March 03, 2017

Presidential rankings — this blogger's new view

Since it’s a popular task for both armchair and more professional historians, I’m going to wade into the battle myself. In fact, it's so popular, this is an edited and updated version of one I did the year before Dear Leader was elected president. Hence, one reason for the update.

Beyond that, I've read, over that decade, numerous new historic books that have covered in detail all or part of several presidencies, including Fillmore, Taylor, Benjamin Harrison, Wilson and McKinley, among others.

Presidents are ranked by numeric order and given a letter grade on the standard A-F scale, including pluses and minuses. Contra historical writing, since I’m analyzing presidents, not presidencies, Cleveland’s two presidencies are lumped under one rating.

Several presidents have made moves several places up or down (more that a couple have moved sharply down) from my previous ranking.

I've also decided to put some "tiers" in place. And, tried to do some thematic work with the tiers.

(As for the most recent occupant? A brief preliminary take is at the bottom.)

Tier One

1. Abraham Lincoln, A+. I don’t believe in perfection, but Lincoln comes very close. I don’t strongly denigrate his early views on race, but do note he was a moderate, not a true progressive, when coming to the White House. But, he evolved and grew, including through his personal meetings with black leaders such as Frederick Douglass. My final comment quotes Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “He belongs to the ages.”

2. George Washington. A. He set the tenor for the office of the presidency, being amongst the people without being too much of the people, something that Reagan recognized but Carter and Clinton didn’t; the same can be said of many members of the House in Washington’s own day. My one minor knock is his adding “so help me God” to the oath of office, thereby giving the “civic religion” so beloved by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia its first bit of nose under the camel’s tent. (And, per my response to a commenter below, even if that isn't true — and I'm now willing to call it "undecided" but not a myth — good old George still chose to be sworn in on a Bible.)

Tier Two — the "good to very good, but" presidents

3. FDR. A-/B+. I can’t see any other Democratic candidate in 1928 — certainly not either Al Smith or John Nance Garner — handling the Depression nearly as well as Roosevelt did. The only major fault is that he didn’t think of a national health insurance plan at the same time as Social Security, which of course wasn’t his original idea anyway. (Actually, supposedly, Hopkins and a few others were hoping national health care would be part of the deal.) Not so much moved down as placed in Tier Two and graded lower, as I think more about how conservative his 1932 campaign was. He also had his political stumbles, like not pulling back his court-packing bill when the "Switch in Time that Saved Nine" happened just a month after he announced it. That said, Walter Karp thinks this was deliberate. It could have been to some degree, but not the way Karp spelled it out.

4. TR. A-/B+. Though not an actual bigot (well, actually, kind of yes on blacks and 'genteel Eastern Establishment' anti-Semitism0 his less than fully-enlightened (even for his day, compared to the best) racial attitudes, as exemplified in the Brownsville Army incident, knock him off the A pedestal. And, too many people give him credit for too much of what Taft did. (Grade dropped.)

5. James Monroe. B. He stayed under the radar screen, didn’t screw anything up, and got Quincy Adams to pen the Monroe Doctrine. He presided over a cabinet that had two 1824 presidential candidates and a third that switched to Veep.  (Imagine Calhoun making that a five-man race; probably would have undercut both Jackson and Crawford.) He also navigated the shoals of Missouri's admission to the union as part of the larger Missouri Compromise. (Moved up.)

6. LBJ. B/B-. In his own words, that “bitch of a war,” which knocked the props from beneath the Great Society, keeps him from being in the top five. Nonetheless, as Republican hacks have shown today with politicizing the so-called “War on Terror,” LBJ’s fears of being tarred with the label of “first president to lose a war” weren’t to be taken lightly. (Unfortunately, not being a regular part of JFK's ExComm, he didn't know Kennedy swapped missiles for missiles over Cuba, and may have felt he had to be that hawkish on Vietnam.) But, even though he followed the lead of the Best and Brightest on Nam, he could have gotten off the ride sooner.

7. Ike. B/B-. I think Eisenhower deserves more of his modern reassessment than what Truman got more than a decade ago. Yes, it’s easy to skewer Levittown, duck and drop nuclear bomb drills in schools, and such, but, Ike was prescient about the military-industrial complex, in possibly the best farewell message besides Washington’s, kept those duck and drop practices from ever having to become real, and presided over the economic boom times that allowed Levittown and suburbia. (Dropped because he took the Supreme Court literally, and probably deliberately so, with its "all due deliberation" statement on its Brown II ruling. And because his administration was the heyday of CIA-coup plotting, with the military-industrial complex being replaced by the spook-coup complex.)

8. Truman. B/B-. High marks for desegregating the Army and for how he handled MacArthur, though European allies in the Korean War had hoped for even swifter action. Further kudos for attempting to get national healthcare, though he couldn't overcome the three legs of opposition from the AMA, the national Chamber of Commerce, and ... unions. But, his domestic accomplishments were relatively modest, and his administration was marred by arguably the worst cronyism in hiring since Harding. Plus, he was intemperate at time on Cold War issues, and started loyalty oaths on his own, even before McCarthy got to running hog wild.

Tier three — the "good, but" presidents

9. Jefferson. B-. Ranked lower than other presidents based on presidential years only. Louisiana Purchase was given to him, not initiated by him; the Lewis and Clark voyage was originally, in essence, espionage. His embargo on American commerce during the Napoleonic wars wrecked New England’s economy and he was basically clueless. Other high points, though, for submitting to a Supreme Court ruling defining the bounds of executive privilege, and getting the Adams-era Alien and Sedition Acts repealed. Gets dinged further for presidential and post-presidential retreat from earlier views on slavery-related issues. Gets dinged yet further for his attempt to invoke presidential privilege, his near-conspiratorial angle toward Aaron Burr and more. (Moved down.)

10. Carter. B-. A president of integrity and principle on a variety of domestic political issues, he got pummeled for it. Doesn’t get his share of credit for fall of the Soviet Union, as he started the “Reagan” defense build-up. Not ranked higher due to lack of political flexibility and acumen. Also not rated higher for being, in some ways, the first neoliberal president, a fact overlooked by many and obscured by his post-presidential career. That all said, he was less neoliberal than later presidents, and, apple-polishing aside, of higher moral rectitude.

11. Taft. B-/C+. Yes, he did initiate trust busting beyond cases inherited from TR, and he didn’t really screw anything up, but he had no vision for the office otherwise. Of course, he didn't want it as much as the Supreme Court in the first place. His wife pushed him into it, then had two strokes within his first year in office. If she had been fully healthy, he might rank higher yet. (Moved up several spots.)

12. Arthur. B-/C+. Credit for backing civil service reform after Garfield’ assassination; unclear if he would have done so otherwise. (Moved up.)

13. Hayes. B-/C+. Elected president in 1876 by a bipartisan commission of SCOTUS justices and Congressmen, that just “happened” to break 8-7 on party lines, he restored integrity after the Grant corruption years and by promising not to run for re-election. Nonetheless, he got his hands tied by GOP agreement to end Reconstruction — which the Grant Administration had been phasing out anyway. (Moved down more as I think about his strike-busting activity, among other things.

14. James K. Polk. B-/C+. If we’re ranking him solely on morals, the way he provoked war with Mexico would get him severely dinged. But, as far as achieving the goals he proclaimed in 1844, he hit a grand slam. A B seems like a compromise, if we don’t look too hard at the slavery issue. (Moved down from previous, in part because he had already written a war message ready for delivery to Congress even before hearing about Zachary Taylor's scrape with Mexican troops in disputed territory at Palo Alto.)

15. Kennedy B-/C+. Let’s puncture the myth of Camelot. He blew the Bay of Pigs by not either going all-in, including air support, or else scrubbing it. His post-Pigs obsession with Castro gets him dinged, as does the illicit sex, not on account of the sex itself, but for ditching the nuclear “football” while doing so. Pluses for calm in handling the Cuban missile crisis and offering inspiration to a younger generation.

Tier four — Reagan and his wannabes, along with names from the past

16. John Quincy Adams C+/C (would get an A+ as Secretary of State and A as Congressman). His administration itself was not bad, but honoring the “corrupt bargain” with fourth-place presidential finisher and former Speaker of the House Henry Clay by making him Secretary of State (at that time the normal stepping-stone to the presidency). He should have had the political sense to know that would guarantee a one-term presidency, and that Clay favored him over Jackson anyway. However, he had good ideas as president, even if many were laughed at. (Moved up, primarily due to slippage of several others.)

17. Clinton. C+/C. Took the worst of the edges off welfare reform and gave us a balanced budget, among other things. Gave us NAFTA and the WTO, on the other hand, and botched health care reform; probably, any bill would have been tough to get past Congress, but his plan didn’t make it any easier. The D shows how much I’m disappointed that he expanded the Bush I privatizing of the Armed Forces and started, though not to the degree of Bush II, illegal “renditions” by the CIA of terrorism suspects.

18. Obama. C+/C See this recent post for more on him.

19. Madison. C. A decent man and a great political theorist, promoted over his head into the presidency.

20. Reagan. C+/D+. Reagan wasn’t all that bad in his first term, relatively speaking, and, although he had to lie to himself about what a tax increase was in 1982, he swallowed the need for it. D+, or lower, for the second term, for Iran/Contra. Plus, it’s a legitimate question to ask if the onset of Alzheimer’s was influencing some second-term decisions, although from what we know about Iran-Contra, that doesn't seem true.

The late 1800s (and others) "meh" tier

21. McKinley. C/C-. While he didn’t screw much up, his pious platitudes about taking on the “white man’s burden” in the Philippines, while annexing Hawaii, introduced imperialist America to the world stage.

22. Garfield. C/C-. His relatively short term makes it hard to offer too much judgment. He might have done a Pendleton Act "lite" on civil service reform and not much more.

23. Cleveland. C and D. The C is for his first term, his principles on budgetary matters, and for being reasonably principled in general. The D is for his second term, for his anti-labor stance and his role in exacerbating, or at least exacerbating the pains of, the Panic of 1893, arguably the country’s first modern industrial depression.

24. Ford. C-. Political ineptitude, not to mention ethical questionability, for his pardon of Nixon, especially its unseemly speed after taking office. He could have stalled thing out until after the 1976 election, as far as the political sensibility of not pardoning Nixon right away.

25. Bush, George H.W. C-/D+. Handled the Gulf War well, but the blame is ultimately his for April Glaspie. Too slow to “cut losses” with Gorbachev rather than Yeltsin, and otherwise react to a post-Cold War world.

26. Benjamin Harrison. C-/D+. Quiet administration that didn’t screw much up. A nonentity otherwise, other than not having a clue about the rise of organized labor. However, his push to admit new Republican states on the Plains sparked the last conflicts with the Sioux, among other things. (Downgraded moderately.)

27. Adams. C-/D+. Avoided war with France in 1798; but, first president to manipulate immigration and civil liberties for political advantage by signing into law, and personally backing much of, the Alien and Sedition Acts. Arguably, with hyperworry about French radicals, THIS, not A. Mitchell Palmer in 1920-21, was the first Red scare.

28. Fillmore. C-/D+. Yes, some version of the Compromise of 1850 was probably necessary, but Fillmore was certainly lacking in leadership in some ways in crafting the bill, especially in not anticipating the reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act. However, he was pretty skilled in working behind the scenes to get the other parts passed, which passed individually in the Senate first, not as an omnibus. In addition, he thought more highly of himself than warranted. (Moved up)

29. Grant. C/D. He did enforce Reconstruction pretty vigorously in his first term, but then started backing away. (The Supreme Court's Cruikshank ruling reined in executive power on Reconstruction somewhat, but not totally.) Possibly the most corrupt administration in presidential history, and a president with a mix of obstinancy and a high susceptibility to flattery, plus a thin skin, even though often courteous to others. (Moved down, then moved back up due to Ronald C. White's new bio.)

Tier XXX?

30. Woodrow Wilson. D. At times, one wishes Wilson’s two terms could be considered separately, like two presidencies. That said, the major accomplishment of his first term, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, is probably overrated, and just as Taft inherited some trust-busting from Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson inherited some from Taft. The four constitutional amendments of a direct income tax, women’s suffrage, Prohibition and direct election of U.S. Senators, were the doings of Congress and state legislatures; Wilson could have used a bully pulpit, especially on women’s suffrage, but didn’t. Besides, Taft got the 16th Amendment voted out of Congress and sent to the states. And his racism, which began from the start of his first term and his official segregation of the executive branch is an indelible blot. Plus, even though stroke-afflicted, he presided over the first Red Scare.

31. Coolidge. D+. Failed to address the agricultural depression happening throughout the “Roaring ’20s” and also failed to see the stock market house of cards building up already in 1928. Term otherwise undistinguished. But, not as laissez-faire as sometimes pictured, and tried to override the worst of isolationism.

32. Hoover. D. Far more intellectually qualified than any other of the D-rated presidents, his stubbornness about his idea of the role of the federal government, even though he tried some tinkering at the edges later in his term, get him ranked here.

33. William Henry Harrison. D/Inc. Yes, he only served a month, but giving a two-hour inaugural laced with Latin maxims while standing without a hat in the rain indicated a lack of common sense.

34. Tyler. D. Stuck by his principles when succeeding W.H. Harrison; nonetheless, outside of hating Jackson, such principles should have kept him firmly in the Democratic party. Little accomplished.

35. Van Buren. D. Cluelessness about the country’s first major recession and its causes, and failure to step out from Jackson’s shadow, say enough to put the country on a better financial footing.

The bottom tier, with an asterisk

36. George W. Bush, D. The only reason he is not ranked dead last is the following three presidents’ failings were even more egregious, and at more dire times in our country’s history. (Moved up primarily because others moved down.)

37. Taylor. D/D-. While his Jacksonian resolve to hang Southerners who refused to accept the admission of California as a free state is admirable, it, if he had lived, would have thrown gasoline on the Compromise of 1850. And, his idea, as influenced by the Svengali named William Seward, that he could ram through the admission of New Mexico as a free state after California, was ludicrous. His death spared the nation the possibility of a civil war a decade earlier.

38. Harding. D-. Not an F, because he recognized, if belatedly, the cronyism and corruption in his cabinet and started trying to do something about it when he died. But, he never, ever should have been there in the first place, and he didn't pass on the opportunity to run.

39. Jackson. D-/F+. His blatant disregard of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Cherokee removal, combined with his cluelessness about the Bank of the U.S. and his temper, amply earn this ranking, for the first imperial presidency.

40. Nixon. D-/F+. Gets bumped out of pure “F” territory for having more brains than the four below him. The combination of Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos, on the one hand, and Watergate on the other, offset détente and environmental legislation.

The bottom malebolge of hell

41. Pierce. F+. The slightest of bumps above the three bottom dwellers, but his signing off on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Missouri slaveholder corruption in Kansas that led to “Bleeding Kansas” and accelerated the march toward secession, is bad enough.

42. Andrew Johnson, F. Intemperate when sober and even more so when drunk — stubborn, petulant and politically a butterfingers — Johnson refused to see that he in fact wasn’t following what Lincoln’s Reconstruction policy had been moving toward before his assassination. Lincoln never would have been Thaddeus Stevens, but he would have been closer to him, far closer in spirit, than to Andrew Johnson.

43. Buchanan, F. His failure to stand up for the United States of America in the face of secession says enough.


As for Donald Trump? Per this good piece from Counterpunch, I think he'll need work indeed to get in that bottom malebolge. He might be in the "bottom tier" just above it, but even that isn't guaranteed. Very tentatively, I'll but him somewhere between Taylor and Harding at this time.


Ray Soller said...

There's no need to knock George Washington for "his adding 'So help me God' to the to the oath of office." It's a myth. Check out SHMG: A GW Myth that Should Be Discarded.

Gadfly said...

I'd seen that before. There's only one eyewitness account ever cited, that of the French minister. Who knows if others are lying around.

Per this piece:

He may, or may not, have added "So help me god." We do know that he chose to use a Bible upon which to be sworn in, so, Ray, I'll add that as a "knock" instead, and note "SHMG" is "undecided." Give me a second eyewitness written, and I'll remove it from "undecided."

That said, the fact that he WAS sworn in on a Bible undercuts Henriques' larger point. Washington could have done as Quincy Adams did and been sworn in on a book of law.

Per Wiki's article on the oath, it is clear that some presidents took the oath on secular books. It's also pretty clear that "SHMG" was common at the time.

Gadfly said...

Mr. Soller, I received your would-be second comment. Given that's not my actual email, I haven't posted it as a comment.

If what you actually have to say in an attempt to change my mind, and the minds of others who still think the Washington story has not been definitely disproven, and it matters that much to you, and is "too small for this flower box," I suggest you write a blog post on whatever blog you have, and post the link here. Or, if it is really that, that important to you, and you don't have a blog, I suggest you start one.

In any case, Washington using a Bible to swear the oath is well attested, and arguably it, itself, violates the spirit of separation of church and state. With immediate successor presidents, like Jefferson, unfortunately, it appears that, until Quincy Adams, they, like Washington, continued to use Bibles. And, yes, Jefferson, the great secularist president of myth, and Madison, the great church-state separationist of the constitution, should both get dings for that.

Gadfly said...

One more comment, down here, as I don't want to clutter up the original blog post. ALL presidents since FDR have sworn "under god," 20-something years before "under God" was added to the Pledge. ALL presidents since TR have sworn on a Bible, 50-something years before.

Yes, you'll counter, re your profile, that "in God we trust" was on coins back in 1862. Well, just a year later, going beyond his original draft, Lincoln CHOSE to add "under god" to his delivery of the Gettysburg Address. I busted the chops of the Freedom from Religion Foundation for telling semi-lies about that, and trying to claim Lincoln was a closet atheist, in 2013.

I'm a secularist myself. I too wish our coinage and currency did not have that phraseology. I too think it's unconstitutional. But, our past presidents were more steeped in "civic religion" than you might present, or than you might want to accept.

Ray Soller said...

I do blog. I am a co-blogger at the American Creation Blog.

I am quite familiar with, because I am the person who sent Noah Feldman the email citing his earlier essay. My response is posted at Noah Feldman Responds to a Ray Soller E-mail.

One of my fellow AC bloggers has called me a "forensic historian," since I care more about presenting factual information than debating the extent to which past presidents were steeped in "civic religion."

For example, here are the facts: 1) With the exception of Andrew Jackson there is no historical evidence for any president starting with GW's 2nd inauguration through to John Tyler who used a Bible. 2) Rutherford B. Hayes, at his Sunday, March 3, 1877, private ceremony, did not use a Bible. 3) As indicated, TR (1901) did not use a bible, but people fail to consider that TR most likely skipped the bible [& saying SHMG] because it was a matter of his religious upbringing in the Dutch Reformed Church. 4) Aug. 3, 1921 Calvin Coolidge, at his farmhouse inauguration, did not swear his oath on a bible. 5) JFK had a bible as part of the ceremony, but somehow he missed placing his hand on it when the oath was recited. 6) LBJ took his oath on a Catholic Prayer book on board Air Force One. (As for Franklin Pierce, he did swear on a Bible.)

I really don't care about the alleged use of "under God" in Lincoln's Gettysburg address, but the Constitution Daily asks the question, "Did Abraham Lincoln omit God from the Gettysburg Address?" (See The discussion is a little like my blog post, where I ask, Eh, Could Anyone Hear GW Say SHMG?

Gadfly said...

First, your claim to be a "forensic historian" is ... "interesting." I looked at your "reconstruction" or whatever of the historic Jesus. I don't have time to waste on critiquing it (or critiquing "where you come from), even if you want to take the time to continue to come over here to critique me.

With that said, and that observed about you otherwise, I will respond again. (And suggest that perhaps you could spend more time on your own site, per my note above.)

First, I've read multiple books about the Gettysburg Address, including one by the modern dean of the genre, Gabor Borritt. I'm quite confident Lincoln said "under God."


As for your claims about most 19th century presidents and bibles, I never claimed otherwise as far as evidence or not. With Pierce, though, I have seen multiple claims that he did not use a bible, and that he "affirmed" rather than "swore."

Speaking of, I see no reason that TR's faith would have been a bar to his actions. He wasn't a fundamentalist, so to speak, within his religion, first. Second, religious belief hasn't hindered other presidents on Inauguration Day. Quakers Nixon and Hoover both "swore" rather than "affirmed."

Ray Soller said...

It's been interesting.