Archive for the ‘History’ Category

And here’s our second set of president trading cards from this alternate timeline I established in my last post. Again, the premise is Virginia and North Carolina never ratifying the constitution– meaning no Washington presidency, and no true Jeffersonian and Jacksonian tradition in the U.S.

5. Timothy Pickering6. William Crawford7. DeWitt Clinton8. Caesar Rodney

This makes our list of presidents so far…

  1. John Jay (Federalist, New York, 1789-1793)
  2. Benjamin Rush (Antiquarian, Pennsylvania, 1793-1797)
  3. Abraham Baldwin (Cincinnati, Georgia, 1797-1801)
  4. George Clinton (Cincinnati, New York, 1801-1809)
  5. Timothy Pickering (Cincinnati, Massachusetts, 1809-1817)
  6. William Crawford (Columbian, Georgia, 1817-1821)
  7. DeWitt Clinton (Cincinnati, New York, 1821-1827)
  8. Caesar Rodney (Cincinnati, Delaware, 1827-1829)

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Thanks to all of you wishing my wife and I well and expressing your concern for little Alex. He was scheduled to have abdominal surgery on Monday, but it got cancelled at the eleventh hour when his doctors determined that he’s made enough progress to render it unnecessary. The next day, he began steroid treatments to help his tiny lungs develop, and on Wednesday, he was finally taken off his ventilator. There is a great deal to be thankful for.

But still lots of time in the hospital. So I started imagining a new alternate history timeline, like my Hall of Mirrors project earlier in the summer.

Here’s the premise: After Patrick Henry, George Mason, and others make some persuasive speeches and the planter class threatens revolt, Virginia opts not to join the union proposed by the constitution, and becomes its own country. North Carolina does the same. The remaining eleven ex-colonies join together…but without the Old Dominion,  Washington never becomes president of the USA, and no Jeffersonian or Jacksonian tradition takes root in the U.S. The balance of power is subsequently heavily tilted toward the North.

Without the secular bent of the Virginia founding fathers, our remaining leaders are more overtly inclined to use Christian language to define what it means to be American. As such, American citizenship and civics becomes coded in a nonsectarian Protestant way. Catholicism will be viewed with suspicion, especially when relations with France deteriorate. Catholicism, or “popery” in the parlance of the day, will be seen as totalitarian, foreign, and incapable of demonstrating the manly self-reliance and independence of thought that a healthy republic requires.

This will play out in a number of ways– the Louisiana Purchase doesn’t happen because France is in no mood to sell their assets in the Western hemisphere to us. Without a large influx of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, industrial manpower will be chronically short…leading the U.S. to look to cheap Caribbean labor and importing what used to be called “coolies” from India. And with the South outnumbered, a proper civil war does not unfold and slavery is undone by other means.

And it all began when John Jay, a president of the American Bible Society in our timeline, became our first president. In his inaugural address, he spoke of the presidency as both a political leader and a spiritual pastor. “A shepherd knows his flock,” he intones in his speech, and begins restricting immigration from Catholic countries to the new nation…

1. John Jay

2. Benjamin Rush

3. Abraham Baldwin

4. George Clinton

Our list so far….

  1. John Jay (Federalist, New York, 1789-1793)
  2. Benjamin Rush (Antiquarian, Pennsylvania, 1793-1797)
  3. Abraham Baldwin (Cincinnati, Georgia, 1797-1801)
  4. George Clinton (Cincinnati, New York, 1801-1809)

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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.

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Abraham_Lincoln_November_1863Category: Social Justice Champion

Term in Office: 16th president, 1861-1865

Party: Republican

Home State: Illinois

At long last, we have clawed our way to the conclusion of this countdown, which I began almost exactly two years ago today with an assessment of the man at the exact middle of my rankings, John Quincy Adams.  You might have guessed, perhaps by process of elimination, that Abraham Lincoln would rest at the top of the list.  It is not the most original choice I could have made, but I believe it is the soundest.

Given that this is the summation and conclusion of this project, I feel the need to demonstrate how Lincoln was not just a great president, but points toward the a kind of model of what a good president might look like.  You might have noticed that our six or seven top presidents in my ranking broadly shared certain sets of qualities: they chose good subordinates, they mixed self-awareness with a willingness to listen and change their mind when necessary, they played a long game, and they were willing to consider novel ways of solving a problem, and they had some measure of sympathy toward the less fortunate and a sense of obligation to help them.  Conversely, Lincoln also averred and renounced many of the qualities we see in the very worst presidents in our countdown: the malice of Jackson, the callousness of Coolidge, the “true neutral” ethics of Buchanan.  So, let’s look at some of the elements that made Lincoln stand out from the pack.

The first quality, I think, has to be moral vision.  Lincoln had the self-possession to commit to a couple of major goals: the preservation of the Union, and the idea of free labor.  While deeply opposed to slavery on a personal level, his principal goal was to merely limit its expansion westward, where it might interfere with those free labor prerogatives of white settlers.  To wit, much of Lincoln’s conduct as president might be seen as a battle between his civic certainty of union and his moral certainty of slavery’s wrongness.  In the end, as we will see, he was able to reconcile these two very different goals.  The point of this is simply that Lincoln had humanitarian principles that stood as the cornerstone of his worldview–in fact, they were so important to him that he was willing to use cheap parliamentary tricks and test the limits of his constitutional authority to see them through.

A willingness to learn.  Lincoln came into office with a relatively meager curriculum vitae.  Aside from deep ties to Illinois state politics, he served a grand total of one term in the Congress as an anti-war legislator.  (Is this sounding like anyone else you might know?)  His military career was limited to six-weeks of militia service in the Black Hawk War that he often characterized as a farcical exploit in later years.  While in some ways, this lack of establishment ties gave Lincoln the freedom and creativity to search out other solutions, he knew he still needed education in some of the essentials and made himself into an expert on military tactics over the course of the war.  Often, it was a matter of planting his butt down and reading books on the subject for hours on end.

A desire to improve his country.  As much as Lincoln’s presidency must rightly center around the Civil War that engulfed nearly all of it, we must also recognize his singular role in the development of the United States with respect to internal improvements and western settlements.  It wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that he was the Henry Clay presidency that we never had.  Like a good Whig, he saw better education, better infrastructure, creating greater opportunities rather than exerting Jeffersonian minimalism in government.  He thought the Whig program he adored in his young adulthood was the ticket to a more egalitarian upward mobility.  And as president, he signed the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, the cornerstone for all those great midwestern state universities.  We can name more accomplishments in this vein: the creation of the Department of Agriculture, the Homestead Act which helped populate the West under the auspices of free labor, and the Pacific Railway Act that envisioned a railroad spanning the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.

These grandiose plans were able to coexist with his humility.  The histories of Doris Kearns Goodwin are well-loved by the public, even as most historians view them skeptically due to multiple instances of plagiarism and the relatively little time that she spent in the archives.  She was correct, however, in honing in on (and indeed, writing the voluminous Team of Rivals about) Lincoln’s decision to incorporate his rivals into his cabinet. There was William Seward, the first Republican governor of a big state and the man most people expected the Republicans to nominate in 1860.  There was moralistic Salmon Chase, corrupt Secretary of War Simon Cameron, and his sneaky successor Edwin Stanton.  Abe cleverly played these personalities- each of which thought they deserved the presidency more than Lincoln- off of each other and his willingness to have cabinet secretaries with higher star wattage than himself helped keep his new and fractious party together.  Remember that the Republican Party was barely six years old when Lincoln took office and was still comprised of ex-Democrats, former Whigs, disaffected Free Soilers, and some Know-Nothing flotsam.  People who are fundamentally full of themselves and enamored of their own greatness make poor presidents and poor presidential candidates, as a certain former reality television star may discover.

Lincoln also stands out for his sense of mercy.  He repeatedly offered deals by which the South could enter the Union, or might achieve a less exacting reconstruction.  One plan that he considered offering would have called for a gradual emancipation of slavery by the year 1900.  But he was also inclined toward mercy on a smaller scale, often commuting the sentences of soldiers who had been tried for cowardice or desertion; he was able to see that a momentary fear in the face of death did not warrant extreme punishment.  The president, Navy secretary Gideon Welles once complained, “is always disposed to mitigate punishment, and to grant favors.”  These small acts of kindness not only showed a mature understanding of human nature, but built up reservoirs of goodwill and trust.

Ultimately, Lincoln has been parsed and picked apart more than any other figure in American history.  In fact, one historian has called him “everybody’s grandfather” and a wide array of philosophies have forged their own Lincolns to fit their ideologies: Lincoln the Christ figure, Lincoln the Tyrant, Lincoln the Vampire Hunter, Homoerotic Lincoln, Racist Lincoln, Egalitarian Lincoln, Lincoln the Ur-Socialist.  None of this is wrong as such (although some of those interpretations have more evidentiary merit than others), but there is still an undeniable tendency to remake Honest Abe into our own image.

Perhaps my own interpretation is similarly tinted by these accidental biases.  But for my part, I’m still willing to sign off on Abraham Lincoln as America’s greatest president.  At frightful cost, he kept the Union together when many would have let it become Balkanized, and he expanded freedom- true freedom- to more Americans than any president before or since.  His most masterful stroke was seeing that those twin goals- union and abolition- could be used in tandem.  By signing the Emancipation Proclamation and, as Spielberg’s recent Lincoln film has shown, passing the 13th Amendment ending slavery nationwide, Lincoln achieved these two goals.  In doing so, he helped set the USA apart from the Confederate States, and in so doing cost the CSA crucial help from abolitionist Britain and France.  Much more substantively, Lincoln helped the United States come closer to fulfilling its self-understanding as a place where freedom reigned.  Even if his motives and his methods were complicated, he was the culmination of a larger movement that loosed the bonds of slavery and hopelessness and pointed us toward a rough-hewn equality.  We’re still trying to get there today.

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20131012134431!Franklin-roosevelt Category: Social Justice Champion

 Term in Office: 32nd president, 1933-1945

 Party: Democratic

 Home State: New York

The social contract had changed.  You wouldn’t know it from the lack of constitutional conventions, or the absence of revolutionary rhetoric, but the tacit agreement that bound the government and the governed had been altered, and there were countless subterranean signs to that effect for anyone who cared to look.  The Great Depression had devastated the country, turning proud workers into supplicants, CEOs into dishwashers, and Ozark farmers into nomads with little more than a vague hope to make it to California.  The massive extent of the wreckage made many Americans rethink their relationship to the state and demanded that its government do something (and a very inchoate something) to fix the economy and bring relief to the destitute masses.  The Depression killed the earlier Jeffersonian consensus that the government that governs least governs best.

The single most important factor of FDR’s presidency is that he recognized this tectonic shift and took large-scale measures to accommodate it.  His solution was called the New Deal.  Think of the New Deal as a three-legged stool of reform, recovery, and relief built to support an ailing economy- so, a collection of short-term help with long-term structural change.  There are too many programs to cover all of them, but the most important include the Glass-Steagall Act (bifurcating commercial banking from investment banking), the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, FERA relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps (which put 2 million men to work, helped conserve some beautiful parts of our country), the Civil Works Administration, the Rural Electrification Act (if you live in North Dakota and can read this, thank FDR) and the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation.  Not all of these took effect immediately, but their psychological impact in restoring hope is incalculable.  Half a million Americans wrote letters to FDR within weeks of his inaugural, and saw his dynamic First 100 Days as a signal that things were finally moving in the right direction after the hapless Hoover administration.

FDR was also a landmark president because of how he communicated with the wider public.  He took McKinley’s innovations to the next level, and used radio as a tool to not only reach voters, but to persuade, cajole, calm, and reassure them.  He added, in other words, a personal or human dimension to the presidency that stands out baldly when you juxtapose a fireside chat to a stilted Wilson or Hoover address.

The New Deal, and Roosevelt’s presidency more generally, was also marked by experimentation and innovation.  Sometimes it didn’t work, but when it did, the results were staggering.  Roosevelt was the first president to have a female cabinet secretary, Frances Perkins of the Labor Department at a time when women in positions of leadership were suspect.  He attempted sundry programs his Brain Trust came with them, and had the pragmatism to reject what didn’t work.  “I have no intention of making a hit every time I come up to bat,” he once explained.  “What I seek is the highest possible batting average.”  All this shows that creativity, considering options nobody else has tried yet, is an essential ingredient to presidential success.  He was also a canny information monger, often setting aides against one another to see who could deliver crucial news-bites and rumors to him first, and through almost sheer force of personality was able to impose order on an increasingly expanding federal bureaucracy.

In terms of character, FDR had an ingredient that helped him succeed at this high level: empathy.  He might have been just another Hudson aristocrat dabbling in politics as sport, but his crippling battle with polio gave him insight into lack of opportunity and allowed him to better perceive that many Americans, not through lack of work but through bad luck and circumstances out of their control, needed a helping hand.  This trait went double for my favorite component of the FDR presidency: Eleanor.  The First Lady was a crucial help to the best, most compassionate, elements of the FDR administration–always needling him to remember the destitute, or to be more proactive on civil rights.  Although the solutions to the dilemmas of the 30s and 40s were often complex, byzantine, and highly overmanaged, there was always a beating heart behind them and a human concern for others that sets it apart from the “Screw you, you’re on your own” attitude of, say, Coolidge.  But FDR was also creative, mischievous, curious, childlike; the joy of the presidency stayed with him.

He also fixed a few endemic problems in the political process along the way.  For one thing, the Democrats had a self-immolating rule that required that their nominee have 2/3rds of the vote at their convention.  This led to a number of terrible compromise nominees over the years (John W. Davis, James Cox, Alton Parker) and prevented stronger Democratic candidates who had a small, devoted corps of enemies from winning the nomination.  In accepting  renomination in 1936, FDR demanded that the number be reduced to a simple majority as a condition of his acceptance.  He also began the tradition of a candidate personally selecting his running mate, ending the days of back-room wrangling for the vice-presidency.  But not all innovations and fixes were equally wise.  Many people recognize (correctly, I think) that his attempt to pack the Supreme Court was a badly conceived move, and gave those who claimed that FDR was a totalitarian power-grabber all the ammo that they needed.  However, it is important to remember that the number of Supreme Court justices is not set at nine permanently; the constitution allows for Congress to change the number of justices, and it did fluctuate many times during the early 19th century.  It wasn’t an illegal plan, or a sinister plan, but it was a plan that was poorly considered, and if carried out, would have compromised the Supreme Court’s independence.  Still, the Court was packed with minimalists and strict constructionists during FDR’s early years, including recalcitrant justices from the Harding, Wilson, and even Taft years.  They struck down the Agricultural Adjustment Act, the National Industrial Recovery Act, a New York minimum wage law, and other measures, proceeding from the Lochner era philosophies that such measures curtailed freedom of contract.  Fundamentally, the Court did not realize what FDR did: that the living, dynamic, social contract had changed, and it had changed in ways that a strict-constructionist or corporatist worldview could not perceive, could not accommodate, and ignored at its own peril.  Eventually, with a bit of patience, time did what the court-packing plan could not; by FDR’s death, he had appointed eight out of the nine justices and a more progressive jurisprudence prevailed.

All of this led Franklin Roosevelt to succeed as no other president had done.  He won election four times, and each one was a landslide.  In 1936, he won every state in the country except Vermont and Maine, two disproportionately rural areas filled with old-fashioned Yankee Republicans.  And even in 1944, his closest election, he still won states that had  been considered monolithically Republican just a generation earlier like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Utah, and New Hampshire.  He remade American politics with the so-called New Deal Coalition of inner-city workers, poor farmers, Appalachians, Southerners, and even black Americans (the FDR years were the first time when African-Americans began to abandon the Party of Lincoln.)  His impact was so deep and enduring that in 1967, Time columnist Hugh Sidney wrote, “You could stand on this Tuesday afternoon…and look out over the faces of the East Room of the White House and suddenly understand that Franklin Roosevelt still owned Washington.  His ideas prevailed.  His men endured.  The government that functioned now was his creation perhaps more than any other single man.”

I categorized Franklin Roosevelt a “Champion of Justice” and in some ways that is true.  For generations afterward, Appalachian hill folk and trade unionists looked to him as a hero and many even kept a portrait of the man in a prominent place in their house.  He was also perhaps the first president who actively worked in partnership with organized labor, and did not see trade unionists as quasi-socialists out to turn America toward Bolshevism.  With his help, more Americans enjoyed weekends, holidays, safer working conditions, and the ability to bargain collectively than ever before.   In other ways, however, FDR fell short of this heroism, particularly with respect to America’s most vulnerable citizens.  Black Americans, especially, benefitted from New Deal reforms less fully; traditionally black jobs were kept out of the Social Security Program, blacks generally weren’t hired as part of the CCC or CWA, and of course, the odious practice of redlining kept the African-American community from enjoying the blessings of middle-class home ownership.  With Southern Democrats in charge of nearly all the important committees, FDR was at their mercy to pass his legislation through.  Of course, more egregious than this–something most people would consider to be a serious human rights violation–was the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.  Every semester that I teach in Singapore, I assign a chapter from George Takei’s autobiography where he discusses his earliest memories in an Arkansas camp for Japanese-Americans, and the sense of guilt and shame (as well as the loss of property and dignity) that came from the experience.  While this wasn’t a concentration camp, and efforts were made to make this experience bearable, it was without question a bad move, and for me, it single-handedly killed any chance for FDR to make it to the top of my rankings.  Whatever else he may have done to improve the spirit and health of the nation, that was an unforgivable act of race prejudice and an abrogation of personal rights.

Looking at the whole picture, think of the various pressures on republics and democracies during the tumultuous 1930s across the world, many of which thrived on the uncertainty created by the Depression.  In those kinds of environments, fascism, viable communist parties, the genial antisemitism of Father Coughlin, and the personality cult surrounding Huey Long all found sympathetic listeners.   Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Oswald…all of these movements responded to the crises of the 1930s by threatening to tear down capitalism, or democracy, or decorum.  Under Franklin Roosevelt, capitalism and democracy survived, and even thrived, by tweaking its excesses, sharing its blessings more equitably, and fostering a robust and gainfully-employed middle-class out of the ashes of Depression.  If an odd conservative managed to find his way to my blog, and believes that Franklin Roosevelt was capitalism’s greatest enemy in American history,  I submit to the contrary that he saved it from itself.

Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was long, complex, and very difficult to evaluate.  No president who served for that long and through not one, but two major paradigm-shifting moments–Depression and War–could hold office without making not just mistakes, but serious mistakes along the way.  But what is success on a presidential level?  I take a humanitarian approach: the best presidents govern well and wisely, but ultimately work to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, give hope to those in despair.  Ultimately, I’m a social democrat with a strong footing in the prophetic strand of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  And since I’m the one making the rankings, I’ll conclude: Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a great president–full stop.


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Jackson-PortraitCategory: Tyrant

Term in Office: Sixth president, 1829-1837

Party: Democratic

Home State: Tennessee

It has been a very long journey to the bottom of our presidential rankings countdown.  Although my “next lowest, then the next highest” system meant I would have tackled #2 before I addressed the bottom rung, I’ve chosen to go a tiny bit out of order to write on the president who holds down the lowest, most ignoble, most disgraceful spot on our rankings.  We’ve covered all kinds of characteristics attendant to bad presidents in our bottom 10 or 12: Andrew Johnson’s humorlessness and rigidity, Calvin Coolidge’s sociopathy, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan putting partisan success over national unity, Warren Harding’s petty corruption, Polk and Bush 43’s unjust war-making, and Nixon’s suspicion and paranoia.

Back in the spring of 2006 (geez…that’s almost a decade!), I did an independent study of the antebellum presidency with Richard E. Ellis at UB.  Ellis was one of the great historians of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian era of U.S. politics, and I was lucky to work with someone of his caliber.  Yet by the same token, he was also fiercely resistant to addressing American history from subaltern perspectives of women, blacks, Native Americans, young people, immigrants, or any other disempowered group (he once dismissed Anne Hutchinson as a “menopausal maniac” during one lecture on the Puritans.)  He never stopped believing that these were politically motivated distractions from what was really important.  Ellis was the last of his kind; I doubt very much a man like him who exclusively did “dead white president” history could get hired today outside of Christian colleges (ironically, Ellis himself was a secular Jew), or academic chairs funded by conservative institutes.  So, I read perhaps a dozen different interpretations of Jackson during that time, from suggestions Dr. Ellis made.  Virtually none of them took Jackson’s human rights violations against the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Seminoles, and other First Nations seriously.  Arthur Schlesinger, whose Age of Jackson was the gold standard on this era for a generation, omitted the issue almost entirely.  (It would have ruined his thesis that Jackson was a proto-New Dealer.  Or would it?)   They, too, either thought that dwelling too much on this facet, or considering the First Nations perspective, to be a sidelight to the “real story”- the expansion of democracy, and the rise of Jackson’s as the “people’s” champion against the “interests.”

I disagree, of course.  Indian removal isn’t so much the true “real story” so much as it is intertwined with the other policies Jackson pursued in office.  It was woven into the whole cloth that was Andrew Jackson’s complex, but almost wholly deleterious, presidency.  Jackson’s popularity partly came out of his reputation as an Indian fighter, and his advocacy for expanding the frontier, even (or especially) at the expense of indigenous groups already there.  And it bespoke Jackson’s imperious personality that eschewed abstract concepts like law and justice in favor of a prism that saw politics in personal and honor-bound terms.   The real story is the paradox of how our first Democratic and first democratically elected president was the one whose administration was least governed by democratic spirit or principles.

And much of this paradox lies in the character of Andrew Jackson himself.  As a general, there is a disturbing pattern of Andrew Jackson ignoring orders and taking the law into his own hands, even when it risked war.  He wasn’t a general who thrived in organization and in working with civilian leaders, like the best “general presidents” Washington and Eisenhower.  His military career consisted almost wholly of battlefield heroics where any success relied on almost blind luck or overwhelming advantage rather than any particular strategic genius.  Oftentimes, such as his almost-certainly illegal invasion of the Floridas, he got away with it only because it yielded a politically expedient result, and to censure Jackson was to court the people’s wrath.

The problem for Andrew Jackson was that he viewed politics almost entirely in terms of personal alliances and grievances, a manifestation of the clannish and honor-bound aspects of Appalachian polity that thrived in longstanding feuds and the code duello.  (To wit, Jackson killed or seriously injured multiple individuals upon the field of honor.)  Indeed, reputation was often considered more important than the abstractions of law.

To set the context for this, Jackson rose to fame as a hero of the masses at a time when the modern two-party system was in its earliest stages of development.  The Democratic Party formed out of the ashes of Jefferson’s old Democratic-Republican Party,  fancying itself as the party of the common man.  The party stood for little, except perhaps for low protective tariffs and states’ rights, a conceit that allowed them to punt on controversial issues by saying “let the states decide for themselves”.  In this manner, they were able to become the party of the Southern plantation owner eager to check the overactive conscience of the Whigs, the Indian huntin’ frontiersman and the worker in nascent New York factories alike.  It was, as historian Donald Cole attests, “a broad coalition of conflicting interest groups” and thus it had a stake in kicking crucial decisions like, say, the expansion of slavery or free labor, down the road, rather than address them forthrightly.

This mantle of the “people’s party” made the common man look to Andrew Jackson as a champion of sorts- a military hero (remember, the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans was a national holiday for decades), and a man cut from their cloth (a mistaken impression; Jackson was of nearly aristocratic descent).  Jackson’s inauguration was filled with the salt of the earth (others might have called them “the rabble”) drinking the punch, stealing the sundries, and stamping bits of cheese into the White House carpets.  Jackson was surely the beneficiary of the rise of popular (that is, universal white male) democracy–bereft of the old requirements of property ownership–although he did little personally to advance that cause.

This, in turn, contributed to the politicization (perhaps even the weaponization) of public office.  If you look at every president before Jackson, they certainly doled out the choicest positions in government to their allies, but beyond this, they tended to be more meritocratic for the lesser posts.  Jackson forfeited this practice, and as a result, most posts in government were filled with avaricious time-servers and ineffectual loyalists.  Perhaps the low-water mark of Jackson’s appointments was Samuel Swartwout, a staunch supporter of his election. As Collector of the Port of New York, he embezzled one and a quarter million dollars from the federal coffers while illegally aiding Texan independence.  Even beyond this, look at his cabinet sometime, and you will see the same tendencies of favoring loyalty over merit and qualification.  Martin Van Buren might be a famous name, but he had virtually no experience in foreign affairs, making him a very poor choice to serve as Secretary of State; he was appointed only for his valuable New York connections.

Time and time again, Jackson made grudges personal, and he was often incapable of forgiveness, indifferent to mercy, and unable to differentiate his own judgment from the public good.  Recall that this is the man who brought the government to a standstill over the honor of Peggy Eaton, an ethically suspect wife of his Secretary of War.  Jackson (perhaps remembering how his own wife was maligned as a bigamist during the 1824 election) was convinced she was “chaste as a virgin” and fit for polite company, and would not relent until the rest of his cabinet (and their wives) deigned to entertain her socially.  Everybody but Van Buren resigned in protest, resulting in a needless reshuffling of the government.

Or else, consider the Nullification crisis, often seen as Jackson’s finest hour, a decisive and manly confrontation with the forces of secession usually used to counter the equivocally of Pierce and Buchanan in most histories.  This, too, devolved into a personal conflict with its ringleader (and former Jackson vice-president) John C. Calhoun.  Dr. Ellis was probably right when he said that, ideologically, this amounted to two different interpretations of states rights rather than Jackson unilaterally championing the idea of union.  If you really distill it to its essence, though, it was actually more of a personal vendetta to kneecap Calhoun, a need to impose his will over him and vanquish his enemies rather than resolve the crisis (and indeed, when we look at the forty subsequent years, he did not resolve the issue of secession at all.)

Similarly, he turned the decision to renew the Second Bank of the United States–a major choice about the fiscal destiny of the country–into a small-minded contest over personal honor.  Jackson, who had been cheated by bankers as a young speculator, never forgot the experience, and this was compounded by his feuds with mercantile interests and moneyed powers aligned with John Quincy Adams and arguably Jackson’s greatest enemy, Henry Clay.  The Second Bank was big–its capital was about two times as large as the entire operating budget of the federal government, and Jackson saw it as a latent tyrannical force, an octopus with tentacles in every corner of public life, as another historian, Robert Remini, put it.  And he drew particular ire toward the bank’s president, the slightly effete and fussy Nicholas Biddle, in whose pudgy face he saw every well-mannered aristocrat who ever looked down on him.

He vetoed the bill.  It was within his rights, certainly, but here’s the distinction: every presidential veto before this was done on the grounds of concerns about the bill’s constitutionality.  Jackson knew perfectly well the recharter bill was constitutional.  Instead, for the first time, he vetoed a bill entirely because he disagreed with its politics.  It was a momentous decision, one that played a large role in turning the president into a political actor, and as a force that could shape legislation.  However, it also dismantled the only institution keeping the country’s fragile and confusing financial system in place.  In the wake of Jackson’s veto, he removed federal deposits in the bank, fired two Secretaries of the Treasury, and forced Biddle to demand repayment of loans in hard currency to refinance his bank, and triggering a recession.  Jackson’s “Specie Circular”, demanding that money for federal lands be paid in gold and silver, was even more ruinous, and a trigger for the Panic of 1837, one of the worst in our history.  All this to satiate his dislike of big city bankers.  And we put this guy on our printed money!  (By the way, I fully support this campaign to put some women on the $20 bill instead; I voted for Shirley Chisholm, but the winner, Harriet Tubman, would also be a great choice.)

The worst part of it, though, was Jackson’s lack of accountability; he never saw himself as being subject to law.  Like Nixon after him, he saw himself unilaterally as the law.  He was the general whose judgment always prevailed, who could hang men and invade foreign soil arbitrarily whenever he wished.  Small wonder he was the first president censured by Congress (for withholding documents pertaining to his Bank Veto).  Jackson could not accept that there were restraints–legal restraints, moral restraints, whatever–preventing him from carrying out his will.

There has been a lot of talk- much of it legitimate- about the imperial presidency, the legality of executive orders, and the role of Congress and the Supreme Court in checking presidential power.  But these arguments have nothing on Andrew Jackson, our first, and perhaps only, truly lawless president.  When Chief Justice Marshall wrote his decision Worcester vs. Georgia upholding Indian claims to the land, Jackson is said to have uttered the quote: “Mr. Marshall has made his decision.  Now let him enforce it!” but this is almost certainly apocryphal, and there wasn’t much in the decision for Jackson to carry out.  It does, though, neatly echo Jackson’s response, ignoring a Supreme Court decision, and with it, the concept of the rule of law itself.

So, let’s survey the wreckage: an inhumane act of ethnic cleansing, the hopeless politicization of government work, unforced errors that ruined the American banking system.  My friend Rick, a very solid historian of British and American academic exchanges during the 1800s, believes that Jackson single-handedly delayed universal suffrage in the United Kingdom by decades.  Any Tory MP would be wholly justified in using Jackson to show what would happen if you entrust just anybody with the franchise. It doesn’t disprove the value of democracy, but it does demonstrate the danger of demagoguery, when appeals to the people are unchecked by policy competence and moral insight.

Andrew Jackson had many of the markers of a successful president: he was elected handily twice, he led a new viable coalition of voters, he supported the expansion of democracy, and with some struggles, he got much of his program through Congress.  Ultimately, this is why Jackson is our worst president: because he used his considerable gifts for such ruinous and unjust ends.  The size of the federal government was small back then, but Jackson used its fullest force to enhance the privilege of white settlers at the expense of the First Nations.  He used the presidency (whose power he played a key role in strengthening) not for the cause of justice, but to satisfy, even to the point of violence at times, resentment and grievance on a national scale.  Andrew Jackson is, in the end, the only president I can characterize as a tyrant, and as such, he is the worst president in this ranking.

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andrew johnsonCategory: Failed Ideologue

Term in Office: 17th president, 1865-1869

Party: Union

Home State: Tennessee

We’re almost at the very bottom of our ranking.  For the twelve or so lowest presidents, we have explored a variety of ways that presidents can fail: the unquenchable cynicism of Nixon, the callous unconcern of Coolidge, Buchanan’s blindness to treason, and Van Buren’s contentment in pursuing a deadly and unjust course of action set by his predecessor.  Why, then, is Andrew Johnson at the second-lowest spot?  I answer in this way: Andrew Johnson’s stubbornness and prejudice sabotaged a singular movement in American history: the chance to incorporate freed slaves fully into the fabric of participatory government as a consequence of Union victory.  Instead, Andrew Johnson took every step within his power to limit the expansion of voting rights, property rights, and education.  We could have had a functioning democracy with universal male suffrage a century ahead of schedule, but AJ strangled it in the bassinet.  When Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” and talked about a check for equal justice having been un-cashed for one hundred years, he was referring in part to the hopes that were dashed and the possibilities that were stymied during Johnson’s presidency.

At the crux of all this were Johnson’s views on race, which were especially symptomatic of his background.  Andrew Johnson grew up a fatherless barefoot boy, then a tailor’s apprentice, an escapee from said apprenticeship, and finally a struggling and illiterate journeyman in an unforgiving place- the porous borders between the hill country of North Carolina and Tennessee.  There aren’t too many presidents who truly grew up not knowing where their next meal would come from, but AJ was one of them.  He was thus at the intersection of the South and Appalachia.  And he soaked in his surroundings: the stubbornness, the scrapping for a fight, the hard drinking, the populism, and the stump oratory.  As well as the racial prejudice.  In much of the South, every poor, luckless white man prided himself on his capacity to take part in the political process, and rested in the assurance that no matter what happened, there would always be a rung on the social ladder so far low that he could not descend to it.  This contributed to a fierce belief in white superiority within the South’s white Scots-Irish working class that no wealthy planter could match.

Andrew Johnson was, like much of the eastern Tennessee, committed to the idea of Union.  He was the only senator from a Southern state to remain loyal to the Union after secession, an act whose steadfastness and personal risk secured his place among my 100 greatest senators of U.S. history.  Lincoln soon appointed him military governor of Tennessee once large chunks of the Volunteer State were under Union purview.  With a tough re-election bid on the horizon, Lincoln decided to switch running-mates, and make the election not about the Republican Party, but about keeping the country together.  The GOP was rebranded the Union Party for that election, and to nail that theme down, Lincoln deliberately sought out a pro-Union Democrat, ideally a Southerner, to serve as his running mate.  Johnson fit the bill, and he might have been a very fine symbolic vice-president– until that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre.

Not only was Lincoln dead- but his sketchy but generally reconciliatory policies for bringing the South back into the country died with him.  Without much of a road map, Johnson ran headlong into opposition from Congress- which was trying to reassert itself after an exhausting war that stretched the limits of presidential power.  So began a tortuous tug of war with a Republican-dominated Congress, that harbored large numbers of so-called Radical Republicans after the 1866 midterms.  (If you think about it, that must have been the most badass midterm election in American history, with most of the South under military rule, and the Union victory buoying Republicans- including many veterans- to victory virtually everywhere except the border states.)

Since Lincoln died during a lengthy recess for Congress, Johnson got a head start in carrying out his own Reconstruction plan, which was lenient to an unseemly extreme, offering pardon to virtually everyone but wealthy planters and Confederate ringleaders, and ignoring any attempts to expand suffrage to freedmen.  In this interim, noxious “Black Codes” were passed in former Confederate States, often swindling black labor into peonage debt, with harsh and often strikingly violent penalties.  When acts of terror and violence were used to keep freedmen (and other Republicans) from the polls, Johnson did not lift a finger to come to their aid.  Johnson neglected the Freedman’s Bureau, claiming that blacks did not deserve, in his words, “special privileges.”  (Is this not sounding like the arguments against same-sex marriage just a little bit?)  He vetoed civil rights bills on the grounds that they violated states’ rights (Paging Senator Thurmond?  Paging Senator Goldwater?)  Consistently, he cited a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a desire to reunite the country quickly, and while these were strong elements of Johnson’s political worldview, they were also convenient cloaks for his desire to reinstate the old social order of the South.  Black citizens in the South meant that the old hierarchy was upended.  A successful black man might, in fact, rise higher than an unsuccessful Scots-Irish dirt farmer, and the prospect filled him with a sickening dread.

Radicals in Congress were horrified by Johnson’s actions.  They concluded- correctly, I think- that Lincoln’s landslide victory, and Republican majorities in Congress signaled a mandate for their policies, and as an unelected president, he had best follow their lead.  For two anguishing years, Congress would pass a bill, Johnson would veto it, and Congress would usually- but not always- find the votes to override the veto.  Did you know that there were 10 Supreme Court justices at the end of Lincoln’s term?  When two of them left office, Congress decided to simply let those seats expire, rather than let AJ appoint anyone to the Supreme Court!  This ended, of course, with the Tenure of Office Act, forcing Johnson to keep the disloyal Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in office.  Johnson fired him anyway, inviting an impeachment trial, where the president was saved from the ignominy of leaving office by only one vote.  Perhaps Johnson did not deserve impeachment- the Act was transparently unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court later ruled- but the farcical proceedings were the logical outcome of Johnson’s antagonism, ideological blinders, and his inability to seek out a middle road.

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that earlier in the 20th century, Johnson was portrayed as the good guy in this confrontation!  For decades, our understanding of American history was dominated by a small cabal called the Dunning school, named after a Columbia professor and his nursery of graduate students.  They were the first historians to really discuss Reconstruction and the figures behind it.  You know how you watch “The Birth of a Nation” and a part of you dies?  That film was very much inspired by this school of history- and that goes double for the romanticism of “Gone with the Wind.”

Almost without exception, historians from that time- Northern as well as Southern- put forth a pejorative view of Reconstruction that dominated the historiography for decades, and even found its way into my middle school textbook.  If you have a good memory, think back to the negative portrayals of traitorous scalawags and the Northern flimflam artists known as carpetbaggers from your schoolchild days.  Reconstruction, from this point of view, was a disaster of misrule, military tyranny, and petty corruption.  Claude Bowers, influenced by these views, wrote in his 1928 book on Reconstruction: “Never have American public men in responsible positions, directing the destiny of the Nation, been so brutal, hypocritical and corrupt than in the period between 1865 and 1877″ apparently forgetting the years of slave-catchers and gag rules that came before, and the lynchings and Klan terrorism that came afterward.  In many of these accounts, Andrew Johnson assumes a nearly heroic role for trying- with limited success- to stem the excesses of Reconstruction.

Andrew Johnson doesn’t have too many defenders these days (they tend to be Lew Rockwell types), but these brave few would come to his defense readily:  would not, they might say, have Lincoln been lenient with the South?  Did he not view the South as having never seceded, because the Union is indissoluble?  Eric Foner, the single most respected historian of this period, dispels that nonsense: “He lacked Lincoln’s broad-mindedness, he lacked his flexibility, he lacked his compassion for the emancipated slaves, he lacked Lincoln’s connection with the Republicans in Congress and Northern public opinion…the idea long embedded in our history that Andrew Johnson was simply following in Lincoln’s footsteps is ludicrous.”  Had Lincoln lived, he surely would have butted heads with Congress, who wanted to fundamentally punish and remake the South.  And yet it is highly likely that they could have worked together with a bit of horse-trading and cajoling; they had already done so in crafting the 13th Amendment, as well as the Freedman’s Bureau.  Lincoln would very probably have cleverly divided moderate and radical Republicans to get his way.  Johnson, through his dogged determination to see Reconstruction through only his own jaundiced perspective, drove these two rival factions closer together in opposition to himself.

Nothing can condemn Andrew Johnson more than his own words.  Consider the following: “if anything can be proved by known facts, if all reasoning upon evidence is not abandoned, it must be acknowledged that in the progress of nations Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”  Holy shit!  Now, most 19th century presidents said something contrary to the idea of racial egalitarianism at some point in their career; even Lincoln professed a belief in European stock as the superior race in his debates with Stephen Douglas.  The crucial difference is that this drivel appeared in a goddamn State of the Union address setting his agenda for the year!  To a Congress that included, for the first time, men- and very capable men- of African descent!

So, maybe Reconstruction wasn’t carried out in the most ethical way imaginable.  Perhaps there were shady dealings, attempts to corral the black vote into voting for Republicans, and schemes to use GOP supermajorities to enhance and protect Northern industry.  I contend that however dodgy this state of affairs may have been, it was infinitely more preferable to the genteel farce of antebellum Dixie undergirded by violence, racial hierarchy, and chattel slavery.   It boggles my mind how some people can view Reconstruction as corrupt, and the “peculiar institution” as somehow less corrupt.  Worse, for years, the supposed debacle of “uneducated Negro voters” was, in the decades that followed, used as a justification for the poll taxes, absurdist literacy tests (one black applying to vote in the 1950s was told to name the entire cabinet of the 11th president), and outright violence that often accompanied black attempts to exercise the franchise.

General Lee reluctantly conceded in the aftermath of Appomattox that the “negro franchise” was a logical outcome of the South’s defeat.  Even if one accepted Johnson’s belief that the South never seceded because secession is unconstitutional, you can’t deny that they lost a war, and that there ought to be consequences of that loss.  Johnson gave the game away.   After centuries of complicity in slavery by northern industrialists, black rights and Yankee self-interest coincided, like a rare eclipse.  And a tremendous opportunity to further the cause of justice, to bring the reality of America closer to its ideals, was lost.  Imagine an America where a solid unbroken generation of African-American citizenship had been not only legislated but also enforced in the aftermath of the Civil War.  Imagine an America where George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington were in Congress, and Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens was under house arrest, rather than serving in the House of Representatives.   I don’t want to suggest that the millennium would have broken out had Thaddeus Stevens’ Reconstruction policy ruled the day, but the South was so sufficiently damaged and prostrate (thanks, General Sherman!) that it would have accepted much sterner provisions for re-entry into the Union, because there was no other choice.  The winners dictate the terms.  Coffee is for closers.

Not even the accomplishments of his presidency, including “Seward’s Folly,” his purchase of Alaska from the Russians, can mitigate this mismanagement.  Despite the common misperception that the acquisition of Alaska was greeted with ridicule, virtually every active politician of the time accepted the virtues of expansion.  And all but the dimmest bulb would have jumped at the opportunity for so much mineral wealth, available for pennies on the dollar.  Like Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase, you cannot call someone a political genius for accepting such a lopsided bargain.

And for the record, lots of historians agree.  The first two rankings (1948 and 1962) were before the civil rights movement had reached its zenith, and most historians did not place racial reconciliation on a high priority.  Given the influence that the civil rights movement and other social causes had in academia, Andrew Johnson’s ranking in the presidential sweepstakes has plummeted, and with good reason.  You won’t find him outside the bottom 5 very often these days.  Today, he stands as a warning, and as a reminder that all too often, someone harboring strong racial animosities can explain inaction in the face of injustice with the excuse of “just following the Constitution.”

The Reconstruction years needed both a healer and a firm hand, able to reconcile the South back into the nation, but with the understanding that a very different political order must necessarily result from the Union victory.  It needed cleverness and creativity, not rigidity and inflexibility.  Unfortunately, Johnson wanted reunification with alacrity, rather then reunification with justice.  By any standard you want, he was the wrong man for the job.

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300px-Gilbert_Stuart_-_George_Washington_-_Google_Art_ProjectCategory: Super-Competent Administrators

Term in Office: 1st president, 1789-1797

Party: Non-Partisan on paper, Federalist in practice

Home State: Virginia

Presidents’ Day has come and gone in the U.S., and although I am too late to celebrate it with a new post in our almost-completed Ranking of the Presidents, I think I am close enough to George Washington’s birthday to have this count as a belated birthday gift.

Every subsequent generation has treated Washington as a god who briefly deigned to walk among mere mortals for a time.  We have put him on our coinage.  We made his birthday part of a national holiday.  We have named states, counties, and even our nation’s capital in his honor.  He is the man nobody can criticize, the man nobody wants to criticize (although this plucky account from Drunk History gives us insight into how dangerous Washington could be when he felt wronged or crossed, as one young, inebriated historian tells the tale of the lengths GW went to unsuccessfully recover a runaway slave.)

No doubt, Washington would be pleased with our general acquiesce to his legend.  His statuesque visage over America’s story is partly a mythology he spent his lifetime making.  The George Washington who appears in Gore Vidal’s historical novels starting with Burr is probably a shade closer to the truth: a man of considerable but limited skill, better at stonewalling rival politicians and Continental Army generals than defeating divisions of redcoats.  I am reminded of what my friend, former Bishop James Armstrong, once said of Billy Graham: a man who, while pretending to be above it all, uses his influence in the most partisan of ways.

More than anyone else I can think of from the founding generation, Washington spent his life posing and preening for posterity.  In particular, Washington was enamored of classical culture, the revival of Greek and Roman republicanism in the mid-1700s that established the parameters and the argot for the American Revolution.  He ordered the play Cato to be shown at Valley Forge, showing the embodiment of republican virtue and sacrifice necessary to preserve self-government and liberty at the expense of tyranny.  Rather like Reagan, Washington spent his public career acting a part out: if Reagan play-acted a competent and poised president, Washington play-acted the role of Cincinnatus in the drama of the American Revolution.

If you aren’t familiar with the legend of Cincinnatus, let me explain it to you.  One of the great stories that generations of Romans told their young ones is that of the semi-mythical figure of Cincinnatus who lived during the age of the Roman republic.  An old retired farmer who loved nothing more than to toil at his plow.  One day, he was met at his plow by a delegation from Rome.  With an impending invasion, the Senate had chosen to make Cincinnatus a dictator for six months to deal with the threat.  Cincinnatus dispatched the invading tribes in two weeks, then resigned his office, going back to his plow.  Believe me, the legend of Cincinnatus resonated in the Early Republic days of the United States.  The most prestigious organization a Revolutionary War vet could join was called the Order of the Cincinnati.  The famous Ohio city of Cincinnati was so named in the hopes that all of its citizens could emulate the virtue of this great Roman.  (Alas, even a short visit to Cincinnati is enough to disprove this aspiration.)

And so, Washington spent his life molding himself after this early antique Roman.  He feigned reluctance to lead the Continental Army, he played the dilettante when called to lead the Constitutional Convention, and he finally professed hesitance when elected unanimously to the presidency.  This was, again, partly to make himself look good in future history schoolbooks, but it was also because of a deep-seated belief that the wisest, and most counter-intuitive thing that a powerful person can do is to abdicate that power, to step down, to retire to one’s plow.

It was with that same sense of posterity-mindedness that Washington conducted his administration.  In fact, the very office of the presidency was designed in Philadelphia with the tacit understanding that Washington would be the first man to occupy it.  A group of republicans who held monarchy in the deepest contempt would scarcely have designed the presidency to be as powerful as it was unless they could be sure of Washington setting a good example with his time in office.

And so, George Washington had to establish a very delicate balance.  He had to avoid appearing overtly monarchial or despotic, but he couldn’t allow the country to fall into the rudderless gridlock that befell it under the unworkable Articles of Confederation.  And he certainly could not appear partisan (although he certainly favored what would eventually be called the Federalists.)

This often meant letting underlings handle the dirty work, preferring to levitate above much of the bickering that took place in the first Congresses.  He allowed Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison arrive at a grand bargain- exchanging the federal assumption of state debt for a plan to put the nation’s capital on the Potomac- far away from the corrupting financial centers of Philadelphia and New York.  He let John Jay tackle the thankless job of negotiating a treaty with Great Britain, allowing the former chief justice to draw the fire when the best he could do was get a treaty that didn’t really deal with impressment but averred war between the two powers.

If anything, Washington, again like Reagan, kept too much distance from the details.  Out of all the cabinet, he took Alexander Hamilton’s advice the most often- to the point where it sometimes looked like a parliamentary system does today, where you might have a president whose purpose is largely ceremonial, but also a prime minister with less prestige but more policymaking clout.  Hamilton was, in some ways, that kind of prime ministerial figure.

Hamilton was, to be sure, a financial genius who helped codify the nation’s precarious finances.  We take it for granted how good he was; we remember crisis-solvers, but rarely remember crisis-preventers quite so fondly.  Unfortunately, this came with some drawbacks.  Hamilton worked in ways that privileged lenders and financiers over the backwoods areas of the country.  He helped his banker friend Robert Morris engineer a scheme whereby financiers would buy Revolutionary War vets’ worthless IOU payments they received throughout the war, then turned around and made the IOU’s redeemable for hard currency.  Adding insult to injury, this scheme was funded by an excise tax of whiskey, which was disproportionately used by backwoods Appalachian Revolutionary War vets.  Some of the most financially precarious people in the U.S. were being taxed to pay for a policy that fleeced them.  So, I have very little good to say about Washington’s famous action to restore order in the Whiskey Rebellion, aside from Washington’s decision to prosecute almost no one for treasonable activities.  The angry rednecks of hill country had, for once, every right to be aggrieved; the Washington administration took them for a ride.  In this, Washington played only a small, symbolic role- riding into Pennsylvania on horseback to put down the rebellion; he left the details to Hamilton- a capable man, but in some ways, a dangerously Anglophile, slightly monarchial, and unabashedly partisan figure.  Still, it was a great good cop/bad cop routine while it lasted.

With Washington’s obsession with looking ahead, we need to spend a few moments looking at his approach to foreign policy.  We often remember his farewell address endorsing neutrality in foreign affairs- or at the very least, unilateralism, putting America’s interests first.  It has become a cliche to point out that this was a wise course of action, but in this case, the cliche is true.  The idea of neutrality did, I think, serve the country in good stead, allowing us to stay more or less out of Napoleonic geopolitics (with some important exceptions) and even allowed us to play major European powers against one another.  An overlooked aspect is often the Citizen Genet crisis, where a representative from Revolutionary France attempted to stir up American privateer support for the Directory, even to the point of strong-arming popular support against the Washington administration (shades of Netanyahu’s work in turning American foreign policy into a partisan exercise today?)  Washington put a kibosh on that (although he generously allowed Genet to stay in America when it was clear he would be executed if he returned to Jacobin France.)

I’ve picked Washington’s administration apart, but it is above question that he had a monumentally difficult task.  If we are going to continue using “Value Over Replacement Player” as a metric, Washington’s score is astronomically high; there isn’t a single American of his time- possibly any time- that could have done so well, and commanded so much respect at such a critical moment, and had the good sense to leave at the proper time.  Fundamentally, you needed consensus for this constitutional experiment to work, and he was the only man who could provide it.  Forrest MacDonald of the University of Alabama is partly correct when he says that Washington’s greatness was not so much what he did or the policies he pursued as much as the example that he left behind.  In that sense, he was great because he stepped down, MacDonald argues; he set the precedent of serving for only a short while, emulating Cincinnatus one last time.

It is easy to forget that the late 18th century was filled with petty princelings, would-be despots, and dangerous revolutionaries.  With only small and rather weak republics to use as models, Washington had to figure out how a large republic would work for the first time in the history of the modern world.  He succeeded beyond expectation by an apolitical veneer, appointing competent people based on merit, and using his symbolic authority as America’s leading citizen.  His latent biases toward financiers over small farmers, the British over the French, and central authority over states’ rights, are forgivable- and in some ways, deeply human- complications to an administration that got an awful lot right.  In virtually every respectable ranking of the presidents I have seen, he’s in the top three, and I see no reason to change that.


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bigbuchCategory: Failed Ideologue

Term in Office: 15th president, 1857-1861

Party: Democratic

Home State: Pennsylvania

It was my first big research paper for graduate school, and I was terrified out of my mind.  We had to select a topic and address it from one of the plethora of historical theories and approaches we learned in twelve weeks from a brilliant, but ruthlessly exacting and humorless German taskmaster of a professor.  My line of thought was this: we spend so much time studying epochal figures that I wanted to look closely at how unsuccessful people take part in the historical process.  In short, I wanted to study failure, and like a moth to the flame, I was drawn to James Buchanan.  I ended up throwing a complete hail mary, mixing local history through Pennsylvania boosterism of James Buchanan, with counterfactuals- that is, approaching history not through the lens of inevitability, but asking yourself “what if this alternative outcome happened?”  I got a B+ on the paper, the only time in my life I was grateful for a grade that wasn’t an A.

Counterfactuals are a dangerous terrain for any historian, but in this instance, I think it is warranted.  The case for James Buchanan’s failure as president seems self-evident.  Buchanan, a cursory reading of history tells us, was the weak, vacillating figure who rung his hands as South Carolina seceded from the union, the Deep South seized federal property and Fort Sumter was besieged.  Like the 75 years of bad scholarship on Neville Chamberlain and the dangers of “appeasement,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, the laziness of this account makes me a tiny bit suspect.  Much of it holds up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t dissect it and pick it apart a bit.

Part of our national revulsion of Buchanan might be tied to the persistent issue of Old Buck’s sexuality.  Look at the traditional barbs thrown at Buchanan: weak, vacillating, cowardly, untrustworthy, fussy, dandified– it can’t be a coincidence that these criticisms of James Buchanan have also been coded as effeminate or homosexual for a couple centuries.   Think of how many of those negative and implicitly queer traits were also projected onto, say, Scar in The Lion King or King Candy from Wreck-It Ralph.   In the same way, rumors of homosexuality dog England’s least successful kings: William II, Edward II, James I.  If there was a radio drama of Buchanan’s administration, I guarantee his voice actor would give him a lisp.  And gee, isn’t Buchanan’s betrothal to a girl from a rich family, and her mysterious death- possibly a suicide- before their marriage, suspicious?  Bah.  Can’t we get over this sort of childish innuendo? In Buchanan’s own public life, whispers about his preferences were bandied about easily, carelessly.  Some have hypothesized he had a decades-long relationship with Alabama senator Rufus DeWane King (ironically elected vice-president under Franklin Pierce).  They boarded together in Washington and were so inseparable that wags called them Miss Nancy and Aunt Fancy.  Maybe James Buchanan preferred men.  Maybe not.  A  chaste bachelorhood wasn’t uncommon in the 1800s.  Neither was a bachelorhood that eschewed an inevitably unhappy marriage and pursued sexual fulfillment outside of matrimony- whether with men or with women- uncommon.  Instead, the entire situation says much more about Buchanan’s detractors.

James Buchanan’s sexuality has no bearing on my conclusion that he was a manifestly failed president.  Make no mistake about it.  But the reasons he failed aren’t so easily coded as sissified or effeminate.  Maybe the key to understanding James Buchanan is to see him not as a Pennsylvanian, but an Appalachian.  True, Buchanan, the uptight, legalistic bachelor could not be further from stereotypes of rough, brawny Appalachian masculinity.  But like a true Appalachian, his approach to politics was clannish and quasi-familial; party loyalty provided cover and protection, but also lent itself to petty, over-exaggerated feuds- think of the Hatfields and McCoys.  I just put James Monroe down as my fourth greatest president because of his understated ability to unify, his ability to make the United States less provincial and balkanized, to squint his eyes to see the Magic-Eye picture of a nation, not a collection of states.  Buchanan could not be a greater contrast.

On paper, at least, James Buchanan was one of our most qualified presidents.  His long career began as a Federalist (!) clock-puncher who eventually hitched his star to the Jacksonian branch of what became the Democratic Party.  He was a congressman, a senator, minister to Russia, minister to Britain, and Secretary of State.  Equally relevant, he was a genuine force in state politics, and was responsible for moving the state of Pennsylvania, originally dominated by conscientious Quakers and sly bankers working out of Philadelphia into a state dominated by Appalachian interests in the state’s “Pennsyltucky” middle section.  The denizens of this region were a rowdy, far more provincial bunch, and their rise to power turned a “doubtful state” into the northernmost Jacksonian stronghold.  As the ringleader of these strategically important Pennsylvania Democrats, Buchanan flitted from office to office, not so much on excellence or skill- he was never outstanding at any job he ever had- but because of the Jacksonian spoils system that rewarded loyalty and going along to get along, at the expense of vision, conscience, and especially merit.  It also made Buchanan hard-wired to see moral objections to slavery or its expansion as anything other than obstructionist, disruptive, and even disloyal, to the precarious and precise sectional balance that had been struck by decades of compromise.

He could not help but see other parties, other factions of his own party, and competing ideologies as domestic enemies.  His cabinet, for example, is especially terrible.  He didn’t consider, for a moment, throwing a bone at northern “conscience Democrats” who had moral qualms with slavery and left the party under Buchanan’s watch (such as Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice-president).  He also shut out more moderate Democrats willing to see where the philosophy of popular sovereignty- letting the states themselves choose whether or not to keep slavery- led.  In a cabinet littered with Southern sympathizers and tilted decidedly to Buchanan’s faction of the party, incompetence ran amuck.  Lewis Cass, who had recently lost his Senate seat from Michigan and was in the early stages of senility, was Secretary of State.  John Floyd is considered by some to be the worst cabinet official in U.S. history, and very probably funneled Union arms to seceding states, and later became a Confederate general.  His Secretary of the Treasury left the cabinet to openly advocate for secession, and later joined the Confederate army as well.

This sort of nonsense was emblematic of larger problems throughout his presidency.  Even before he took office, he collaborated with the Taney court as it prepared to issue its decision on Dred Scott.  In essence, the decision recognized slave ownership as an inviolable form of property rights- a slave did not cease to become property on entering free territory.  Technically, this meant that there were no ‘free states’ any longer; slaves could be held as property anywhere.  For a North that increasingly found slavery un-Christian, and the expansion of slavery as both immoral and contrary to their economic interests, this decision could not be countenanced.  Buchanan was friendly with most of the judges (who were, at this point, largely Jackson, Van Buren, and Pierce nominees), and learned of their decision in advance.  Before the decision was handed down, Buchanan pledged in his Inaugural Address to carry the decision out fully, no matter what it was.  As a result of this, Buchanan knowlingly blessed and committed himself to a Supreme Court decision that is widely considered the worst in U.S. history.  This behind-the-scenes maneuvering, an affront to separation of powers, was an act of pre-presidential treason on par with Nixon sabotaging the Paris talks, or Reagan’s reported (and in my opinion, quite likely) intrigue to stave off the release of the hostages in Iran until after Carter had left office.

Consider as well his actions in admitting Kansas to the Union.  Kansas, as we learned in our study of Pierce, was an unholy mess.  Border ruffians regularly rode into slave-friendly Missouri, voted often, and beat up any free-soilers they happened to find.  And violence was often reciprocated.  As a result of all this, you had a pro-slavery Kansas territorial government recognized by the Pierce administration, but by few Kansans; this was called the Lecompton government.  And you had a free-state government that the lion’s share of Kansans saw as legitimate, but Washington did not recognize.  Buchanan’s blatant sympathies with the Lecompton faction hoped to cut off Republican and abolitionist strength in Kansas.  Quite the opposite happened; Buchanan’s repeated decisions to undercut and undermine popular will in Kansas lead to the state becoming both a Republican stronghold and a symbol of resistance to the expansion of slavery.

Perhaps Buchanan might have kept this increasingly precarious balance intact, but that was no longer possible with the election of Abraham Lincoln, whose party intended to contain slavery to where it already existed.  This triggered the departure of South Carolina, whose leaders would rather leave the Union that remain in it under a Lincoln administration.  Buchanan dithered as secessionists seized federal property and arms.  It wasn’t completely his fault, to be fair; Andrew Jackson threatened force to prevent South Carolina from seceding nearly thirty years earlier, but Congress did not give Buchanan the authority they once had given Jackson.  Between Southerners who supported South Carolina and Northerners who wanted to wait out the clock for Lincoln, Buchanan’s base of support had eroded and no “force bill” was going to pass.  The best he could do within his understanding of constitutional propriety was to order Fort Sumter, the lone outstanding federal property in South Carolina’s reach, to hold the line.   As presidential blogger Big Mo put it, “by handing him Fort Sumter still intact, he left Lincoln with a huge ace to play- and play it, he did.”

Let’s go back to the counterfactuals, then.  I wonder sometimes what would have happened if it had been Buchanan’s lot to face a foreign policy crisis, rather than a domestic crisis.  If Buchanan had to act in a situation where the constitutional boundaries were clear, his geopolitical knowledge and long working relationships with old Washington hands could have been invaluable assets.  He might have worked diligently, if uncreatively, in an emergency situation, in a manner more like George H. W. Bush than anyone.  I tend to think, though, we might have seen a much more James Polk-like presidency: unapologetic expansion, but with an eye toward the Caribbean and Latin America.  In fact, his cabinet bandied about the idea of making parts of Mexico into a protectorate during one especially unstable period, but domestic crises took their focus away from this intriguing (and probably wantonly illegal) possibility.  Unfortunately, Buchanan inherited a toxic state of affairs involving constitutionally inchoate questions: can a state secede, and can the federal government use force to stop it?  In the end, Buchanan was the luckless man in the hot seat as the entire unsustainable Jacksonian edifice of graft, compromise, and states’ rights came crashing down.  He served in terrible circumstances, but his partisanship and almost fanatical belief that compromise and concession could placate two sides who no longer viewed the country’s two competing economic systems as a political problem, but as a spiritual contest- for the sectional crisis was also fought on theological grounds- on which the soul of the nation was at stake.

It feels strange, given that James Buchanan is ranked #39 out of 41 presidents, that I have to justify ranking him so highly!  More often that not, Buchanan is placed as our very worst president.  As Christopher Buckley jokes, “perhaps historians, the next time they convene to decide who was the absolute worst president ever, will also factor in his good intentions and move him up two notches so that his ghost can experience the giddy feeling of looking down — if only temporarily — on Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce.”  I don’t think Buchanan’s intentions were particularly altruistic. His greatest debits are an inability or unwillingness to recognize the severity of Southern intransigence, and a lack of moral vision.  He could be very inconsistent about his use of power, bending constitutionality in his dealings with Kansas and the Supreme Court and a minor rebellion in what would become Utah, but was curiously scrupulous about not exceeding his boundaries during South Carolina’s departure from the Union, perhaps the biggest crisis in the nation’s history up to that point.  Incompetent and myopic, Old Buck still ranks third from the bottom.  Two presidents had such catastrophically bad human rights records that I had to place them behind Buchanan.

It was only at the very end of his administration that Buchanan realized the gravity of his errors.  In the final seconds of the fourth quarter, it dawned on him that he had been had, that the Southerners whose support he spent his career flattering and befriending cared more for extending slavery than for their country.  He left his office a broken, bitter man, and most histories since have cast Buchanan as the perfect foil for Lincoln’s vision, commitment to victory, and capacity to forgive.  Rutherford Hayes once declared, “he serves his party best, who serves his country best.”  Buchanan, in sharp contrast, devoted his presidency to keeping a fractious Democratic Party together in an age of rabid abolitionism and pro-slavery fetish.  In trying to keep his faction, and his party, in power, the nation itself was torn asunder.

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bigmonroCategory: Super-Competent Administrators

Term in Office: 5th president, 1817-1825

Political Party: Democratic-Republican

Home State: Virginia

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, meet James Monroe.  Perhaps Hegel’s most famous idea was that of a thesis and an antithesis merging together to form a new paradigm, a synthesis.  This dialectic nicely describes the significance of James Monroe’s presidency.  He was able to temper the pragmatism and majesty of the Federalists with the simplicity and republican flavor of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans.  The synthesis that emerged gave us, I am prepared to argue, the beginnings of an American national character.

This lofty placement- for Monroe usually hovers around #15 in most rankings- may be startling.  Designating James Monroe as our fourth greatest president probably raises eyebrows to the same levels as George H. W. Bush (#9 in my system), Grover Cleveland (#10), and John Tyler (#17).  Yet in my judgment, Monroe’s steady leadership, forward thinking, and ability to unify make him one of our ablest presidents, and certainly our ablest president to have not faced a major, Category-5 crisis in office.

James Monroe came from much the same cloth as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, the privileged world of Tidewater planters profiting from- with widely varying degrees of regret and reluctance- the institution of chattel slavery.  Originally, Monroe was a critic of the Constitution, believing it should allow for the direct election of U.S. senators and include a hefty bill of rights.  He mellowed over time, and became instead a committed Jefferson lieutenant, earning berths as a senator, and a Minister to France and to Great Britain.  To this day, he is the only president to have served in two separate cabinet offices, as Secretary of State for James Madison’s entire presidency, and briefly double-dipping as Secretary of War in a pinch.

Monroe benefitted from excellent timing.  When inaugurated as president in 1817, the fledging nation was engulfed in a spirit national pride after the successful conclusion of the War of 1812 (if your definition of successful is broad enough to mean ‘not disastrous’).  There was peace, a certain amount of prosperity (which would be compromised by the Panic of 1819), and only one functioning party left in the U.S.  The Federalists’ opposition to the war, their badly planned threat of secession at the Hartford Convention, and their perceived aristocratic pretensions made them dead men walking.  In 1816, Monroe faced only token opposition from an also-ran named Rufus King.  In 1820, in the midst of a financial panic mind you, he faced no opposition at all.  He would have been elected unanimously by the electoral college, except for one recalcitrant elector from New Hampshire who cast his vote for John Quincy Adams.

Speaking of the man, this would be a good time to discuss Monroe’s cabinet, which I believe to be the very best in United States history.  Monroe was confident enough in his own abilities, and cognizant enough of what he did not know, to incorporate men of the highest ability to run the nation’s sundry departments.  John Quincy Adams is often considered our most accomplished Secretary of State.  He appointed the talented but ambitious William Crawford to Treasury, where he could keep an eye on him. John Calhoun, counterintuitively a strong nationalist at this early stage of his carer, took the War Department, while lawyer extraordinaire and future Anti-Mason William Wirt took Attorney General duties.  Maybe you care less about the Early Republic than I do, but let me tell you, this is a sterling cabinet with top notch men in each group, expertly balanced by region, in an age where cabinet secretaries sometimes had more unwieldy portfolios than the president himself.  Although rarely seeking their advice outright, Monroe respected the authority he delegated to them, and sought public and private unanimity- a microcosm of his larger approach to governing the unwieldy nation in his charge.

The one thing that most people remember about Monroe’s presidency is his eponymous doctrine.    As a number of South American countries achieved independence, the question of just ~how~ independent they would be remained on the mind of every head of state.  An alliance of Russia, France, Prussia, and Austria devised a plan that would have put Bourbon princelings in charge of these newly independent states.  Great Britain objected, and the Monroe administration did as well.  The genius of the doctrine lay in avoiding a united front with Britain.  Instead, Monroe and Adams maintained that the era of European colonization in the western hemisphere had ended, and further attempts to colonize the Americas would be viewed as a hostile act.  It was bluster- directed as much to Britain as to the Bourbons- but it worked.  In the long run, the Monroe Doctrine allowed the United States to act more freely from European control, and it could even be viewed as a decision with salutary national security consequences.  Eventually, of course, the doctrine would be used to justify a number of imperialist policies, but those were decades away, and Monroe couldn’t have known it.

Monroe had plenty of other accomplishments, though.  In attempting to quell an insurrection, General Andrew Jackson exceeded his authority (nobody did this better than Jackson), and went on an incursion into Florida itself, even excuting a couple British subjects along the way.  Although mortified and angered by Jackson’s insubordination, Monroe turned lemons into lemonade at the advice of Calhoun.  The incident showed, the South Carolinian argued, that Spain was unable to protect Florida even from Jackson’s small band of frontier freebooters, and Spain sold East Florida to the U.S. for a song. In domestic affairs, Monroe’s even-handedness shined through.

Although much of the credit belongs to Clay, Monroe supported the Missouri Compromise which threatened to upset the delicate sectional balance.  As a result, as every schoolchild knows, slavery was banned north of the 33’30 line (and blessed south of it) within territories seeking to become states.  Unlike the more disastrous 1850 Compromise, this was a difficult agreement but ultimately achieved a certain measure of goodwill.  It didn’t expand slavery as such, but it did provide a workable arrangement by which slave states and free states could be kept in relative balance as the frontier moved westwards and states like Wisconsin or Alabama applied for statehood.

This is sometimes called the Era of Good Feelings, which is something of an exaggeration but isn’t untrue.  Monroe borrowed from the Federalists a desire to spur the United States’ economic development, and thus rejected more extreme Jeffersonian opposition to banks, internal improvements, and the like.  Yet he kept much of the Jeffersonian simplicity and economy of government as well.  Monroe brought back some Federalist institutions, such as the national tours that Washington and Adams embarked upon to allow Americans to see the president who might not otherwise.  But like Jefferson and Madison, he avoided some of the quasi-monarchial institutions of the 1790s like aristocratic levees and delivering State of the Union addresses to Congress personally.  (Every president from Jefferson on sent a clerk to read it until Woodrow Wilson.)   As a result of this middle way, Monroe had strikingly few enemies in an age of petty rivalries and code duello, allowing him to frame not a Federalist or Jeffersonian policy, and betray not a north or south, or coastal vs. frontier rivalry, but a common American identity at a time when it was most needed.  To be sure, this plan had its drawbacks as well.  While he didn’t have many opponents, neither did he have many ardent loyalists in Congress, and without party solidarity, internal divisions would soon rent the Democratic-Republicans.  In the 1824 election, four different Democratic-Republicans ran against one another- including two of Monroe’s own cabinet- and while John Quincy emerged bruised but victorious from the scuffle, the Era of Good Feelings didn’t outlast Monroe’s own presidency.

From all of this, we can take these individual policies and accomplishments and construct a larger picture.  Through the careful use of internal improvements, a foreign policy that allowed for greater American, and indeed, West-hemisphere independence, and by avoiding taking sides unnecessary, Monroe helped to foster a stronger national character.  We may take American nationhood for granted today, but keep in mind that in those days, few Americans traveled far beyond their homes, and provincialism reigned.  Many privileged their state identity over their national identity.  Monroe’s conspicuous public tours, his refusal to be a flunky for the South or any other region, and his aversion of partisan rancor all contributed to a stronger and more cohesive American self-understanding in the early stages of the age of nationalism, as the young nation was also developing its own literary, musical, and cultural milieus.  When we look at why the concept of union was so important fifty years after he took office, Monroe helped to foster that very sense of union- the idea of the United States as a cogent nation, and not the loose, scattershot confederation of states it had often been in the early republic.

Such a world could not last for long, however, and in more than one ways, Monroe was the end of a dying breed, or “The Last of the Cocked Hats” as one early biography put it.  He was the last true Founding Father to serve as president, as well as the last real veteran of the Revolutionary War.  (Yes, I know Jackson was involved too, but he was a mere stripling at the time, and did little more than sass British officers and get himself captured.)  He was the last plantation owner to be elected president without at least some pretense toward populism or Log Cabin-and-Hard-Cider imagery.  (John Tyler fit that genteel mold as well, but he was, if you will remember from my piece on him, both an accidental president and a walking anachronism even in the 1840s.)  And he was the last president who could credibly maintain the visage of non-partisanship.

Although James Monroe was probably the dimmest bulb of our first six presidents, perhaps he demonstrates that while genius is nice, it isn’t always a prerequisite for presidential greatness.  You may have figured out by now that Washington, Lincoln, and FDR are my top three presidents (although I won’t tell you what order yet.)  As much as I value intellect, it is worth noting that of my top five presidents, three never attended university for a single day, and the other two- FDR and Monroe- were cases of ‘second class intellect, first class temperament.’  In a way, his studied, unrelenting blandness and the lack of any good anecdotes about him ended up as crucial integrants to his success.  As a more or less unhate-able figure, he ushered many Americans out of regionalism and into a greater national consciousness.  So many of our greatest presidents are considered great by how they handled crises- sometimes avoidable crises that were partly of their own making.  Monroe looked ahead, and especially through the Doctrine that bears his name and the Compromise of 1820, tried to prevent potential disasters before they happened.  That is pretty rare- both then and now.  While many great presidents had great crisis management skills, perhaps we should elevate Monroe to the higher echelons for singular crisis aversion.

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