In opening post for this series I indicated what I would use as the two fundamental yardsticks for the ranking of presidents. The first was foreign policy, with principled national self-interest as the ideal and standard of measurement. The second was domestic policy, with respect for the individual’s rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness serving as the standard of judgment.
The challenge in asserting and using such a standard is that it embodies truths only ever clearly enunciated by philosopher Ayn Rand in the twentieth century. It is thus all too easy to take such a standard and apply it anachronistically.
In particular, when judging American presidents, one must respect the fact that a president is not a philosopher. It is not a president’s job to discover and validate fundamental truths about the “human condition.” I would characterize a president’s job as that of an intellectual technologist, whose responsibility it is to apply the best political principles available to him in the cultural context of his era in the act of governance. To be qualified for such a position, a president should be appraised of fundamental philosophy as well as its cognate fields in the humanities, especially history, law, political science and economics. In particular, he must be fluent in the particular application of the principles derived from these disciplines in the constitutional apparatus that defines his purpose and legitimate activities.
For an American president, this consists in the very least of a strong grasp of the political philosophy of John Locke and the Founding Fathers, but should also include an awareness of the works of other thinkers of note, such as Montesquieu and William Blackstone, ultimately going back to Plato & Aristotle. In terms of historical knowledge, I would also say that no president would be qualified for the post without a working knowledge of the history of the Ancient Greek city-states, the Roman republic, and the British constitutional monarchy.
Of course, as an intellectual, a president would also have the responsibility of monitoring the “state of the art” in each of these major fields and working with other intellectuals to determine if and how new developments should be integrated with previously accepted principles, and–where applicable–they might contradict and supercede already accepted views.
It is with considerations such as these in mind that I generally rate the presidents after Monroe less and less highly. As national leaders they by and large defaulted on their responsibility as intellectuals, resulting in an almost continual decline in the American republic.
As for the group I call the “punters”, the intellectual challenge they faced, in a word, was slavery. Once the threat of expanding European colonization in the Americas had dissipated–on a practical level, it was settled by British acquiescence to the Monroe Doctrine–every passing decade, every 100,000 square mile expansion of territory, and every million increase in the population shifted the political landscape away from the question of independence. By the mid nineteenth century, there can be no arguing that America had become a viable independent state. At the same time, the intellectual landscape of Western civilization was shifting. The evil of slavery was finally being recognized. Britain had adapted to this change, and was leading the charge to abolish slavery worldwide. In America the abolitionist movement grew stronger with every passing year. In light of these developments, it became the fundamental obligation of every president to address the incompatibility of slavery with the principles of individual rights and to establish a program for eradicating the former in order to fully embrace the latter.
Which is not to say it would have been easy, but as the expression goes, “If you can’t stand the heat…” A proper president would have had to find a way to be a conciliatory moral leader–like Lincoln managed to be during the Civil War. That was the job, and the “punters” basically failed at it.
On the other hand, it was not the responsibility of the presidents of this era to ferret out all the problematic premises that permeated the evolving political-economic framework known as mercantilism. This was the responsibility of professional philosophers, historians, political scientists and economists, who should have passed on their insights to the politicians. Without strong moral and economic alternatives to contradict the nationalist/protectionist concepts in mercantilism, its continuation and even its metastasis was inevitable. It took the intellect of Adam Smith to begin to break down this perspective, with the later contributions of the Austrian school of economics helping to create a complete scientific alternative, and it took until the twentieth century for philosopher Ayn Rand to identity the moral truths embodied in free trade.
For this reason I do not judge presidents of the nineteenth century primarily for their views on such issues as central banking, tariffs, or “internal improvements.” To the extent, for instance, that presidents promoted the establishment or expansion of a national bank or of other rights-violating instruments of the department of the treasury, they were wrong. But what were their options? The Agrarians of the Jeffersonian era and the so-called “states-rights” advocates who pragmatically supported “free trade” offered no real alternatives. The so-called supporters of “states rights” were all defenders of slavery, which makes the use of the term “free trade” a terrible perversion. They only wanted open trade with Britain in order to perpetuate an unjust social system. There was no virtue in it.
The pressing problem of the Era of the Growth and Decline of the Union that required presidential leadership, but instead met with default and evasion, was slavery. Every year that passed made this point clearer, and every time that presidents “punted” on this issue only made the situation worse. Consequently, one might be inclined to say that the difficulty level of each successive presidency got higher as the nineteenth century unfolded, and that this should be taken into account when judging the presidents in question. However, the issue is moot, because not one of the presidents in question ever did anything particularly impressive that would allow someone who is ranking them to even consider how hard it was for them to do the right thing.
So here’s my quick run down of what the “punters” did, and how I rank them:
John Quincy Adams (one term: 1825-29)
Rank Among Punters: 1st (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
Adams was the only president of this era who was unequivocally opposed to slavery. For this reason he automatically gets the first rank. He also gets the first rank for his non-presidental activity, re: his key role in the formulation of the Monroe Doctrine. Unfortunately, his presidency was dominated by factional strife over the the 1824, which he won despite not winning the popular vote.
Andrew Jackson (two terms: 1829-1837)
Rank Among Punters: 2nd (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
I don’t want to like Jackson, because of his attacks on John Quincy Adams over the 1824 election, but I can’t help myself because he stood up to John C. Calhoun in the nullification crisis. Jackson’s willingness to send troops into South Carolina forced it to back down over the tariff (i.e. its slavery-related trade complaints) for a brief time. Sadly, Jackson was not the kind of president who could follow through and begin work to dismantle slavery. Indeed, he even attempted to stifle the growing tide of anti-slavery publications, including by allowing his postmaster general to prevent anti-slavery publications from being distributed via the mail in the South.
Martin Van Buren (one term: 1837-41)
Rank Among Punters: 3rd (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
The overriding crisis that dominated the president of Martin Van Buren, and which arguably excuses him from having taken a more active role to begin dismantling slavery was the Panic of 1837 and the economic depression that followed. In this difficult context, Van Buren refused to great deal of pressure to alter the economic course of the country by government power by some kind of “stimulus plan.” Van Buren had previously voted against the admission of Missouri into the Union as a slave state. Had he served under different circumstances, he might have done more, but because he stood on principle, he (like John Quincy Adams) was willing to be unpopular, he was not re-elected.
William Henry Harrison (one month, 1841)
Rank Among Punters: 4th (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
There is no way to rank Harrison. He was president for a month. Giving him the benefit of the doubt means putting him in the middle between the better presidents of this era–Adams, Jackson, and Van Buren–and the bad ones. Speaking of which…
John Tyler (one term: 1841-45)
Rank Among Punters: 5th (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
John Tyler was a follower of slavery and states rights advocate John C. Calhoun, which is enough to condemn him in my book. He favored the annexation of Texas, which according to Calhoun would “uphold the interests of slavery, extend its influence, and secure its permanent duration.” Thankfully Calhoun was wrong, but it’s the thought that counts. When the Senate refused to annex Texas, Tyler lobbied for a joint resolution to incorporate the new state into the nation without a formal treaty.
James Polk (one term: 1845-49)
Rank Among Punters: 6th (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
When Polk entered office, the annexation of Texas was a “fait accompli.” His job was to try to settle the boundary disputes with Mexico in a civilized way and find ways to carve up Texas to limit the growth of slavery–that is, if he intended to be a leader among men. Whether diplomacy could have worked with Mexico in this context is arguable. Eventually it became clear that Mexico’s intransigence would have to be met by force, and Polk’s presence in the White House at a time when America’s soldiers performed so admirably seems to rub off on his reputation, though probably undeservedly. Obviously, he deserves no credit for the entry of California into the Union as a free state.
Zachary Taylor (partial term: 1849-50)
Rank Among Punters: 7th (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
A soldier, with no particular intellectual qualifications, Taylor opposed the expansion of slavery and the idea of states rights on non-essential grounds. I rate Taylor, and all presidents of this time forward even lower than Tyler and Polk because of what was possible, as evidenced by the standard set by statesman William Seward. For my money, Seward was the best man in America (including Lincoln) up to and after the Civil War. He was against the expansion of slavery at every turn, explaining, “All measures which fortify slavery or extend it, tend to the consummation of violence; all that check its extension and abate its strength, tend to its peaceful extirpation.” Taylor on the other hand coasted along as a slave holder until he died, showing no evidence of moral leadership when others, like Seward, certainly did.
Millard Fillmore (partial term: 1850-53)
Rank Among Punters: 8th (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
The antislavery question was now undeniably the driving question of American politics. With California’s entry into the nation cutting off the possibility of a continued western expansion of slavery, the battleground over this institution shifted. Since it couldn’t go west, the South now pressed for the expansion of slavery northward. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 showed that the Constitution, as it stood, would make the North directly complicit in slavery, no matter what moral objections were voiced by its people. Fillmore, for his part, was an appeaser. He is quoted as saying “God knows that I detest slavery, but it is an existing evil… and we must endure it and give it such protection as is guaranteed by the Constitution.”
Franklin Pierce (one term: 1853-57)
Rank Among Punters: 9th (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
One of two “doughface” presidents (active Northern appeasers of Southern slavery). Pierce favored the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which overturned the Missouri Compromise, and thus would make possible the further expansion of slavery northward. Pierce also voiced his support for the Confederacy during the Civil War. I can’t think of anything good to say about him.
James Buchanan (one term: 1857-61)
Rank Among Punters: 10th (out of 10) — overall rank: pending
The worst “doughface” in American history. Buchanan advised admitting Kansas as a slave state, even against the principle of “popular sovereignty” upon which the Kansas-Nebraska Act was based. In other words, he was one worse than Pierce. He was also zealous in trying to obtain more slave territory from Mexico, and to obtain Cuba for slavery as well. Easily the worst president before the twentieth century.