Sunday, February 18, 2018

Quincy's Rankings of U.S. Presidents

Since I was 9 years old, I have loved reading about the U.S Presidents. On my own, I memorized the order of the Presidents and I can still weirdly recite that order today. I have made it my goal to own and read a biography of every U.S. President, and while I've read short bios of all of them, I've read at least one full-length bio for 31 of them at this point. With this in mind, I have undertaken to rank the Presidents based on four categories: (1) Leadership - essentially, were they able to get things done? (2) Policies - essentially, did the policies they promoted further the good of the country? (3) Character - essentially, did they display high moral character in personal and public life? (Note: Presidents who were slave-owners could not score higher than 2 in Character). (4) Legacy - essentially, did their presidency influence the country positively and does their time as President have a positive, lasting influence today? For those who were tied in their ranking scores, I tried to evaluate who was the better president in general as objectively as I could to break the ties. So, each number represents where I think each President ranks out of the 40 who completed at least 2 years of a term.

Please note: I have tried to make this list with as little bias toward my own political views as possible. For example, I am typically in favor of limited federal government, but I recognize that there are times that an active federal government is the only right course of action for a President and the country. If I have a bias in this list, it's towards Presidents who were able to further the good of the country by finding a middle ground. So, please don't believe that I hate your favorite President because I ranked him too low. I'll also say that the more recent the Presidency, the more difficult it is to rank that Presidency accuracy, so I'm sure that as I read more and more time passes, some of these grades will change.

I hope this list will encourage someone to do some reading on the lives of the Presidents, and, most importantly, inspire us to look for inspiring, moral, effective leadership in future Presidents. As I updated this list for this year, I realized anew some of the futility of it. The vast majority of men on this list have glaring flaws; actions or character traits that lead us to look at their legacies with skepticism and even disdain. So, while recognizing that you could justly argue for every slave-owning President to be at the bottom of the list, that as many great things as FDR did, his running Japanese internment camps tarnishes all of the good he oversaw, and so on... I have tried to give each person their due credit for noteworthy accomplishments while not avoiding the harm they did to the nation. 

Presidents listed in following order...
Rank Name Leadership Policies Character Legacy Total
 1-40                    5-1             5-1        5-1       5-1         20-4

THE BEST OF THE BEST: We were fortunate with the leaders who came to power at the crucial moments of both the U.S.’s founding and its being put asunder in the Civil War. Lincoln’s incredible abilities to unite his political rivals and keep those under him focused on the goal of preserving the country and ending the forces that threatened to divide them. Lincoln loses one point for the repeated suspension of habeas corpus, but this is more of a sad necessity of being a War President than anything else. He also executed Dakota Indians in the Dakota War. He did try to commute as many executions as politically possible, but this is a character mark. Lincoln was did not always hold the right views, but he virtually always found his way to the truth through his experiences; he was an expert manipulator and I am of the view, historically-speaking, that he always had as his intention to accomplish abolition, but he used any rhetorical tactic he could to keep people at the negotiating table. He is known as the Greatest President for a good reason. Washington’s ability to lead without coming close to dictatorial status is crucial. His decision to voluntarily stepping aside after his second term almost single-handedly established the nation as a democratic republic. Washington was a slave-holder, but he did decry slavery and release his slaves in his will. It is not enough, but it is at least a sign that he recognized a great evil in his life.
1. Abraham Lincoln 5 4 4 5 18*
2. George Washington 5 4 2 5 16*

ELITES: Each President in this section lead the country at an absolutely elite level, but each had their flaws.  FDR took drastic steps to help the citizens of the country escape from the Depression and, then, to defeat the threats posed by the Axis powers in World War II. Eisenhower had a huge influence on the development of new technologies and the highway systems. He also governed from the center and reading about his years of power makes one pine for that kind of even-handed political dealing, but he could have certainly been more forceful in his support of racial issues and his administration was particularly unfair to Latinos.  With that said, , Roosevelt cheated on his wife, created a Japanese prison camp, and paved the way for some big government initiatives that remain somewhat unwieldy (while also helping millions). Eisenhower's open faith was refreshing, but he could have used to be more mindful of the importance of not mixing church and state, Eisenhower's administration's record on issues of race was also very poor.  In both cases, however, I am confident that with the benefit of historical perspectives on their failings, each man would have been able to see and correct many of the errors that beset them and lead the country effectively.
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt 5 3 3 4 15*
4. Dwight D. Eisenhower 4 4 3 3 15*

PRE and POST-WAR EXCELLENCE: Theodore Roosevelt makes his appearance in this category, just as he does on Mount Rushmore. We also had a good run from 1945-1963, with three reasonable, high-minded leaders who were able to get some bipartisan support in leading the nation through the couple decades following World War II. TR was a strong leader, without a doubt, and his dealing with corruption and support of the National Parks system had far reaching effects. However, a thorough examination of his record leaves one with the impression of a man who had a little more style than substance. I’m not sure I’d have the guts to say that to his face, however, and he was able to make deals to accomplish an agenda without sacrificing his principles, a key to effective leadership. He espoused some racist beliefs that guided some of his policies, and that is reflected here as well. Kennedy was easy to like and inspired a fervent following, but made some youthful mistakes, and his philandering lost him points in the character category. Truman had the unenviable task of following FDR, but did so admirably, allowing for a return to normalcy for a nation that had been at war. His Midwest common sense guided him well, though it is fair to question the use of the atom bomb. While it most certainly prevented prolonged bloodshed, it still sets a hellish precedent we all pray no future nation will follow. 
5. Theodore Roosevelt 4 3 3 4 14*
6. John F. Kennedy 4 4 2 4 14*
7. Harry S. Truman 3 3 5 3 14*

UNDERRATED GREATS: I would say this section contains Presidents who are often ranked lower than what I think they deserve by historians. Grant committed to reconstruction, crushed the Klu-Klux Klan, and provided stability for a nation seeking to heal after the Civil War. However, his misplaced loyalty to army friends allowed rampant corruption to seep into his administration, though his own awareness or involvement in it seems to be negligible. He also abandoned the cause of Reconstruction toward the end of his second term.  LBJ certainly had his high-points – working for racial equality, attempting to use the federal government’s powers to help people in need, reforming immigration, and working for civil rights progress – and also his low-points – prolonging and intensifying the Vietnam War, deceiving the public in regards to the war, and personal infidelity to his wife. Though I disagree with many of his policies, there’s no doubting his effectiveness as a leader. McKinley led a reformed government with a moral conscience he brought to bear on all affairs of state, but his reach sometimes appeared a bit limited. However, when all said and done, his presidency set the pattern for a more responsive and active chief executive, a legacy that continues (with pluses and minuses) today. His assassination unfortunately cut short a Presidential career that might have seen him rise to the top 10. Barack Obama was a model of an excellent dad and husband and endured plenty of criticism unfairly because of his race, but his steady leadership helped the country pull out of a Recession and saw the capture and killing of notorious terrorist Osama bin Ladin. Obama failed to negotiate consistent compromises with a Republican Congress and the long-term effects of his healthcare plan and other increases in federal government powers and the deficit leave his legacy an uncertain factor. I also deducted points for lack of pro-life policies in his support for abortion for any reason and drone assassinations. James Monroe united the yet fledgling nation in an unprecedented fashion and established an expansive identity for the United States under one of the most skilled cabinets ever assembled. Monroe was an unrepentant slave-holder who made no move toward abolition
8. Ulysses S. Grant 3 3 4 3 13*
9. Lyndon B. Johnson           4 3 3 3 13*
10. William McKinley 3 3 4 3 13*
11. Barack Obama                 3  3 4  3 13
12. James Monroe                 4  3  2  4 13*

RELIABLE LEADERS: This group of capable men had their share of turmoil, but weathered the storms to carve out meaningful legacies. Reagan was able to pull the nation through the Cold War, to work with the opposite party to enact needed compromises and to set the country up for an economic recovery. However, it seems clear that trickle-down economics is not an effective strategy for long-term growth, and Reagan was inattentive to the cries for justice from people of color and other minorities, overseeing a good degree of harm to those communities, whether intentional or not. James K. Polk was a slave-holding President, which dramatically decreases his character score, and he entered an unnecessary war against Mexico. However, he was able to navigate numerous challenges and restore the nation to financial stability while enhancing U.S. territorial holdings. Grover Cleveland’s style of limited government saw the country through some tumultuous years in two non-consecutive terms at the turn of the 20th Century, but his personal dealings were not always morally circumspect.  Harrison’s personality was a bit too abrasive to win him many political friends, but his presidency saw some important anti-trust laws passed, six more states be admitted to the Union, and a strengthening of the Navy which would be crucial for later years. Harrison also pushed for measures to preserve racial equality, but nothing was accomplished because of his inability to navigate the political world. 
13. Ronald Reagan                 3  3 3 3 12*
14. James K. Polk                4 3 2 3 12*
15. Grover Cleveland 3 4 2 3 12*
16. Benjamin Harrison         3 3 4 2 12*

UNEVEN PERFORMERS: Jefferson was a slaveholder who raped and had children with one of his slaves, and while his pushing the nation toward recognition of states' rights while also overseeing nation-building efforts like the Louisiana purchase deserve a noteworthy place in terms of legacy, he was also a very hands-off administrator which led to factionalism. Coolidge supplied moral leadership when Harding died, and his fiscal policies seem to have sparked some booming economic times – however, those times were followed by the Great Depression and much debate has ensued as to how much Coolidge was to blame for that event. Coolidge also had a surprisingly good record speaking for racial equality, but failed to stand up against a racially-motivated immigration bill from Congress, perhaps because of depression that besotted him after the loss of his young son to blood poisoning. John Adams’ personality, skills and character were absolutely crucial to the American cause during the Revolution, but his uncompromising nature and prickly manner hindered his effectiveness as a President. However, he was avowedly against slavery, he stood up for the separation of church and state, and he established the Presidency as a force to be reckoned with even after Washington’s retirement. Though not the most intellectually-gifted of Presidents, Madison was limited by the communication methods of his day in his turbulent and sometimes disastrous management of the War of 1812, but his continuation of Jeffersonian republicanism helped lead to the prosperity of the Monroe era of Good Feelings. Madison was also a slaveholder, which lowers his character score. 
17. Thomas Jefferson  4  3 1  3  11*
18. Calvin Coolidge 3 3 3 2 11*
19. John Adams         2 2 5 2 11*
20. James Madison 3 3 3 10*

REDEMPTION STORIES: John Quincy Adams was less politically adept than his father, but had great ideas including a national highway system and federal encouragement of the study of astronomy. His was a failed Presidency, but his passionate attacks on slavery as a congressman after his Presidency and defense of the Amistead case dramatically helped his character and legacy ratings. Arthur was a political hack thrust unexpectedly into the Presidency, who showed an undiscovered conscience in continuing the reforming efforts of his predecessor and standing up for the rights of the oppressed with limited political sway. 
21. John Quincy Adams 1 2 5 3 10*
22. Chester A. Arthur 3 2 3 2 10*

THE GREAT WHITE MIDDLE: Clinton ranks a lot higher on many other lists, but, I cannot point to many specific accomplishments of his administration, and he seemed to draft off of strong economic models built by his predecessors. He certainly was an expert politician, but his moral lapses are well-documented, and their legacy continues to bear sordid fruit today. Hayes, meanwhile, was a moral paragon, but also suffers from a lack of tangible results. He stood for reform, bravely held to a vow to seek one term, but made no attempt to support Reconstruction efforts and remained stymied from pushing any notable agenda due to his one-term vow and a very sketchy electoral process that empowered him. George H.W. Bush attempted to continue the policies of the Reagan administration from a more centrist perspective. His administration won the Gulf War, but their nation-building and foreign interference led to conflicts in later years, including those when his son was President, and questions about his moral character have emerged in these later years. Martin Van Buren was a political savant with a real rags-to-riches story who failed to show as much aplomb in the White House while facing financial crises and the burden of living into Jacksonian principles. He was not a friend to abolitionists or First Nations peoples, but his opposition to slavery in his post-White House years is worth noting. Jimmy Carter’s moral fiber bumps him up on this list, but he was not a particularly effective President. His commitment to his own ideas often seemed to keep him from recognizing the best policies and practices to keep the U.S. safe and prosperous. He did broker a peace between Israel and Egypt that remains in place to this day, and, from almost all accounts, is a very good person. Andrew Jackson killed the National bank, advancing the cause of the common citizen, and kept disgruntled states from Secession. However, his support of slavery, terrible treatment of Native Americans and general lack of political negotiating skills are huge blemishes on his record. Woodrow Wilson held abhorrent views on race and suffered from some dictatorial tendencies, but he navigated the nation through World War I and influenced increased involvement by the Federal Government in the lives of its citizens, for good or ill. 
23. Bill Clinton 3 3 1 2 9
24. Rutherford B. Hayes       2 2 4 1 9*
25. George H.W. Bush 2 2 3 2 9
26. Martin Van Buren 2 2 3 2 9*
27. Jimmy Carter 2 1 4 2 9
28. Andrew Jackson              3  2 1 2 8*
29. Woodrow Wilson            2   2 2 2 8*

BRACE YOURSELF FOR THE MEDIOCRE: A lot of very middling performances here. Taft essentially became President because Theodore Roosevelt wanted him to be President, halfheartedly attempted to promote the progressive cause, and then lost re-election only to become a good Chief Justice. Ford was a good and honest man who pardoned a twisted and dishonest man, providing just enough stability to the office of the President to allow the nation to begin to recover a sense of trust in its Executive Branch. That’s about all he did, but it’s probably all he could have done.  Hoover failed to recognize the signs of the oncoming Great Depression and his efforts to push back against it were futile. George W. Bush was able to prevent large-scale follow-up attacks in the aftermath of 9/11 but missed some clear warnings that preceded it. That and the now clear illegitimacy of the War in Iraq, a lack of concern for certain minority groups, his reckless increase of the deficit, and the financial recession of his terms’ later years lessen his score. 
30. William Howard Taft 1 2 4 1 8*
31. Gerald Ford               2 1 4 1 8
32. Herbert Hoover 1 1 4 1 7*
33. George W. Bush          2  1 3  2 7*

THE BOTTOM OF THE BARREL: These five Presidents ruined their respective chances at making a positive impact on the nation and world through their leadership of the executive branch of government. There are Presidents from the 1850’s and 1860’s, 1910’s, 1970’s and 2010's on this list. They all have in common a lack of legacy, as none receive much respect from historians. Here you will find Tyler who was a slave-holder and eventually joined the Confederacy. Despite accomplishing the annexation of Texas and establishing a hold in the Pacific, Tyler's appalling commitment to white supremacist thinking tainted every accomplishment of the first Vice President to take over for a President who died in office. And Tyler was the best of this bad bunch, which includes a crook who promoted nationalist ethnocentrism (Nixon), a corrupt philanderer (Harding)two inept pushovers (Pierce and Buchanan), a man who trafficked in jingoism, oversaw a riot on the U.S Capitol after losing an election, and showed zero effort to work for a common good of the country, instead simply seeking his own power (Trump) and an incompetent, racist mountebank (Johnson). Millard Fillmore also was a weak-kneed political flunky who did nothing to combat the issues threatening to tear the Union of the States apart. For my more complete thoughts on our most recent President, please see the post on this blog called "The Trump Presidency in Retrospect."
34. John Tyler                 2  2 1  1 6*
35. Franklin Pierce 1 1 3 1 6*
36. James Buchanan 1 1 3 1 6*
37. Warren G. Harding  2 2 1 1 6
38. Richard Nixon 2 2 1 1 6*
39. Donald J. Trump       1  2 1  1 5
40. Millard Fillmore       1  1  2  1 5*
41. Andrew Johnson 1 1 1 1 4*

INCOMPLETE GRADES – Combined, these Presidents did not even serve a total of two years. It seems, unfair, then to judge their abilities and policies. It is especially sad in the case of Garfield and Harrison, as both displayed moral courage to enact positive changes in government, both pushing back against their respective era’s electioneering and spoils systems. Garfield’s support of the plight of black citizens makes his assassination most poignantly tragic. 
1. James A. Garfield*
2. William Henry Harrison*
3. Zachary Taylor