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Aug 16, 2009 2:47 pm


Presidential Rankings



Predictably, last year's presidential election and the subsequent inauguration of Barak Obama brought forth a new set of historical rankings of United States presidents. The London Times presented their rankings in October, whereas C-Span offered theirs on February 15. These rankings are always based on surveys of prominent historians, political scientists, and other scholars, and as the Wikipedia entry on the subject reveals, the variation since the first Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., poll of 1948 is fairly minimal. Conventional historians and political scientists suffer from a nationalist bias that makes them appreciate a strong executive who lastingly contributes to the growth of central authority. They thus have a particular weakness for wartime presidents. Unless the commander-in-chief turns out to be utterly inept, war allows him to show off forceful, dynamic leadership, which is what impresses these authorities.

Fortunately, libertarians have begun to challenge the Statist bias of presidential ranking. One of the first works to do so was a Mises Institute collection (to which I contributed a chapter), published back in 2001 and edited by John V. Denson: Reassessing the Presidency: The Rise of the Executive State and the Decline of Freedom. More recently the Cato Institute has published Gene Healy's The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (2008), and the Independent Institute has published Ivan Eland's Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty (2008). Only Eland's book actually ranks all the presidents, although the Denson volume contains a wonderful article by economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway offering a tentative ranking based on the growth of government.

I have been privately circulating for some time my own rankings, so I thought this might be an appropriate occasion to update and unveil them to the general public. They differ significantly in some respects from Eland's. I cut off obviously before Barak Obama and don't count William Henry Harrison, who was in office only a month. The one ranking I've actually elaborated on in print is my choice of Martin Van Buren as the least bad president. The article appears both in the Independent Review and the Denson collection (which kept my preferred title,"Martin Van Buren: The American Gladstone"). And of course, my book, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War, implicitly explains why I rank Abraham Lincoln the worst.

Except for the first ten in both the "Least Bad" and the "Most Horrible" categories, my judgments are all subject to some revision. Further study or arguments might persuade me to shift them around slightly. One of the most important criteria in my rankings is the body count. I have the idiosyncratic belief that presidents merit high marks for keeping the country out of war rather than dragging it into one. Overall my rankings are based on explicitly libertarian criteria. Those who rolled or held back government intervention get points, those who increased government power lose them.

Most Horrible U.S. Presidents (starting at worst):
1. Abraham Lincoln
2. Woodrow Wilson
3. Harry Truman
4. Franklin D. Roosevelt
5. Lyndon Johnson
6. George W. Bush
7. Theodore Roosevelt
8. George H. W. Bush
9. Herbert Hoover
10. John Adams
11. William McKinley
12. James Madison
13. James Knox Polk
14. John F. Kennedy
15. George Washington
16. Millard Fillmore
17. John Quincy Adams
18. William Howard Taft
19. John Tyler
20. Jimmy Carter
21. Franklin Pierce

Least Bad U.S. Presidents (starting at best):
1. Martin Van Buren
2. Grover Cleveland
3. Calvin Coolidge
4. Warren G. Harding
5. Thomas Jefferson
6. Andrew Jackson
7. Gerald Ford
8. James Monroe
9. Zachary Taylor
10. James Garfield
11. Ronald Reagan
12. Dwight D. Eisenhower
13. Andrew Johnson
14. William Jefferson Clinton
15. Richard Nixon
16. Rutherford B. Hayes
17. Chester Arthur
18. Benjamin Harrison
19. Ulysses Grant
20. James Buchanan


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More Comments:


Jeremy Alan Perron - 5/26/2009

'To your first point. Did Lincoln even consider options? Not to my knowledge. He chose to wage total war on his fellow citizens and caused the deaths of 600,000 plus people, countless others to be maimed for life and leavew the South in ruins and poverty for decades afterwards. Not exactly the work of a great statesman, unless one likes dictators.'

Actually you missed my first point entirely which was just exposing Rick’s pointless truism of ‘if Lincoln was truly great…..’ That is like saying if you were a great doctor none of your patients would ever die.


'Second point. So, he wouldn't meet with them unless they kowtowed to his ultimatums? No other choices? How does a group of states walking away from the union weaken democracy by the way? It would seem to me to be the ultimate expression of democratic philosophy.'

Lincoln won the election fair and square. He should not have to negotiate with those whose position is ‘you, who won the election, must obey us, who lost, or we will dissolve the government by succeeding from the union.’ Tell me, when would that have stopped? That is what undermines democracy if every time the minority is upset with the majority they can just break off. B breaks of from A, C from B, D from C, and E from D. This will ultimately lead to anarchy.

'The South did not launch an invasion and begin a true "civil war" by seeking control of the country. They chose to break away and form their own nation.
Lincoln and the Northern Army were the aggressors - they invaded the South. That, by the way is what Acton was talking about; states' rights, including the ultimate right of secession, as the only real check on the ever growing centralisation of power. Remember the American Revolution? Same thing; an act of secession, which the Brits also tried to stop with violence.'

The American Revolution was not an act of secession, if you think it was then you do not know much on the American Revolution and to explain the details and differences would take too much time, so understand this: ‘no taxation without representation’ does not mean ‘no taxation unless agreed to by the said representation.’


'Third point. "A lot of what you are saying is extremly exaggerated. Congress went a long with everything Lincoln did which the Constitution allows for during rebellion and invasion".

Please show me in the Constitution of 1860 where a President was allowed to institute a draft. Where is he allowed to shut down newspapers (dozens of them) for writing editorials criticizing government policies? Lock up dissenters with no charges for indefinate periods of time (habeas corpus)? Did you know for instance, in a supreme case of irony, Francis Scott Keys' grandson was locked up on (yes, the)Fort McHenry for writing a critical editorial on Lincoln?'

As I said before extreme exagguations, the Consitition allows for the suspension of hapus corpus during invasion or rebellion, which is what Lincoln did.

'The "invasion" as I stated above was conducted by the Northern Army invading the South and waging total warfare on the civilian populace. This is well documented. For instance, General Sherman wrote his wife from Memphis about his intentions: "extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people."

As Sherman said elsewhere, for seccessionists . . ."death is mercy." Sherman and other Northern generals carried out these practices throughout the war. Phil Sheridan, himself not squeamish over total warfare, even complained about the abuses Lincoln's army was perpetrating on the Southern populace during the early part the war, to no avail.'

Now you are trying to change the topic to Total War, if you want to talk about that sometime fine, but I have a hard time feeling sorry for a slave oligarchy.

'To your next point. So, you're saying that Lincoln subverted the Constitution to end slavery? Forget that he said he had no intention of invading the South over slavery during his inauguration speech. Forget that he swore to uphold the Constitution and, sadly, slavery was Constitutional at the time. You should go and read what some of the foremost abolitionists thought of Lincoln and his war. I'll help you out. Read what Lysander Spooner or William Lloyd Garrison thought about it for instance. Also check out this article by Sheldon Richman: http://mises.org/journals/jls/5_3/5_3_7.pdf'

No, I never said anything like that. If you back and read mine and Rick’s comments I was pointing to the absurdity of comparing the American abolition experience with other countries because different political circumstances and systems. And I don’t care at all for the anti-war abolition movement as far as I am concerned they just a bunch of cowards who claimed to hate slavery but with the CSA tarring the country apart in order to save slavery, they sat on the sidelines and did nothing.

'As to Lord Acton. I suggest you should read some his work. So only working class people can weigh in on democracy and democratic principles? Odd position to take.'

I am just not impressed with someone who claims to care about democratic principals calling himself a ‘lord.’ If he really cared about equality then he should have followed Lafayette and renounced such titles.


Crawdad - 4/4/2009

To your first point. Did Lincoln even consider options? Not to my knowledge. He chose to wage total war on his fellow citizens and caused the deaths of 600,000 plus people, countless others to be maimed for life and leavew the South in ruins and poverty for decades afterwards. Not exactly the work of a great statesman, unless one likes dictators.

Second point. So, he wouldn't meet with them unless they kowtowed to his ultimatums? No other choices? How does a group of states walking away from the union weaken democracy by the way? It would seem to me to be the ultimate expression of democratic philosophy. The South did not launch an invasion and begin a true "civil war" by seeking control of the country. They chose to break away and form their own nation.
Lincoln and the Northern Army were the aggressors - they invaded the South. That, by the way is what Acton was talking about; states' rights, including the ultimate right of secession, as the only real check on the ever growing centralisation of power. Remember the American Revolution? Same thing; an act of secession, which the Brits also tried to stop with violence.

Third point. "A lot of what you are saying is extremly exaggerated. Congress went a long with everything Lincoln did which the Constitution allows for during rebellion and invasion".

Please show me in the Constitution of 1860 where a President was allowed to institute a draft. Where is he allowed to shut down newspapers (dozens of them) for writing editorials criticizing government policies? Lock up dissenters with no charges for indefinate periods of time (habeas corpus)? Did you know for instance, in a supreme case of irony, Francis Scott Keys' grandson was locked up on (yes, the)Fort McHenry for writing a critical editorial on Lincoln?

The "invasion" as I stated above was conducted by the Northern Army invading the South and waging total warfare on the civilian populace. This is well documented. For instance, General Sherman wrote his wife from Memphis about his intentions: "extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people."

As Sherman said elsewhere, for seccessionists . . ."death is mercy." Sherman and other Northern generals carried out these practices throughout the war. Phil Sheridan, himself not squeamish over total warfare, even complained about the abuses Lincoln's army was perpetrating on the Southern populace during the early part the war, to no avail.

To your next point. So, you're saying that Lincoln subverted the Constitution to end slavery? Forget that he said he had no intention of invading the South over slavery during his inauguration speech. Forget that he swore to uphold the Constitution and, sadly, slavery was Constitutional at the time. You should go and read what some of the foremost abolitionists thought of Lincoln and his war. I'll help you out. Read what Lysander Spooner or William Lloyd Garrison thought about it for instance. Also check out this article by Sheldon Richman: http://mises.org/journals/jls/5_3/5_3_7.pdf

As to Lord Acton. I suggest you should read some his work. So only working class people can weigh in on democracy and democratic principles? Odd position to take.


Jeremy Alan Perron - 3/24/2009

“The point is a truly great politician, a great leader, would have strived to find a peaceful way to resolve the conflict. No?”
This is pointless truism. If you truly great you would have….. Bank robbers go into a bank shoot some people, steal money, and come out with guns blazing. The cops shoot them and you respond with ‘well if you really good police officers you have stopped them with no one dying.
If you were really good teacher all your students would get As.
I really great hitter wouldn’t strike out.

“Isn't it true that Davis and the Southern Congress sent a peace mission that Lincoln wouldn't even meet with?”
Lincoln would only agree to meet on two terms, slavery was not to expand and the union was to remain whole. Lincoln won the election fair and square and they were trying to undermine democracy.

“When you add all the abuses he heaped on the north; the draft, income taxes, shutting down newspapers, incarcerating thousands of dissenters to the body count, maimings and destruction of property what's left to admire?”
A lot of what you are saying is extremly exaggerated. Congress went a long with everything Lincoln did which the Constitution allows for during rebellion and invasion.

“As to slavery. How many western countries ended it peacefully? There were lots of options available other than war.”
Apples and oranges. Other countries had different legal sturtures that allowed their governments to directly interfer with slavery; and no people like John C. Calhoun’s followers, who were willing to go to war to prevent their ‘institutions’ from non-existence.

“What was that great champion of liberty, Lord Acton, thinking then when he wrote to Lee after the war? Acton wrote that he recognized in the right of secession the hope for democracy.”
I don’t see what ‘lords’ care for in ‘perserving democracy’.


RickC - 3/10/2009

To further the debate, I thought I would provide a portion of Lord Acton's Nov. 4, 1866 letter to Robert E. Lee:

"I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. The institutions of your Republic have not exercised on the old world the salutary and liberating influence which ought to have belonged to them, by reason of those defects and abuses of principle which the Confederate Constitution was expressly and wisely calculated to remedy. I believed that the example of that great Reform would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo."

I'm pretty sure Lord Acton was aware of and understood the issues involved in the war.

Also, I think it is important to acknowledge that leading abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison and Lysander Spooner came out strongly against Lincoln's decision to make war on the south.
Spooner in particular wrote scathing letters to Lincoln, Seward and others in his administration about their conduct and questioning their motives for taking the country to war. Here is a paper by Joseph Stromberg on the Anti-War Abolitionist Movement:

http://mises.org/journals/jls/5_3/5_3_7.pdf


RickC - 3/10/2009

Non-historian chimes in late to discussion.

I can never understand why there is so much resistance to shining a negative light on Lincoln. It usually comes with, "but the south was just as bad or the south was worse/evil/whatever". All true. But . . .

The point is a truly great politician, a great leader, would have strived to find a peaceful way to resolve the conflict. No? Is there any evidence that Lincoln even hesitated a second in his decision to go to war to hold the south in the union? Isn't it true that Davis and the Southern Congress sent a peace mission that Lincoln wouldn't even meet with?

When you add all the abuses he heaped on the north; the draft, income taxes, shutting down newspapers, incarcerating thousands of dissenters to the body count, maimings and destruction of property what's left to admire?

As to slavery. How many western countries ended it peacefully? There were lots of options available other than war.

Dr. Marina,
It might be a bit presumptuous on my part, but isn't a civil war defined as a conflict between two or more parties over control of control of a country? The south just wanted to walk away. Not a civil war.

As far as understanding the issues. Aren't you familiar with the great number of northern newspapers who editorialized against going to war to keep the south in the union?

What was that great champion of liberty, Lord Acton, thinking then when he wrote to Lee after the war? Acton wrote that he recognized in the right of secession the hope for democracy.


William Marina - 3/6/2009

I do not like either the Draft or the Income Tax, but to call these "involuntary servitude" is nonsense on top of silliness. Voters, in the light of the Vietnam fiasco, caused the dropping of the Draft, and, if voters really wished, the Income Tax could be eliminated as well.

Neither you nor Hummel offer any evidence that Slavery would have died out of its own contradictions. It did not do so in Classical Civilization despite the discovery of the steam engine, precisely because the slave owners saw that energy saving device as a threat to the system.

It was not Lincoln's "little war," but a massive Civil War, supported even by workers in Great Britain, who well understood the issues. In such a struggle both sides violated a great number of civil liberties.

As for the Cold War, that Soviet weakness of which you speak was well hidden by many agencies in the US government, that certainly knew the truth about that relative weakness.

The slave holding aristocracy had few qualms about sacrificing men, nor clouding the real issues of the War. North Carolina, for example, the least of the slave holding states in percentage of slaves, lost more men per capita than any other state.


William Stepp - 3/6/2009

Lincoln pioneered the draft and the American version of the income tax (which was declared unconstitutional), both of which were exercises in involuntary servitude, a form of slavery. He also launched what were probably the most egregious violations of civil liberties (so-called) emanating from Washington until St. Woodrow entered the presidency. The first two, at least, qualify him as a slaveocrat of sorts, so he did enslave free men. Jeff Hummel picked probably the best title ever for a book on Lincoln's Little War.

Does anyone imagine that such an Empire, whatever its many emerging problems in the future, could have tolerated another Power, a Slave Confederacy, controlling New Orleans, that Port at which the vast river system, which drains a great deal of North America, emerges?

The key to answering this is the realization that slavery in the South would have died of its own internal economic contradictions sooner or later. It couldn't compete against a free labor market and increasing globalization. There was no need to fight a wasteful war and kill 620,000 people for this to happen. The Economist reviewed a book on the cold war a couple weeks back, which pointed out that Soviet communism collapsed of its weight. Ronbo's military buildup and massive deficit spending had nothing to do with it.
The same point can be made, mutatis mutandis, about slavery in the U.S.


- 3/6/2009

Ranking Presidents appears to me to be something that Historians turn to when they wish to evade confronting real issues.

Nonetheless, let me join in that exercise in what might also be called mental masturbation!

Like many Libertarians such as Thomas DiLorenzo, Mr. Hummel has made something of a career out of bashing Lincoln. While I am no great fan of Abe, as can be seen in the chapter on him in American Statesmen on Slavery and the Negro,/i> (1971, a book selected by Choice the library journal as one of the 10 outstanding books of that year, I believe Hummel goes too far in ranking him as our "worst" President.

The sloppy excess is evident even in the title of his in many ways well-researched and excellent book. But, whatever else it did, the Civil War did not result in "Enslaving" Free Men.

I have grown tired of the so-called "Libertarians" who sweep aside the excesses of the Southern leaders in creating the War crisis. Hummel and others nowhere "prove" that this leadership was about to give up human Slavery, or that it would somehow soon disappear.

British Abolitionism made real gains only when Slave owners came to see that Contract Labor, Chinese and Indian in places like Jamaica, offered a real economic option.

In the US, the treatment of the Chinese imported to help on the railroads, demonstrates that was not an option here.

The Civil War was about Empire, of which the idea of Secession, so beloved of some Libertarians, was simply a means to achieve that goal.

The War showed that in the South this could lead to Centralization, just as it did in the North, rather than Decentralization. In fact, Empire is about Centralization, as Spengler pointed out, "Unadulterated."

Empire was never a "New" issue in America, certainly not in 1898, or today.

Franklin, Paine and Washington, among those in that Empire wing of the Revolutionary Coalition. wanted leadership in the British Empire to cross the ocean, even before the Crisis that emerged at the end of the Great War for Empire. Washington badly wanted Canada, and his policy toward the revolution in Haiti, shows he was not a "non-interventionist," as described by people like Ron Paul, but rather a "unilateralist" from the get-go!

It is not just that the whole history of the US is bound up in the Empire issue, but that since at least 1792, we have been an increasingly "Counter-Revolutionary" Empire, as is quite evident today in our policies around the Planet.

With the development of the Cotton Culture, and a growing anti-slavery view in the North, leaders in the South began to develop a vision of their own Empire in the American South and south into Central America and the Caribbean.

That is the only way to understand the Texas issue and the later War with Mexico which Lincoln opposed. An excellent discussion of this is in Bruce Bartlett's recent book on the Democratic Party's policies on Slavery and Race.

If anyone was going to "Enslave" some heretofore "Free" men, it was the Empire envisioned by the leadership in the South, increasingly stressing the virtues of Slavery, when most of the World was going in the other direction.

But, let us not think in terms just of Lincoln, but of Geo-Politics, that arcane science practiced even today by thinkers such as Zbiggie & Super-Kraut!

Conversely, North wanted an Empire with railroads stretching to the Pacific, for the US to engage in the markets of Asia, even acquiring Alaska in that process.

Does anyone imagine that such an Empire, whatever its many emerging problems in the future, could have tolerated another Power, a Slave Confederacy, controlling New Orleans, that Port at which the vast river system, which drains a great deal of North America, emerges?

In fact, to sum up, the Civil War is encapsulated in Grant's telegram to Lincoln after the Battle of Vicksburg, which Carroll Quigley correctly understood was the most important battle of the War, "The Father of Waters flows once again uninterrupted to the Sea." And, northern products, once bottled up, soon flooded the markets of the World.

There would be no Slave Empire there, nor anywhere to the south.


Bogdan Enache - 3/6/2009

I think Taft deserves it. If there ever was an official imperialist and colonialist American foreign policy, then he and Teddy Rossevelt are its chief exponents.

I wonder, however, what do you think of Monroe and particulalrly the Monroe doctrine?


RickC - 3/5/2009

C. Bradley Thompson's "John Adams and the Spirit of Liberty" secured a deep respect for Adams within me. I think Adams was right about how he would get shorted by history. I had no idea how important his role was in the formation of the Constitution until Thompson's book. This even though John Taylor took him to task over various points in his Defense of the Constitutions of Government.

It is a pity and mark against his legacy though that he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts which Jefferson had to undo later. One blemish though on a remarkable man, who I believe to have been one of the few presidents of deep personal integrity. And that's no small virtue.


csense - 3/5/2009

GHW Bush only two places less bad than his son The gap should be greater.

A bit hard on J. Adams.

Way to hard on Washington.

Too easy on Jackson.

Too easy on Nixon.


William Stepp - 3/5/2009

Carter was an economic disaster. I had liberal friends who hated his guts, and for good reason; and who vowed to vote for Ronbo.
I would rate Dick Milhous much lower, in the bottom ten.
He ramped up Vietnam, had a horrible economy, imposed wage and price controls, severed the last remnant of the gold standard (the crime of '71), did model cities, block grants, section 8 vouchers, the EPA, affirmative action, etc., etc.
The good thing he did was Watergate, because for one brief shining moment, everyone hated the state.
He might have been a crook, but at least he was our crook, unlike dubya.
Jackson is way overrated by libertarians in my view, thanks mainly to the fact that he didn't renew the charter for the Second Bank of the U.S. But Biddle ran a fairly conservative and independent bank, and wouldn't tow Jackson's line. Old Hickory didn't renew it for any high-minded libertarian reasons, but rather to reward his friends in Tennessee and elsewhere who ran the pet banks.
His state papers in the Richardson collection are filled with statist diatribes, including one against free trade.
I forget the author of a book right now, who wrote on the history of the development of presidential power. In his chapter on Jackson, he pointed out that he paved the way for Lincoln in the Force bill and the fight against South Carolina's nullification bid. Jackson was one of the worse presidents IMO.


Jesse Walker - 3/5/2009

I would be kinder to Carter and Washington and much, much harder on Nixon. (On body-count grounds alone, surely the man who bombed Cambodia deserves to be on the other list.) I don't know what to do with Jackson: good on many important issues but just terrible when it came to Americans whose skin was black or red.


Allan Walstad - 3/5/2009

Just curious--why is Washington rated poorly?


David T. Beito - 3/5/2009

Good ranking but perhaps I'd rate Taft and John Adams higher. Adams deserves a lot of credit for resisting the war drums while Taft had relatively health respect for the rule of law.