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.