speeches, it’s shocking how many of his insights and predictions proved true, but the American people didn’t like being told the truth because it made them feel bad. Despite the fact that he had a more difficult time convincing congress (even members of his own party) to adopt any of his initiatives than the average American has converting miles to kilometers, he can still hang his hat on the Camp David Accords. He also reoriented American foreign policy toward the defense of human rights across the globe, and guaranteed the return of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians. Also notable were his support for alternatives to fossil fuels and conservation of the environment. Unfortunately for Jimmy, stagflation followed by an energy crisis and then a recession led to a massive dip in popularity, throw in a hostage crisis with a badly botched rescue mission, and you’ve won a primary challenge from a Kennedy. He survived that, but he was ripe for the pickin’ for Ronny Reagan. But now he’s America’s favorite ex-president, so there’s that. I guess.
The Polk Conundrum
18. James K. Polk
On the one hand, James K. Polk should be praised for being a politician who fulfilled his promises, did exactly what he said he’d do, and stood aside when the job was done. We need more politicians like Polk who put personal ambition aside. Unfortunately the one thing he promised he’d do was bait Mexico into a war and take half their country. Even during his time, many Americans thought what we did to Mexico was wrong. Manifest Destiny made us just as bad as the European empires we were always criticizing, but it’s hard to deny that Polk did exactly what the people wanted. It’s hard to figure what to do with Polk. I put him just north of the Harrison line because it’s difficult to envision the US without California and the other western states, and it’s undeniable that these actions benefitted the US and its people, and that was his job as president. Still, The Mexican War diverges drastically from the ideal conception of the US as a force for equality and good in the world. It’s one of our more shameful moments.
The Harrison Line
19. William Henry Harrison
It always bothers me when people call WHH the worst president because he died in 30 days. He didn’t do it on purpose. Sure, as president, he did nothing but cough for a month, which means he has no credits on which to pin his legacy, but, on the flip side, he also did no damage; therefore, Harrison becomes the perfect line of demarcation. If you are above the line, your contributions were net positive, if below you know where you can go. Notice there are more below than there are above.