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Archive for March, 2009

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.

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In tackling the question of presidential rankings for just the Founding presidents I came to realize what an incredibly difficult thing it is to sort out even this small group, let alone all forty-three presidents so far.  With this group, the act of putting one person above another feels like an injustice to the one who is relegated to the next rank.  It’s such an amazing set of men that I almost feel like throwing my hands in the air and announcing a five-way tie!  But where would be the fun in that?!  I guess, no matter which way I rank ‘em, someone’s going to disagree, and that’ll be half the fun, so here goes…

1. George Washington (two terms: 1789-1797)

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” — Henry Lee

Was there really any doubt?

Perhaps. If the question was: who is the greatest “Founding Father” then the issue would actually be more difficult, because that historical concept involves measuring a broader range of contributions to the founding of the United States. Given the importance of founding principles to a new nation, it would be hard to dispute placing Thomas Jefferson at the top of such a list, with John Adams and James Madison as close runners-up, but when it comes to a presidential ranking, then the honor of the highest rank must go to Washington.

To understand what Washington means to the United States as its first president, one must measure his accomplishment as the unifying figure of the Founding Era against the backdrop of The Critical Period that preceded it. I don’t think it can be overstated that there was no United States before Washington, and likely never would have been one without him. Historically-minded intellectuals like Jefferson and Adams might have understood the perils of disunity, as so tragically exemplified by the fate of the city-states of Ancient Greece, but no individual other than Washington had earned the kind of honor among men that overawes all factionalism and inspires them to embrace a  new national hope.

Concerning the policies he adopted as president, I think a couple deserve special mention for their salutary character.  Those are the Proclamation of Neutrality of 1793 and the Jay Treaty of 1795.   The former has generally been viewed positively, but the latter was not well-received.  Nonetheless, it also helped prevent the newly born United States from getting engulfed in wars that were of no essential connection to its national interest.  It was one thing for Americans to repel a poorly-executed attempt to stifle a Revolution, it was another altogether for a young nation to withstand an onslaught from the world’s most powerful empire while its national institutions were still in an embryonic state.  In principle, Washington advised in his Farewell Address that “the great rule of conduct for…” the United States “…in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible.”  This crucial idea made its way into the Monroe Doctrine, which became the statement of American foreign policy of the Nineteenth century.

2. Thomas Jefferson (two terms: 1801-1809)

Jefferson’s epipath, written by him, reads “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” Not a word more, as he would have it.  Thus, evidently, no mention of his two-term presidency from 1801-09. So how could I possibly rank him 2nd in the Powell History list?  In this case, I think it should be evident that it’s because Jefferson’s presidency is a chapter–and a basically positive one–in a career as the greatest Founding Father of the United States.

Jefferson continued to steer the new nation with its self-interest as his guiding star as its third president.  His most notable accomplishment in that area was his leadership in the war against the Barbary Pirates.  Another key action, motivated by American self-interest was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which may have been difficult to justify as a government property purchase, but which Jefferson recognized as a necessary action to keep Europe’s powers out of North America. Usually the Embargo Act of 1807 is held as a strike against Jefferson because of its economic costs to Americans, but this is also a difficult measure to judge, and one that had national security implications.  Jefferson, like all the Founding Presidents had extremely limited resources and was concerned above all with the successful creation of a new nation.  In that context, the government had to do something to stand up for Americans’ rights (re: the impressment of Americans by the British navy), but war with Europe’s great powers was to be avoid at nearly all costs.

The incomparably positive value that Jefferson transmitted to American culture was secularism in government.  As Jefferson one wrote, “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”  He and Madison helped instill these premises in the national government, and that they have endured to this day is a legacy to them.

3. James Madison (two terms: 1809-1817)

The father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, architect of the brilliant system of “checks and balances” that is the American government, and contributing author of the Federalist Papers, Madison is obviously a key Founding Father.

His place among the greatest American presidents is secured largely by his willingness to go to war against Great Britain, the superpower of the Nineteenth century, while America was still barely on its feet.  Up to 1812, Madison had preferred to avoid war, and he had supported the Embargo Act as Jefferson’s Secretary of State. Trying to stay neutral while France and Britain–nations that Jefferson said “feel power and forget right”–ran a muck, was a torturous task.  Historians have tended to view Madison’s decision to go to war with Britain over impressments as a terrible mistake, because of the immediate costs.   I think that it can only be properly evaluated in the light of the long term consequences of the decision, which were that America earned the grudging respect of Britain and Europe’s powers by standing up for itself.  The idea that America would defend its citizens’ rights was put to the test, and its President showed that the young nation would defy anyone.

4. James Monroe (two terms: 1817-1825)

After America proved capable of weathering the War of 1812, the “Era of Good Feelings” set in.  The Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson and Madison continued to dominate the federal scene with James Monroe as its new leader.

Monroe was the last president who had a direct connection to the American Revolution.  He had served in Washington’s army, and received a special commendation for his role in the Battle of Trenton after the famous crossing of the Delaware.

Two issues dominate the consideration of Monroe’s presidency.  First, the domestic question of slavery, and temporary avoidance of a crisis relating to that issue through the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  Second, the ongoing foreign policy problem of dealing with Europe’s imperial powers, which was resolved by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. If it were not for the former, I might be tempted to have Monroe even higher in the rankings, and it is because of the latter that I cannot put him any lower.

The Missouri Compromise, which perpetuated slavery by allowing it to expand westward, was not initiated by Monroe and can’t be characterized as a presidential policy. Nonetheless Monroe did not have any better idea, and he didn’t use his presidential powers to veto it.  The Compromise is a measure of the culture of the time.  It reflects the continuing obsession with national unity–which was entirely justified up to that point–but also the failure to jettison slavery as a European inheritance.  There is no question that it’s a black mark on Monroe’s presidency, but I challenge anyone to come up with a viable solution to the problem that isn’t premised on an anachronistic application of modern philosophical principles to the context of the times.

What I do know about Monroe is that he understood that America must pursue its own self-interest in its foreign relations, and he did bequeath to the country an inestimable value in the Monroe Doctrine.  This enunciation of the president’s views defied Europe to expand its colonial presence in the Americas, and asserted that America would stand up for itself if threatened.  It identified that the American government and its founding premises were unique and antithetical to those of Europe’s and thus that the United States must view European expansion in the Americas as a threat to its national security.  The Monroe Doctrine was a proud and principled assertion of rational self-interest which set the tone for America’s foreign policy for the rest of the Nineteenth century.

5. John Adams (one term: 1797-1801)

Again, if I were to rank “Founding Fathers” I would have John Adams 3rd or 4th, because of his intellectual contribution to the Founding, but of all the Founders, I think he was least temperamentally suited to be president. His obsession with getting the respect he deserved drove him to problematic policies.

I do, however, fundamentally agree with John Adams own estimate of his presidency.  “When I am dead,” he said, “write on my tomb, ‘Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace with France.'” He felt that he could have no better epitaph.  This reflects a fundamental truth about the Founding Era, which is that the essential problem facing the Founders was how to secure independence. It was one thing to declare it.  It was another to win it.  It was altogether a different–and indeed, greater–challenge to keep it.   For Adams, the harsh reality was that the United States could not afford a war with France, and thus he had to find ways to stand up for Americans’ rights while avoiding this outcome.  The “Quasi-War” was the temporary expediency he adopted. In the long run, Adams understood that America would have to be able to defend itself, and he pushed for the creation of a navy to make that possible.

The black mark on Adams’s record are the “Alien and Sedition Acts,” of which the Sedition Act was the most pernicious.  It made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government.  In the context of the threat of war with France and the invectives being leveled against him for his foreign policies, Adams believed he has sufficient cause to place restrictions on free speech.  Jefferson didn’t agree, and I can’t see it either, but I still rate Adams highly as an intellectual defender of rights, and he deserves special mention as a Founding Father who never owned a slave, so he definitely stays in the top five.

So this is how I rank the Founding presidents against each other.  This is also where I rank them overall.   Their work, measured against the standard of individual rights, is the most heroic labor of any generation of politicians in world history.  Although it must be admitted that they were unable to jettison the legacy of slavery which America inherited from the Old World, they created the intellectual foundations for a society of individual rights in which, ultimately, slavery could not be sustained.  Thus, although they belonged to an era marked by a terrible flaw, they were distinguished as unparalleled promoters of rights within that era.

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