The presidency has been conquered! I have to admit that I feel a certain sense of relief on finishing what is easily the most challenging project I have attempted on this blog, my ranking of United States presidents. This amounted to 41 posts, one for each president I covered, plus two introductory passages explaining my ranking system and methodology, and a checkup post when I hit the halfway mark. Altogether, that’s 45 posts including this one, or almost fully 25% of this blog’s content (as this is my 194th post on the Northumbrian Countdown.)
I hope that this project has been useful in some way to everyone who has been reading along- a group that includes old grad school friends, random people I met on the internet, to strangers who find this site by simply typing in the correct keywords. (A weirdly large number of people come to this site by googling “top ten eulogies”, “Jeb Bush’s running mate.”) It has certainly helped me sort out how one evaluates leadership, and in particular, how one accounts for making comparisons over time, as well as making sense of context and circumstance. It is assuredly difficult to compare George Washington, someone who had to invent the presidency as he went along during a time when some cabinet departments only had a few dozen employees, to our more recent presidents whose leadership has global consequences and assuredly a different set of expectations.
Perhaps my most loyal reader, Jared, suggested that I give myself a do-over ranking, or allow myself one big change, when I am finished. I’d rather not; partly because I worked too hard on my present ranking to begin altering it now. But while I am very satisfied with the finished product, a few presidents would be ranked differently. I put John Tyler way too high, for example. I was trying to make the reader reconsider what constituted a successful presidency, and was probably too enamored of my own research into his career as an undergraduate. (Actually, if William & Mary had accepted my application to their Ph.D. program back in 2005, I very well might have become a John Tyler historian, rather than a George McGovern historian.) There are a few presidents I’d change if I had to do it over: Reagan (too high), Cleveland (way too high), John Quincy Adams (too low), and Obama (a spot or three too low; in trying to be appear neutral and objective, I blunted my judgment.)
To wrap things up, here are what I believe to have been, in my judgment, the five most effective and least effective write-ups I did for the project. Let me know if you agree in the comments!
Five Most Effective:
#35. Calvin Coolidge: A cold-blooded demolition of minimalist governing.
#31: Warren Harding: This post got the most encouraging feedback out of all of them–which was nice, given my unconventional argument. Harding’s petty graft and poor judgment of character should not place him in the bottom ten, let alone in last place, given more serious crimes against humanity some of our presidents were responsible for.
#9: George H. W. Bush: In contrast, this piece earned the most animus and “are you out of your mind?” emails. Yet, I stand by its argument: Bush was a realistic, thoughtful statesman who was the most competent president of my lifetime.
#24: Herbert Hoover: Much better than popular memory allows. Hoover worked his ass off to relieve the Depression, and while it wasn’t enough, many of his ideas pointed in the right direction, and his broad strategy of encouraging cooperation and neighborliness had plenty of merit.
#16: Rutherford B. Hayes: A sober essay on how politics is the art of the possible. “If history turned out the way I wanted it to, Rutherford Hayes’s write-up would go like this: “Despite losing the popular vote and winning election under dubious circumstances, Rutherford Hayes owned the presidency like a boss. Despite bargains made in good faith, Hayes ruled the Reconstructed South like a bearded, midwestern Hannibal, restoring freedman rule, smashing down every “Restorationist” attempt to put ex-Confederates in power. Hayes confiscated each planation in Dixie, distributing a fair share to each former slave, and shot down any Johnny Reb that resisted, earning the sobriquet “Ruthless Rutherford.” Having spent four years maxing out his power as commander-in-chief to subdue all vestiges of systemic racism, Hayes relaxed and sipped a refreshing mint julep, served in Jefferson Davis’s skull.”
Five Least Effective:
#4: James Monroe: I was really hoping to do something special here, and establish Monroe’s vision of America as a modern, wholesale nation, not a confederacy of states, as a transformative element in U.S. history. It didn’t work.
#21: John Quincy Adams: This was the first one I wrote, and I was still finding my legs. It was too bogged down in policy and missed the two big takeaways: Adams’s program for internal improvements- not just canals, but universities and observatories, was decades ahead of its time, and he was the only president before Lincoln who could truly be classified as anti-slavery.
#1: Abraham Lincoln: I bunted in the last inning of a big game. In my defense, I had just finished a book manuscript and my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
#26: Zachary Taylor: Intrinsically challenging. What do you say about a guy who was president for less than two years?
#11: Dwight Eisenhower: Not bad, but I wrote it when I didn’t have access to many of my notes on postwar U.S. history. And so, I fudge a bit and distract from my lack of details.