Scott Lemieux: Presidential Reputation
[Scott Lemieux is an assistant professor of Political Science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY]
In light of my recent Andrew Jackson bashing, Matt is right to note that his status as the most odious and overrated allegedly progressive president in history is far from clear-cut. And Matt doesn't even bring up the fact that Wilson made what was almost indisputably the 20th century's worst Supreme Court appointment, a guy who dissented in the Scottsboro Boys case ("hey, the fine people of Alabama went to the trouble of providing four show trials to railroad 9 innocent defendants into the death chamber -- what do you expect?") and wouldn't even let his clerks talk to his Jewish colleagues.
Wilson's love for (and highly destructive promotion of) The Birth of a Nation reminds me of something else about presidential reputation. For my presidency course this semester, I assigned an article that compiles many of those presidential rating surveys conducted by historians. The 1948 Schlesinger poll had the expected Academy of the Overrated among liberal historians of the day, with Wilson ranking at #4 and Jackson #6 (with Old Hickory's lickspittle Van Buren, a one-termer who did substantially less than Hoover to respond to economic catastrophe, checking in at an "average" 15.) Jackson and Wilson retained their ranking in 1962, too. Even more appalling (but not entirely unrelated) to this, however, is the extent to which the fascist reinterpretation of Reconstruction in which the South were the good guys seemed to hold sway among the historians of the time. Not only is Grant ranked as the second worst president in history -- behind Pierce and Buchanan! -- but Andrew Goddamned Johnson checks in at an "average" 19.
At least by the 2000 C-SPAN poll, Johnson had taken his rightful place near the bottom with the two ineffectual third-raters who preceded the Civil War (Pierce ranks 39, Johnson 40, Buchanan 41.) And while it's arguable -- when your presidency was followed by one of the bloodiest civil wars in history your argument to rank at the bottom is pretty compelling. Still, I actually think Johnson was the very worst. Buchanan was a poor president, and he deserves extra demerits for the fact that his blundering over Bleeding Kansas chose the wrong moral and legal side of the issue. But it's also true that Buchanan was dealt an essentially impossible hand; I don't really see how even a great leader could have kept the Democratic coalition together given the ability of Republicans to capture the White House without Southern support and their obvious incentives to make slavery a salient issue. 2-7 offsuit is still going to lose if it's being played by Johnny Chan. Johnson, on the other hand, had the opportunity to have a strong positive influence on American history and instead upheld the values of the losing side of the Civil War in the face of a rare Congress that was actually relatively unified and committed to doing good things. (And if the argument is that these ratings are supposed to measure influence rather than the merits of policies, leaving aside the fact that I don't believe it when a president's intervention into midterm elections is followed by 1)veto-proof hostile congressional majorities and 2)his impeachment it's hard to claim that he was an effective leader.) You can't really make a bad choice among the three, but if I had a vote Andrew Johnson would be at the bottom.
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neil l kaplan - 12/21/2009
I would like to know the name of Wilson's supreme court appointee who was said to dissent in the Scottsboro boys case.
Does anyone have that information?
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