Monday, April 5, 2021

US Presidents Ranked

by Tom Kando

So we have a new president (thank God!). 

As an inveterate list addict, one of the numerous lists with which I have often played is that of US presidents. I look up rankings done by experts such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and I also try my own rankings based on a bit of knowledge, some research and a lot of ignorance. 

Joe Biden is our 46th president. His predecessor, Donald Trump, can unequivocally be ranked as the worst president we have ever had. 

Beyond that, I divided our forty-five past presidents into four groups: 1) The twelve best presidents. 2) A group of eleven “pretty good” presidents. 3) A group of eleven not very good presidents. 4) The eleven worst presidents. I then ranked all forty-five men: 

Group 1: The Twelve Best Presidents: 
Tied for 1st place: Lincoln (1861-65) and FDR (1933-45) 
3rd place: Washington (1789-97) 
4th Jefferson (1801-09) 
5th Madison (1809-17) 
6th Eisenhower (1953-61) 
7th Clinton (1993-2001) 
8th Obama ` (2009-17) 9th Kennedy (1961-63) 10th Truman (1945-53) 
11th John Adams (1797-1801) 
12th Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) 

You may ask: What are my criteria? It is impossible to get into that, of writing a twelve-volume encyclopedia. 
Just a few comments: Note the large presence of the Founding Fathers in this first and most excellent group. (Washington, Jefferson, Madison and John Adams). Lincoln’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s prominent positions go without saying. Theodore Roosevelt does not rank as highly as his distant cousin Franklin. However, his legacy, as the leader of the progressive movement, is respectable. Eisenhower and Clinton benefitted from presiding over the country during prosperous times, to which they themselves contributed. Obama and Truman inherited problems which they handled extremely deftly. Kennedy’s role is largely inspirational, as his promise was tragically cut short. 

Group 2: Eleven Pretty Good Presidents:
13. Wilson (1913-21) 
14. Polk (1845-49) 
15. Lyndon Johnson (1963-69) 
16. Carter (1977-81) 
17. Monroe (1817-25) 
18. Ford (1974-77) 
19. Cleveland (1885-89) 
19. Cleveland (1893-97) 
21. John Quincy Adams (1825-29) 
22. George H. W. Bush (1989-93)
 23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) 

Wilson played a major role in world history. Lyndon Johnson, Carter, Ford and Bush Senior all served during our lives. LBJ made major contributions to civil rights. Despite flaws and set-backs, Ford, Carter, and the elder Bush were decent and honest men who did their best. Historians have ranked Polk, Monroe, Cleveland and John Quincy Adams as above average and Benjamin Harrison as average. Polk has been praised for the way he handled the nation’s westward expansion and the Mexican-American war. Monroe is known for the “Monroe Doctrine” (Europeans must butt out of the Western Hemisphere). Cleveland was a strong and capable leader who faced some daunting economic problems. He is the only president to be elected on two separate occasions. John Quincy Adams is not rated as highly as his father John Adams, yet he is recognized for his intellect. Harrison was committed to black voting rights, but his administration was somewhat corrupt. 

Group 3: Eleven “Not So Good” Presidents:
24. Arthur (18181-85) 
25. Garfield (1881)
26. McKinley (1897-1901) 
27. Taft (1909-13) 
28. Grant (1869-77) 
29. Van Buren (1837-41) 
30. Fillmore (1850-53) 
31. Coolidge (1923-29) 
32. Nixon (1969-74) 
33. Tyler (1841-45) 
33. Pierce (1853-57) 

Arthur, Garfield, Van Buren and Fillmore were all very mediocre and forgettable, Arthur and Van Buren were stymied by corruption and economic problems, Garfield only served for six months, Fillmore sided with pro-slavery elements. McKinley and Taft provided some degree of leadership, the latter however chafing under the shadow of Theodore Roosevelt. Grant won the Civil War, but subsequently failed as president. Coolidge, while not as corrupt as his predecessor Harding, was a plutocrat whose presidency led to the Great Depression. As to Tyler and Pierce, they are a toss-up for most disastrous pre-Civil War presidencies, Tyler a strong proponent of “Manifest Destiny” (it is America’s destiny to rule over North America) and both presidents committing blunders which made the Civil War increasingly inevitable. Nixon’s low rank, finally, requires no explanation. 

Group 4: The Eleven Worst Presidents: 
35. Harding (1921-23) 
36. Hoover (1929-33) 
37. Taylor (1849-50)
 38. Jackson (1829-37) 
39. Reagan (1981-89) 
40. William Harrison (1841) 
41. Hayes (1877-81) 
41. George W. Bush (2001-09) 
43. Buchanan (1857-61) 
43. Andrew Johnson (1861-65) 
45. Trump (2017-21) 

Harding and Hoover were Golden Twenties plutocrats, Harding corrupt (Teapot Dome scandal), Hoover impotent in dealing with the Great Depression. Taylor and William Harrison held office too briefly to have an impact (the former one year, the latter one month!). Jackson’s Indian policies were genocidal. Hayes, Buchanan and Andrew Johnson each exacerbated, one way or another, what Gunnar Myrdal famously coined “An American Dilemma” (i.e. our racial caste system). Hayes undermined and put an end to reconstruction, Buchanan bears much responsibility for Southern secession and the Civil War, and Andrew Johnson grossly mishandled reconstruction, ending up impeached. Until Trump, the latter two presidents were vying for all-time worst. As to the three presidents in our lifetime, Reagan bears much responsibility for the country’s atrocious and ever worsening inequalities, Bush junior was utterly incompetent and often wrong-headed, and Trump’s dead last position requires no clarification. 

Two hundred and thirty-two years have lapsed since the election of Washington, our first president. I divided this entire period into four consecutive eras, each with roughly one fourth of the 45 presidents, as follows: 

#2: The 1st 12 Presidents: 1789 - 1850: 61 years 
#4: The 2nd 11 Presidents: 1850 - 1897: 47 years 
#1: The 3rd 11 Presidents: 1897 - 1963: 66 years 
#3: The 4th 11 Presidents: 1963 - 2021: 58 years

The ranking is based, of course, on the average score for each of the four groups. Here is how these four periods’ averages rank: 

1. 1897 - 1963: This era enjoyed, on average, the highest quality presidents. It included the progressive era, FDR, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, the two World Wars, Truman, Eisenhower and , Kennedy. 

2. 1789 - 1850: This period ranks, on average, second best. It includes many of the founding fathers. 

3. 1963 - 2021: The contemporary era, beginning with Kennedy’s assassination, ranks third, in terms of the average quality of its presidents. These include Clinton, Obama, and LBJ, but also Nixon, Reagan, the two Bushes and Trump. 

4. Finally, 1850-1897: This was the era which built up to and included the Civil War, then followed by Jim Crow. It includes many of the worst presidents we ever had, for example Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson and Hayes. 

The long-term history of the US has been the conflict between progressive and retrograde regimes, both before and after the Civil War. 

In her recent book How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, Heather Cox Richardson argues that the system of oligarchy and racial hierarchy which dominated the South has remained vibrant in this country thanks to a coalition between the South and the West. After the Civil War, the Southern ethnic caste system was exported to “Cowboy Country,” adding or substituting new ethnic castes such as American Indians and Asian immigrants. 

I therefore examined the geographical distribution of our forty-five presidents, to see whether this might reflect Richardson’s thesis. The list below indicates how many presidents hail from each of the country’s major regions, and whether they served before or after the Civil War, (List of Presidents of the United States): 

Region      Pre-Civil War      Post-Civil War     Total 
South            9                              8                      17 
(North)East  6                               9                      15 
(Mid)west    0                              11                     11 
California    0                                2                      
Total          15                              30                     45 

It appears that at least up to the Civil War, the South dominated the executive branch: Nine of the fifteen presidents up to that time were from the South, and every single one of them was a slave owner (eight from Virginia). 

As to Richardson’s thesis, namely a post-Civil War coalition between the South and the West: The states considered to constitute the “West” today (“cowboy” states) have not produced any presidents. However, if we include the Midwest as part of the “West” (as it was, earlier in our history), then, yes, after the Civil War, Southern and (Mid)western presidents greatly outnumber those from the (North)East: 19 to 9. And for the entire history of the country, the South/(Mid)West coalition together outnumbers the (North)East 28 to 15. The (North)East, the most progressive region of the country, has only produced fifteen chief executives (four from Massachusetts and five from New York). 

To be sure, the regions from which the various presidents originate do not necessarily predict whether they are progressive or conservative. For example, both presidents from California, one of the most liberal states, were conservative republicans (Nixon and Reagan). 

All in all, these data do support the Richardson’s thesis to some extent - if one includes the Midwest among the conservative “West.” 

One more thing: 

Since the advent of our current two-party system - the GOP vs. the Democrats - i.e. since Lincoln’s election (1860) 161 years ago, we have had nineteen Republican and eleven Democratic presidents. 

Historically however, it is difficult to use party affiliation to predict whether a president was good (progressive) or bad (a racist retrograde). We have had some good Republican presidents (Eisenhower, Teddy Roosevelt, Lincoln), some bad Republican presidents (Trump, Bush Junior, Nixon, Harding and others), some good Democratic presidents (Obama, Kennedy, FDR and others), and some bad democratic presidents (Andrew Johnson). 

Here is why: In the past, the GOP was, while representing “capitalist interests,” by and large the progressive, non-racist party, while the Democratic Party was the Jim Crow party. However, starting with Nixon’s “southern strategy,” this was turned upside down, as the South became solidly Republican while the North (and California) became the Democratic Party’s epicenter, i.o.w. the only party that might move this country towards greater justice and sanity. leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2021;All Rights Reserved