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The Presidents of the United States of America

Original authored by Reddit user /u/BlindWillieJohnson

Founding Fathers 3
1. George Washington (April 1789-1797) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
2. John Adams (1797-1801) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
4. James madison (1809-1817) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
5. James Monroe (1817-1825) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13

Jacksonian Era 16
6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
9. William Henry Harrison (1841) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
10. John Tyler (1841-1845) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
11. James K Polk (1845-1849) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29

Antebellum 32
12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
14. Franklin Pierce (1852-1846) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
15. James Buchanan (1857-1861) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38

Civil War and Reconstruction 43

16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
18. Ulysses S Grant (1869-1877) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51
19. Rutherford B Hayes (1877-1881) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54

The Gilded Age 58

20. James Garfield (1881) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
21. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 60
22. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62
23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65
24. Grover Cleveland . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68
25. William McKinley (1897-1901) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69

20th Century 73
26. Theodore Roosevelt . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73
27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77
28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

Republican Era 88
29. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88
30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91
31. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 94

WWII and The Cold War 98

32. Franklin Deleno Roosevelt (1933-1945) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98
33. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106
35. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961-1963) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
36. Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113
37. Richard Milhouse Nixon (1969-1974) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 120
38. Gerald Ford (1974-1977) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
39. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 126

Modern Era 130

40. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 130
41. George HW Bush (1989-1993) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134
42. Bill Clinton (1993-2001) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
43. George W. Bush (2001-2009) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140
44. No. 44 Barrack Obama (2009-2017) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 145

Founding Fathers

1. George Washington (April 1789-1797)

By 1789, the United States had been running its grand experiment in democratic
government, the first of its kind in a large state since the days of the Roman
Republic, for over 12 years. And it had not been going well. The Articles of Con-
federation had proven too weak to govern the burgeoning republic, prompting the
US to return to the drawing board to draft its Constitution. The Constitution,
among other things, established an executive head of government that the Con-
federacy had largely lacked. And in the 1788 election, almost unanimously, the
man chosen to be America’s first President was George Washington (I say almost
unanimously because he was challenged by Governor George “Dr. Funkenstein”
Clinton of New York).
The choice was both obvious and unintuitive. On one hand, he was not the
smartest or most educated of the founding fathers. He did not have the clearest
ideological vision. He was reluctant to even return to public life, and had be
coaxed into it. His great expertise was not administrative or legal, but rather
military. And while Washington had presided over the Constitutional Convention
of 1787, he gave few recommendations towards its finished product.
Yet in spite of all that, he was the greatest hero that the young United States
had; a unanimously respected figure to whom the very existence of the Republic
was owed. He was quite literally the face of the United States, and a man who
could rally support behind the crucial and difficult decisions that lay ahead. He
was ideologically flexible, and he had a firm grasp of what he did and didn’t know.
He appointed a crack cabinet, filled with a veritable who’s who of the Founding
Fathers (Hamilton as the Secretary of Treasury, Adams as VP, Jefferson as
Secretary of State). And he largely delegated to those men, who were more
politically skilled and knowledgeable, to oversee his Administration’s negotiations
with congress.
He would need that talent, as the challenges were daunting, and the first and
foremost was how to fund the new government in a nation where opposition to
direct taxation was almost ubiquitous. The means decided upon were tariffs,
and while Washington endorsed the approach, he largely let Congress dictate
the terms of the Tariffs of 1789 and the Collections Act to collect them. With
an operating income in hand, Washington set Alexander Hamilton to work
on a new economic plan. Hamilton oversaw the passage of bills that would
grant the Federal government a centralized currency and the ability to control
that currency, something the Articles of Confederacy functionally lacked. He
devised that the debts of the United States be collective shared between the
states, which was a controversial proposal, but one that he nonetheless talked
Congress into. And he oversaw the establishment of a National Bank. The
Hamiltonian centralized the US economy enough to keep it functional, which

gave the US government a leg to stand on. Order, that order so badly needed in
the Confederacy, ruled the Republic.
Well, mostly. The one direct tax that was levied directly on the American people
was a tax on all distilled spirits, at the time considered a luxury good. Without
getting too deep in the weeds on what would eventually be known as the Whiskey
Rebellion, a group of frontiersmen rose up in armed opposition, threatening to
tear down the government. Washington, leading the Army himself, rode out to
confront them and suppressed it quickly. The organizers were jailed, and several
sentenced to death, but Washington would pardon all of them in time. It was
America’s first existential crisis, and Washington handled it with a strength and
prudence that would ensure it would be the last for some time. But more than
that, it established that authority would supercede federal authority and that
the federal rule of law could be enforced.
By virtue of being the first President, Washington would preside over a lot of
firsts for the young nation and as a result, set many of its precedents. The
first war as we fought a confederation of indian tribes in the Northwest Indian
War. He established the nation’s capital in Washington DC and oversaw the
first 10 amendments to the Constitution. He appointed not only the entirety
of the United States Supreme Court, but every single federal judge as well.
When the international crisis that was the French Revolutionary Wars broke
out, Washington kept America neutral in it.
And, after two terms in office, he walked away. The US Constitution, as it was
originally written, allowed a President to serve as many terms as he wished and
Washington likely could have served in perpetuity. By stepping down, he created
the precedent of a two term Presidency. It wasn’t his only reason for doing it.
He was fed up with the growth of political parties and the effect it was having
on political discourse, and frankly just ready to retire. But it was a precedent
that wouldn’t be broken for 170 years and would eventually become the basis of
the 22nd Amendment.
No President’s job is easy. Presidents often face wars, economic catastrophes
beyond their control and domestic strife. Even the ones who serve during quiet
times have to govern a country that is vast and manage the needs of millions of
people of every stripe imaginable. But I don’t think anyone had a harder go of it
than George Washington. Presidents that followed would inherit a nation whose
legal and economic frameworks were firmly in place. They would inherit sources
of revenue, an established federal government and books worth of precedent
about how things needed to be done. Washington not only had none of that, but
had to build it from the ground up. He represented calm, deliberate leadership
with a keen eye on the fact that his every action would establish a new status
quo that would affect his successors for generations. He allowed Congress and
the Judiciary to work out their own kinks, stepping in when a broader There
were a million ways it all could have gone wrong, and that young America could
have died in the cradle. But it didn’t, and that’s a legacy we owe to Washington.


“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican
model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked,
on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

Grade: A+

For guiding the US through its infancy, establishing a government, a shared

economy and the rule of law, George Washington earns a resounding A+.

2. John Adams (1797-1801)

In 1796, when George Washington announced that his Presidency would end
after two terms, it was immediately obvious that there were two main figures who
would vie for the job; Vice President John Adams and Secretary of State Thomas
Jefferson. While Washington left office without a partisan political affiliation,
parties had nonetheless begun to form, with the Federalists (advocates of a strong,
centralized federal authority) on one end, and the Democratic-Republicans (Who
saw the centralization of federal authority as dangerous). For all practical
purposes, Washington was more of a Federalist, so it was only natural that
Adams would run under that ticket, but Jefferson defected to the Democratic-
Republicans. Elections were not direct in those days, so the Electoral College
ultimately went with Adams by a mere three votes; a win, but by no means a
ringing endorsement. Amusingly, the rules in that system made Jefferson Adams’
Vice President, and I’m mighty glad we moved away from that system because I
can’t even imagine Trump and Hillary trying to run a country together.
Not that it went much better for Adams. The contentious election, in which
Adams received not the majority of support but a plurality (splitting votes with
Jefferson, Secretary of State Thomas Pinckney and Governor George “Starchild”
Clinton of New York). meant that he was starting with an inherently weak hand;
a fact in no small way exacerbated by Jefferson forming ranks with the D-Rs to
organize an opposition to him from the start. Adams was a man whose flanks
were harrassed from the minute he stepped into office and constantly undermined
by an opposition that was operating the Vice Presidency within his midst.
And if that all wasn’t enough, a war broke out under him. While Revolutionary
America was slowly and carefully navigated its way through the perils of its
democratic experiment, the Republic of Revolutionary France was cutting a
bloody and turbulent path through its. The US had the benefit of being peacefully
left alone while it established itself, France was being attacked by virtually every
nation in Europe. Washington declared neutrality through this episode of
European chaos, but the crisis came to the Americans by way of trans-Atlantic
trade. Both sides, the French and the British (The British being the dominant

naval power for the 2nd Alliance), seized neutral vessels to commandeer supplies
for their nations. Britain was able to sit down with the US and negotiate an
end to the practice. And while French Foreign Minister Talleyrand wanted to
do the same, he first demanded bribes and customs before negotiations could
begin. This was common practice at the time, but it deeply offended the United
States, who walked away from the table. The incident, known to history as the
XYZ Affair, failed to resolve the issue, and as French ships continued to seize
American ones, the conflict broke out into a sort of war.
I say “sort of war” because no formal war was ever declared. And to bring this
back around to Adams, it more or less dominated his Presidency. The Quasi-War
was fought almost entirely at sea, but paranoia about French intent and an
imminent invasion was rampant throughout the country. To be perfectly clear,
this was never in the cards. But erring on the side of caution, he took quick and
decisive steps to build up America’s defenses and to bolster the US Navy. The
hawks in his Party wanted a full commitment to war with Republican France,
but Adams was more prudent. While he was every bit as hysterically convinced
that France was a threat, he sought a path to peace with them. And it was
a damn good thing, too. The US wasn’t even close to being either financially
more militarily capable of war on the scale of the Revolutionary Wars, much
less the even more destructive Napoleonic Wars to follow. It is highly likely that
the financial strain, and potentially even an invasion by French military forces,
could have spelled death for the United States. By steering America toward,
and ultimately achieving peace, he spared America that problem and allowed
the US to continue to grow and prosper in peace.
Of course that didn’t stop the military buildup at the time, and a military
buildup costed money. In order to fund it, Adams passed America’s first direct
tax. The details are less important than the act itself, but a small land tax was
instituted that infuriated the population and kicked off the brief Fries’s Rebellion.
Adams put it down, though much less mercifully that his predecessor had the
Whiskey Rebellion, and without the merciful pardons at the end of it. While
both the tax and the Rebellion damaged Adams’ reputation, they were crucial
to the long term health of the country, which had in practiced earned itself the
right to directly tax its citizens. As the needs of the US became steadily more
complex, this would prove extremely valuable over time.
As would often be the case throughout American history, war was accompanied by
paranoia. Conspiracy theories that French spies were operating within America,
mostly among the refugee emigre communities who had fled to America to escape
the Reign of Terror. These notions were preposterous, but fears both of spies
and a French invasion made the rounds, prompting the hawkish Federalists to
pass the Aliens and Seditions Acts. These acts not only allowed for the summary
deportation of emigres, but effectively established tools by which the Federal
Government could prosecute dissenters. Democratic-Republicans, who fiercely
opposed the Acts, saw this as an attack on the liberties the country stood for,
and pushed hard against them. The fears were not wholly unjustified either,

as Adams did prosecute a number of papers the felt were putting out libelous
content that aided the enemy.
I’ll also stop here to give Adams some props for being one of the first Presidents to
resist slavery. He didn’t own slaves and he didn’t believe in slavery, and actively
fought against it during the Constitutional Convention. He was unsuccessful,
and like all of the Founders, acquiesced when it was clear that the South wasn’t
going to stick around if their slave holding rights weren’t protected. It was
disgusting, it was a black mark on everything America allegedly stood for and
I’m not going to defend it here. So kudos for Adams to at least paying lip service
to America’s first great injustice.
By 1800, public pressure was mounting on Adams, and he and the rest of the
Federalists were swept out of power in the election. Most of America’s one term
Presidents were one termers for a reason. They sucked. Adams didn’t. While
not a great President, he did contribute considerably to the long term health of
the nation. By ignoring voices in his party calling for an escalation to the war
with France, he spared the US from an extremely destructive conflict whose long
term consequences could have been disastrous. It wasn’t a “sexy” administration,
and the Alien and Seditions Acts would be a black mark on his record for a long
time to come. But it was an effective one that set important precedents and
made prudent choices.


“We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human
passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and
licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale
goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious
people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Grade: B

He did a solid job and set some solid precedents, but he has a huge black mark
on his record from the Aliens and Seditions Acts. Above average seems like the
right fit, so he gets a B.

3. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)

Of all the Founding Fathers, there’s probably not one of them who wanted the job
more than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was one of the nation’s early ideologues,
and had grown frustrated through the Washington and Adams administrations
by what he saw as the overreach of the Federal government. He was particularly

opposed to the policies of Alexander Hamilton, and the embrace they’d received
by both of the previous Presidents. He viewed the Federal government
The collapse of the Federalist Party in the 1801 Elections left the Presidency
ripe for the taking, and it was absolutely no secret who was going to take it.
He swept into power with 66% of the vote and took most of Congress with him.
It was the first “mandate” election, and a firm message from voters that the
anti-Federalist message the Democratic-Republicans espoused. And when he
got there, he put his authority to work by aggressively trying to appeal the
Hamiltonian and Federalist agendas.
To start, Jefferson aggressively attacked spending. He cut the army and navy
down to the bone, arguing that they were unnecessary in peacetime. With
these savings in hand, he eliminated the direct and whiskey taxes, making
the government’s funding largely tariff based. And while he’d have liked to
attack the centralized currency and National Bank, he did exercise the good
sense to recognize that those horses were already out of the barn. Jefferson
also divested the US government from manufacturing, firmly believing that
agrarianism was the future of the nation. He opposed the rise of elite bankers
and industrialists, who he saw as the primary corrupters of England. This focus
on agrarian principles, fiscal prudence and a decentralized government would
be the hallmarks of what would be come to known as Jeffersonian Democracy;
a policy that would guide the United States for much of the next 20 years. It
would be the figurative death of Hamiltonianism, and more or less the literal
death of it, considering that VP Aaron Burr would shoot Hamilton to death in
1804 (prompting his replacement by Governor George “Chocolate City” Clinton
if New York on the 1804 ticket).
But while Jefferson saw it as his mandate to limit the domestic authority of
the Federal Government, he wanted to the United States to emerge as a world
power. He involved himself in Caribbean trade, opening up relations with Haiti
and Spanish Florida. In the interest of protecting American trade, he sicked the
American Navy on the Barbary Pirates in North Africa. And he established the
(frankly fairly disastrous) Embargo Act that cut off trade to Britain and France
when they both slammed the door on goods to neutral nations.
And he wanted to expand. An agrarian society, after all, needed land on which
to farm, which the Eastern United States were in short supply of. Taking
advantage of Napoleon’s increasing financial desperation, he negotiated the
Louisiana Purchase, a massive land buy from the French Empire of American
holdings that they were frankly no longer capable of getting much out of it. The
land included most of the interior west, the lucrative ports in Louisiana and
the fertile farmland of the Midwest. It was the largest expansion of the United
States to date, and vital to its future.
It wasn’t all perfect. Jefferson did largely dodge the issue of slavery (though
very notably banned the actual slave trade, which was a huge step toward
stopping it spread). And his policy of Native American “assimilation” helped

lay the foundations of the frankly genocidal policies of future Presidents.But in
spite of these darker marks, Thomas Jefferson changed the face of the United
States, both figuratively and literally. Literally in that he hugely expanded her,
and figuratively in the sense of its politics. The strong suspicion of centralized
authority and the Republican belief in a limited federal government that persist
in the United States to this day can all trace their roots back to Thomas Jefferson.
And it was under him that universal manhood suffrage, the right to vote not
just of property holders, but to everyone, began to widely proliferate. He was its
tireless advocate, and one state at a time, helped push it into reality. Without
his expansion of the franchise and of the territory, it’s hard to imagine the United
States become the great nation that it is today.


“It is not by the consolidation or concentration, of powers, but by their distribution

that good government is effected.”

Grade: A+

For expanding the franchise, the nation and setting in place principles that would
dominate politics for almost 60 years, Jefferson gets an A+

4. James madison (1809-1817)

Thomas Jefferson left office hugely popular and with his opposition on life support,
choosing to step away as Washington did rather than serve in perpetuity. With
the Federalists still reeling politically and the outgoing Democrat-Republican
President at the height of his popularity, it was pretty clear that the DRs were
going to hold onto the Presidency. But contrary to what you might expect, it
was not Vice President George “Funktipus” Clinton that would be selected as
Jefferson’s heir apparent, but rather his Secretary of State James Madison.
To understand why this was such an odd choice, one has to know more about
Madison’s life. And it’s a life worth knowing, because one could easily make the
argument that his accomplishments prior to his Presidency were more important
than those of his Presidency. A lifelong patriot, Madison first entered the public
sphere as a commander in the Revolution. After it, he served as a popular
representative in the Virginia House of Delegates, where he grew frustrated with
the ineffectual nature of state government and the inability of the Confederate
government to solve national issues. He became one of the first and leading
voices sounding the alarm on the inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation
and was critical in calling for a Constitutional Convention. He was not only key
to organizing the Convention, but authored the proposed frameworth that would
be the Constitution. Once agreed upon, he was one of the principal authors

of the Federalist Papers that proved instrumental in convincing the public to
ratify the Constitution. And he was the primary author of the Bill of Rights.
All this earned him the moniker “The Father of the Constitution”. He was,
in short, not just a prominent federalist, but one of the prominent federalists.
He ended up hitching his wagon to the anti-federalist Jefferson due to his split
with Alexander Hamilton on economic issues and his agreement with Jefferson
that the US should be closely tied to Revolutionary France. He became one of
Jefferson’s inner circle, and eventually his heir apparent.
Whether or not Madison was a convert to anti-federalism or a secret federalist
all along remains a topic of some historical debate. But the course of events
after assuming the Presidency would render the question somewhat academic.
Because almost immediately upon assuming office in 1809, a major conflict began
to build with Great Britain.
At the time, Europe was knee deep in the meat grinder that was the Napoleonic
Wars. With the allied nations of Europe imposing an embargo on Napoleon
and Napoleon (who by this point owned most of Continental Europe) imposing
one right back, trade in Europe had come to something of a standstill. So the
United States, being both neutral and the plucky nation of capitalists that we’ve
always been, grew fat off of selling its goods to needy nations on both sides.
Both sides naturally took umbrage to this and, in order to try to starve the other
out of the war, began boarding, seizing and capturing the crews of American
ships bound toward their rivals. But while both France and the Alliance did
this, England did it in a particularly sinister way. With its entire population
being devoted to the war effort, British men were being drafted into the Royal
Navy. But many deserted, boarding American ships and becoming merchants to
avoid service. To combat this critical loss of manpower, Britain began forcing
the captured crews of American vessels into Naval Service, essentially enslaving
them and putting them to work in Britain’s fighting fleet. This practice, known
as impressment, infuriated the United States who saw it as an act of revenge for
America’s independence.
As furor against the British mounted, Madison sought to bring America’s former
colonial masters to the negotiating table. He knew war would be expensive for
a nation still starved of revenue sources and initially wanted to avoid it. And
Britain, who frankly had bigger fish to fry than a bunch of upstart merchants,
was amenable to an agreement. But Madison kind of bungled the negotiations.
To start, the US entered with the ludicrous demand that the British revoke
their embargo on France; a preposterous request to make of a nation whose
naval dominance and control of sea routes was their only real advantage in the
war. Madison worsened this situation by expelling British envoy Francis James
Jackson (who, in completely fairness to Madison, was kind of a prick) on the
charge that he simply hated America and was negotiating in bad faith.
The canny Napoleon saw this breakdown in relations and offered the US the
option of a peaceful settlement whereupon France would stop seizing American
vessels so long as the US agreed to restrict trade against nations that didn’t.

Madison agreed, effectively cutting Britain off from American goods. America
was in a war fever, calling for a second war of independence. Madison was in
favor of a quick, proactive war, in which he believed the US could seize Canada
before the British had a chance to respond and either keep it for westward
expansion or use it as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations with Britain. He
asked Congress for a declaration of war, and Congress obliged. America had
definitely sent a message to Britain. “Come at me, bro.”
They did. And boy howdy, was it ugly.
Despite the fact that the US had been intentionally provoking Britain for the
better part of 3 years, it was woefully unprepared for war. Jefferson and Madison
both, in order to pay down American deficits, had been shrinking the military
for years. Rather than a strong, professional army, the backbone of American
military strength was the militias scattered across the country. Command of
these units was decentralized, so there was no unified strategic vision when the
US entered the war, or coordinated command to guide its conduct. They were
undermanned too, as many people simply refused to show up when the initial
call to arms took place. The small, undersupplied force was quickly expelled
from Canada, and the British began arming Native American groups to harry
the American Northwest.
The developments that would turn an embarrassing start to the war into an
existential catastrophe began in Europe in 1812. Napoleon, by this point chasing
off constant threats from all sides, chased one all the way to Moscow and
lost most of his army in the resultant route. By 1814, Napoleon had been
defeated by the powers arrayed against him, and his surrender freed up British
soldiers to fight the war in North America. They landed a sizeable force on
the American mainland, and it quickly moved to capture a number of strategic
targets, including Washington DC, which they sacked and burned.
By this point, America had woken up to the fact that it was not facing a small
regional conflict but the potential end of its existence. Recruitment soared,
a tax was levied to fund America’s defense and the US quickly organized a
merchant marine navy to attack the British fleet while they hastily constructed
more substantial warships. This force succeeded in capturing British supply
ships and repelling British reinforcements. Resistance stiffened, and British
campaign to capture New York and Baltimore were beaten back, though so too
were further American incursions into Canada. The Battle of Pittsburgh proved
to be particularly decisive, and left the British facing a badly depleted force
that could be neither reinforced nor resupplied easily. Peace talks had been
underway already, but these victories gave the US an upper hand in negotiating
and the British abandoned their territorial requests. A peace was agreed upon
that essentially re-established the status quo antebellum.
While the War of 1812 would ultimately cement American independence for
good and all, it was a near thing. The US was unprepared for the War, and it
was both costly and wholly unnecessary. Had the British not been so worn down

by the Napoleonic Wars, and so fearful of their reignition, a devoted British
campaign might well have reconquered the former colonies. It was a gamble as
enormous as it was poorly executed, and one that ultimately would gain the
US nothing. Madison gained a lot of credit for winning the War, but he should
condemned for getting it started in the first place.
But while the War dominated Madison’s time in office, he rebounded from it well.
The conflict had woken America up to the necessity of a professional standing
army, for rapid industrialization and for the need of an improved infrastructure.
To this end, Madison imposed harsh tariffs that helped isolate the comparatively
unindustrialized US from European competition, and the demand for industrial
goods caused American manufacturing to flourish. This kicked off an economic
boom that helped the government pay down its war debts. Madison oversaw
several major road projects that helped connect the former colonies, which too
helped spur on American economic growth. By the end of his Presidency, the
US had entered into the “Era of Good Feelings”, in which partisan strife was at
a minimum, American independence was secured and the national was highly
prosperous. It won him wide popularity at the time. He left office with his
own heir apparent, Secretary of State James Monroe, easily able to assume the


“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern
men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the
great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the
governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” - Federalist Paper No.

Grade: B-

Madison is a tricky President to grade. There is no doubt that his life and
achievements were invaluable to the nation becoming what it is. But most of
those achievements happened prior to his Presidency. In the Presidency, he
embroiled the US in a war for which she was not prepared and which nearly
destroyed her entirely. And while he did eventually guide America through
the war, absolutely nothing was gained by it. The reforms made postwar were
critical to its development, however, and can’t be overlooked. I’ll give him a B-.
Missteps aside, the US was better off for the changes made during his Presidency.

5. James Monroe (1817-1825)

James Monroe came to power in about as cupcake a situation as any President

could ever hope. America was prosperous, his rival political party was little
more than a rump organization, foreign relations had stabilized and there was
boundless opportunity for peaceful expansion. It was the Era of Good Feelings,
and he was the President with whom that era is most associated.
And he earned it. Monroe’s path to the White House (and we can start using that
term now, since he erected the building as we know it today), was considerably
more fraught with peril and excitement than most. He had an uncanny knack
for being present at almost every major political event that shook the world
in the tumultuous years of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He crossed
the Delaware with George Washington’s forced in the Revolutionary War (And
is the guy holding the flag next to him in the famous painting, by the by.
Though in life he actually crossed some time before Washington did.) and took
a musket ball to his shoulder that he carried for the rest of his life. He served
as ambassador to France during the darkest days of the Reign of Terror, even
witnessing Robespierre’s execution. He helped negotiate the Louisiana Purchase
and the Treaty of Ghent. He was close to Washington, and Jefferson’s hand
picked protege.
By the time he was elected , the US was at peace, flourishing domestically and
was so dominated by the Democratic-Republican Party that there was basically
no serious political opposition to his agenda. Under such robust circumstances,
one could have forgiven Monroe for resting on his laurels and letting the country
manage itself, but he was actually one of the most active Presidents heretofore.
Which makes some sense when you think about it. Wouldn’t you try to push for
the policies you wanted if there wasn’t anyone to challenge you?
He sought to improve the US. Understanding that one of the lessons of the War
of 1812 was that America’s infrastructure was unequal to her needs, Monroe
set out to improve the US’s roads and scouted this initiative by launching a
grand tour of the country. It was the first by any US President, and crowds
came out to meet him by the thousands. The fruits of the tour would eventually
be the National Road, which stretched from Ohio to the Capital and became
a vital lifeline in early American transportation. Though his tour was mostly
intended to survey the national defense, he inadvertently invented the modern
political campaign and set a model by which future Presidents would introduce
themselves to the nation.
Monroe’s pursuit of policy mostly manifested itself in foreign relations. But
he was the most active President to that point in the foreign arena. Key on
Monroe’s mind (and every other Presidents for the next several entries) was the
issue of expansion, and he saw two key areas to do it. And the ripest fruit for
that prospect was Spanish held Florida. The Spanish Empire, decimated by its
occupation by Napoleon, had seen a dozen of its colonial holdings rise up against

her across the world. It was not only trying to put out revolutionary fires all
over the world, but doing so with a dramatically diminished military. One of the
theaters that sort of got neglected in this shuffle was Florida. Spanish control of
the region had mostly kept its Seminole Native population under control, but
the weakening of the Spanish Empire meant that they were no longer capable of
effectively policing the region. The Seminole not only rose in defiance of them,
but launched raids into the US as well. Sicking General Andrew Jackson on
the situation, Monroe initially sought to only quell the unruly population. But
Jackson did a great deal more than that, seizing several Spanish held forts to
help solidify his positions. This infuriated the Spanish and British in the area,
who repudiated the US and seemed on the verge of retaliation. But Monroe
intervened, essentially telling the Spanish “Look, we have territory to run and
if you can’t keep these people in line, we will”. It worked, and rather than
retaliating for the US actions in Florida, Spain agreed to cede it to the United
States altogether. The potential for agricultural bounty and the consolidation of
the Gulf of Mexico that this provided the US was pivotal to its southern growth,
and allowed much easier shipment of its goods.
And the crumbling Spanish empire’s holdings in North America weren’t limited
to Florida. They also held large parts of what is modern day Oregon and
Washington. When the Spanish ceded Florida, Monroe was also able to negotiate
that they renounce their Oregon claims as well. And while it was agreed that
the British and Americans would jointly settle the region, Americans ability
to outnumber the British there would be pivotal to the territories eventual
With expansion came challenges. New territory and the settlement of that
territory meant that more voices were rising up protesting for statehood. And
Missouri specifically wanted its statehood. Abolitionists, sensing an opportunity
to deal a blow to American slavery, pushed that moment by pressing a bill
that would ban slavery in any new state. A fight erupted, and the compromise
eventually formed (The Missouri Compromise), created a delicate balance by
allow Maine entry to the Union as a free state, and Missouri as a slave one. The
idea was to constantly balance the number of each, and this we will definitely be
revisiting this approach in entries to come. At the time, the Missouri Compromise
settled the issue, effectively kicking the can down the road. Monroe’s part in
the drama is one of the unambiguous black marks on his record. A slave owner
himself, he threatened to veto any bill that would compromise slavery in Missouri,
effectively making the efforts to make the state free impossible.
Which is not to say that Monroe didn’t possess a degree of idealism. As
the Spanish Empire fell apart, he found himself sympathizing deeply with
revolutionaries like Simon Bolivar and Jose De San Martin who fought with
the dying Empire for control of South America. He saw in them close relatives
to American Revolutionaries. And while he would not commit to actively
helping them, he proclaimed in 1823 that the US would do nothing to oppose
independence movements in Latin America. Further, and more boldly, he also

declared that the US would not only allow such movements to thrive, but would
actually oppose future any future European efforts to colonize the Americas.
This would eventually become the basis of what is known today as the Monroe
Doctrine. At the time, it was a statement to Europe that we were on the side of
the independence seekers, but it would be interpreted more broadly by future
Presidents as justification to directly meddle in any Latin American affairs,
whether it was for independence or not.
And that idealism was not strictly limited to Latin America, either. African
Americans were beginning to gain their freedom in isolated cases, and were
raising free families across the country. Feeling (not inaccurately) that there
was no fairness for people like them, many began to push for an American
colonization of Africa by free blacks, and Monroe supported them. Liberia would
be the fruits of this project, and there’s a reason that the Liberian capital, to
this day, is named Monrovia.
It wasn’t all idyllic. In 1819, a financial panic struck that caused an economic
recession to dominate much of Monroe’s second term. Monroe could do little
to stop it, given that there weren’t really even any mechanisms at the time
for him to do so. And by end of his term in office, there were serious fissures
growing between competing factions of the Republican-Democrat party that
would eventually cause its breakup.
But on the whole, Monroe was a thoughtful, competent administrator of govern-
ment who did his part to expand the nation’s borders and mitigated the conflicts
of the day. He left office popular, and with the nation in a good place. Monroe
was the last President to have served in the American Revolution. The last of
the Founding Fathers to serve as its leader. He left the US peaceful, prosperous
and happy, capping off an era of effective Presidents who had guided the young
nation through its first challenges.


“It is only when the people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degen-
erate into a populace, that they are incapable of exercising their sovereignty.
Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found. The people
themselves become the willing instruments of their own debasement and ruin.”

Grade: B

Monroe got a pretty cupcake assignment, and he did an effective job managing
it. For the most part, the US was a better place for his having been President. I
give him a B, and the only thing keeping him from doing better was his sympathy
to slavery.

Jacksonian Era

6. John Quincy Adams (1825-1829)

John Quincy Adams has the unique distinction of being one of the most important
and influential men in American history, but one of America’s least important
or influential Presidents.
He was, for instance, the greatest Secretary of State in the nation’s history.
I’ve been talking about Presidents and their cabinets somewhat synonymously
throughout this series. This is both for simplicity’s sake, and because cabinet
members are ultimately appointed by and granted authority by their Presidents,
so I believe that Presidents deserve the credit for their cabinet’s accomplishments.
But JQA transcended his President, going above and beyond the simple call
of duty. He negotiated the nation’s borders with British held Canada, as well
as the joint settlement of Oregon and Washington. He authored the Monroe
Doctrine, and far more than Monroe, was successful in leveraging Andrew
Jackson’s aggression in Florida into the territory’s wholesale acquisition. He
was one of the first visionaries who saw the United States extending from the
Atlantic to the Pacific, and the blueprint he wrote to getting there was more or
less exactly how we did.
And he was a visionary thinker in terms of what he believed the Presidency
should be and what he sought to turn it into. He wrote about an “American
System” in which the federal government built huge national roads and canals
to connect the rural parts of the nation to the urban ones, built schools to
fund education both higher and lower and maintain public land from which it
could derive revenue. He wanted major changes to the US Military, which he
thought needed to be permanently standing and centralized federally rather than
simply controlled by the states, and he envisioned a robust network of military
academies to help create a unified military vision for the country. All of this
sounds like the kind of thing we expect government to do today, but it was
radical stuff at the time.
To understand the contradiction between Adams’ early accomplishments and
vision and the mess his presidency ended up being, one first must understand
the details of his election. Adams ran in a presidential election that primarily
featured four Democratic-Republicans duking it out for the job: JQA, General
Andrew Jackson, Treasury Secretary William Crawford and US House Speaker
Henry Clay. Adams carried New England while Jackson picked up much of the
South, along with Illinois and Indiana. Clay and Crawford could do little more
than play spoiler by stealing a few midwestern and southern states. The upshot
of it was that the electoral college awarded the most votes to Andrew Jackson,
but not the majority required by the electoral system of the time. So the election
went to the US House of Representatives, who would ultimately decide who
became President. They chose Adams.

To say this was controversial at the time is to put it mildly. The rules at
the time meant that the House would only be selecting between the top three
candidates, which eliminated Clay. That left Clay to rally the votes, more or less
behind the candidate of his choosing, but not himself. Jacksonians allege that a
“Corrupt Bargain” went down between Clay and Adams in which Adams agreed
to make Clay his Secretary of State in exchange for becoming President. The
evidence doesn’t prove anything definitively, but given JQA’s ironclad idealistic
principles, I have a hard time believing that he arranged a simple quid pro
quo. Clay campaigned vigorously against Jackson as a dangerous demagogue
and was simply morally opposed to his becoming President with or without
such a bargain. So it’s entirely possible that he just didn’t like the guy. But
the Jacksonian conspiracy was widely accepted. Jackson, an extremely popular
general, split his own faction of supporters off into the Democratic Party, and
dedicated its early existence to rallying Congress against everything that JQA
ever proposed.
But don’t get it twisted; I’m not trying to imply that Adams only failed as
President because of Jackson’s opposition. He was a notoriously difficult man to
work with, and equally unwilling to bend or compromise his principles. Congress
found it almost impossible to work with him, and of all the traits that make
Presidents successes or failures, none is as important as the ability to work with
Congress. Remember that JQA came into office with what was considered a
radically progressive agenda. He needed help to make his ideas a reality because
most people at the time called them an overreach. But rather than choosing
to limit his aims, meet Congress halfway, or simply exchange things Congress
wanted for things that he did, he dug his heels in and demanded passage of his
He never got it, and a result, accomplished practically nothing as President.
In the end, he was annihilated by Jackson in the 1828 elections. After attempting
to live a quiet life outside of public service, he ultimately realized he couldn’t.
In a move unprecedented before or since, Adams ran for the US House of
Representatives in Massachusetts, and would ultimately hold that seat for 17
years. He had a remarkable career in Congress. In one particular episode, he
helped resolve the “Nullification Crisis” of Andrew Jackson’s career, a near
Civil War in which South Carolina unilaterally declared the tariff of 1828
unconstitutional and that it would not be enforced within the state. Despite
the fact that Jackson and Adams had one of the nastiest blood feuds in US
Political history, Adams put it aside, recognizing that the ability of the Federal
Government to, y’know, govern was at stake. Adams successfully authored a
compromise tariff that eased SC’s issues with the original, as well as helping
pass a Force Act that would allow Jackson to use the US Army against SC if
they still failed to comply. It was one of those beautiful examples of two political
rivals coming together to fix a problem that was bigger than their differences.
Adams House years were also defined by his full throated advocacy of science
and educating, advancing funding for both as national causes around which

broad support eventually gathered. And he was a tireless abolitionist. Adams
loudly and vocally, decried the evils of slavery and fought its expansion at every
turn. He was one of the earliest voices predicting that if slavery were allowed to
spread, it would eventually destroy the Union.
Adams would continue to serve in the House, establishing an almost rockstar
reputation as one of its greatest and most respected members. He served even
through a stroke. In late February of 1846, he was giving a speech when he
suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage that killed him. It was a fitting end for
Adams, who died as he lived, in service to the American public. As a President,
Adams was a failure. But as a servant of American democracy, of the American
people and in his pursuit of American greatness, he was absolutely peerless.


“Individual liberty is individual power, and as the power of a community is a mass

compounded of individual powers, the nation which enjoys the most freedom
must necessarily be in proportion to its numbers the most powerful nation. “

Grade: D+

If you can’t tell, I have a ton of respect for John Quincy Adams the individual.
He’s one of my favorite Presidents simply because he’s such a fascinating guy.
But he was abject failure as a President. I give him a D+ for having the right
ideas, but as I’ll say repeatedly throughout this exercise, being on the right side
of history is only as good as your ability to get others to join you there.

7. Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

Among Andrew Jackson’s many legacies is the logo that the Democratic Party
(which he founded) uses to this day. Jackson was stubborn, difficult to work with,
rude and abrasive. This delightful cocktail of personality traits led many of his
critics to label him a jackass. Jackson liked it so much that he made the donkey
his party’s symbol. It sort of defines who he was and how his presidency unfolded;
a Presidency driven not so much by ideals or goals, as by his personality and
ambition. And despite the Presidency being run in such a personal way under
his leadership, the long term consequences of his time in office were enormous.
Ideologically Andrew Jackson can best be described as a populist. The celebrity
he earned through his war heroism made him a notionally popular hero. After
the election of John Quincy Adams, he campaigned tirelessly for (and successfully
convinced several) states to pass measures that would ensure that their electoral
votes would be given to candidates based on the winner of the state’s popular
vote rather than appropriated by its legislature. As President, he pushed for

measures ending the restriction of voting rights to property holders, allowing
wage earners, sharecroppers and rent farmers the ability to vote and in defiance
of the Jeffersonian idea that only people who owned properly could morally have
a stake in the nation. He believed in power being deferred to the states and
away from the federal government, and that the people ruining the nation were
bankers and industrialists. “Big businessmen”, basically. This is more or less
the root of American populism, and Jackson worked that populism by touring
the US, meeting with people directly, and holding “town hall” style meetings in
the White House to hear their concerns.
Jackson’s Presidency, though easily won, got off to a very rocky start, mostly
due to his own personality. In a TL;DR of the ways Jackson’s personal life
interfered with his public one, he married a woman named Rachel Donelson.
Donelson’s husband was abusive, and she was estranged from him prior to their
actual divorce; a divorce before which Jackson did not wait to court her. He
loved her very deeply, and thus took enormous offense when JQA’s campaign
used Rachel’s “bigamy” against Jackson in the campaign, which caused her deep
depression. Her health failed, and she died before Jackson was elected, which he
would always blame on Adams and the campaign.
But Willie, you’re asking, what the hell does this have to do with the Presidency
of Andrew Jackson? Well, Jackson’s Secretary of War, John Eaton, met his wife
under similar circumstances, courting her before she was divorced. The wives
of other cabinet officials found this disgusting and refused to socialize with her.
Jackson essentially told his cabinet members to get their wives under control
and make them socialize with the Eatons, but they refused too. When Jackson
threatened to fire them over the issue, they resigned en mass. Jackson lost all
of his entire cabinet, including Eaton, in the resignations that followed. So he
hastily threw together a cabinet for friends (read ‘yes men’) to replace them.
This incident, known as the Petticoat Affair, may seem like a tawdry political
scandal. But up until this point, Presidents took a largely hands off approach to
governing, allowing their cabinet members to craft policy goals and negotiate
legislation with Congress. Jackson could no longer afford to delegate to his
cabinet in this way because, well. . . he didn’t have one. The result was the
President taking a very proactive approach for the first time, and it really set
the precedent for the active, engaged Presidency that we have today. And it was
a precedent set entirely by Jackson being a honery, disagreeable bastard rather
than vision he had for the institution. It also, by the by, prompted him to buy
the Globe and Mail, one of the most widely distributed newspapers of the era,
which he’d basically operate as his personal propaganda outlet for much of his
One of Jackson’s major talking points was that government was corrupt and
needed replacement; that it had gotten too “stale” and that establishment figures
were all serving at the behest of outside interests. As a self made man, he argued
that he was incorruptible. So when he ascended to the Presidency, he fired almost
everyone in Federal Government. And I mean everyone. Everyone down to

regular bureaucrats who’d been in their jobs for years or even decades. Nominally,
he said this was to prevent “stagnation” that caused corruption. But there’s little
evidence to suggest that the meritocracy that existed prior to Jackson upending
the apple cart actually caused much corruption. What certainly did was the
filling of all these jobs by party officials and Jackson loyalists. And the practice
of doing this when government changed hands would become epidemic in the
years that followed. Government corruption would become a rampant problem
as party hacks replaced skilled workers and government incompetence a problem
as inexperienced people replaced those who’d served with distinction. Jackson’s
cure, called the “Spoils System” by his critics and “Government Rotation” by
his supporters, was far worse than the original disease.
This theme of Jackson’s actions failing to live up to his rhetoric extended to the
states’ rights debate as well. As a candidate, Jackson was strongly in favor of
state’s rights. As a President, when states rights threatened to trump his own
federal authority, he was adamantly against them, even threatening military
action in some cases, including the Nullification Crisis I mentioned below, that
only got solved when John Quincy Adams rallied Congress to fix it for him.
Despite Jackson sympathizing with South Carolina Governor John Calhoun and
agreeing with him politically, he came down hard when Calhoun questioning his
authority to enforce the 1928 Tariff Act. And while this again was likely just
a function of Jackson’s personality, it set a strong precedent that the federal
government could use force to assert its will over a state government.
The two federal issues on which Jackson spent most of his energy were the
reclamation of Indian lands, and the end of the Federal Bank. To the former,
he acted early and aggressively. Partially appealing to his base of agrarian
voters and partially because of his own inherent racism, Jackson lobbied for
and successfully passed the Native American Removal Act. Jackson argued that
Native Americans were going to be forced out of those lands by whites anyway,
and that the Act at least afforded them some compensation for the land. But the
reality is that they were bound to that land by treaty and Jackson could easily
have protected them if he wanted to, and the compensation was paltry. NARA
required that Natives be relocated from bountiful land in the south and midwest
to more arid western territories, freeing up land for white farmers. When it
was the Cherokee’s turn to relocate, rather than tooling up and preparing for a
fight they’d certainly lose, they took Jackson to court. And they won when the
Supreme Court, in 1832, ruled that they had a right to the land and that the
NARA was unconstitutional. To which Jackson famously replied “[Chielf Justice]
John Marshall has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it.” or in layman’s
terms, “Fuck you. I have the Army.” He deployed that army, and while I won’t
get into the Trail of Tears here (we’ll save that for Van Buren tomorrow), he
forced them out both in defiance of the law and at an enormous cost of human
He also defied the law in regards to the US Federal Bank. The Second Federal
Bank, chartered under James Madison, was to Jackson an abomination. He ac-

cused it, fairly, of being an insolur institution over which very little oversight was
possible and loaning too much American capital to foreign officials, and unfairly
of giving out loans in a politicized fashion (This latter claim stems mostly from
some conspiracies in his head that they only leant to JQA supporters. This was
ridiculous. JQA’s supporters were mostly urban northeastern industrialists, who
naturally took out more loans than most farmers). When Congress reauthorized
the bank’s charter, Jackson vetoed it. In fact, he vetoed a lot of legislation. He
was the most prolific user of the veto to that point, and he established it as a
weapon against the legislature.
But he didn’t stop with just a veto. While Congress didn’t have enough votes
to override the veto, the general consensus was that the bank would have to be
dismantled slowly. Jackson wanted it done immediately, and on his own terms.
So instead, he ordered his Secretary of Treasury to pull all US gold and silver
out of the Federal Bank. This would render investments in it moot and was
blatantly illegal. Because it was illegal, his first SoT wouldn’t do it. So Jackson
fired him. And his replacement when he refused to do it. The third finally did,
not only crippling the Bank that Jackson hated, but giving himself control over
all its currency. He distributed it to “Pet Banks”, or state and local institutions
that took up the lending and saving function of the federal bank, but which had
no federal regulatory powers or standards to adhere to. Coincidentally, most of
that money ended up in southern and midwestern states. Jacksonians would
argue that it was to spur on agrarian growth. His critics would tell you that it
went to the states that supported him.
If all this sounds like a fantastically reckless way to deal with the nation’s
financial system, that’s because it was. The local banks that the government
backed had no standards. Many began printing their own currency, driving up
inflation. Many others gave out reckless loans that their burrows couldn’t pay.
The two problems combined to create the Panic of 1837, which would cripple
the US economy until the late 1840s. It was an artificial catastrophe that easily
could have been avoided either by keeping and reforming the Federal Bank, or
by managing its dissolution with more care.
It kind of sounds like I’m shitting on Jackson, but I don’t exactly mean to.
While he was an fantastically abrasive personality, and he ran his administration
mostly for its own benefit, Jackson changed America. He enfranchised millions
and made American Democracy truly democratic in a way that it wasn’t before.
And not only did he help enfranchise the common man, but by inviting them into
his White House and travelling around the country to appeal to them directly,
he inspired people to get involved in political issues as they never had before. He
concentrated political power in the Presidency, giving the office a much stronger
voice in government. And that is not altogether a bad thing. It’s been put
to some really fantastic ends. Jackson very much changed the institutions of
America and left a powerful legacy of democratization.
But he put that all to work to some pretty toxic ends. The spoils system he
implemented would become rife with corruption that would not fully be weeded

out until the Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson Administrations made
it a priority. He flagrantly and gleefully violated the rule of law, and did so in
pursuit of some of the most horrific human rights violations that our country
has ever perpetrated. His brand of populism weaponized social anxieties and
created many of the staples of divisive identity politics that we see today. And
his reckless destruction of the Federal Bank created a financial crisis that it
would take a decade to recover from.
Jackson’s face is on the $20 bill for a reason. He was widely beloved in his era
as a populist and for democratizing the American system. But the cost of that,
both financial and human, would be reexamined later. He is, as a result, one
of the most controversial Presidents who ever served. And no matter what you
think of him, we were seldom so driven as a nation by one man’s personality
than we were under him.


“As long as our government is administered for the good of the people, and is
regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of persons and of
property, liberty of conscience, and of the press, it will be worth defending.”

Grade: B-

The length of this entry is already wildly out of control, and I’ve beleaguered
the point enough. Jackson changed the country in many ways, both positive and
negative. I’ll give him a B-, B because he was a successful President, - because
he was often a tyrant.

8. Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)

Martin Van Buren, like JQA yesterday, was a lot more influential is his pre-
Presidential life than he was in his presidency, though for remarkably different
reasons. His only elected office prior to stepping onto the federal stage was to the
New York Governorship. Van Buren was a canny politician who helped develop
the machine politics that would come to dominate New York. Through a system
of patronage, graft and horse trading, he built up an empire that allowed him a
high degree of control over all aspects of New York politics.
The “Feel Good” part of the Era of Good Feelings was the unity of the nation
behind the Democrat-Republican Party. People generally got along and agreed
on the major issues of the day. While most celebrated this, Van Buren saw it
as a corruption of democracy, and felt that a spirited debate between two sides
of major issues made for effective government. He felt there needed to be two
parties in government. So after the bitter election of 1824, which saw Andrew

Jackson form his own party with blackjack and hookers, Van Buren quickly
hitched his wagon to Jackson’s new Democratic Party.
And he was largely responsible for building that party. The “Little Wizard”
mobilized his entire machine to help Jackson win New York, which had previously
swung for Adams. Impressed by his work, Jackson enlisted Van Buren’s help
in growing his young party. Working on promises of jobs, political favors and
future government investments, Van Buren slowly recruited many of the nation’s
politicians over to the Democratic banner, effectively using the same political
machine tactics he’d taken over New York with on a federal stage. By the time
the 1828 election rolled around, the party was robust, and routed the flailing
Democrat Republicans.
These same tactics would also be adopted by the Whig Party that rose in
opposition to Jackson. Thus was Van Buren’s lasting mark on the United States;
he was the guy who created the modern political party. If you find yourself
frustrated with politics, or angry that you feel like a handful of party bigwigs
have more voice than you, blame Martin Van Buren for it.
His reward for this was the Secretary of State’s position when Jackson became
President. He would eventually resign that position in the Petticoat Affair, but
he, unlike most of the resigned cabinet members, remained close to Jackson. He
acted as a party functionary, helping continue Jackson’s base of support. So
when John C Calhoun got bounced of Jackson’s ticket in 1832, Van Buren was
the man Jackson picked as VP to replaced him. When Jackson decided that he’d
run America long enough, he hand selected Van Buren to be his replacement.
Van Buren comfortably won election in 1836 on a platform to maintain Jackson’s
policies and carry on his legacy.
If the prosperous, celebrated years of Jackson’s presidency were an 8 year party
for the US, Van Buren’s Presidency was the hangover. Almost immediately upon
assuming office, a financial panic crippled the US economy. And it’s more or less
universally recognized today that Jackson’s fiddling with the Federal Bank was
what caused it. By dissolving the federal bank, and specifically by withdrawing
federal gold and silver reserves and reinvesting them in local and state “Pet
Banks”, Jackson created a number of problems. His rapid decentralization left no
one in control of the money supply. So when the US Bank ceased to exist, that
responsibility was largely passed down the pet banks. Many of them recklessly
printed money (because who doesn’t like more money?) not realizing what every
economist today knows; that it leads to inflation. The problem was exacerbated
by the bursting of a land speculation bubble, which was also largely Jackson’s
fault. As the US expanded, people bought land, believing that it would have
more value than it actually would. While this was inherently problematic for
the economy on its own, the US Bank had mitigated the problem somewhat by
being very stingy about who it gave loans to. When Jackson decentralized the
banks, the pet banks lent much more carelessly, partially out of a legitimate
desire to help would be farmers and partially because riskier loans meant higher
interest rates. The bubble burst when lands purchased proved to be less valuable

than original estimates would imply, and many buyers defaulted.
The upshot of it all was high unemployment and inflation. Now, one would
think that a master political negotiator like Van Buren would be able to find a
solution to the problem, especially given that the party he built controlled both
chambers of Congress. But the Democratic Party was young. It didn’t yet have
a unified voice on major issues, and different factions proposed different solutions.
Rather that trying to reconcile these differences, which a savvy operator like
himself would have been more than capable of, he proposed his own solution: do
nothing. Van Buren wanted his party unified behind a vision. And that vision,
as he saw it, was the Jackson vision. Let the local banks deal with the problem.
We’re the small government party. How can you all propose policies so close to
those of the hated bank that we literally just destroyed? As proposed solutions
emerged, Van Buren shot them down. No action would be taken on his watch.
Shockingly, keeping up the same policies that created the crisis did nothing to
abate it. This was in an age where economics was still an infant discipline with
only the largest of macro theories. Later solutions, like monetary policy or deficit
spending, hadn’t really even been conceived yet, and banks were as helpless as
everyone else. The problems would persist until the late 1840s when James K
Polk would apply war, that greatest of all economic remedies, to the problem.
Van Buren also inherited the Native American Removal Act from his predecessor.
And this too he handled about as poorly as he could have. Now don’t get it
twisted; there was no way that forcibly removing thousands of Natives from
fertile American lands to barren desert ones halfway across the nation was going
go well. It was an act of genocide waiting to happen. But the simple reality of
the matter is that Van Buren took little interest in how the process was carried
out. It was delayed multiple times, meaning that when it was finally carried out,
it was done in harsh winter. Although the Army was charged with providing
for themselves, the Natives were left on their own. So while food and warm
clothing were had by the military in abundance, they were not for the Natives.
And when the relocation was finally ordered, the Natives were rushed so hastily
that they didn’t have enough time to supply themselves anyway.
The move down what would be known as the Trail of Tears was thus a human
catastrophe of the highest magnitude. Disease, hunger and exposure were
rampant. Thousands died along the way, roughly one quarter of the Natives
moved. America’s two original sins were slavery and its treatment of the Native
Americans. And even in these blackest marks on our history, the Trail of Tears
remains one of the darkest chapters.
Not that Van Buren thought so. When speaking about the removal in his State
of the Union address, he described it thus:
It affords me sincere pleasure to be able to apprise you of the entire removal
of the Cherokee Nation of Indians to their new homes west of the Mississippi.
The measures authorized by Congress at its last session, with a view to the
long-standing controversy with them, have had the happiest effects. By an

agreement concluded with them by the commanding general in that country, who
has performed the duties assigned to him on the occasion with commendable
energy and humanity, their removal has been principally under the conduct of
their own chiefs, and they have emigrated without any apparent reluctance.
Van Buren was an ineffective President, and his ineffectiveness helped rally
the opposition Whig Party. The Whigs mobilized using the same tactics that
Van Buren had authored in creating the Democratic Party, and their candidate
William Henry Harrison demolished him in the 1840 election. In one final comedy
of his life, Van Buren began to have a reckoning both with his treatment of
Natives and America’s treatment of slaves. Becoming more sensitive to both
groups, he ran for the Democratic nomination on a platform of humanity and
anti-slavery in 1844. Andrew Jackson didn’t approve, and in one last act of
dickheadery before he exited the stage of American history, used his considerable
influence in the party to squash the political operative that had built that party
for him in the first place. Exiled from the Democratic Party, he tried to create
his own Liberty Party for a Presidential run. But he had no jobs to promise.
No political power to spread around. All of his old supporters were on the
Democratic tit, and stayed there to support Polk.
Thus Van Buren’s ultimate political fate was to be crushed by his own machine.


I already gave him one more quote than he deserved.

Grade: F

I considered a D, since he didn’t really undermine the long term health of the
Republic. But fuck it. We’ll call it an F for being an incapable leader with a side
of genocide. I’m only going to give out 5 total Fs in this exercise, so Martin’s in
a pretty elite club here.

9. William Henry Harrison (1841)

William Henry Harrison was chosen by the Whig Party to run against Van Buren
mostly because he had an impressive record of embellishing his war service (he
repeatedly called himself “the Washington of the West” when all he’d really
done was beat up on Native tribes). And after watching the success of Andrew
Jackson, Whig officials decided that they needed to get them one of them war
heroes too. To balance the ticket with the liberal, big government Harrison, they
chose John Tyler, a small government agrarian in the Jackson model to be his
VP. The ticket carried both the north and south, and Harrison crushed Van

Buren. He crushed him so effectively that he won not only the White House,
but both chambers of Congress. He was old, and the campaign had taken a lot
out of him (cue ominous music), but he rode into office with a mandate to do
something about the failing economy.
Then he gave a really long inaugural address, got violently ill and died 31 days
after assuming office.
The old story posits that his speech was long, he made it in the cold without a
coat, and he caught pneumonia. But that’s just a legend. It was a fairly warm
day, and pneumonia was basically the way coroners in the day said, “Fuck it, I
dunno. He was sick.” Likely, it was the shitty water in the White House that
killed him. And I mean that literally. Contemporary studies of D.C.’s urban
development have found that the city’s water supply contained large night soil
deposits back in the day. Washington residents were drinking water that was
contaminated with human feces.
But regardless of what killed him, he was dead, and dead without having had a
chance to do a single thing to advance his agenda.
Things that last longer than the William Henry Harrison Presidency
Most New Year’s resolutions
THC in the blood of a habitual smoker
Randy Moss’ career as a Tennessee Titan
But take heart, William; you still managed to survive in the White House longer
than Anthony Scaramucci.


“The Constitution has declared it to be the duty of the President to see that the
laws are executed, and it makes him the Commander in Chief of the Armies and
Navy of the United States. If the opinion of the most approved writers upon that
species of mixed government which in modern Europe is termed ‘monarchy’ in
contradistinction to ‘despotism’ is correct, there was wanting no other addition
to the powers of our Chief Magistrate to stamp a monarchical character on our
Government but the control of the public finances; and to me it appears strange
indeed that anyone should doubt that the entire control which the President
possesses over the officers who have the custody of the public money, by the
power of removal with or without cause, does, for all mischievous purposes
at least, virtually subject the treasure also to his disposal. The first Roman
Emperor, in his attempt to seize the sacred treasure, silenced the opposition of
the officer to whose charge it had been committed by a significant allusion to his

sword. By a selection of political instruments for the care of the public money
a reference to their commissions by a President would be quite as effectual an
argument as that of Caesar to the Roman knight. I am not insensible of the
great difficulty that exists in drawing a proper plan for the safe-keeping and
disbursement of the public revenues, and I know the importance which has been
attached by men of great abilities and patriotism to the divorce, as it is called,
of the Treasury from the banking institutions. It is not the divorce which is
complained of, but the-” and Jesus Christ, are we sure boredom didn’t kill him?

Grade: Incomplete

I doubt he’d have been any good. Whigs have one of the worst track records
of any party in government, and of the war leaders turned politicians, only
Eisenhower and Washington weren’t complete ass. But still, he only had 31 days,
so his grade will be Incomplete.

10. John Tyler (1841-1845)

John Tyler was a stuffy southern rich guy who liked owning slaves and liked
the Government leaving him alone. When the Democratic-Republican Party
split, he joined Jackson’s Democratic party. He was elected to the Senate as
a staunch pro-slavery, state’s rights, small government guy. He was a Jackson
fanatic until Jackson put the smackdown on South Carolina in the Nullification
Crisis. Incensed that Jackson wouldn’t let states flagrantly ignore federal law,
he defected to the Whigs. As a massive Jackson critic, he caught the attention
of the Whig higher ups, who tapped him to run as William Henry Harrison’s
VP against Martin Van Buren.
Tyler had nothing in common with Harrison ideologically. VPs back then were
political B-teamers who rounded out the ticket, not ideological partners to the
Presidents who picked them. The Whigs didn’t care what his positions were as
long as he could carry the South, which he did. And that was all fine and dandy
until Harrison. . . y’know. . . died.
John Tyler thus found himself in the awkward position of being a Whig president
with a Whig Congress who opposed the entirety of the Whig platform. He
liberally began using the veto power to slap down anything the Whigs tried to
do to fix the ailing economy. Harrison’s cabinet resigned in protest, the Whigs
excommunicated him from the party and Tyler spent the remaining the 4 years
of Harrison’s Presidency doing approximately nothing but bickering with the
Tyler’s Presidency is only noteworthy for two reasons. First, it set the Tyler
Precedent that when a President died, the VP became the new President. And
you’re probably reading this thinking “yeah, no shit”, but believe it or not,

Article 2 of the Constitution doesn’t really say that. It grants the VP the
authority to carry out the President’s duties, but what does that mean? Do we
have another election to pick a new President? Does he get the title of President?
Does he serve for the full term? The Constitution was pretty vague about it.
Tyler stepped up, took charge and said, “No, we’re not screwing around with
this. I’m the President now.” There were objections to this, including a short
lived movement by a minority of Congressional Whigs to have him impeached.
But in the end, Tyler was able to convince enough Whigs that his assuming the
presidency was good for the health of the Republic and enough Democrats that
a do-nothing Whig was their best shot at retaking the White House. He was
confirmed, and he took Harrison’s place.
Now, incredibly, this didn’t put the whole VP issue to bed. Because the Tyler
Precedent only applies to a President’s death. In the event that a President was
incapacitated, as would happen when Garfield was shot and took 41 days to die,
or when Woodrow Wilson’s stroke left him enfeebled for two years, the VPs were
reluctant to take charge. Did their exercising power mean they became President?
Would they stay President if the former President recovered? Somehow, it took
until 1967 to pass a Constitutional amendment that answered that question for
good and all.
Tyler also believed in manifest destiny, the idea that the US should control land
from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Part of that was the annexation of the Republic
of Texas, which we’ll get to more in a minute. Tyler did convince Congress to
do this, and the bill that authorized the annexation passed in the twilight of
his Presidency. Atta boy, Tyler. Though I must say, public sentiment on the
subject was so supportive that Congress was probably going to do it with or
without him.
Politically, Tyler was a man without a country by 1844. The Democrats wanted
to get one of their guys in the White House, and the Whigs had already exiled
him. After it became abundantly clear that his 3rd party bid was going exactly
nowhere, “His Accidency” quietly stepped aside out of American Public life as
one of its most forgettable Presidents.


It’s John Tyler. Who fucking cares?

Grade: C-

For doing nothing but cockblocking his own party at the peak of their political
prestige, John Tyler gets a generous C-. I’m going soft on him because it’s late,
I’ve had a little whiskey and the Tyler Precedent is responsible for my favorite

11. James K Polk (1845-1849)

Finally, someone worth writing about.

James K. Polk’s Presidency wasn’t exactly supposed to happen. The 1844 race
was supposed to come down between a kindly, gentler Martin Van Buren and
Henry Clay running for his approximate 80th tilt at the Presidency. James
K. Polk himself, a Jacksonian Democrat serving as the Governor of Tennessee,
was so convinced that this was going to be the course of events that his quiet
campaign to get on the Democratic ticket was aimed at doing so as Van Buren’s
VP rather than as President in his own right.
But John Tyler’s 11th hour annexation of Texas completely changed all of that.
The Republic of Texas was a Mexican province that had been infested settled by
American expats who, doing as Americans do, rebelled against Mexico after kind
of forcing themselves on the country. They gained independence in 1836, but
Mexico still recognized Texas as its territory. And even though Texas’ population
was predominantly American, they were nominally independent, and they were
begging the US to admit them to the Union, the Mexican government was pretty
clear that any attempt to do so would constitute an act of war. So now the
question of the election was no longer whether or not the US would annex Texas,
but whether or not we’d have a war with Mexico. And you gotta wonder what’s
going on in the heads of the Mexican government while the US publicly debated
whether or not we’d be killing them for a whole year.
Not that it was much of a debate at first. Neither Van Buren nor Clay wanted
a war with Mexico. This infuriated Jackson, who, never knowing a non-white
group he didn’t want to fight, immediately sought to replace Van Buren with a
candidate more amenable to war with Mexico. He landed on Polk. Even with
Jackson’s support, though, Polk wasn’t selected as the Democratic candidate
on the first ballot (i.e. round of voting) at the Democratic Convention. In fact,
it was only on the 7th ballot, when everyone at the convention was angry and
exhausted, that he was finally chosen as the compromise candidate. And the
general election was extremely close. Polk barely managed to edge out Clay, and
only then because he won a squeaker of a victory in New York that gave him
the required electoral college majority.
But win he did, and he immediately moved to annex Texas. But that wasn’t
as easy as you might expect. While Congress had technically authorized the
annexation, it hadn’t authorized a war. And war was the only way to annex
Texas. Polk knew that he didn’t have the votes for war, so he went about getting
them in a very roundabout way. To “protect American citizens”, he sent troops
under the command of Zachary Taylor (this name will be on the test), into
Texas, while also slipping Mexico an offer to just buy Texas and call it a day.
When Mexico refused, he sent the troops deeper into Mexican territory. When
this prompted the inevitable reaction, he had his troops pull back in “It’s just a
prank, bro” fashion. They withdrew to American forts in American territory

along the border.
But this was a political tactic even more than a military one. Polk was gambling
that Mexico would attack the troops anyway, which they did. Now he had
something to rally public support behind. Mexico had invaded the US. It had
attacked US troops on American soil. That this was all provoked by the US first
didn’t seem to matter much to the public at the time. Polk won his declaration
of War. And to his credit, the war was brilliantly executed. In less than two
years, the US Army was knocking on Mexico City’s door, and Mexico was forced
to forfeit not just Texas, but Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah and Nevada
as well. He had won the American Southwest.
And he wasn’t content to stop there. Remember back in the Monroe entry
where I said that JQA had brokered an agreement with Britain to joint settle
Oregon and Washington? Well Polk wasn’t really into the whole “joint” part
of the arrangement. He wanted the territory. Sending a message to London
presumably saying, “We want that territory. Also, have you traveled south
lately? My generals tell me that the weather in Mexico City is lovely this time
of year.” he demanded the territory or war. And having had quite enough of war
with the Americans, the British agreed to withdraw from the Oregon territory
in exchange for American assurances that they’d ask for nothing else (Not that
I know why anyone would put any faith in American assurances at this point).
Polk had completed the map of the Continental US. It was a brilliant, if not
underhanded, achievement. And to answer the age old Edwin Starr question
“What is it good for?” the war had also revitalized the US economy. The addition
of California to the union led the US to its discovery of gold there, and soon, a
steady supply of it was pouring in to fill American coffers.
With peace and prosperity in hand, Polk turned his attention to tariffs. As the
primary means of funding government, they’d gotten a bit out of hand, and
US world trade was in a bad way. Polk advocated for tariff reduction, and
succeeded in getting it. And the result for the US government was an increase in
revenue, as more countries opened trade back up to the US when it eased their
After four years, and having successfully conquered every major item on his
agenda, James K Polk walked away from the Presidency. He was one of the
most successful one term Presidents in the whole of US history. He built the
modern map, saved the economy that had failed for almost a decade, and enacted
finance reforms that put the government further in the black. Not bad work for
a political dark horse.


“The world has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government.” - Lol

Grade: A-

Hard to find much to fault with here. Polk came in with a narrow set of goals
and he accomplished every one of them. That he did it all in one term, and
knew he was going to do them all in one term, is even more remarkable. I’ll give
him an A-, the A for his achievements, a - for the dishonest way he occasionally
went about them.


12. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)

The rise of Zachary Taylor as a political force is one of the more amusing among
our former Presidents. Never the smartest guy, Taylor came from old school
planter aristocracy, and despite having access to the best education money could
buy at the time, was never much of a student or a thinker. Instead, he wanted to
be a military man, and spent about 40 years of his life doing just that. And as a
military man, he didn’t believe it was his place to be involved in politics. He
followed this doctrine so radically that prior to be elected to the highest office in
the US, he’d never even voted.
It’s telling how little either side knew about what Taylor stood for that, as the
1848 elections approached, he was aggressively courted by both Democrats and
Whigs. What makes this remarkable is just how radically far apart the two
parties had grown. The Whigs were in favor of a large government that built
infrastructure, proactively regulated the economy and invested in industry and
manufacturing. It was the anti-slavery party whose members almost to a man
either opposed its spread, or favored its abolition. The Democrats, meanwhile,
favored both slavery and spreading slavery, as well as policies that stifled industry
in favor of agriculture, and limited federal government wherever possible. They
were essentially the political parties of two entirely different countries, and that
they both wanted Taylor was a testament to just how cynical the politics of
the era were. They wanted to win the election. They didn’t care much what
happened after it.
For his part, Taylor’s ideology was more closely aligned with the Democrats.
But he ultimately went with the Whigs because he was opposed to succession.
And he felt that the best way to maintain the Union was to limit the spread of
slavery. So after winning a comfortable victory in the 1848 election, the Whigs
found themselves once again led by a man who opposed most of what the party
stood for.
Way to go, Whigs. You sure knew how to pick em.
Taylor sought to lead the US as its non-partisan head; a calm, collected authority
figure that stood above politics and only for the health of the nation. He wanted
to be its “Magistrate in Chief” who could moderate all the roiling tensions in
government and curb each party’s more excessive inclinations. What this meant
in practice was that he pissed every faction in Congress, which log jammed
anything he hoped to accomplish.
Why were tensions roiling? Expansion politics and the Mexican American War
had kept America’s disparate congressional factions operating in some degree of
uncomfortable unity throughout the boom years of the Jacksonian Era. But by
the 1850s, that unity was fast falling apart. The US had expanded to most of

its present borders, and the questions of the day was what to do with the new
territory, and specifically whether or not to allow slavery in them. As each new
state admitted to the Union would have two US Senators and a slew of House
representatives, they who controlled the free or slave state balance controlled
the laws pertaining to freedom and slavery. The Missouri Compromise set 36th
parallel as the line of demarcation, with any new states north of it being admitted
as free states and any south of it being admitted as slave states. But much of
the western territory challenged that line.
The first touchstone on this new fault line was California. Its immediate economic
contribution to the US and the population that flooded there demanded it quickly
be given statehood. But giving it statehood would upset the delicate balance
of the Missouri Compromise. Congress hammered away at the problem for the
better part of two years, and eventually a compromise was reached; slave states
would allow California to be admitted to the Union as a free state, and cede all
attempts to spread slavery into the other territories acquired by Mexico. This
would, in essence, make the future states of New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada
free soil. This may sound like a major concession on the South’s part, but none
of these lands were suitable for plantation style agriculture. Their populations
were inherently uninterested in slavery to begin with, which Congressmen from
slave states well knew. In return for this false concession, however, slave states
would receive passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Act forced free states to
allow the extradition of escaped slaves back to their original masters. This in
itself was a massive violation of the free states’ right to self government, but
would prove even more sinister than that. We’ll get to that in a minute, though.
To bring this back around to Zachary Taylor, he was having none of it. Taylor
promised to veto the Compromise. He viewed the Fugitive Slave Act as an
infringement on the rights of free states (it was), and predicted that it would
escalate tensions between abolitionists and pro-slavery factions (it did). Taylor
felt that letting each new state determine its own status was a better, fairer
solution, though we will revisit the potential follies of that shortly. As long as
he held the Presidency, there would be no 1850 Compromise.
And then he suddenly stopped holding the Presidency when he died in July of
1850, just a year into his first term. Whether not Taylor’s approach would have
prevented a Civil War or sped up the process by which it happens remains to be
seen. Taylor died as a good man who wanted to be a servant of the public. But
his lack of any sort of governing philosophy meant that he had no ideological
objective to achieve as President. He was left simply reacting to events and
issuing commands to Congress that they typically ignored. For all his good
intentions, he was forgettable, ineffectual, and left no lasting legacy.


“I have no private purpose to accomplish, no party objectives to build up, no

enemies to punish—nothing to serve but my country.”

Grade: Incomplete

I frankly doubt Taylor have earned much more than a D. The era leading up
to the Civil War required strong, firm leadership willing to take a position on
the ideological battles of the day. Taylor never had that. But he died too soon
to see if the one position he did take was ever going to work. Incomplete is the
only fair grade to give him.

13. Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)

Of the 44 men to hold the office of US President, only four were of the Whig
Party. Two of them were old war heroes selected more for the fame brought by
their military service than their political positions, and two were the ineffectual
vice presidents who took over for them when old age and shitty DC water claimed
their lives. That brings us to Millard Fillmore.
It’s a real shame that Fillmore’s Presidency wasn’t more interesting, because
his life certainly was. Not in the way that Van Buren’s or John Quincy Adams
were, in that it made indelible contributions to America’s political system, but
rather because of how unlikely that it was that Fillmore would ever sit in the
White House to begin with. Fillmore was the son of a failed farmer. When the
family was forced to abandon the farm they moved to Buffalo, where the 12 year
old Millard was “apprenticed” to a textile manufacturer. What this meant in
practice was that his parents sold his working rights to the company, and in turn,
Fillmore was bound to work for them until he could pay the money back. It was
legalized form of indentured servitude that mean that Millard largely grew up
working constantly and in extreme poverty. But he also grew up in New York’s
political halls, where the Buffalo political machine frequently used children for
all kinds of tasks from simple crying, to running dispatches to executing voter
drives. In his free time, Fillmore devoured every book and legal document he
could get his hands on and worked the political machine in whatever capacity
was required. By age 21, he had bought his way out of apprenticeship and made
a considerable name for himself with the machine leaders, essentially forcing his
way into politics by sheer force of will. He was elected as a representative to
New York’s legislature, where he served with distinction and to great acclaim as
one of its more smarter and more dedicated statesmen before being elected to
the House of Representatives.
When the Presidential election of 1848 rolled around, Whig political operatives
had zeroed in on Zachary Taylor as their nominee. Taylor was a man of the

South, which inherently made Northern Whigs skeptical. So he needed a running
mate that would help him carry the North, or at least carry critical New York
state, which was basically the Florida of its day. Surveying New York’s political
scene for someone who could help, but that wouldn’t alienate any southern
voters, the Whigs landed on Fillmore. And he did help them carry New York, as
he was extremely popular there (although as it would turn out, the Whigs didn’t
really need New York at all; they’d won a comfortable majority of electoral
votes with or without it). Thus it was that when Taylor died, a New York local
politician unknown to most of the country became the President of the United
Fillmore was an idealist who believed in government intervention in the economy,
including tariffs, direct taxation and infrastructural projects. But by the time
he became President, the conflict between pro and anti slavery factions had
logjammed Congress so badly that nothing else was even discussed. He attempted
to end this impasse by signing the Compromise of 1850. But all that did was
ratchet up tensions as northern and southern states over the particulars of the
Fugitive Slave Act. Not believing it was his place to submit bills to Congress,
the rest of his agenda never saw the light of day.
Fillmore failed to retain the Whig nomination in 1852, but had a brief comeback
when he ran on the Know-Nothing ticket in 1856. He never had much for
political support, though, and passed out of public life. Having been a politician
most of his life, Fillmore had never amassed any wealth or business capital. He
returned to poverty, and less than two years after leaving the White House had
buried both his wife and his daughter. He remained vocal, sounding the alarm
repeatedly on the self destructive nature of slavery’s spread, but was largely
ignored. Today he’s considered one of America’s most forgotten Presidents. It
was a sad end to one of America’s more impressive rags to riches stories.


“May god save this country, for it is evident her people will not.”

Grade: D

Millard Fillmore was ineffectual, and the only thing he accomplished was singing
a compromise that would eventually help bring about the Civil War. He was an
upjumped minor legislator that never had the experience needed to govern an
entire nation, much less one with as many problems as the mid 19th Century
United States. He gets my sincere sympathy, and a D grade.

14. Franklin Pierce (1852-1846)

By 1852, the Whig Party was falling apart, divided internally and hemorrhaging
both money and support. But the Democrats, while solvent, were deeply divided.
Though many democrats represented the needs of the Southern planter class,
many were Midwesterners or Northerners who stood behind all of the Party’s
small government principles, but abhorred slavery. The fight between the pro
and anti slavery factions of the Party produced a deadlocked convention, and
after dozens of unsuccessful ballots to pick a nominee, compromise candidate
Franklin Pierce was chosen.
The choice was met with scorn almost immediately. Pierce was a Maine politician
who’d represented the state in the US House and Senate, where he developed
the reputation of being a political windsock who liked partying and socializing
more than actually governing. Knowing that he would be likely be bounced from
his Senate seat by New Hampshire voters after a single term, he resigned to
pursue his real passion, which was drinking. He served a brief, blundering tour
in the Mexican American War before returning to his law practice. Proving that
in America, it’s always possible to fail upward, he ran for President, where he
garnered almost no support. But Pierce’s one claim to fame was great personal
gregariousness. Handsome, friendly and an elegant speaker, he was very good at
making people like him. A number of prominent Southern Democrats, including
eventual Confederate President Jefferson Davis, had been among those who liked
him. So after 48 ballots at the Democratic Convention failed to produce a real
Presidential nominee, the delegates finally settled on him as their compromise
candidate. He was ultimately elected President after annihilating the collapsing
Whigs in a 28-4 state route.
And that’s where his triumphs end. Pierce was not a good President. In the
best of the times, Pierce was a feckless drunk who had little in the way guiding
principles. But his inherent issues as a politician were exacerbated on January
6th, 1853. Touring the North in a post-election, pre-inauguration victory lap,
the train car he rode in derailed and rolled over down a steep embankment.
Though Pierce was unhurt, his 11 year old son Benjamin was hurdled across
the cabin. As his parents looked on, he was crushed and nearly decapitated by
falling debris. Pierce was devastated by the loss of his son, and felt that God had
taken Benjamin to punish him for his own sins, including running for President.
The sentiment shared and often repeated by his wife. Estranged from his wife
and left without the boy he’d adored, Pierce had been reduced to an emotional
shell of himself before he’d even been sworn in. He sank deeply into despair and
The absence of a clear headed commander in chief meant that the governing
of the nation was largely taken up by Pierce’s cabinet. And his cabinet was
cock full of Southern pro-slavery democrats who had been chosen as part of
the compromise that made him the nominee. Even his Vice President, William
King, was a pro-slavery Southerner (and would also die of TB very shortly into

Pierce’s term, but we’ll get back to King in a minute). In essence, the country
was effectively lead by soon-to-be traitor Jefferson Davis. As a result, every
pro-slavery demand was capitulated to.
Part of that capitulation was the aggressive enforcement of the Fugitive Slave
Act. And while it had been in effect for a while by the time Pierce was President,
the consequences of it had only just begun to be felt. The law required that
all free states dedicate their resources to help capture escaped slaves, and that
they prosecute anyone who had assisted them, even if such states had recognized
their freedom previously. It dismantled many of the apparatuses that states used
to challenge the status of freed blacks when southern slave hunters captured
them, which emboldened such men to capture freed blacks, whether they were
fugitive slaves or not. And for the first time, it brought slavery to the doorsteps
of Northern Americans, who saw first hand what enslavement looked like. This
was nowhere more apparent than it was with the capture of Anthony Burns,
which occurred in public in front of scores of onlookers. They watched as a black
man, a model member of his community, was dragged off the streets, thrown in
prison and hauled into bondage in spite of furious protests from the people of
Massachusetts. And it happened because Pierce’s Administration chose to make
a public example out of Burns. Pierce in general adopted a zero tolerance policy
towards both escaped slaves and the states that harbored them, and by virtue
of trampling their rights in spite of public opinion, turned tens of thousands of
Northern moderates on the issue into abolitionists.
And it wasn’t his only folly on the issue. As the United States swelled in size, and
particularly as California blossomed into a new American breadbasket, pressure
mounted on the Federal Government to help fund a Transcontinental Railroad.
Pierce supported the idea, but it couldn’t be exercised without first organizing
some of the western territories into states; specifically Kansas and Nebraska.
The Compromise of 1850 declared that both states would get to vote on their
admittance as free or slave states, but the Kansas-Nebraska act still received
broad support from pro-slavery forces. At the time, it as thought that Nebraska
would come down firmly as a free state while Kansas would vote broadly to be a
slave state. And while Nebraska quickly conformed to expectations, Kansas did
When it became clear that Kansas wasn’t going to meekly accept slavery, and
that the vote would be close, hundreds of radical abolitionists and pro-slavery
advocates poured into the state in an effort to influence the vote. Ragtag militias
formed on both sides and promptly began to kill one another. As the violence
spread, more militias backed by southern financiers backed up the pro slavery
forces and when the election rolled around, helped throw the election to a pro
slavery legislature.
The saga, known to history as Bleeding Kansas, cannot entirely be blamed
on Pierce. That Kansas would go pro slave was widely expected by basically
everyone on both sides of the issue. But the real trouble was Pierce’s reaction
to it. Despite a Congressional investigation determining that violence by and

non-eligible voting from pro-slavery factions had illegally thrown the election in
favor of pro-slavery Democrats, the Pierce Administration verified the Kansas
legislature. Pierce’s cabinet tried to organize a statehood bill that would railroad
the new legislature into power, but the increasingly anti-slavery House blocked
Pierce was finally able to slow the escalating violence down by appointing John
Geary, a moderate, to Kansas’ governorship, but by then the damage to his
credibility was critical. Parties like the Know Nothings and the new anti-slavery
Republicans had grown from the ashes of the Whig Party and organized an
opposition to Pierce’s presidency. After the fiasco of Bleeding Kansas, he was
never quite able to get anything else done.
Pierce was bumped off the Democratic ticket by James Buchanan in the 1856
elections. Retiring to Maine, he continued to write about politics, relentlessly
criticizing eventual President Abraham Lincoln and insisting that if he’d given
another term, he could have prevented the Civil War. His alcoholism worsened,
and he died in 1869 from severe liver cirrhosis. He outlived both of his next
successors despite actively and unapologetically trying to drink himself to death.
The most charitable thing that could be said of Franklin Pierce was that he
didn’t have his head in the game. And it is very likely that his son’s tragic death
distracted him from governing. But he deferred to interests within his cabinet
that were not only unwilling to negotiate on the difficult issue of slavery, but
that enthusiastically rubbed salt in the wounds of Northerners. His actions led
directly to the onset of the Civil War, and there is simply no getting around
that failure, wherever its root lies.


“You have summoned me in my weakness. You must sustain me by your strength.”

Grade: F

Look, I feel bad for the guy, really. But if the signature accomplishments of your
Presidency can all be listed in under the “Origins of the American Civil War”
Wikipedia article, you’re gettin’ an F.

15. James Buchanan (1857-1861)

By 1857 a proto-Civil War in Kansas had claimed dozens of lives. Riots were
routinely breaking out in the North calling for the end of slavery, and in the
South for secession from the Union. In Iowa, abolitionist leader John Brown was
training a private army to lead an anti-slave uprising through Virginia, and on
the floor of Congress, abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner was beaten within

an inch of his life by a Southern Congressman for giving an anti-slavery speech.
America was broken, its 75 year old Union falling apart at the seems.
It was against this grim backdrop that James Buchanan was sworn into the
Presidency promising to put it back together again. And on paper, there were
few more qualified men for the job. Buchanan’s resume included a stint in the
House of Representatives, the United States Senate, serving as James K. Polk’s
Secretary of State and ambassadorships to Russia and Britain. A Pennsylvanian,
he was a Northerner with deep, intimate connections to the South, and thus
served as a bridge on contentious, non-slavery issues. When he unseated Franklin
Pierce for the Democratic nomination, he did so by campaigning as a hyper
competent statesman who could help mend America’s festering wounds. To
reinforce the point that it was all he wanted to do, he pledged himself to be a
one term President.
But despite his reputation, Buchanan was not some high minded political
neutral. In his Congressional days, he got extremely close to the Southern
caucus, particularly future VP William Rufus King (and again, we’ll get to
that in a minute) and Jefferson Davis. He admired the courtliness of the South
and grew to have a tremendous respect for the Southern way of life. As his
career advanced under Jackson and later Polk, that respect would evolve into a
mindset that was, whether he admitted it or not, very pro-slavery. He blamed
the growing political crisis on abolitionists for “exciting passions” (despite it
being Southerners picking most of the day’s political battles) and believed that
northern anti-slavery factions were operating with a “regional, sectional bias”
(as though the pro-slavery South were doing anything less).
This bias became evident even prior to his assuming office. He got an early head
start on besmirching his legacy when he lobbied the Supreme Court to turn in a
pro-slavery verdict in the Dred Scott case. Though a pro-slavery verdict likely
would have come in anyway, Buchanan took pride in converting one Justice to
rule against Scott, and the Chief Justice to author a broad decision. And broad
it was. The ruling interpreted that no black man, whether slave or free, could
be considered a citizen of the United States if his ancestors had been sold into
slavery. They had no federal standing to sue in a federal court, and no rights.
It’s justification for this, and I quote:
[Black Africans imported as slaves] had for more than a century before been regarded as bein
Jesus Christ, America.
The Court further ruled that the Federal Government had no authority to ban
slavery in any of the territories or new states. It was a victory of staggering
magnitude for the pro-slavery south that established, in essence, that blacks
weren’t people and that the Federal Government could not ban slavery. It was
handed down on Buchanan’s second day in office, and he helped it along gleefully.
It also infuriated abolitionists and anti-slavery liberals across the nation.
Turning to Kansas, Buchanan wanted to get the state admitted to the Union,

but knew he couldn’t do it unless the state had a constitution. To get one to
his liking in place, he ousted the moderate Governor Greary who had smoothed
the crisis over, and replaced him with pro-slavery Robert Walker. By this
point, an abolitionists had formed a government in Topka while the pro-slavery
faction had formed one in Lecompton, both sides claiming that they were
Kansas’ rightful government. Though the Topeka government clearly had more
support, Buchanan recognized the Lecompton government instead. Both factions
submitted constitutions, and when Lecompton held a referendum on theirs, the
Topeka government abstained on the grounds that an illegitmate government
couldn’t hold a legitimate referendum. The result was that the Lecompton
Constitution had technically passed a popular referendum, but had only done so
because the abolitionists didn’t vote in it. Despite Walker’s strident objections
that he was going to get them all killed, Buchanan accepted the Lecompton
Congress had other ideas, however. They rejected Kansas’ admission to the
Union until a real referendum was held that included all Kansas voters. Buchanan
tried every trick in his playbook to make Congress reconsider, offering patronage
appointments, political favors and pork barrel spending measures in favor for
votes. Though he gained acceptance of the Lecompton Constitution in the
Senate, it was beaten in the House. Buchanan then tried to buy off Kansas
directly, promising them lands earmarked for other territories and immediate
statehood if they’d just accept the Constitution. But this proposal went nowhere
In the meantime, Bleeding Kansas was back on. Both abolitionists and pro-
slavery forces poured back into the state to rig the referendum that everyone
but Buchanan had accepted was going to have to happen. But there had been a
decisive turn against slavery throughout the country. Scandals like the caning
of Sumner, the Dred Scott ruling and the belligerent nature of the Fugitive
Slave Act had swung opinion in free states dramatically against slavery. When
a fair and inclusive referendum was finally held, voters accepted a pro slavery
constitution by a 2:1 margin. Undeterred, Buchanan refused to sign any bill
that would grant Kansas statehood with a free constitution. Kansas would not
become a state until Buchanan had been replaced by Abraham Lincoln in 1861.
Things continued to fall apart. In the midterms of 1858, Republicans and know
nothings won an anti-slave coalition in Congress. Jefferson Davis introduced new
“Slave Codes” to force slavery on free states and territories, which ignited vicious
debates that brought all legislative progress in Congress to a screaming halt.
Abolitionist John Brown sprung his makeshift army on Harper’s Ferry, hoping
to capture weapons sufficient to arm thousands of slaves in a mass uprising. It
failed, but the threat it posed galvanized pro-slavery forces. Southern leaders
now claimed that they could no longer compromise with the “violent abolitionist
movement”, as though the Republican Party had attacked Harper’s Ferry instead
of a few dozen overzealous yahoos.
And then the election of 1860 was held, and it proved to be a historic wave

election that swept Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln into the White
House. In his one positive contribution to American History, Buchanan kept
his word about remaining a one term President, and refused the Democratic
nomination. Republicans were unified, while Democrats has split into Southern
and Northern Parties, with separate candidates that split the vote. Had their
vote been combined, Buchanan might actually have beaten Lincoln, and God
only knows how the future of the Republican could have turned out.
Unlike most Presidents, however, Buchanan’s story did not end there. Since
1848, pro-slavery forces of the United States had achieved one victory after
another. They forced the Fugitive Slave Act on the North. The Supreme Court
had denied rights to blacks both free and enslaved. They’d forced slavery in
territories that didn’t even want it. But the election of the staunchly anti-slavery
(but not abolitionist, although we’ll get to that tomorrow) was a bridge too
far. Facing a President who wouldn’t capitulate to their demands, the Southern
States began seceding.
When the initial talk of secession began to boil, Buchanan stated unequivocally
that the President had no power to force states to remain in the Union. He
refused to deploy federal troops to the South in the aftermath of the election, and
refused even to do so when states actually began to secede. This last, greatest of
Buchanan’s follies gave the South a great deal of time to muster its armed forces
and organize, and made sure the federal army was woefully behind in doing the
same. Had Buchanan seen the writing on the wall after the election and moved
swiftly to occupy the South, the entire bitter war that followed could have been
avoided. He didn’t, and the result was the most destructive conflict in American
Buchanan’s Presidency was one long, stubborn string of mistakes that weakened
the union, enflamed the tensions roiling inside of her and ultimately served to
bring about the Civil War. Future crappy Presidents take heart; you have to
break the US in two to be a worse President than James Buchanan.
Oh, also; James Buchanan? Probably gay. He certainly wasn’t called Bachelor
Buchanan because he was a lady killer. He was the only President who never
married, and the one engagement he did have was broken off by Buchanan for
reasons unknown. She refused to talk about it, but was clearly heartbroken
by. . . whatever it was.
His lover for most of his life was likely Pierce’s VP William Rufus King, who
rose through the legislature with him and whom he lived with for over a decade.
Politicians of the day writing about them referred to them as “inseparable”
and often referred to King specifically as “Aunt Fancy”. In one letter to an
associate, he wrote of “wooing gentlemen” when King was serving as an overseas
ambassador. There’s a fair body of evidence to support the idea of a relationship
between the two men, and King was one of the main Congressional connections
he had to the Democratic, pro-slavery south.
It’s worth pointing out, but I didn’t want it to get in the way of talking about

his Presidency, to which it’s completely inconsequential.


“Sir, if you are as happy in entering the White House as I shall feel upon leaving
it, you are a happy man indeed.” - Said to Abraham Lincoln on the day of his

Grade: F

An F obviously. He was the worst President of all time. The only good thing he
ever did for America was step aside so we could get some real leadership.

Civil War and Reconstruction

16. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

Abraham Lincoln’s path to the Presidency is likely the oddest of any President
outside the current one. He always had a nose for politics, but he wasn’t
especially good at them. As a popular lawyer, he was easily able to win a seat
on the Illinois Legislature, but he had federal ambitions. After a few losing
bouts, he was able to parlay this seat into a brief tenure in the US House of
Representatives. He formed a relationship with legendary speaking Henry Clay
there, who mentored him on many of the finer arts of policymaking, and he
helped author some pretty major bills of the era. And he was also notably one
of the only voices that opposed James K Polk’s Mexican American War. Early
when the war got started, Polk encouraged troops to invade Mexico and pull
back to American soil when they were counterattacked. That American troops
were ultimately attacked on American soil was one of the main justifications that
Polk used to get his war declaration, but Lincoln called out the gambit for what
it was. But the funny thing about being one of the only voices speaking out
on an issue; it usually means that you’re on the wrong side of popular opinion.
Essentially being accused of cowardice, Lincoln was booted out of the House by
a challenger after only one term.
Lincoln remained a faithful Whig but was largely uninvolved in politics until
the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In addition to irreparably splitting
and ultimately destroying the Whig Party, it kind of got Lincoln back into the
game. A lifelong opponent of slavery, he wrote frequently about the injustice
against freedom and the threat to the Union the Act represented. It brought
renewed attention to the Springfield Lawyer, and as the Republican Party
formed out of the ashes of the Whigs, he became its vocal Illinois leader. This
position of leadership didn’t necessarily correlate with a position in the Federal
Government, though not for lack of trying. Though he won a seat in the Illinois
Legislature as a Republican, his eyes were on the US Senate. He challenged
Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas for his seat after easily winning the nomination
of the Republican Party.
And this is where Lincoln’s star really began to take off. Back then, Senators in
Illinois were elected not by popular vote, but by the legislature. And with the
state’s Democratic Party on the outs, Republicans saw a chance to take control
of the Illinois legislature. Douglas was as much a leader of the Illinois Democrats
as Lincoln was its Republicans, and as eager to defend his party as Lincoln was
to attack it. They arranged the famed Lincoln Douglas Debates throughout the
state to sell their parties’ ideologies in its major cities. The debates themselves
were over nothing short of the philosophy of the current order and whether or not
it was sustainable. All the hot issues of the day, most importantly the morality
of slavery, were hotly debated between the two master orators. The debates drew
enormous crowds who treated them almost like sporting events, and garnered

national attention. Though the Democrats eventually won the legislature, and
thus Douglas the Senate seat, the debates put a national spotlight on Lincoln.
He became through the debates a sort of moral and ideological leader of the
Republican Party, and ultimately its Presidential nominee for the pivotal 1860
Those elections resulted in his victory, not by a majority but by a plurality of
electoral votes. Turnout for the election was a spectacular 82% and of that,
nearly 40% cast their ballots for Abraham Lincoln. It was contentious and bitter,
but he did enough. And that’s the story of how a man who’d only been a one
term House rep became the President of the United States.
And his election was really the “last straw” for the southern states. Really, it
was only the second straw. Other than Buchanan’s failure to impose slavery on
Kansas, it was the only development in national politics that didn’t amount to a
complete capitulation to pro-slavery demands. After putting anti-slavery forces
on retreat for the better part of a decade, the idea that a president would stand
up to them was enough to make them nope out of the Union. By the time he
was inaugurated, a full crisis was on.
This obviously set the tone of his time in office. Lincoln’s first through last
priorities upon entering office were to save the Union, and he was willing to do
that by whatever means necessary. Due to the inadequacy of his predecessors
war preparations, he was left in a rough spot. He made overtures to the South
in his inaugural address, but knew that war was the only thing that would
ultimately bring them back into the fold. But the army was in dreadful shape,
and well behind its Southern counterpart in terms of preparation.
Lincoln had his hands tied in the early days of the war. He needed support
from Congress to prosecute the War, and many Democrats left in the legislature
still opposed a war with the South. To mollify them, Lincoln was forced to
make political appointments in army leadership, which weakened the war effort,
but gave him a freer hand in prosecuting the war. He also had to act quickly
to insure that border states wouldn’t leave, and this he managed on a case by
case basis. For Kentucky, which provided an invaluable staging ground, he was
subtle, allowing it to remain neutral while quietly subverting politics within its
borders to give control to more Union friendly leaders. In Maryland, he was
blunt. Maryland’s secession would give the rebel army and almost unimpeded
shot at the Capital. So to prevent this, he took it over with federal troops and
imprisoned the potential leaders of the secessionist movement there. It was
heavy handed, and required the suspension of constitutional rights, but it kept
one of the North’s most exposed underbellies safe.
The War got off to a rocky start for the Union with a string of early defeats.
But even starting off on a bad foot, the Union was in good shape. The urban
North had the rural South outnumbered almost 2:1 in terms of the fighting
power available. It had the rail infrastructure to move those men around in ways
that the South did not, and a massive edge in the material and manufacturing

capability to produce the arms and artillery that were quickly becoming the
deciding factor in a new age of industrialized warfare. And the entire Confederate
war effort hinged on its ability to export goods, which was greatly diminished by
a Union blockade that starved it badly needed funds. There was really only one
way the North could lose a prolonged attrition war, and that was the intervention
of Europe. The South was an important source of tobacco and cotton to Europe,
so there was a natural incentive for them to throw in on the side of the South.
Even if the South didn’t get a manpower injection from Britain and France (an
event that was unlikely even if things went well for them), naval support to
break the Union blockade and a financial boost could have been enough to turn
the tide. And with the Union losing battle after battle, the spectre of European
intervention loomed large. Lincoln needed a victory to head it off.
He finally got one with the Battle of Antietam, which though tactically inconclu-
sive, repulsed an invading Confederate Army and allowed a victory for Lincoln
to hang his hat on. And that victory allowed him to make the definitive move
both of the War and his Presidency. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation,
which freed the slaves in Union territory. There were caveats as were necessary
to appease the border states, but the move turned the Civil War into a conflict
of freedom against slavery as much as over the right for states to secede from the
Union. It turned public sentiment in Europe decidedly against the Confederates.
It was the decisive move of the War, as it removed from the table the only great
hope for Confederate victory.
It is worth discussing that Lincoln’s evolution on slavery was precisely that; an
evolution. Though he was always anti-slavery, there was a very distinct difference
between anti-slavery and abolitionist ideology. Initially he sought only to stop
the spread of slavery into new territories. But even then, he was somewhat
ideologically flexible. In his own words, “My paramount object in this struggle
is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could
save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it
by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some
and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and
the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I
forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
This line of thinking was not altogether different from other Whigs and Re-
publicans before him. But where Lincoln marks himself as visionary was his
final understanding that, also in his own words from years earlier, that “a house
divided could not stand”. America could not exist civilly with half its nation
allowing slavery and half forbidding it. It was too great an ideological flashpoint.
And in declaring it illegal, he saved not only the Union’s present, but also its
I won’t get too bogged down in the Xs and Os of the War’s execution because
this series is about the Presidents. And Lincoln largely allowed his commanders
to do what they saw fit. But that’s not to say he doesn’t deserve credit for the
War. He replaced commanders as needed, and when he felt that a prolonged

war was going to turn into a really prolonged war, promoted Grant to lead
Union forces in 1864. Grant’s strategy was that of frontal assault. It resulted in
casualties on both sides, but while the North could afford to lose the casualties it
was taking, the South could not. The strategy lead to a quick capture of several
key Confederate cities and a much quicker end to the War.
Managing the war meant managing the economy, and in this regard, Lincoln’s
presidency was revolutionary. He managed the supply of money in a much
more responsible way than his confederate counterparts. He created the federal
currency that we use today, and centralized its issuance under federal authority
rather than that of regional banks. This would prove critical to solving the
problem of decades worth of panics set off by irresponsible fiscal policy set by
banks. To fund the war, he pushed for the Revenue Act of 1861, which set the
first federal income tax, established excise taxes and inheritance taxes. Many of
these changes would prove permanent, and all of them would eventually alter
America’s thinking about her finances. Despite their being innovations driven
by wartime necessity, they were innovations all the same.
And while the Emancipation Proclamation was all well and good, it was only
a law. For emancipation to stick, he needed it to be an amendment to the
Constitution. This was a pretty tall order, even without Southern congressmen
there to oppose it. Lincoln worked tirelessly on passage. He made direct
appeals to both congressmen and their constituents. He traded political favors
to buy support, and promised patronage jobs to congressmen in danger of losing
reelection for their support. In the end, it squeaked through Congress with the
necessary majorities. State ratification was ironically a little easier, as several of
the states reconquered were essentially being run by governments that Lincoln
had installed there. In the end, his efforts were essential to the Amendment’s
Part of ending the War quickly was the authorization of the “total war” proposed
by Grant; that Southern infrastructure, civilian centers and farms were destroyed
along with military targets. And while brutal, it not only brought the War to
a swifter end, but insured that the Southern capability of rising up again was
more or less crushed. It also left a hell of a mess to clean up. Though Lincoln
favored brutal conduct in the War, he also argued for moderate reconstruction
that would give the South a measure of independence back, as well as getting
them back on their feet.
Whether Lincoln’s moderate-yet-firm approach to Reconstruction would have
saved it from the mess it turned into will never be known. Because on April
14th of 1965, mere months after his second inauguration and only days after the
Confederate surrender, he was shot and killed by John Wilkes Booth. Though
his methods were often brutal and unconstitutional, he did bring the Union back
together. And his freedom of the slaves righted one of America’s great original
sins. It also permanently ended the Union’s most divisive issue, and no conflict
of state ideologies has produced anything resembling that sort of pressure on it

But beyond those monumental accomplishments, Lincoln transformed the way the
United States operated and viewed itself. The federal government, from that point
on, was no longer serving at the will of the states, but rather the reverse. The Civil
War made the US, for the first time, a truly united Republic rather than simply
a collection of states who worked together. He shaped the ideological doctrine
of the US to revolve not around the enumerated powers of the Constitution, but
the high minded ideological principles of the Declaration of Independence. And
he paved the way for the passage of future Constitutional Amendments that have
formed the legal bedrock of fairness. In women’s rights, the fall of Jim Crow,
the gay rights movement and the universal suffrage movements in subsequent
decades, shades of Lincoln and his ideological legacy can be found. In his first
inaugural address, Lincoln said “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from
every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over
this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as
surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” And it was those better
angels that he embodied and would inspire for years to come.


“A nation may be said to consist of its territory, its people, and its laws. The
territory is the only part which is of certain durability.”One generation passeth
away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever." It is of the
first importance to duly consider and estimate this ever-enduring part.”

Grade: A+

Lincoln gets an A+ for saving the Union, freeing the slaves and forever altering
the shape and ideals of the Republic. He’s our greatest President ever. There’s
a reason a giant marble statue of him looks over the National Mall and that we
carved his face into a mountain.

17. Andrew Johnson (1865-1869)

At the risk of skipping to the end here, I’m going to start this writeup by saying
that 17th President and Tommy Lee Jones look alike Andrew Johnson earns
an F grade from me. That’s a damned difficult thing to do, and only 5 of
the 43 Presidents I plan on reviewing will earn one. We’ve covered plenty of
bad presidents already, and we’ll cover plenty more as we move along. But
what distinguishes a bad president from a truly disastrous one is that he’s not
only ineffective, but he either actively compromises the long term health of
the Republic or leaves some indelible stain on the office and nation. Johnson
somehow carries the impressive distinction of doing both despite being completely
ineffective from a political standpoint.

To understand what made Johnson such a bad President, one need only look at
his background. Johnson was a Southern Democrat from Tennessee. He grew up
in a pro-slavery world, and that’s what he represented when he went to the US
Senate. But despite being a typical Southern Democrat in most senses of that
term, he was a vehement Unionist. When Tennessee seceded from the Union,
Johnson actually remained in the Senate rather than going along with them.
This is how he fell in with Lincoln. When Tennessee was conquered by the Union
Army, Lincoln appointed Johnson as its military governor, and eventually made
him his VP when running in 1864. Part of this selection was cynical. Lincoln felt
he needed votes from the border states to fend off a Republican challenger. But
part of it was ideological. Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction was a moderate
one. He wanted the conquered south to feel like it was part of the Union, and
part of that meant giving them a voice within his administration. Johnson fit
that bill perfectly, even if he shared little in common with Lincoln ideologically.
Of course then Lincoln was shot and Johnson became President. Oops.
Just as important as Johnson’s background was the timing of his ascension.
Johnson was sworn in only 6 days after the final capitulation of the South. As
the rebel states fell into line, some under Lincoln, the rest under Johnson, military
governments had been appointed by the President. The duties of these were
situational. Some states were more conciliatory than others, and those governors
were responsible for setting up elections to install legitimate governments. In
other cases, they had broad ranging authorities to exercise power. What this
effectively meant is that Lincoln, and later Johnson, had tremendous control
over the policy being set by the southern states; far more than what they had
over Union states.
Not only did Johnson’s succession to the Presidency give him sweeping power
over the course of Reconstruction, but it came at a time when the people who
were supposed to check that power (Congress) were about to check out for the
year. And in the days before mass transit and communication, where it could
take weeks to send simple messages to dispersed congressmen, this was a big
deal. Congress was controlled not just by Republicans at the time, but “Radical”
Republicans who favored crazy things like racial equality and molding the South
into a more legally tolerant place. They were understandably concerned about
Southern former slave owner assuming the job. But when he took the oath, he
did so swearing that the south would be punished and that he’d stand behind
the freedmen. So they went on their planned recess, which left Johnson as the
sole master of Reconstruction in its infancy.
And here’s the problem with that: Johnson was a racist. And not the “I think
blacks need to better themselves” kind of racist. A “blacks are an inferior order
who should leave governing to the whites” racist. To quote the man himself in
an 1863 address:
I have lived among Negroes, all my life, and I am for this Government with
slavery under the Constitution as it is. . . Before I would see this Government

destroyed, I would send every negro back to Africa, disintegrated and blotted
out of space.
Boy howdy has Vice Presidential vetting come a long way. . . .
Johnson believed that the Southern states needed to be brought back to the
rightful place in the Union as equal partners in government, and that that
transition should be quick and unconditional. And you might be thinking, “Well
yeah, wasn’t that the point of the Civil War?” and to answer your purely
hypothetical question, it depends on who you asked. To pro Union Democrats
like Johnson, yes. But the Republicans of the era disagreed. To them, the cause
of the Civil War was slavery, and the only way to prevent a future Civil War was
to make re-entry into the Union conditional upon the recognition of blacks as
equal citizens. Most of Congress was behind some version of this, but Congress
was out of town.
So with all that background out of the way, what America had in April of 1865
was a President who believed in the unconditional acceptance of the states, that
the newly freed African Americans were subhumans and who had no Congress
to stand in his way. And he very quickly went to work putting that agenda
into practice. He quickly moved to reinstate Confederate states by appointing
governors and empowering them to appoint legislatures. His only requirements
were that the 13th Amendment be accepted and that they pledge to remain loyal
to the Union. While this might sound like a fair deal, many of the states moved
to establish Black Codes that, among other things, restricted blacks freedom of
movement, eliminated their right to vote, stripped them of land and empowered
whites to provide work to them in conditions very similar to slavery (in that
they were contractually bound to their plantations and paid so laughably little
that they had little to no practical freedom).
To further this cause, Johnson went to work aggressively neutering the Freedmen’s
Bureau, an agency created by Lincoln to help integrate freed slaves into society
as equal partners. It helped find blacks meaningful employment, gave them aid
in reconstruction ravaged areas when states withheld it favor of whites, and
represented their rights in legal cases. Johnson regularly overturned orders
to fulfill these functions, and frequently denied funding to branches that too
aggressively supported the rights of the black man.
One of Johnson’s core beliefs was that the planter aristocracy was one of the
drivers of the Civil War; that they amassed too much power in government
and their interests were disproportionately represented versus those of non-land
holding or small farming and urban whites. It was an assumption shared by
Lincoln and absolutely correct. But rather than taking steps like breaking up
their old land holdings, Johnson’s haste to fold the Confederate states back into
the Union caused him to restore property and titles to Confederates before anyone
could stop him. This lead to a complete resurgence of the planter aristocracy in
spite of Johnson’s intention that this not be the case.
Congress finally came back in session in January, and were pretty understandably

pissed. They’d only agreed to recess under the assurances that the Republican
agenda would be carried out. Not that I want to completely absolve them. Why
they’d go off on a seven month siesta while the country faced one of the most
pivotal domestic challenges in her history is beyond my understanding. But
when they got back, they immediately sought to right the ship by overriding
Johnson. They passed bills renewing the Freedmen’s Bureau, admitting anti-
slavery Nebraska to the Union and curbing the most egregious of the black codes.
Johnson vetoed them all, shattering the previous record of 11 Presidential vetoes
by issuing 29 throughout his Presidency. So the pattern went. Congress would
pass measures for Reconstruction. Johnson would veto them, and Congress
would override his vetoes. He was successful in blocking universal birthright
citizenship, as well as the 14th Amendment. But despite all his rage, Johnson
was still just a rat in a cage.
The midterms allowed Johnson to regain some measure of control, as new
representatives from the South helped make overriding vetoes more difficult,
particularly as the newly formed Klu Klux Klan used violence to suppress voter
turnout. While Johnson was not able to block the first, second, third for fourth
Reconstruction Acts, he was able to stymie much of the Republican civil rights
agenda. The two fought to a stalemate, jamming up the works of government at
a time when the US really, really needed a functional government.
By 1867, Republicans in Congress were thoroughly sick of Johnson’s shit, and
were actively looking for a means to get rid of him. And in doing so, they took
aim at his cabinet. Johnson had agreed to keep Lincoln’s impressive cabinet
together in the wake of his death, but he was deeply at odds with many of
its members who followed a much less accommodating plan for Reconstruction
than what Johnson was carrying out. Sensing these tensions, Congress passed
the Tenure of Office Act, which forbade a sitting President from removing a
cabinet member without the authorization of the Senate. The constitutionality
of this proposal was dubious at best, but Congress overrode Johnson’s veto and
it became law, thus setting a trap for him.
The trap was sprung over Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. As a commander of
the military governments and occupation forces throughout the South, Stanton
had a high degree of control over the execution of policy. And h frequently
ignored Johnson and overrode his decisions in its execution (this was particularly
true of the Freedmen’s Bureaus, which Stanton supported). Stanton was further
emboldened by the Tenure of Office Act, and continued operating on his own
despite overtures from Johnson to come to some kind of an arrangement with
him. In spite of his rank insubordination, Johnson knew he could never get
Congressional approval to dismiss Stanton. So Johnson fired him anyway, the
law be damned.
But “law be damned” was precisely the reaction that Republicans had been
hoping for. When Johnson dismissed Stanton, they pounced on the opportunity
to impeach him. They brought up charges that he violated the law (which he
had), and Johnson defended himself claiming that the law was nothing more

than a political ploy to create a trumped up impeachment charge (which it was).
Still, Republicans had the votes and he was impeached by the US House. The
Senate attempted to do the same, but fell one vote short of being able to remove
him from office. He was censured instead. Johnson survived the impeachment
fight, but it left him politically crippled. He never again got his way, and was
swept out of office without even being allowed on a Presidential ticket.
Johnsons’ ultimate failings as a President were obvious. He was was too stub-
born, too self-righteous and utterly unwilling to compromise with Congressional
Republicans. But those were only his failings as a politician. His failing of
the nation was much more devastating. Johnson presided over Reconstruction
at ones of its most pivotal moments. Freed blacks were attempting to settle
down and create lives for themselves, and the policies Johnson pursued left them
without valid economic or political options. This was at a time in which the
South could not have been weaker. They had no political voice in the federal
government and no military resistance left in them. Had Johnson moved to
crush Jim Crow in the cradle, and set strong legal precedents that freed slaves
were equal, African Americans may not have spent over a century being treated
as second class citizens. Johnson’s refusal to do this is directly responsible
for many of the racial issues the nation experiences today. It would take his
successor, Ulysses S Grant, another two years even allow them US citizenship
and guarantee them the vote, and almost century would pass before a different
Johnson would make those rights enforceable. In that time, black Americans
lost a century of social and economic progress.


“Tyranny and despotism can be exercised by many, more rigorously, more

vigorously, and more severely, than by one.” - Pretty clear evidence that he
thought that Congress’ right to rule was somehow less legitimate than his own.

Grade: F

For getting the ball rolling on a century of racial injustice, the effects of which
America still feels today, Johnson gets an F.

18. Ulysses S Grant (1869-1877)

By 1868, the bitter rivalry between Andrew Johnson and Congress had mostly
ended with Congress ignoring the President and doing whatever they wanted.
He’d been exposed an ineffectual leader, and deeply unpopular, was abandoned
by both Democrats and Republicans. While the Democrats tried to put a
successful brand together for the 1868 elections, they were clearly a party out
sync with the national mood. The Republicans for their part nominated Ulysses

S Grant on the promise that he’d restore order to the now violent south and help
reclaim Lincoln’s legacy. And he turned out Democrats in a landslide victory
that brought scores of Congressional Republicans in with him.
With firm control of both chambers of Congress, Grant made good on his word
quickly. And the approach to stabilizing the South was twofold. First, Grant
felt he had to enfranchise and embolden African Americans to become equal
partners in government. To help facilitate this, he urged passage of the 15th
Amendment, which he quickly secured. This guaranteed the right to vote to
all citizens regardless of their race, ethnicity or previous status of servitude.
Combined with the Naturalization Act, which allowed free blacks to obtain
citizenship, the measures were meant to enfranchise blacks and allow them a
voice in their own governance.
And while those were wonderful and just measures, they were really fairly
toothless without some kind of enforcement mechanism. To solve this problem,
Grant lead the fight in Congress to pass the Force Acts. These acts empowered the
federal government to proactively root out voting discrimination and prosecute it,
and gave the government broad latitude in cracking down on the violent rowdies
that had taken over the South. These rowdies included, but were by no means
limited to, the KKK, who along with Democratic militias were targeting both
free blacks and sympathetic whites for acts of violence. Normally enforcement
of this kind was a strictly local matter, but the Force Acts allowed the federal
government to intercede when it became increasingly clear that white locals
wouldn’t. Grant also saw to the creation of Department of Justice that gave the
Federal Government not only a tool to enforce the law, but a network of federal
prosecutors with the ability to bring charges in court.
These were all expedient measures at the time, but they’d have broad conse-
quences in the grand scheme of American History. The 14th and 15th Amend-
ments enabled the protection of America’s sacred democratic rights and would
eventually prove pivotal in securing for blacks the right to vote (although we’ll
get back to that. We have a loooong way to go on that issue). And the the
Justice Department and the Force Acts set the precedent that the ultimate
law of the land was federal law, and created mechanisms by which it could be
enforced. To this day, agencies like the FBI and ATF are critical parts of our
law enforcement and they largely owe their existence to Grant. And black rights
weren’t the only ones he fought for. He fought for equality for Jewish Americans
as well as the freedom of Asian Americans, who at the time were living in labor
conditions not far removed from slavery.
Not all of this went over well, naturally. There were riots in Mississippi and a
brief attempt at white supremacist rebellion by Louisiana, but Grant was able
to put them down at a minimal cost. And while he was certainly firmer than his
predecessor with the Confederate states, he ultimately was able to get them back
into the Union, amnestying most of its citizens. It was often tumultuous, but at
the end of the day, Grant’s Presidency did see order returned to the South, and
their restoration to the United States.

Grant was also a reformer. A believer in infrastructure, he completed several
major road and rail expansion projects, including the completion of the Transcon-
tinental Railroad in 1869. He saw America added to the Gold Standard, which
did a great deal to stabilize its ever fluctuating currency. And he was an aggres-
sive reformer who sought an end to the patronage and spoils systems that had
become so ubiquitous throughout all levels of government. He eventually founded
the Civil Service Commission to examine the fitness of appointed public officials,
and that Commission did result in firings, very little of its progress proved
enduring as Congress accepted virtually none of its long term recommendations.
Grant’s Presidency also saw a major expansion of the US role in the world under
the brilliant leadership of Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. Apart from an
unsuccessful attempt to annex the future Dominican Republic, most all of Grant’s
foreign policy initiatives were successful. He was essential in getting the United
States involved in the Treaty of Washington, which created an independent body
to help arbitrate disputes between the US and Britain. It ended a series of
escalating trade tensions that under other leadership could have ended either
in war or a trade breakdown rather than something so equitable. And Grant
greatly expanded US trade, which would become critical to America’s booming
economic success in the industrial years to follow.
I’ve written positively about Grant so far, but there was plenty of ugliness too.
One the characteristics of Grant’s Administration was a series of brief, bloody
wars with various Native American tribes and fractions, culminating the Great
Sioux War that featured famous setpieces like the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Weary with the endless cycle of conflicts, Grant wanted peace, and he got it in
the form of an uneasy truce in which Grant agreed to stop using military force
against the natives in exchange for their enrolling in peaceful cultural integration
programs. The upshot of it was nothing short of a forced program of cultural
assimilation that would break down almost entirely 20 years later. I have little
doubt that Grant’s heart was in the right place here, but by turning Native
American relations from the government over to religious interests, he opened
up a period of cultural destruction that many tribes never fully recovered from.
One might say that this was a feature rather than a bug, but it was morally
reprehensible all the same.
And there was corruption; corruption on a scale not yet seen on the federal level
not to be seen again until the crooks of the Harding Administration took over in
1921. And for much of the same reasons. Grant appointed to his cabinet many
of his old army friends. But many of his old army friends were not worthy of
trust. Custom houses under the Treasury Department frequently took bribes
after George Boutwell’s tenure had ended. The Postal Service, similarly, lead
several “rings” of graft that offered favorable service in exchange for bribes and
frequently charged additional fees for any services rendered at all. In both of the
above cases, the charges went directly into the pockets of officials. And there was
the famous Whiskey Ring scandal of the era, which was a vast conspiracy that
diverted tax dollars directly to spirit manufacturers. The scandal was both vast

and national, and resulted in hundreds of convictions, most notably including
Grant’s personal secretary. Now Grant himself was not involved in any of these
scandals, and would in fact die almost penniless once his time in office ended.
But part of a President’s job is to oversee the actions of his government, and a
failure to do that is a blight on a President’s legacy, whether he was profiting
from it himself or not.
As the corruption of his government became more apparently and an economic
downturn rocked the nation in his second term, Democrats surged in popularity
and took a majority in Congress. And from there Grant’s agenda kind of stalled.
But it was an undeniably successful one. Grant’s Presidency marked the end of
the chaotic era that began in the 1840s and lasted through the Civil War and
Johnson’s Presidency. It was a period in which a nation that had been reeling
from one crisis to the next began to experience a lasting order and stability that
pushed it into modernity. He deserves tremendous credit for that, as well as
establishing the US on the world stage for the first time in a post-Civil War
world. Furthermore, Grant possessed a fundamental fairness the likes of which
the US wouldn’t see again in its executive for some time. He fought for the rights
of African Americans and won more of those fights than any President would for
another 90 years. There was a reason he was the first two term President since
Jackson. He did a pretty good job.


“As the United States is the freest of all nations, so, too, its people sympathize with
all people struggling for liberty and self-government; but while so sympathizing
it is due to our honor that we should abstain from enforcing our views upon
unwilling nations and from taking an interested part, without invitation,”

Grade: B-

Grant gets a B- from me. A B for the values and successes, a - for the crappy

19. Rutherford B Hayes (1877-1881)

People often deride the “corrupt bargain” that made John Quincy Adams
President. But that’s likely exaggeration. Henry Clay hated Andrew Jackson
and probably martialed support against him out of principle. What absolutely
was a corrupt bargain was the means by which Rutherford B Hayes became
Hayes’ career as a public servant was a long one that primarily took off during
the Civil War. He was a Union general who lead successful campaigns in West

Virginia that helped set up the Union victory and Antietam, as well as leading a
campaign in the Shenandoah Valley. He was promoted to Brigadier General and
parlayed his war fame upon returning home into a career in politics. He served
as a Congressman and later as an extremely effective governor of Ohio. He’d
attempted to retire when the Panic of 1873 caused many in the party to call
for his return. He ultimately ascended, and his brilliant leadership through the
economic crisis made him a top choice of Republicans looking for a successor to
Hayes was ultimately wooed into running for President, but campaigned at a time
when Democrats were experiencing a major resurgence. His opponent, Samuel
Tilden, was New York’s governor, and carried much of the urban Northeast as
well as the typical Democratic bastion of the South. Hayes carried the midwest,
along with Pennsylvania and New England. The result was an extremely tight
race in which Hayes likely lost the popular vote. Tilden initially won 184 electoral
votes to Hayes’ 165. But 20 of those states came from Louisiana, South Carolina
and (naturally) Florida, and there were major questions about the legitimacy
of the elections in those states that caused the ballots to be thrown out. The
resulting showdown threatened to bring government to a halt, but a compromise
was reached; Democrats would cede the contested votes over to Hayes and allow
him to become President. In return, Hayes promised the removal of federal
troops in the South, build another Transcontinental railroad that ran through
the South and grant them the right to determine black suffrage without Northern
The Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction, and all the fledgling rights for
minorities that came along with it. It also left Hayes deeply distrusted and with
very little political capital. Faced with public distrust over the compromise and
a very Democratic Congress opposing him, Hayes’ agenda never really got off the
ground. But that didn’t mean he simply rested on his laurels. Hayes’ Presidency
is interesting in that provided an early, interesting glimpse at what a President
could do without any particular power of his own. This is a theme that would
be repeated often, but not until the mid twentieth century. In that way, Hayes
was well ahead of his time.
He, for instance, carried out aggressive reforms to civil service without the help
of Congress. Democrats much more than Republicans relied on patronage and
spoils to build their electoral machines. And despite Hayes being unable to get
legislative power behind long term reforms, his position as President enabled
him to clean house on a number of federal positions. He did so, sweeping out
a vast number of unqualified people. Democrats could hardly complain either,
because the crony Republicans that gained jobs under Grant’s Administration
were impacted just as harshly by Hayes’ purge of corrupt government. Not only
did he sweep the customs houses clean, but he broke up those notorious postal
rings. It resulted in confused mail service, but a post office that operated without
graft as its defining characteristic.
And while the Compromise of 1877 may have defanged much of the North’s ability

to protect the rights of African Americans, Hayes didn’t completely abandon
them either. The Force Acts were still in place, and Hayes, like Grant, used the
aggressively to curtail vehicles of violent voter suppression. When Democrats
tried to attach a repeal of the Acts as a rider to budgetary bills, Hayes vetoed
every one of them until the matter was dropped. And while Congress was able
to deny the funds he needed to enforce them, he took up an aggressive posture
defending the voting and civil rights laws of the previous years from Democratic
attempts to repeal them.
One of the great Democratic issues of the day, which helped them collect rural
votes in the South and Midwest, was the removal of the gold standard. They
wanted a gold-sliver standard, as silver was more accessible to more people.
While it made for a good populist issues, Hayes correctly deduced that such a
standard would destroy purchasing power by devaluing the currency. While he
was not able to stop Congress from passing the Bland-Allison Act to mandate
this approach, Hayes acted by collecting as little silver as he could get away with,
effectively retaining the gold standard.
And he helped quell labor violence. The Railroad Strike of 1877, in which
Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia rail workers struck in favor of decent
wages, caused major service problems throughout the nation. Local militias
opposing the strikers formed and attacked the strikers, and strikers responded by
torching rail yards and depots. Hayes sent in federal troops to keep the two sides
off one another’s throats, and restored order. The strikes themselves actually
managed to draw public sympathy to the strikers (this would not be the case in
most other major strikes) and lead to wage increases for some workers of the
most offending railroads.
But while Hayes was able to preserve some of his agenda, a great deal of progress
was lost under his Presidency. His ceding of enfranchisement back to the Southern
states lead to a purge of voter rolls that left thousands of blacks disenfranchised.
Voting laws went up to prevent them, as well as future blacks, from re-registering.
This included poll taxes, literacy tests that could be subjectively applied and
the enabling of a “voucher system” that required blacks to have a registered
voter “vouch” for black voters moral character. Since practically no blacks were
enfranchised, nobody was there to vouch for them. These tools of oppression
remained in place almost untouched until the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1968
and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put a final end to them.
But the ceding of voting rights to the worst people possible were not Hayes’
only failings in the cause of equality. Congress passed, and he signed into
law, the Chinese Exclusion Act that effectively slammed the door on Asian
immigration for decades. It was a petty, racist piece of legislation whose inherent
discriminatory nature has not been vindicated by history.
Hayes Presidency is a difficult one to judge. His heart was clearly in the right
place, but he’d sold much of his power to act on his more lofty ideals. The fallout
from the Compromise of 1877 was a mass curtailing of the black vote, which

would cause societal problems that the US would still be dealing with 80 years
later. At the end of the day, what good is having the Presidency if you can’t
use it to the aims you hold dear? But by that same token, he was an aggressive
reformer. Although he never had Congressional backing, what he did manage
to accomplish without it was remarkable. And while his ceding of voting laws
to the states did enormous damage to civil rights, it’s hard to imagine that the
damage wouldn’t have been a great deal worse under Democratic President. He
did block a lot of key repeals that Democrats tried to force on him. So this
Presidency is really sort of a mixed bag.
In the end, Democrats hostile attitudes in Congress gained a lot of sympathy
for Republicans, and they were turned out by significant numbers in the next
election. But Hayes was turned out with them. His reputation never could
survive the 1877 Compromise, and wanting little more than the retirement he’d
already wanted 6 years earlier. He retired quietly, allowing firebrand Republican
reform James Garfield to step into the national spotlight and into the Presidency.


“The President of the United States of necessity owes his election to office to the
suffrage and zealous labors of a political party, the members of which cherish
with ardor and regard as of essential importance the principles of their party
organization; but he should strive to be always mindful of the fact that he serves
his party best who serves the country best.”

Grade: C-

This one’s tough, but it’s not going to be good. Hayes was by no means a great
President. I’ll give him a C-. C for effort, - for results.

The Gilded Age

20. James Garfield (1881)

James Garfield was a pretty cool guy. A smart young man, Garfield’s early
defining characteristic was excelling at everything he put his hands on. In his
youth and in college, he characterized as a bright student and quickly earned a
law degree. When the Civil War broke out, he enlisted and flew up the ranks.
By 31, he was a brigadier general. Knowing what kind of assignments young
generals typically received (shitty, inglorious backwoods ones), he was coaxed
into running for Congress by Ohio’s Republican Party, which he did, and won.
His impassioned speeches on issues such as a firm gold standard and the abolition
of slavery drew the attention of Treasury Secretary Salmon P Chase, who quickly
became his mentor. As the War came to a conclusion, he became a leader of
Congress’ Reconstruction movement, at first trying to work with and eventually
leading the resistance against Andrew Johnson. By the election of 1880, he was
the House Minority leader.
Garfield was, in the parlance of his day, a Radical Republican. He was a reformer,
who sought to put an end to the graft and spoils systems that had, by this point,
taken over government of all levels. He was an ardent proponent of the gold
standard, believing that the idea of backing the currency with silver and gold was
nothing more than a populist feel-good ploy that would lead to inflation. And
he believed in investments targeted at improving America’s industrial capability
and the infrastructure to support it. The United States was waaaaay behind
Europe’s industrial movement, and it became very clear that industry was going
to be the engine of global economic growth.
But by far Garfield’s most visionary views were those on race relations. He was
first a a fiery abolitionist and then a zealous proponent of civil rights. And that’s
remarkable because Garfield himself admitted that he was a racist (He once
said that the idea of black equality gave him “a strong feeling of Repugnance”).
Despite his personal views, though, he really took the “all men are created equal”
part of America’s values serious. His greatest fear for African Americans was
that the Jim Crow laws would make them “a permanent class of peasantry”,
which they absolutely did. He espoused the extremely forward thinking idea that
if blacks could be advanced economically, be given equal access to education and
enjoy the same socioeconomic benefits that whites did, they would eventually be
on equal footing with them. This was revolutionary stuff, so much so that even
130 years later, a number of policymakers still don’t seem to understand it.
He was, in short, a radical liberal reformer by 1870s standards. And as 1879
turned to 1880, he was deeply concerned about the state of the Republican Party.
It had been routed by Democrats in the 1878 elections, and said Democrats
had almost immediately begun trying to turn back the clock on the previous
decade’s reforms. They had killed many of Hayes’ reform proposals in the cradle

and were eroding bills like the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Hayes had retired, and the
only major name who’d stepped up to replace him as a potential party leader
was Ulysses S Grant (Grant by this time hadn’t enjoyed his positive historical
revaluation and was viewed much the same way we think of George W Bush
now). Garfield decided that he had to run for President if Republicans were
going to avoid being swept out of power entirely. And he proceeded to win a
victory over Grant in the primary, and then won a squeaker of a victory over his
Democratic opponent.
Garfield hit the ground running on his anti-corruption platform by continuing
Hayes purge of the civil service and the Post Office. And he limited his own
patronage appointment once he’d won the office for himself (cue ominous music).
He negotiated with Congress a bill known as the Pendleton Civil Service Reform
Act,laying most of the terms and groundwork for it. He drew up plans both for
an aggressive modernization of navy and an expansion of public education that
were both far ahead of their times.
But about that “reforming patronage jobs” thing; it kind of left a lot of people
who’d been expecting them out in the cold. Republicans had always been less
aggressive about the spoils system than Democrats. Andrew Jackson built the
Democratic Party around it (That’s right guys. Even 40 years after his death,
Jackson is still fucking things up). That meant that the positions they did have
to give were even more highly coveted. So when loyal party men got shafted,
there were a lot of hurt feelings. One particularly aggrieved party was Charles J.
Guiteau; a middling lawyer but loyal Republican political operative who was
denied work under the new reform measures. Guiteau had convinced himself not
only that he had been promised a post in European foreign services (he hadn’t)
but that his individual efforts had made Garfield’s Presidency possible (they
So let’s roleplay for a second; you’re a young Republican operative. You’ve been
denied a federal job you thought you deserved, and the prospects for you don’t
look very good. How do you respond?
Wait patiently for another position to open up.
Go back to practicing law. Seriously, you’re a lawyer. Your life is hardly over.
Just get your resume out there, man. Network a little.
Murder the President of the United States
If you answered something other than D, congratulations! You are more stable
than Charles Guiteau. Because Guiteau staked out a Washington rail yard,
waited to find Garfield boarding a train, and shot him. Shockingly, assassinating
America’s leader did not improve Guiteau’s job prospects, and he was promptly
arrested and hanged.
The shooting took place on July 2nd. Garfield lingered in agony until September
18th, infections in his liver, stomach and spine growing progressively worse. It

was a very sad end to the life and Presidency of a man with a startling degree of
vision and foresight. Whether Garfield would have gone down as a great reformer
or a frustrated President whose dreams were blocked by Congress will never be
known. After less than 4 months on the job, the Presidency passed to Chester
A. Arthur.


“Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its
administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous

Grade: Incomplete

Gotta go with incomplete here; the last one I’ll award. The man simply didn’t
have the job long enough for us to know whether or not he’d have been any good
at it. And that really, really sucks because succeed or fail, this is a Presidency
that could have been extremely interesting.

21. Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)

Up to this point in American history, Vice Presidential succession had always

been met with some shade of disaster. Tyler rose to replace a Whig president
with a Whig Congress at his back and proceeded to cockblock the Whig Party
and prohibit them from doing anything. Fillmore replaced Taylor, and overrode
his wishes by signing into law a compromise that actively damaged the Union.
Andrew Johnson was such a fuck up that he set race relations back 100 years.
And all of this was due to the simple fact that even after all these follies, Vice
Presidents were not ideological partners of their Presidents, but political B
teamers that could help them win one state or another in the election.
Arthur continued this tradition. A New York politician who rose to prominence
in the aftermath of the Civil War, Arthur was a political mechanic through and
through. His particular cog in the machine was in the New York Custom House,
where doled out hundreds of political patronage jobs and oversaw a massive
kickback operation that saw bribes taken for favorable import inspections and
the House’s occasional ignorance of a tariff here or there. He continued on into
this post until the patronage purge of Rutherford Hayes bounced him out of the
office. And it looked then like the political career of Chester Arthur was over.
But by virtue of giving out a lot of jobs, Arthur had made a lot of friends. His
base of support was so strong by the time he was dismissed that Hayes had to
do it during a congressional recess despite the fact that he was a Republican and
Congress was overwhelmingly Democratic. He was as tight with the Tammany

Hall Democratic Machine as he was the Stalwart Republican one. He had become,
in short, a political power broker, and in the state of New York that was a pretty
big deal, especially as the Presidential election approached.
Arthur controlled New York’s enormous block of convention delegates at the
National Democratic Convention of 1880, and at first, Ulysses Grant was their
nominee of choice. Because, don’t know if y’all heard, times were pretty good
for patronage Republicans under the Grant administration (Arthur himself
had other motives, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Yet when Grant lost,
Arthur saw the wisdom in backing dark horse nominee James Garfield, and
even leveraged New York’s delegation to get himself on the ticket. Garfield was
skeptical of the sorts of political machines that gave rise to creatures like Arthur,
but was ultimately persuaded to add him to the ticket because New York was
an enormously important swing state that Arthur could deliver. It was good
advice. Garfield won the presidency by only 2,000 votes, but had a comfortable
win in electoral college delegates in no small part because Arthur organized the
political machines to put New York in the W column.
Now, I’m making Arthur sound like Littlefinger here, but that’s not a fair
interpretation. Despite being a power broker who owed his rise entirely to the
spoils system, Arthur was at his heart a serious reformer. It was the reason he
backed Hayes and Grant both, and ultimately why he backed Arthur. And he
really had no interest in being President himself. Arthur wanted the honor of
the title, and to help push Garfield over the finish line. It would have been easy
to force Garfield to concede future political jobs in exchange for the election.
But he didn’t. He went along with Garfield’s reform plans. Rather than pushing
for political appointments when he became VP, he relaxed and enjoyed the
title. And when Garfield was shot, he was positively mortified at the prospect of
becoming President, so much so that he wouldn’t even assume the responsibilities
in the two months it took Garfield to die.
But die Garfield did, and Arthur found himself a President. Now you might
expect that a political mechanic with no particular administrative skills, a history
of enabling corruption and no desire to be President would make a pretty terrible
one. But Arthur really didn’t. Instead, he really just relegated himself to
administering an effective government and doing as little as possible.
Embracing Garfield’s championing of civil service reform, Arthur pushed for
the passage of the Pendleton Act. Thought it would take Congress a year to
iron out the details, he did get his way, and it represented the most significant
government reform up to that point. He also continued to rebuild the US Navy,
and this would very shortly play a significant role in the course of events. Faced
with a budget surplus, Arthur could have solidified his power base by creating
a ton of patronage jobs, but he instead opted to lower tariffs. This actually
increased American profits, as it opened up the world to American goods.
Arthur also tried to carry on Garfield’s civil rights agenda, but to this end he
met with less success. What bills he proposed were shot down in Congress,

and the Supreme Court actually struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as
unconstitutional. His efforts for improved treatment of Native Americans were
more mixed. On one hand, he did succeed in getting funding for their education,
but what he really wanted was guaranteed land for the Natives. This he was
denied by Congress.
And apart from that? Not a lot going on. Chester Arthur was the first of several
Presidents of this era who saw prosperity booming around him and largely tooks
his hands off the wheel. By the time 1884 rolled around, he was sure that he had
little chance at renomination, and he quietly stepped aside. Already in declining
health by the time he left the White House, he passed away in 1886.
Today, Arthur is considered by many to be America’s most forgettable President.
But forgettable is not necessarily bad. On paper, Chester A. Arthur checked
all the shitty president boxes. America should have had a disaster on its hands.
What she got instead was a competent administrator and a good man.

Grade: C

Arthur’s was the definition of a boring presidency. He neither succeeded nor

cocked up the job. I give him a solid C.

22. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889)

As old timey presidents go, Grover Cleveland is a bit of an odd duck. In the days
where the path to power lay through entrenched New York political machines,
Cleveland was a New Yorker who crusaded against them. His rise began in Buffalo,
which featured one of the most entrenched and corrupt Republican political
machines in the nation (The same one that helped make an impoverished Millard
Fillmore the President of the United States). A prominent Lawyer, Cleveland ran
against this machine, and so effectively curtailed it that the state’s Democrats
rallied around him as a candidate for governor in hopes that he’d be able to take
on further Republican machines. But as governor, Cleveland turned his ardor
towards combating entrenched interests on both sides of the isle.
And he didn’t stop at battling corruption. Cleveland was the living embodiment
of the “do less” mentality that grew so pervasive in the Gilded Age. He was
a budget slasher and deregulator who delighted in making government smaller
wherever possible. The state of New York was hopelessly indebted when Cleve-
land took it over, and he did wonders to reduce that problem in his time in office.
Since big ticket government contracts and patronage jobs were their main levers
of power, it pissed off the political machines royally, and both Republican and
Democratic ones came gunning for him. But he was largely impervious to their
attacks, because the bipartisan way he conducted himself made him something
of a state hero.

Despite his growing stature in New York, Cleveland had little in the way of
national notoriety. Former New York governor Samuel Tilton was the frontrunner
for the Democratic nomination, so much that his selection was considered a
forgone conclusion. But as 1884 approached, his failing health forced him to bow
out, and it blew the floodgates open for other hopefuls. Cleveland, along with
about a dozen other prominent Democrats, put his name forward. Despite lacking
delegate support from New York (the Tammany Hall political machine controlled
the Democratic votes in those days, and they hated Cleveland), anyone with
half a brain knew that a candidate who could carry New York was a candidate
who could win. He won a plurality on the first ballot, and the needed majority
coalesced around him on the second. He was the nominee.
To win the Presidency, Cleveland squared off against US House Speaker James
Blaine. Blaine was as corrupt a machine hack as there ever was, and a favor of
big spending. He’d opposed reform measures repeatedly and was thus on the
wrong end of public sentiment. Against another machine product, he might have
stood a chance. But Cleveland was successfully able to paint Blaine as what he
was, and his pro reform message allowed him to carry the day in spite of some
beliefs that were serious liabilities (which we will get to momentarily).
The election is where you saw the emergence of a new political breed that would
come to define Cleveland’s Presidencies; the Mugwump. The Mugwumps, on
top of being a great dog name, were a faction of pro-reform, anti-spending
Republicans that supported Grover Cleveland in spite of the D next to his name.
As many of Cleveland’s views alienated the more liberal factions of his own
party, the Mugwumps were critical in maintaining his political capital. They
also marked the first seeds of the Republican Party’s move to small government
conservatism that defines it today.
Once in Washington, Cleveland began putting his “Do Less” approach to the test.
One of the first major litmus tests for him was the Interstate Commerce Act.
This is the era of American history where we start to see a massive growth of
monopolies, along with all the negative connotations that tend to be associated
with them. This was particularly pronounced in the railroad industry. As
railroads became critical to the transportation of goods as well as people, very
few were still in independent hands. Enormous conglomerates formed by gobbling
up regional lines and charging exorbitant fees that people had to pay for lack of
alternatives. At points where railroads met, competing companies would often
agree to gouge consumers at a shared rate, a practice known as “pooling”, which
turned major rail junctions into expensive logistical nightmares. The Interstate
Commerce Act attempted to address these problems, and represented no less
than the most comprehensive federal regulation of private enterprise yet seen.
As you might except, Cleveland wasn’t a fan. But his hand was forced. The
issue of pooling was jamming up rail traffic all over the country and holding
America’s economic growth hostage. And unlike his approach to most problems
of the day, he couldn’t simply punt it back to the states. The Supreme Court
had already ruled that the states didn’t have the authority to regulate interstate

railroads. So he reluctantly signed the bill.
It was a huge victory for the cause of corporate reform, which was becoming a
major issue for factions within both parties, and emboldened further action. But
while Cleveland was willing to reluctantly ascent to the Interstate Commerce
Act, he was no fan of this “expanding government” business. Antitrust bills
and government regulations were passed in significant numbers, and Cleveland
vetoed one after another. And he didn’t stop with protecting businesses from
regulations. Pensions for veterans? Vetoed. New tariffs? Vetoed. He even made
it a point of pride to veto every federal disaster aid bill that crossed his desk.
Even in the area of civil reform, which he’d actively championed, he rejected
to take action simply because he felt that civil service reform was a state issue
rather than a federal one.
Cleveland’s small government approach extended to Civil Rights as well, and
this came at a time when the Supreme Court was ruling against one civil rights
cause after another. His approach is that it was purely a state problem, even
though the states were actively abusing their power to curtail the rights of their
black citizens. Cleveland wasn’t alone in seeing this, naturally, he just felt it was
within their rights to do so. His view coincided with a majority sentiment at
the time that Reconstruction efforts to force black rights on the South had done
more harm to African Americans than good (which, how?). In fact, the view
that the federal government had already done too much for African Americans
was so ubiquitous that the issue hardly bares mentioning until the debate over
Civil Rights flared up again in the aftermath of WWII. I’ll save myself some ink
and talk about this civil rights strictly in the exceptions of its champions rather
than the rule of its indifferents as we go forward here.
And he was bullishly conservative on fiscal matters. The push for dual metallurgy
as the basis of currency had new vigor after the Democratic victories of 1884. It
was a tremendously popular issue on which Democrats had campaigned for years.
But Cleveland was having none of it. He, like his predecessors, limited silver
reserved to effectively uphold a gold standard. He even spent political capital
on a proposed repeal of the Bland-Allison Act that mandated a silver standard
in the first place. But it went nowhere. His efforts to lower tariffs, which were
still having a significant impact on trade, also met with little success.
The result of Cleveland’s approach to governing were. . . mixed. On one hand,
he was absolutely right about both tariff and monetary policies. By this point,
history was fast approaching the point where dual currency was proving to be a
failed experiment by the nations that attempted it. And excessive tariffs would
continue to choke out American trade until 1910s. But Cleveland’s philosophy,
however well intentioned, was recklessly dogmatic at times. Trusts in essential
commodities like steel, oil and rail were engaging in unethical practices that
created significant economic problems. And while he was hardly alone in it, his
ignorance of race issues is deplorable. It’s fine to have a governing philosophy,
and I’m certainly not going to dock a President for sticking to his guns just
because I don’t agree with them. But there are some issues that have been

decided by history rather than politics, and Cleveland was frequently on the
wrong side of them.
Not that it would take history for people to see it. Republican candidate and
reformer Benjamin Harrison would run against Cleveland on a reform (good), pro
tariff (bad) platform that gained considerable support. And enough Mugwumps
were frustrated by Cleveland’s inaction or rejection of civil service reforms that
he lost much of their support as well. He lost his reelection bid, and quietly sank
off to spend the rest of his days in peaceful retirement.
Just kidding guys. We’ll be coming back to ol’ Grover shortly.


“I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to
be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly
related to the public service or benefit. A prevalent tendency to disregard the
limited mission of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted,
to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that, though the people
support the government, the government should not support the people.” Boom.
There it is. Cleveland’s Presidency in a nutshell.

Grade: B

Obviously Cleveland’s presidency is not, from a policy standpoint, my particular

cup of tea. However, in the interest of fairness, I will say that he succeeded in
molding the Presidency to his vision of government. Which is to say he did as
little as possible. Normally this would warrant a poor grade, but in Cleveland’s
case, it was a feature, not a bug. I guess I’ll give him a B, but with the asterisk
that I really do think he failed America on some of the important issues of the

23. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

If you want to have a better understanding of what a full term of James Garfield
might have looked like, Benjamin Harrison’s is a nice place to start. The two
were of a mind on many issues. A popular Senator from the crucial swing state
of Indiana, Harrison was a populist of the old school. He favored silver currency,
protectionist tariffs, aggressive antitrust measures to break up big companies,
workers rights and expanded free education. He was a strong civil rights advocate
and an impassioned supporter of meritocracy over patronage. He was, in short,
a reformer before the reform movement.
And in the era of his day, this kind of made him a man without a country.
James Blaine, who’d lost to Cleveland once already, was still the boss and

most prominent figure of the Republican Party. But seeing that a second verse
wouldn’t go over any better than the first, he ceded the floor in 1888. A large
number of candidates threw their hats in the ring, and while Blaine publically
stayed out of the fight, he privately maneuvered on behalf of the liberal Harrison,
who he felt stood in stark contrast to Cleveland. Harrison eventually emerged
as a compromise candidate and defeated Cleveland.
Harrison, like Garfield, hit the ground running on the reforms he felt were
necessary and that the Cleveland Administration had neglected. The first and
most enduring of these was the Sherman Antitrust Act. By 1889, monopolistic
control of key American resources was a significant problem, but Congress knew
that any proposals to curb monopolies had no prayer of becoming law as long as
Grover Cleveland was there to veto them. When Harrison came to power, he
worked with Congress to roll out a package quickly. And quite a package it was.
The Act enabled the Justice Department to bring suit against monopolies in
order to break them up, as well as requiring potential mergers to be approved.
It was a revolutionary corporate reform, and so successful that it remains in
effect and spiritually unchanged to this day.
He also aggressively pushed for inclusion of territories as states. This was likely
as a political as they were ideological, as Midwestern and Western states were
bedrocks of Republican support. But to his credit, Benjamin saw Montana,
Washington and both Dakotas given full statehood, and paved the way for Idaho
and Wyoming as well. It was the largest expansion of statehood in American
Foreign policy flourished under Harrison as well. In 1893, he formally annexed
Hawaii after backing a coup against the tyrannical Queen Liliuokalani. He
helped negotiate American Samoa as a protectorate. These maneuvers gave the
US an outpost to expand its Pacific influence, and helped pave the way for the
imperialist expansion policies of future Presidents (for good and ill. Mostly ill,
really. Imperialism’s bad, yo).
Despite the popularity of these moves, Harrison’s agenda came to a screaming
halt after the midterms, when Democrats took control of the House. And this is
where Harrison’s shortcomings as president really came into sharp relief.
Civil rights were a major initiative of Harrison’s. The Supreme Court had struck
down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and that left blacks vulnerable to Jim Crow
disenfranchisement laws. Harrison knew that desegregation measures were a
nonstarter, but he thought there was some wiggle room when it came to black
voting rights. It was, after all, only constitutional. He pushed for a law that
would end many of the tools that the South used to disenfranchise voters. And
it would push for proactive oversight of the federal government into the conduct
of Southern polling places. But the push failed for a whole host of reasons.
Southern support may not have been enough to defeat the bill on its own, but
they were able to rally some sympathy by casting it as a Proto-Reconstruction
measure designed to bring back federal occupation. It was no such thing, but the

idea of Northern poll watcher meddling in Southern elections raised the specter.
In addition to animosity from the South, however, this particular bill created
fears in the North that the precious political machines would find overseers in
their polling places as well. The bill never had a prayer.
The defeat of Harrison’s bill was a disaster for the cause of civil rights. The
coalition that beat it was so overwhelming that no attempt at another would be
made until 1930, and no successful civil rights act passed until 1957. In addition,
the obvious apathy of Americans toward the plight of its black citizens was put
on full display in the fight, as well as the split in opinion among the opposition.
It emboldened southern states to double down on black voter suppression, and
by 1900, virtually every African American had been purged from Southern voter
In terms of economics, Harrison’s Presidency was a disaster. His embrace of
free silver economic policy caused a financial panic that severely damaged the
economy. And Harrison lead the charge in passing the McKinley Tariff, and
enormous tariff expansion. It all but shut down US trade, and as a result, dried
up much of the revenue it was supposed to create. The combined effects of theses
measures was one of the greatest economic crises in the history of the nation.
And voters blamed Harrison for it. His failure allowed Cleveland to successfully
challenge his reelection bid. It swept both himself and Republicans out of power.
Harrison is one of those guys that people have to memorize for tests, but otherwise
don’t think about. But a historical reevaluation of his Presidency shows him to
be much more significant than he might first appear. The Sherman Act was a
landmark piece of legislation that simply couldn’t have come to pass under his
predecessor. The positions he took on corporate reform and civil rights law were
way ahead of their time, and helped set the foundation for the more successful
reform movement in the years that followed. He failed miserably on the economy
by embracing some now discredited ideas, but his model for expanding American
influence would directly inspire Presidents like McKinley who used it to turn
the US into a serious global heavyweight. His presidency, in short, left a larger
footprint on ideology than it did public policy.


Shall the prejudices and paralysis of slavery continue to hang upon the skirts of
progress? How long will those who rejoice that slavery no longer exists cherish
or tolerate the incapacities it put upon their communities?

Grade: C

This one’s tricky. He had a lot of good ideas that the public just hadn’t wisened
up to yet. That’s not his fault. Awful economic management is. I’ll give him a C
grade for the Sherman Act and for being ahead of the curve where it mattered.

24. Grover Fucking Cleveland Again

Running on a platform of “See! I told you what would happen if you fucked with
the Invisible Hand!”, Cleveland beat Harrison’s reelection bid and established
himself as the only President to serve non-consecutive terms. And since his
second presidency was nowhere near as interesting or productive as his first,
we’ll be doing a bit of a flyover on this one.
By the time Cleveland was sworn in, the US was facing an economic catastrophe,
the intensity of which was quietly as bad as the worst days of the Depression.
Unemployment shot up to 20% and businesses failed en masse. To respond to
this crisis, Cleveland did. . . .nothing. He did nothing. That was his whole thing.
How people didn’t see this coming when they re-elected him is frankly beyond
I’m being a little unfair. He did deal a deathblow to the free silver movement
(thank god) by striking down the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and purging
the US silver reserve. That more or less put the movement in the dirt where it
rightfully belonged. But his other major economic push, to reduce tariffs and
open up the world to US goods, went exactly nowhere. If there’s one political
constant you can count on, it’s protectionist stupidity when economic crises hit,
which is exactly the worst time to indulge in that sort of thing. Republicans in
Congress opposed lowering tariffs out of a foolish instinct to protect American
goods, and Democrats opposed it because they knew it was a winning political
issue for Republicans. He campaigned against further action on civil rights, and
used the army to break up a couple major labor disputes that threatened US
mail; most noteable the infamous Pullman Strike.
Cleveland’s second Presidency was a lot like his first, just more nothing-y. It
featured less ideological accomplishment and more crippling economic problems.
It also pissed people off, because they wanted a real solution to the economic
crisis and they got. . . well. . . Grover Cleveland.
Still, I don’t want to be completely flippant. The Presidencies of Grover Cleveland
were extremely significant for political thought in the US. He created the seed
of small government conservatism that would eventually become Republican
dogma, and he forever put down the ridiculous silver currency movement. Most
importantly, he established the libertarian philosophy as a viable political one, if
only for a brief window. But the modern movement can certainly trace its roots
to Cleveland’s time in the White House. He’s not what I would consider a good
President, but he certainly cast a long ideological shadow.


“Hurblublur Ron Paul 2012.”

Grade: C-

I was pretty generous on his first presidency, but his second was a less effective
hands off approach when America really kinda needed an effective hands on one.
I’ll give him a C- for round 2.

25. William McKinley (1897-1901)

William McKinley’s Presidency was prefaced by a career in public service as

storied as that of any other President. He grew up Ohio where he was raised
in a politically conscious household by parents who were both fanatical Whigs
and staunch abolitionists. In the Civil War, he served with distinction in West
Virginia, at the Battle of Antietam and in the Shenandoah Valley campaign,
eventually rising to the rank of major. He entered into the House of Repre-
sentatives at the same time Rutherford Hayes did the White House, and was
personal friend of the President’s. He served in the House to great popularity
and distinction, but when Ohio came under Democratic control, he was written
into a Congressional district he couldn’t win. He responded by becoming its
governor. Though a largely ineffective position, Ohio even back then was a key
presidential swing state, and it gave him the national profile to make a bid for
the Presidency in 1896.
The key issue of the campaign was how to solve the economic crisis gripping
the country. It was the last of America’s major “panics”. These were mainly
short lived recessions, but the Panic of 1893 was particularly intense. Though
not long term or systemic like the Great Depression of the 30s or the Recession
of the 2008, its short term effects on the economy were every bit as severe as the
darkest days of the Depression. At its peak, 1 in 5 Americans was out of work,
and it was seen as almost cataclysmic by Americans at the time who didn’t have
the benefit of historical context to put it in. Williams Jenning Bryan Won the
Democratic nomination after delivering his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at
the convention; an impassioned cry for free silver that charged that mankind was
being crucified on a cross of gold, and that it was the gold standard that was
the cause of America’s economic woes. This was bunk economics (if anything,
Harrison’s embrace of a silver standard was one of the crisis’ major drivers), but
the speech is widely considered one of the greatest ever made in the whole of
American history. It won him the nomination almost by itself, and he campaign
on a platform of radical reform, including free silver and a populist message of
class equality. He toured the country, making 600 speeches and tried to drive
the election using his considerably oratorical skills.
McKinley, for his part, was the reactionary by comparison who advocated a
much more moderate approach of raising tariffs to protect American goods (also
bunk economics, but let’s not go there) and riding the crisis out. while Bryan
whipped himself around the nation in frency of tours and speeches, McKinley
accepted visitors to his home. Supporters flocked to his Ohio home and the

railroads even offered reduced fares to it. And possessing a major fundraising
advantage, he just outspent the unholy hell out of Bryan. His Presidential bid
became known as the “Front Porch Campaign”, which as once a statement of fact
(its where he entertained the crowds that came to visit him) and as a derisive
phrase used to slander his use of money (he never had to leave his front porch).
But like it or not, the money won. It would be Bryan’s first of three failed
presidential bids for Bryan, though by far the most successful. Nonetheless, he’s
a fascinating figure who basically invented populist politics in America, and
although he was chronically wrong, I encourage everyone to go out and learn
about him.
McKinley’s Presidency marks the end of the Gilded Age and the beginning of the
Progressive Era. In spite of the 1893 panic, America’s industry and economy had
been growing drastically throughout the late 19th century, and politics were sort
of running to catch up. This is the era of the Triangle Fire, Sinclaire’s Jungle
and child labor, in which there were major calls for reform aimed at helping
America’s overworked, underpaid urban labor force. Corrupt political machines
dominated government, serving secular interests rather than those of the people
at large. Apart from the Sherman Antitrust Act, little was done to reign in large
companies, and labor disputes were commonplace. Blacks were migrating out of
the South, escaping the racism there to the West and North, where they found
new sources of racial strife and began for the first time to politically organize
for their rights. And on the Eastern coasts, large immigrant populations clashed
with nativists reactionaries. The US was, on the whole, a prosperous nation
with a lot of roiling internal tension and little in the way of laws or reforms to
relieve any of it. The economy was increasingly national, as were all the issues
that came along with it, and the federal government was too small and limited
in its aims to deal with it.
And very little of any of that was addressed under McKinley. He was, after all,
the conservative reaction to people like Bryan and the radical reformers within
his own party. He wasn’t exactly Grover Cleveland, but he didn’t do much to
advance the role of federal government either. Domestically his agenda was
pretty subdued. His two big pushes were increasing tariffs to protect American
goods and a reinforcement of the gold standard. Neither of these solved the
economic recession. It solved itself very shortly after he took office, and he spent
the rest of his presidency riding a wave of popular momentum for it. But his
policies had little to do with the recovery. He also aggressively stamped out
renewed calls for civil rights within the party, as appeasing the South was a big
part of his agenda.
McKinley’s impact on the presidency was twofold. First, he encouraged a
brand popular pluralism that was fairly revolutionary at the time. Where
other Presidents represented factions or issues, McKinley positioned himself
as a representative of all America’s people. He made overtures to groups like
laborers, Catholics, immigrants and minorities and invited them into the tent of
American democracy. It was a very “feel good” era in American politics, and

McKinley was responsible for leading it. It was also a strategy that most every
future President would try to emulate, and it helped set up the Presidency as
the center of American politics. But more on that tomorrow, because Roosevelt
was mostly responsible for taking this idea to its logical conclusion.
His biggest footprint by far, however, was in the area of foreign policy. McKinley
was our first American President to submit the idea that the US should not
simply be concerned with itself, or even just its hemisphere, but an actor on the
world stage that would proactively advance its own interests. He aggressively got
the US involved in foreign affairs in a way that it never had been before. He got
active talks going to build the Panama Canal. He pushed trade relations with
China and eventually intervened with military forces when US trade interests
when they were threatened by the Boxer Rebellion. And he finally annexed
Hawaii, completing a process that America had frankly been moving toward for
most of the 19th century.
But it was in Cuba where his policy of intervention was most strongly felt. Cuba
had been rebelling against its Spanish colonial masters for a while, and it was
really starting to cheese off American trade interests. The US sent cruisers in
to protest said interests, and one of them, the USS Maine, mysteriously blew
up in the Cuban harbor. Really, there was nothing mysterious about it. It
was a mechanical failure and even the top brass was pretty sure of that at the
time. But it provided McKinley the excuse he’d been waiting for to escalate the
conflict. Claiming that it was acting both to avenge the Maine and to protect
Cuban citizens (we’ll get to that in a minute), the US declared War. The Spanish
American War, as it would come to be known, was really more of a Spanish
American skirmish. The Spanish Empire had been hanging on by a thread and
Spail ultimately decided to give up than to make a huge commitment to fighting
the Americans. Cuba won its independence, and the US won Guam, Puerto Rico
and a few Philippine Islands. Though we didn’t outright annex Cuba, the war
did provide us an excuse to leave enough troops there to bend the government to
our desires until Castro’s communists took it over in the 50s. It was old school
imperialism, but it was American imperialism. And that was a decidedly new
phenomenon in the world.
It was also the beginning of the end for McKinley. Not in any political sense.
He was actually extremely popular for all of this. But it made him an enemy
of the radical socialist and anarchist forces that had really started to radicalize
back in those days. Though such forces were never much of a threat, and always
hugely exaggerated as potential societal dangers, they did have followers. And
one of those followers, Leon Czolgosz, shot and killed McKinley in 1901, just
months after he’d won reelection.
McKinley’s an interesting case, because he didn’t do much, but he left a huge
imprint on American history. He was the guy, more than any, who established the
idea that the United States was a powerful nation that could and should influence
the world and shape it into its own image. His brand of pluralism and the way
he redefined the American role in the world made him immensely popular. So

why don’t we remember him more today? Because he was immediately eclipsed
by the guy who replaced him. Because it was McKinley’s death that vaulted
Theodore Roosevelt into the White House, and it was Roosevelt who would
make the modern Presidency.


“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory
but for humanity’s sake.” - McKinley making a very funny joke

Grade: B

McKinley is a very influential figure who happens to be eclipsed by the even

more influential ones that followed him. Think of him as setting an ideological
volleyball up that Roosevelt and Wilson would spike into the ground for scores.
He was a successful president that accomplished what he wanted to, though, and
for that, he gets a B.

20th Century

26. Teddy Fucking Roosevelt (1901-1909)

Theodore Roosevelt’s life is endlessly fascinating in basically all of its aspects,

so I’ll try to do the best I can to sum it up as concisely as possible. Born to
a wealthy businessman, Roosevelt’s early life is one that was characterized by
extremely poor health. Though he was extremely intelligent even in his youth,
he was prone to severe asthma attacks that more than once threatened to kill
him. But he also loved the outdoors and took a particular interest in hiking,
where he discovered that his ailments seemed to bother him less as he became
more physically fit. Armed with this knowledge, he decided to kick poor health
in the balls, and the rest of his life would be characterized by an extreme drive
to maintain peak physical fitness.
He went to Harvard where he graduated with honors and then went to Colombia
to study law. As part of that study, he came into contact with the New York
Republican machine where he met his first and greatest love; politics. His
contemporaries found him so charming that, at only 24, he defeated a respected
New York State Assemblyman and became a state legislator. And right away he
began to advocate the sorts of causes that he’d devote himself to for the rest of
his life; corporate reform, worker’s poretections and anti-corruption measures.
He served 3 one year terms, and by his final one, at only 26 years old, wrote
more bills than any other legislator in New York.
His first appearance on the national stage was in 1884 when the Republican
National Convention was in town. Young Teddy favored Chester Arthur (mostly
because of his support of the Pendleton Act), and in typical TR fashion sort
of accidentally became one of his strongest advocates at the convention. His
advocacy ended with his giving a speech in front of 10,000 people and he decided
from then on that state politics were just a bit too boring for his speed, but
not before he was forced out of politics altogether. The next years saw him
running unsuccessfully for New York’s mayorship, becoming a literal cowboy in
the Dakotas, and accepting a position as NYC’s Police Commissioner. Every
single one of these positions has fascinating stories behind it because he was
apparently on a personal quest to be the most interesting man in American
In addition to being a badass, TR was also a massive nerd, and a history
enthusiast besides. He wrote many influential histories of the US navy throughout
his (at this point, still pretty young) life, and it drew the attention of newly elected
President William McKinley. McKinley appointed him Assistant Secretary of
the Navy. When the Spanish American War broke out, Roosevelt decided that
being a paper pusher was for boobs, and resigned the post to form a voluntary
cavalry regiment made up of. . . well, it was a pretty motley crew. Businessmen,
athletes, some cowboys from his Dakota days and even some Native Americans

joined the squad, which would eventually be known to history as the Rough
Riders. Though much romanticized, their actual performance was a bit of a
mixed bag. They served well at the Battle of Las Guasimas and lead a famous
charge at the Battle of San Juan Hill. But this latter was entirely too costly. Of
the 240 Americans killed fighting in the Spanish American War, over half fell in
this one battle, and that was under TR’s leadership.
Despite his mixed success in it, the War catapulted TR into the national spotlight.
Here was a politician with a cushy job who left it to win battles for America.
He was an overnight hero. And he turned that heroism into the New York
Governorship. He proved to be an ardent reformer as governor who surrounded
himself with competent men, learned as much as he could about every issue
facing his tenure, and aggressively battled with political machines.
Roosevelt ultimately arrived in the White House not through his own election
but by way of the Vice Presidency, which is interesting because he never really
had any desire for the position. Nor, for that matter, did McKinley have any
interest in offering it to him, despite numerous prominent Republicans urging
him to do after a heart attack claimed the life of VP Garret Hobart. Though the
two shared a mind on foreign policy,TR’s aggressive posture toward domestic
reform and corporate regulation put him at odds with McKinley’s more subdued
domestic policy. And McKinnley was justifiably concerned that the boundlessly
energetic Roosevelt might outshine him on the campaign trail.
So how did two people so mutually uninterested in Roosevelt’s vice presidency
end up on a ticket together? Ironically it was mostly through the machinations
of one of TR’s fiercest political opponents, Senator Thomas C. Platt. Platt was
the boss of New York state’s Republican political machine, and was tired both
of being upstaged by Roosevelt and of losing levers of power each time Roosevelt
pushed a new reform package. Platt started a newsletter pushing Roosevelt’s
VP nomination and actively lobbied the 1900 Republican convention to put him
on the ticket, all in a bid to simply get him the hell out of New York. When the
convention unanimously nominated him for the job, TR reluctantly took it, and
thus almost as an afterthought, became McKinley’s running mate.
But on September 8th of 1901, Leon Czolgosz’s bullet transformed that af-
terthought into the President of the United States. And where men like Tyler,
Johnson and Arthur were political B-Teamers without the skill or desire to wield
Presidential power, Roosevelt couldn’t have been more capable or excited to have
the job. Despite being only 42 years old (to date, he’s still the youngest man to
assume the office) and having little in the way of connections in Washington,
Roosevelt proved more than equal to the task.
Roosevelt today is often considered the first modern President, there are two
major reasons for that. First, he develop an extremely cordial relationship with
the media, putting himself in front of them as often as possible. He used the
press to showcase his personal life and style, selling himself to the nation and
expressing his ideas on the issues of the day. It created the “Bully Pulpit”, as it’s

come to be known; the idea of the Presidency as a platform unto itself. Where
previous presidents worked largely behind the scenes, occasionally making public
addresses, Roosevelt’s correspondence with the media was daily. And it made
him an integral part of American life.
Compounding this was TR’s approach to his agenda. Rather than sitting
back and reacting to Congressional moves, TR used the office to submit bills
to Congress. This was not unheard of prior to his Presidency but it was
unorthodox. Usually, when a President wanted to push an issue, he’d worth with
a Congressman to draft a bill and try to urge it through Congress. Roosevelt
wanted none of this, and submitted more bills to Congress than any President to
that point. Combined with his rapport with journalists, Roosevelt was constantly
pushing new initiatives and explaining the need for them to Congress before
they’d had a chance to react to it. He was not playing follow the leader with
Congress. He was making Congress follow him.
To what ends did he employ this approach? In short, liberal ones. Roosevelt
was one of the most dramatic reformers the nation had seen to that point. Some
of the first major corporate regulations, including those for worker safety and
reasonable wage and hour laws were all pursued by TR. And while the three
previous presidents had only brought a combined 18 anti-monopoly suits via the
Sherman Act, Roosevelt brought 44. Most notably, he broke up the enormous
monopolies of Standard Oil, a beef trust that controlled most of the nation’s
food production, and a holding company that had taken over both the nation’s
rail and financial systems. These were the three largest corporations of the day,
and their dissolution established that the Sherman Act had teeth for the first
time. Deeply disturbed by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, he vigorously pushed
for and saw passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. This bill both cleaned up
the disgusting, disease ridden food production the US had endured to that point
and established that food and drugs must be clearly and honestly labeled; a
huge problem in a day when many medicines were basically sugar water. The
Departments of Commerce and Labor were chartered under his leadership, giving
the executive branch tools to intervene in labor disputes, to study the effects
of corporate behavior and to recommend tools for regulating business. And he
established the Bureau of Corporations, which had the power to demand files
about the details of how large companies were run. This created a degree of
transparency in how major companies operated and the unethical tactics they
used. The challenges to his regulatory actions would often land him in Court,
and a number of landmark Supreme Court cases that enabled government to
regulate national corporations (namely Northern Securities v. United States)
were won under his Administration.
Many more reforms, to finance, wage laws and improvements on antitrust laws
failed to gain Congressional support, particularly after his pronouncement that
his second term would be his last. The entrenched machine and corporate
powers which he’d railed against saw Roosevelt as a lame duck; an obstacle to
be endured rather than someone they had to work with. And as a result of

these failures, Roosevelt’s politics took a radical turn. He didn’t accomplish
as much of his agenda as he wanted to, and he blamed the growing influence
of big business on government for that failure. Yet even in defeat, Roosevelt’s
presidency was a triumph for progressivism in the United States simply because
he was the President. Progressive views like Roosevelt’s were considered fringe
when he became President. By the time he was finished, they were the views of
the President. Through the strength of his conviction, the power of his oratory
and the the political clout he commanded, Roosevelt legitimized progressivism,
and proved that voters all over the country would support it too. The years after
his departure saw the rise of progressive reforms like Al Smith, Charles Evans
Hughes, Robert La Folletta and Frank Lowden; titantic governors who would
drastically reformed their states. And they saw the rise of New Jersey governor
Woodrow Wilson who would eventually come to make many of Roosevelt’s ideas
and proposals into reality. All of it was possible because TR legitimized the
And it wasn’t the only ideology he gave birth to. To more than anyone in
American history, the modern environmental movement owes its existence to
Teddy Roosevelt. A strong believer in conservation, he advanced the cause
of land preservation at a time when the last of America’s natural beauty was
being devoured. Through executive orders and just outright claiming them, he
preserved 10 times as many national lands as his closest predecessor, and created
more national parks and nature preserves than every other previous President
combined. So large and varied were his acquisitions that the National Park
Service would need be created to administer them. This invigoration of the
conservation movement was the forbearer to the environmentalist movement,
and like progressivism, Roosevelt’s legitimization of it would turn it into a
mainstream political force.
If it had been William McKinley’s desire to transform America into an actor on
the world stage, Roosevelt wanted to make us the star of the show. He expanded
the Monroe Doctrine from a principle that America would allow independence
from Latin nations seeking liberty to a broader promise that in the Western
Hemisphere, the United States had a vested interest in any foreign affairs affairs.
He helped Panama achieve independence in order to establish a regime interested
in his Panama Canal project. He conspired to push the British Navy out of
the Caribbean. And he negotiated an end to the Russo Japanese War that
earned him the first Nobel Peace Prize for a US President. And while he did a
poor job following the “Walk softly” part of his device, he carried a mighty big
stick by overseeing one of the largest peacetime military expansions it has yet
experienced. This expansion set a “sleeping giant” precedent that America was
able to produce large quantities of war materials and mobilize a huge army if
the need ever arose for it to do so; a fact that would be absolutely critical to
America’s role in the world over the decades to come.
Roosevelt’s Presidency, from a strictly policy standpoint, was not one of the
most influential of all time. He failed in a great number of his objectives, and

had to limit his vision in a great many others. But where TR casts his long
shadow over American history was as a trailblazer. He found the route that
men like Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt would use to revamp American society
and politics. He established progressivism as a force in American politics and
in doing so, created a nationwide movement that realiagned America’s political
system. He was a man ahead of his time by about 15 years, whose ideas, even
the failed ones, would be widely embraced and validated in the years to come.
And he transformed the Presidency into the engine behind those ideas. The
office itself was never the same after TR left it. Outside of perhaps Taft in
the years that followed, no President would ever bring the Presidency back in
subservience to Congress. Roosevelt definitively and more or less permanently
established the President as the center of all American politics. When you think
of the President and all he represents, you’re thinking of Teddy Roosevelt and
the men who followed him.


“It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man
stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs
to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by the dust and
sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and
again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming; who knows the
great enthusiasms, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at
worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly; so that his place shall never
be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Grade: A-

He’s kind of tough to grade, because a lot of his agenda didn’t work out. But
I’ll go with an A- for rewriting the role of the President and blazing a trail
that some of our greatest leaders followed to enact needed reforms. He was an
inspiration to some of the most important men in our history. There’s a reason
we carved his face into a mountain.

27. William Howard Taft (1909-1913)

William Howard Taft was fat. Like real fat. Like Orca fat.
There. Did you have yourself a giggle? Glad we got that out of the way.
If there’s one pervasive trait that characterized William Howard Taft’s political
career, it is his abounding likability. Everyone who met him liked him. And
when you read his correspondence, it’s not hard to see why. He’s outstandingly

nice. He was a kind, cheerful man who unanimously endeared everyone who ever
worked with him.
And he was also outstandingly competent. Taft served in a number of public
positions prior to becoming President, and always with distinction. Taft’s first
foray into public service was as a federal tax collector, which was a much more
political role than you might imagine today. He brought a spirit of reform to the
position, endeavoring to make collection fair and balanced, noteably drawing
the ire of the Republican Party bosses who appointed him when he refused to
fire Democrats who were able and fair collectors. From there he moved to the
Ohio circuit court, where he made a name for himself by coming down on the
progressive side of ruling from labor relations to political corruption. This got
him noticed as a potential Supreme Court appointment (the job he’d always
wanted), but at 39 he was simply too young for the position. He was instead
appointed US Solicitor General (the guy who argues on behalf of the federal
government when it’s sued in court) and eventually a federal judge.
What Taft always wanted, however, was an appointment to the Supreme Court.
When no appointment opened, however, he was appointed to head the civil
government of the Philippines. And it was here that Taft did what he always
considered his most important life’s work. Acquired as a US territory in the
aftermath of the Spanish American War, the Philippines went into a state of
revolt at being transferred from one colonial master to another, and had been
under US military occupation ever since its ceding to the US. As the rebellion
was suppressed, however, McKinley wanted the power to be moved to a civilian
authority. Recognizing Taft’s brilliant legal mind, he appointed him to the job.
And by all accounts, Taft performed in an exemplary fashion. Taft first moved
to overrule the military, led by General Arthur MacArthur (Father of the famous
Douglas, which at least proves that the latter came by being an asshole honestly),
who had instituted a harsh, racist military dictatorship. As gesture of good will,
Taft started by evicting officers from the homes and properties they’d stolen
for themselves and returning them back to the natives. He acted as a friend
to the Philippines’ native population, flouting the colonial tradition of hosting
only whites at dinners and state functions and bringing Philippine natives into
his home. Sowing deep connections with prominent native families, Taft sought
to make them the basis of the new government and constitution. He soothed
over a number of violent crises by neither siding with the US military when it
committed atrocities nor permitting rebellion by the islands’ radical factions.
Under Spanish rule, the Spanish Clergy had moved onto the island, acquiring
huge, choice passels of land that they horded even after Spanish Colonial rule
ended. Taft even made a trip to Rome to negotiate their sale from the Catholic
Church to the US, distributing them to the Philippine people once the US had
acquired them.
All the while he was in the Philippines, major changes were going on in the
US. His close friend Teddy Roosevelt had been elevated to the presidency by
Leon Czolgosz. And Teddy begged him to come back. He first wanted Taft to

serve in his cabinet, and then later twice urged him to return for nomination
to the US Supreme Court. Taft refused all three overtures because he felt the
work he was already doing so important. Then in 1904, Roosevelt’s Secretary
of State retired, forcing Teddy to move his top adviser Elihu Roote from the
War Department to the State Department. A critical vacancy thus opened in
the War Department, Roosevelt finally commanded that his friend join him in
Washington as a cabinet member. Taft obliged, and quickly became Teddy’s
right hand man, establishing a closeness with him that we typically associate
with Vice Presidents today. Despite his hatred of politics, he even emerged as
Teddy’s best advocate in the 1904 election, embarking on a whirlwind tour of
the Midwest to secure Ohio, Illinois and Indiana for the president.
Yet in spite of all this, Taft was not a politician. He despised the combative
nature of politics. He withered under the personal criticism that came with
such territory, and could never make himself comfortable attacking others. As
Roosevelt’s term expired, many called on him to run to replace Roosevelt (who
had forsworn a 3rd term), but Taft preferred a Supreme Court vacancy that
had opened up. Ultimately it was two people who convinced him otherwise; his
wife and Teddy Roosevelt. Throughout Taft’s adult life, his wife Nelly had been
the driving force behind his ambition, guiding him through his public career
and serving as his chief adviser as well as acting as an effective hostess. This
last may sound inconsequential, but by opening her home to prominent political
figures and unfailingly showing them a good time, Nelly was able to elevate her
husband’s political ambitious throughout his career by keeping his relationships
with the right people very close. Roosevelt too, who had come to rely on Taft as
an almost equal partner in government, begged Taft to succeed him. Taft finally
assented to the two and successfully ran for President in 1908.
And this is where things kind of go off the rails for Taft. Unlike his predecessor,
who could effectively wield the press and public to push his agenda, Taft had
little public skill. To make matters worse, his wife suffered a severe stroke only
days after his inauguration that left her completely mute. Taft spent so much
time helping her rehabilitate that he was unable to fulfill major functions of
his Presidency. While she would eventually recover her speech and most of her
movement, Nelly was never the effective partner or adviser for her husband that
she had once been, which was enormously detrimental to his Presidency.
Which is not to say he was completely ineffectual. Taft saw the passage of the
Mann-Elkins Act, which established regulations over a telegraph industry that
was, at the time, openly extorting businesses and politicians for use of its lines.
He wielded the Interstate Commerce Commission to more effectively regulate
unfair railroad practices. Unable to pass fair banking legislation through a
conservative Congress, Taft operated the Post Office as a sort of federal bank,
giving common people a place to deposit money and collect small loans. He
pushed for the Federal Employers Liability Act, which was the first federal
law mandating that worker’s compensation insurance be offered by rail and
manufacturing companies to its workers to protect them from injury. And he

established the Children’s Bureau to help advocate for the rights of minors at a
time when both destitute poverty for orphaned children and exhaustive child
labor were huge problems.
Most importantly, Taft was a valiant trust buster in a way that Roosevelt never
was. Though TR had been tough on trusts, going after such megaliths such as
Standard Oil, he still saw a different between good trusts that created efficiency
and lowered prices, and bad trusts that acted in the interests of greed. Taft, on
the other hand, felt that since all monopolies had the ability to unfairly game
competition and drive up prices, none were acceptable. Roosevelt brought 30
anti-trust suits while he was in office. Taft brought over 70.
But it was two failings of Taft’s that cemented his ire with Roosevelt. First,
when he advocated for Congress to pass major tariff reform, Taft not only
failed to secure a bill that would dramatically lower tariffs, but actually was so
bamboozled by Congress that the bill he ultimately signed actually increased
them. And while Taft was supportive of Roosevelt’s conservation policy, he
felt that a number of his methods were unconstitutional. This caused a riff
within his Interior Department which saw several Roosevelt stalwarts leave the
cabinet entirely. They pushed for their old chief to run for a third term, which
he ultimately did, and the popular support he received went a little to his head.
Roosevelt convinced himself that he was the only one who could bring meaningful
progressive reform to the US. He unfairly maligned his former protege as a tool of
reactionary conservative political machines and all but accused him of corruption.
The two fought over the mantle of progressivism, fatally splitting the Republican
Party. Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, carried universal Democratic support and
drew a great deal of progressive support as well. It was enough to put him over
the top.
Taft’s story doesn’t end with the White House though. In one of his only positive
contributions to American politics, future President Warren Harding appointed
him Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court; the position Taft had always
coveted. In that position, he authored rulings that overturned the ridiculous
Tenure of Office Act, protected citizen’s constitutional rights from state laws
and established the principle that both the federal and state governments could
pursue criminal charges against individuals in cases where an individual’s actions
defied the laws of both. He also exercised considerably influence over the Harding,
Coolidge and Hoover Presidencies.
Taft got dealt a tough hand. He really shouldn’t have run for President in the
first place, and Roosevelt’s betrayal cemented his reputation as a conservative
do nothing rather than the progressive that he was. He wasn’t the most effective
president, but he was a high minded progressive and a stalwart public servant
to whom the US owes much.


“The President so fully represents his party. . . and the whole government is so
identified in the minds of the people with his personality that they make him
responsible for all the sins of omission and of commission of society at large.
This would be ludicrous if it did not have sometimes serious results.”

Grade: C+

Taft gets treated unfairly, but only to a point. I certainly won’t argue that he
didn’t do anything, but he left a lot of his agenda untouched. I’ll give him a C+.

28. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921)

Woodrow Wilson was the son of Joseph Ruggles Wilson, an influential religious
thinking in the late 19th century. Joseph was a theology professor and minister,
as well as one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church of the United States
(a major denomination that continues today). This litany of responsibilities
meant that Wilson grew up travelling the South, but being steeped in a highly
intellectual environment. In terms of government, the South at that time was
badly mismanaged, rife with corruption and inefficient to a degree that many
of its citizens were left destitute. Wilson saw that as he came of age and as he
entered college, grew to develop a fascination with government administration.
Majoring (and eventually getting a PhD) in political science, Wilson studied
public administration and became one of the leaders of a wave of reform minded
thinkers influence American political philosophy at the time. And exception
writer and orator, Wilson emerged as a prolific professor whose speaking tours
and written works on the subject of administrative reform helped guide the
thinking of the Progressive Reform Movement that really matured in the late
19th century.
Wilson argued that the model of state sovereignty was insufficient to manage
an economy that now spanned well beyond state lines. America was backward
and archaic in its approach to government, and required a strong and proactive
government that could be used to regulated the increasingly national issues of
its day. He also advocated for a strong executive branch that could drive policy
forward, as he felt that legislators were often too beholden to corrupt political
machines that put them in power. And his writings ran the typical progressive
gambits of reform from fair wage practices, to the abolition of child labor to the
regulation of major corporations.
Wilson eventually became the President of Princeton, but continued to write
about political theory. It drew the attention of Democratic Party’s liberal
operatives who induced Wilson to run for New Jersey’s governorship. While
much of the Democratic Party was still the collection of racist, conservative

fuddy duddies that it had always been, the large immigrant populations that
had been incorporated into the party by the political machines of Northeastern
cities had been moving the party in a decidedly liberal direction. Progressive
voices in New Jersey’s party wanted one of the progressive movement’s great
ideological leaders in on the action. And get in on it he did. His term as governor
saw the establishment of the nation’s first workmen’s compensation legislation,
restrictions on wages and hours to protect America’s overworked, changes in
election laws that significantly curbed the powers of political machines and the
regulation of utility gouging that had become a rampant problem across the
Eastern Seaboard. As the Presidential elections of 1912 approached, Democrats
(especially William Jennings Bryan) began to push Wilson to take his reformist
show national.
And he entered onto the presidential stage at a very interesting time in American
politics. Under Roosevelt, the Republican Party had taken a decidedly leftward
slant, much to the chagrin of its pro-business supporters. Taft had reigned that
in considerably, pushing many of the reformist, progressive elements of the party
out of it. Roosevelt, who had fucked off to Africa for a 2 year safari after leaving
the White House (#TRthings) had returned to find that Taft had not, in fact,
been the ideological successor he’d hoped for. Enraged at what he felt was an
assault on his legacy, he split from Republicans entirely to form the Bull Moose
Party. Split between its progressive and conservative elements, much of the vote
defected to Democrats, resulting in a 40 state landslide for Wilson.
The election of Woodrow Wilson is what we in the political science biz call
a “realignment election”. And while every election is called that these days,
what it actually means is an election that permanently shifts the battle lines
around which our elections are fought. This one made the progressive movement
a Democratic one, and the shift of the liberal voices to the Democrat Party
became more or less permanent, which forever altered the landscape of America’s
elections. And it wasn’t just Wilson that was swept into power. He commanded
Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, as the down ballot races
had been split in much the same way that the presidential one was.
Once in office, Wilson began to put his theories to the test on a whole new scale.
Wilson had campaigned on major reforms to business, banking and finance. His
argument, in essence, was that protectionist tariffs produced high cost goods,
businesses dictated severe hours and low wages to workers, and that the common
people lacked access to financial institutions, and that while Americans were
nominally free, many workers were in such a state of financial distress that they
lived only to work. How free are you if you have to grind out 90-100 hour, 7 day
work weeks just so you can barely make ends meet? He called his platform “The
New Freedom”; a package of economic reforms that would make free enterprise
an equitable endeavor for the American worker.
That reform started with the way government financed itself. For years, the US
government had paid for its existence through tariffs. And there was a great
deal wrong with this approach. Most obviously, it was an anathema to US trade.

By taxing the hell out of goods coming in from other countries, the US incurred
significant penalties from trade in other countries. While Europe was liberalizing
on this issue, the US was not, and its foreign markets were beginning to dry up.
Second, it drove up the price of goods within the US. The reason for this was
twofold. Not only were prices driven up on comparatively cheap foreign goods,
but much of America’s raw material production was in the hands of monopolies
and trusts who kept prices artificially high. Finally, tariffs were highly politicized,
as various industries were able to bribe or lobby their way toward preferential
treatment. And which goods were and weren’t protected entirely depended on
whose supporters were in power at any given time. The upshot of it all was a
system of government funding that was inefficient to the government’s needs,
whose actual revenue fluctuated wildly and which was, at the end of the day,
shitty economic policy.
In an effort to change this, Wilson saw passage of the Revenue Acts of 1913
and 1916. The combined effect of these bills slashed tariffs to the bone. Goods
being imported went from being taxed at an average of 35% to an average of
7%. To replace it, Wilson instituted a federal income tax that began on incomes
of $4,000 per year or more ($100,000 by today’s standards) with rates escalating
relative to one’s personal wealth. You may recognize this as the thing we do
today, but the idea of a peacetime income tax was revolutionary. It provided
enormous economic relief to most US citizens while hugely inflating government
coughers, and had the added benefit of opening the world to US goods. It was,
in short, a complete transformation in the way government financed itself that
would endure from that point on.
As Wilson was revamping government finances, he also authored some pretty
titanic changes to personal finance. Without getting into the many nuances
of turn of the century banking, the US financial system was a goddamn mess.
Checks were only accepted in bizarre, criss crossing networks of banks, currency
was inflexible, there was no reliable mechanism to enforce federal banking and
lending laws and no lender of last resort for the banking panics (which were both
frequent and devastating) that routinely wiped out people’s life savings. Wilson
put an end to all of those problems by advising and facilitating the passage of
the Federal Reserve Act, which created the financial system that the US has
relied on ever since.
To reform businesses, Wilson oversaw the passage of the Clayton Antitrust Act,
which is one of the most comprehensive reform measures ever authored. To start,
it struck down laws against labor organization nationwide. Numerous states
had banned organized labor in one capacity or another, and the CATA made
such laws null. It established the Federal Trade Commision to monitor business
practices and bring suit against companies who engaged in abuses, effectively
giving the government a body it could use to enforce its expanding business
regulation. It severely curtailed retail exclusivity agreements, or the process by
which businesses would refuse to sell their goods with other businesses unless
they charged a set price, effectively allowing prices to be set by the market.

And it put into place a 40 hour work week on railroads which would eventually
become the standard we accept as a full work week today.
It’s hard to overstate how influential all this was. CATA went further than any
other Anti-Trust law ever had by allowing the government not just the ability
to break up monopolies, but to put a stop to the tools that companies used to
create them in the first place. Even international labor leader and professional
grumpypants Samuel Gompers was so impressed by the bill that he named the
“Magna Carta of the American worker”. While there would be future banking
crises in the future, the 7 year cycle of bank panics and recessions that had plagued
America since the Jacksonian Era were ended by the establishment of the Fed.
And shifting funding from tariffs to income tax was a revolution in government
finance that enabled it to take on all manner of responsibilities. Wilson had
fundamentally transformed the role of Federal Government in American society,
and the President’s role in American government.
And that’s not even all he did. Wilson granted independence to the Philippines
and citizenship to Puerto Ricans. He insured passage of the Federal Farm Loan
Act, which created regional agricultural lending services to farmers. Those of
you who (like myself) grew up in agricultural communities know that every year,
the price of upgrading ones equipment and buying grain is hugely expensive.
The FFLA allowed the government to issue short term, low interest loans to
farmers for this purpose and it is another Wilsonian reform that (with some
modification) stands to this day. And Wilson was critically influential in getting
women the vote. The movement had been building for a long time, and a
Constitutional amendment had passed the House of Representatives but stalled
in the Senate. Wilson pressured the Senate, flipping key votes required to get it
over the threshold required to send it to the states for ratification. By the time
the states individually ratified the 19th Amendment, Wilson was out of office.
But he was instrumental in the bill clearing the Senate. So if you’re a woman
who likes having high falutin’ opinions, thank Woodrow Wilson.
It wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, and there were definite black marks
on Wilson’s Administration. He was, for instance, an enormous racist. And
while this didn’t really manifest itself in any meaningful policy (we’re still about
30 years removed from an active Civil Rights movement), his public support of
racist cause (particularly his endorsement of the racial propaganda film Birth
of a Nation) helped give legitimacy to the resurgent KKK and established the
Democratic Party as a roadblock to civil rights reform all the way up until the
Roosevelt Administration embraced it in the 1930s. And as WWI (more on
that in a minute) commenced, Wilson’s Administration authored enormous civil
liberties violations to help tamp down to descent. As the War camp to a close
and the Red Scare kicked into high gear, Wilson’s Administration fueled the
crisis of faux Bolshevism and used it to further stifle dissent. It was one of the
more disgusting episodes for civil liberty in the history of the United States.
And Wilson was the primary driver behind America’s disastrous experiment in
alcohol prohibition, which did less to make Americans stop drinking and more

to inconvenience them, while insuring that liquor productions and distribution
were taken up by violent mob interests rather than legitimate businessmen.
The 1916 election was an interesting one, pitting Wilson against hyper progres-
sive Republican Governor Charles Evans Hughes of New York that essentially
amounted to two men trying to out-liberal one another. Throughout this election,
bold new concepts like the establishment of unemployment insurance, a minimum
wage, a 40 hour work week and federal retirement programs were all debated.
These ideas were not seriously discussed again for another 20 years and they’d
serve as key inspirations for the men who would eventually enact them into law.
Wilson narrowly won, largely on the boast “He kept us out of the war!”, which
is pretty hilarious in light of subsequent events.
And that, ultimately, is where Wilson’s legacy is primarily tied up in the
popular imagination. Despite being the man who “Kept us out of the war”,
Wilson was chomping at the bit to get into it. He already had America making
outrageous amounts of money selling arms to the allied powers, and was actively
mediating the conflict. But he was also looking for an excuse to throw down.
The Zimmerman Telegram (among with numerous other outrages, but let’s
keep things simple, ya?) provided that excuse when it was captured by British
Intelligence in 1917, and just like that, the doughboys were off to war.
Now the details of America’s involvement in WWI are not well understood by
Americans, and a number of misconceptions exist about what our entry meant
and the impact that it had (we did not, for instance, ride to Europe’s rescue
in that particular conflict). But to make an extremely long and complex story
very short and simple, the US intervention accomplished two primary objectives.
First, it insured that the Germans’ hands were forced, as to get ahead of the
deployment of thousands of fresh Yanks, they threw everything they had into a
last ditch offensive that ultimately lost them the war. And second, it insured
America a seat at the table in the armistice negotiations. When the War came
to an end, Wilson effectively used that seat to help negotiate not just a peace
treaty, but an entire international framework for the post-war world. Modeled on
his 14 Points (a set of ideas that roughly amounted to free trade, the spread of
democracy and the self-determination of nations), It created a League of Nations
where international disputes could be settled and a world court to help arbitrate
trade differences as well as a host of free trade agreements designed to give
major powers a vested economic interest in one another. This was all visionary
stuff. Europe signed on, and Wilson returned home to rapturous American
celebration with a Nobel Peace Prize in his hand. Riding a wave of immense
public popularity, he went to Capitol Hill to oversee the ratification of his new
Where they were emphatically rejected by Congress.
And really, for Woodrow Wilson, this is where things fall apart. Congress raised
many objections to Wilson’s treaties and quickly gained an enormous amount of
support from a resurgent isolationist movement that had grown in opposition

to the horrifying casualties incurred in the war. America never signed on to
support the creations of its President. Wilson himself set out on a national
train tour to drum up support for his treaties, and was met my friendly crowds
that he wowed on every stop of the tour. It remains one of the great “what ifs”
of the interwar years what may have happened if Wilson had been allowed to
finish his tour and ginned up the support required for the passage of his treaties.
What if America had been at the League of Nations’ helm? What if it had taken
an active role in deterring Hitler’s early conquests when Britain and France’s
leaderships demurred? Would there even have been a World War II?
But what ifs they remain, because shortly after the start of his tour, Wilson’s
health began to fail and in September of 1919, he suffered a massive stroke.
Though not killed, he was all but blinded, and much of body left paralyzed.
Lacking the vigor he once had, initiatives like the end of child labor, a 40 hour
work week, a federal retirement network and minimum wage all fell by the
wayside as aids scrambled to cover up the fact that the President was barely
alive, much less capable of the job. A severe economic depression capped the
final year he spent in office, and he died shortly after leaving with the American
economy in shambles and much of his work undone and his “War to end all wars”
proving little more than a prelude for the disastrous one to come.
It was a tragic end to the life of an unambiguously great American. Today,
Wilson is primarily remembered not for his whirlwind of badly needed reforms,
but for the failure of his idealistic vision of a post WWI world. In my opinion,
this is preposterous. First of all, it’s not like those reforms didn’t happen, or that
they weren’t influential. Second, his international ideas were clearly vindicated
by history. The establishment of a host of international bodies both political
and economic helped stabilize the globe for years. And he might even have been
able to bring Americans around to his way of thinking if not for the disastrous
stroke that let him half a corpse. So I’m hardly going to fault the guy for being
ahead of his time.
Wilson’s presidency moved the needle and continued Roosevelt’s work of salvaging
a broken system of financially and morally bankrupt capitalism. The reforms he
implemented helped pave the foundation of the society we live in today, which
despite having its own problems is a damn sight better than the horrifying
inequities of the Gilded Age. As a foreign policy mind, he established ideological
principles that inspired Presidents from FDR and George W Bush, for better or
worse. The world cooperation he advocated could have prevented the second
World War, and they were implemented after WWII and helped keep the Cold
War from becoming WWIII. He was a man of peace and a man of justice, and
his life was spent making astounding progress toward both ideals.


The instrument of all reform in America is the ballot. The road to economic
and social reform in America is the straight road of justice to all classes and
conditions of men. Men have but to follow this road to realize the full fruition of
their objects and purposes. Let those beware who would take the shorter road
of disorder and revolution.”

Grade: A

Wilson’s presidency had some ugly spots. But the changes he wrought resulted
in a positive transformation of the country and the changes he sought could have
resulted in positive transformations for the world. I give an A grade to one of
our least appreciated Presidents.

Republican Era

29. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)

Y’all ready for some sex, drugs and rock and roll jazz?
In the history of campaign slogans, I think Warren G Harding’s, “A return to
normalcy”, has to be considered one of the most effective. It harkens to the
idea that we’ve entered into this crazy world, and what we really need just
to get our heads on straight again. And make no mistake; by 1920, America
had DEFINITELY entered into a crazy world. America was seeing sky high
crime rates due to prohibition, had just lost over 100,000 young men in WWI
and seen many more come back crippled or maimed, had been rocked by the
worst plague in human history and routinely got rocked by racial and labor riots.
Communist and anarchist terrorists were regularly bombing public areas and
mailing explosives to important political and business figures. Add into the mix
a flurry of reforms that were reshaping society and it must have felt like things
were coming apart at the seams. Such is the atmosphere that Warren Harding
accidentally became President in.
And I say accidental because he really shouldn’t have ever been President.
Nobody was ever inspired by Warren G Harding. His claim to fame was the
newspaper industry. He owned an industrious chain of newspapers that provided
news to most of Ohio. Wealthy and active in Republican politics, he became
something of a party kingmaker within the state, using his press, charisma and
money to create a modest political machine. He served in the Ohio state senate
and after a few unsuccessful runs for governor, ran for Senate in 1914. He earned
the seat, but was known more as a playboy than a political leader. But he
was a congenial figure who earned respect from his conservative and progressive
colleagues, frequently acting as a bridge between the two. Ever ambitious, and
despite having little in the way of support, Harding decided he would run for
President in 1920.
By the time of the election, Democrats were on life support. Wilson was
practically a corpse, the party lacked leadership and it was reeling from various
crises throughout the country. Everyone knew that they were on the outs with
the American people. So Republican progressives that might otherwise have
defected to the Democrats stuck with their party. This created a party that was
deeply divided between its progressive left wing and the conservative factions
that had opposed Wilson’s radical reform agenda. At the Republican National
Convention, progressive Hiram Johnson, Conservative Frank Lowden and centrist
Leonard Wood spit the ballots. None of them were able to coalesce a majority of
support through three ballots. So a fourth compromise candidate was proposed,
and then failed. And then a fifth compromise candidate failed. And after losing
their first, second, third, fourth and fifth choices, they finally looked around and
said “Fuck it, let’s go with the Ohio guy” more or less because he hadn’t actively

pissed anyone off. Harding was nominated on the 6th ballot.
To say he got off to an inauspicious start would be an understatement. Within
days of being announced as the nominee, one of his mistresses (and a German
sympathizer, no less) came out of the woodwork to demand hush money not to
reveal herself. The Republican Party paid her the modern equivalent of $297,000.
And before he was even elected, it was revealed that another lover of his (this
one barely more than a teenager) had born a child by him, forcing he and the
Republican Party to make her existence a closely guarded secret as well. But
they were able to keep all of this under wraps, and Harding went on to a crushing
election victory over reeling Democrats.
Now, I don’t want to imply that Harding did nothing of value in office, because
that’s not entirely fair. He signed the Federal Highway Act to extend the federal
system of roadways, oversaw the significant project of postwar disarmament
and signed into law a 40 hour work week. And most nobly of all, he released
thousands of political prisoners who Wilson had locked up for offense ranging to
anti-war protesting to slander to radical political beliefs.
But most of his domestic agenda was characterized by steps backward rather than
forward. In the hotly contested business issues of the day, Harding generally
sided with corporate interests. He cracked down on unions and rolled back
corporate tax cuts. In contrast to Wilson and Roosevelt, who sought to expand
immigration, Harding signed into law the strikingly racist Emergency Quota Act.
This levy immigration quotas against “problem peoples” like Slavs fleeing Russia
and the dissolving Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italians, all of whom people
saw as sources of communist and anarchist sentiment. And although he was a
surprisingly passionate advocate for Civil Rights, none of his initiatives ever went
anywhere and his administration flatly ignored some of the most despicable racial
crimes ever committed in the United States, most notably the Tulsa/Greenville
riots that left 300 dead and the most prosperous black community in the US in
And then there was the scandal.
Ironically, despite Harding being a notorious letherio who all but begged to be
caught, the scandals that have ultimately proven to be Harding’s greatest legacy
were almost exclusively political rather than sexual. From the very beginning,
Harding’s administration had ethics issues. He was, for instance, very fond of
throwing parties in the White House and frequently bought large quantities
of illegal alcohol in order to entertain his guests. Being a newspaper man
himself (Harding got his start running a string of papers in Ohio), he enjoyed a
strong relationship with the press and often used those connections (particularly
with Washington Post owner Edward McLean) to cover up criticisms of his
But these concerns of ethics were trivial next to the conduct of his cabinet.
Having never been politically connected in Washington, Harding appointed
friends and associates to a number of key cabinet positions. These people often

had little experience in government or administration, and the “Ohio Gang”, as
they would come to be called, immediately began to embroil itself in scandal.
Albert B Fall, for instance, was named the Secretary of the Interior essentially
because he was Harding’s poker buddy who gave him good political advice. Once
in the office, his duties included overseeing the Strategic Oil Reserve (plots of oil
rich land set aside for government drilling in the event of a crisis), and reporters
thought it very strange when several oil companies began drilling operations
at SOR site of Teapot Dome. It was quickly discovered that Fall had taken
$400,000 in bribes (about $6 million in today’s currency) by oil companies to
authorize the drilling. And he wasn’t alone. Through a network of lobbyists and
political connections, Attorney General Harry M. Dougherty ran an elaborate
system of graft. In exchange for bribes and political favors, Dougherty selectively
ignore charges against corrupt officials and bootleggers, doled out government
contracts and in one especially notable instance, ensured a winning bid for an
American firm to buy a German steel company that had been seized by the
government during the war. This last saw a bribe of $500,000, fully $7.3 million
in today’s money, deposited directly into Dougherty’s pocket. Dougherty was
also notorious for using his powers as Attorney General to squash and stymie
investigations against himself and other cabinet officials, so the full extent of his
corruption might never be fully known.
But if Dougherty’s scandal was the most cynical, and Fall’s the most public,
the most morally reprehensible was easily that which rocked the newly formed
Veterans Administration. The Administration was set up to provide long term
support for soldiers returning from WWI with chronic and debilitating injuries.
The network of VA hospitals created and the needs of the many victims required
vast quantities of old timey medicines be purchased, including huge stores of
cocaine, heroine and disinfecting alcohol. Several of the bright minds at the
VA, including Secretary Charles Forbes, saw in this cache of supplies a great
deal of money to be made in this new era of prohibition. So they proceeded
to systematically sell off the supplies to a network of hospitals, even holding
auctions for exclusive purchasing rights. The money went directly into the
pockets of the conspirators. And when supplies started running critically low at
VA hospitals, well it was just more proof that the VA wasn’t being adequately
stocked. The VA administrators argued for increased taxpayer funding for their
illicit operation, and were forced to draw from the Veterans fund to pay for
their product, which helped insure its inadequate funding by the time the Bonus
Army crisis rolled around. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for this shockingly
naked theft to come to light. Forbes disappeared off to Europe to avoid arrest
and the chief legal counsel for the organization committed suicide.
For two decades leading up to Harding’s administration, the US saw a succession
of idealistic, reformist presidents who sought to make America a more fair and
equitable place. They did a great deal to stamp out the corporate and political
corruption that had become so problematic in the late 19th century. So it’s really
no wonder that when Harding rode into office promising a return to normalcy,

the rollback of progressivism saw a return to the crony capitalism of before. In
fact, the Harding administration was probably the high water mark of old school
corruption in politics.
Now, Harding was never connected to any of these scandals. He wasn’t guilty of
corruption, but rather, aloofness. He appointed unqualified men who pillaged
the government, and he was too busy carrying on affairs and parties to stop
them. That is his legacy. Yet despite all this, he was immensely popular due to
an economic boom that coincided with his first term in office. And he died of a
heart attack before most of his cabinet’s behavior became publicly known. This
left former Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge in power, and American in
much more capable hands.


“There is something inherently wrong, something out of accord with the ideals
of representative democracy, when one portion of our citizenship turns its
activities to private gain while another is fighting, sacrificing, or dying for
national preservation.” - Indeed, Mr. President. Indeed.

Grade: D-

Harding was an ineffectual leader who allowed his cabinet to commit some of
the most flagrant acts of robbery in the whole of American history. I want to
give him and F. But my own grading scale requires that long term damage to
the Republic be done for that, and Harding wasn’t effective enough to do any.
So he gets a D- instead.

30. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)

We’re going to have a bit of a shorter entry on Calvin Coolidge, and it’s actually
not because he’s not interesting. He just didn’t do much. And as much as I
try to divorce myself from these things, but I have to admit that I was really
surprised when I started to look into Coolidge. Because there are two schools
of thought on why he was the sort of president that he was, and after reading
them, I admit that I find both kind of convincing.
Calvin Coolidge was sworn in when Warren Harding died of a heart attack and
one easy reelection thanks to the booming economy of the 20s. But he came
to that post by way of the Massachusetts Governorship. We’ll get to most of
his governorship in a minute, but he got national attention because he cracked
down hard on the Boston Police Strike of 1919. The brave Governor standing
up to anarchy and disorder by putting down the greedy police force made him a
national celebrity, or so the story went at the time. The reality of the Boston

Police Strike is that the police kind of had a point, had been denied the address
of even the most modest of their grievances and had a carefully negotiated
agreement with the city on the table that was thrown back in their faces because
Coolidge and Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis decided to make an example out
of them. But whatever. The Boston Police Strike is fascinating and I encourage
y’all to go read about it. The upshot is that, at the 1920 Republican Convention,
he was made Harding’s VP because he was a popular national figure after putting
down the Strike.
We’re gonna kinda go at this backwards and talk about what he did in office first
and his philosophy later. And not to put too fine a point on it, the answer to
the question of what he did is “not much”. He lowered taxes and cut the hell out
of spending, but almost all of that was simply reducing both to pre-war levels
and demobilizing America’s army. We didn’t need to be taking 50% of people’s
incomes, because we were no longer at war. Cutting back on war spending, and
then war taxes, is an easy thing to do. In the regulatory arena, he mostly held
the line, pursuing nothing aggressive, but not pushing a rollback either.
And it’s worth noting that Coolidge largely deferred to his cabinet members on
policy specifics. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, for instance, was allowed to
tinker with the tax rates. He left economic management to Commerce Secretary
Herbert Hoover, and he was the most aggressive leader of the bunch, using the
powers of his office to aggressively expand highways and radio networks while
setting regulations over both. The only thing Coolidge seemed to take a direct
hand in was an opposition to farm subsidies and budget policy. He was an ardent
deficit hawk, pouring over the federal budget several times a week to find places
to cut whenever new expenditures arose.
So it is universally agreed upon that Calvin Coolidge presided over a booming
1920s economy and largely kept his hands off of it. He was quiet on foreign affairs
and quiet on domestic policy. But a very fierce debate rages about why. Theory
one is simply that he was ineffective. He had no strong ideas and he decided to
let a successful economy take its course. Another theory still, the one espoused
when Reagan began to idolize him in the 80s, posits that he was actually a
staunch, small government conservative and his idea of effective management
was doing less. If the government was doing more, it was doing it wrong. This
is a bit more persuasive, because it fits with a number of comments he made
about allowing the markets a free hand throughout his presidency.
But there’s another argument still, and one that I think is intriguing. Because
while he may have been a hands off as a President, he was decidedly not as a
governor. As the Massachusetts governor, he called for an expansion of education,
public housing and even (gasp) universal healthcare. He was a fierce advocate of
unions, which is ironic considering the BPD strike. He pushed into law the first
workmen’s compensation package that Massachusetts had ever seen, and argued
for the government taking hand in fair employment practices. In other words,
he was a pretty liberal guy that wasn’t afraid to use government as a stick if
companies wouldn’t engage in fair practices.

So. . . what the hell happened? Well, it could be that he repudiated his views,
instead deciding that the prosperity growing up around him should be left
unimpeded. Or he may have been like many of his time, and just thought that
the responsibilities of state government weren’t those of the federal. This is a
widely accepted argument put forward by a number of his biographers, as well
as future President Ronald Reagan, who idolized Coolidge as a model of small
government leadership. It was hardly unusual for Republican progressives to
advocate progressive state governments and a hands-off federal one.
But some historians still have suggested a third motive for Coolidge’s quiet
presidency; that rather than having a political change of heart, Calvin’s new
silence was all personal. Because in early July, his son and namesake Calvin
Jr. was playing tennis when he complained of a blister that “hurt him terribly”.
When he was sent to a doctor, it was discovered he had a condition of “blood
poisoning” and he died on July 7th a few days later.
By every historical account, Coolidge took the loss very hard. He became notably
detached, and was less current on matters of policy. In his reelection campaign,
he lacked enthusiasm about making campaign stops, preferring not to travel and
issue radio addresses. And he would occasionally go into wild rages, breaking
his generally quiet and subdued nature to rail against his wife, staff and cabinet
members. He went to bed early, often as early as 9 PM, and woke late in the
mornings, spending far more time sleeping than any other President has been
known to. He was depressed for much of his life after his son’s death. He refused
to involve himself heavily in Herbert Hoover’s campaign, and retreated from
public life almost immediately upon leaving office. He left office in 1929, and by
1933 he was dead.
The debate about Coolidge’s motives remains largely open because grief stricken
or not, he was a quiet man who openly shunned relations with reporters. He
never shared his side of his presidential story. But whether the impact of his
presidency was minimized because he was a small government conservative, an
ineffectual leader or simply stricken with grief, minimal it most certainly was.
He goes down as a forgettable President because he was a forgettable President,
possibly even by design. Not a bad one. Just not an impactful one.
Now, one interpretation of Coolidge’s presidency that is bandied about by more
liberal historians is that he helped bring on the Great Depression. On this, I
call nonsense. The Depression was a large and complicated phenomenon with
many causes at its root. Particular criticism along this vein is leveled at his
unwillingness to regulate the stock market, which he openly opined was rising at
a rate that indicated a crash was coming. But at the time, stocks were considered
interstate trade. The subject of New York State’s regulations, not the federal
government. There was no Security and Exchange Commission at the time, so
Coolidge really didn’t have any levers of power to regulate the stock market even
if he were so inclined. The Depression took a long time to grow, and blindsided
most experts when it happened. That it happened months after Coolidge left
office was mostly bad luck.

Calvin Coolidge’s legend of being “Quiet Cal” has endured far beyond his political
legacy. He was notoriously almost silent at dinner parties and events. But that
was true of him going as far back as his gubernatorial days. It makes judging his
goals and motives uniquely difficult, even if judging his accomplishments isn’t.


“. . . .”

Grade: C

Whatever his motives, there’s not much to grade here. We’ll go with a solid C.

31. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933)

It’s kind of ironic that Herbert Hoover’s memory will go down as the guy who
bungled the Depression, because his reputation going into the Presidency was
not only that of a problem solver, but as the “Master of Emergency”. His record
as a public servant was sterling. In the bloody midst of the Boxer Rebellion, he
ran and expanded American mining operations in China. During World War I,
he helped managed the government’s resources, and avoided outright rationing
by launching a successful public campaign in order to encourage citizens to
voluntarily save goods. He excelled in disaster relief projects for Harding, and
he not only competently managed the Commerce Department, but used it to
help spur rapid infrastructural growth. He had the appearance of being a hyper
confident, non-partisan problem solver who was cool under pressure.
But just a little more than 6 months after taking office, an atom bomb fell.
A panic broke out at the New York Stock Exchange, and the stock market
crashed. This incited a banking panic that very nearly destroyed the country’s
financial system, as one bank after another collapsed in the wake of its investors
withdrawing their savings. People saw their entire life savings go up in smoke as
banks failed around the country. As financial markets dried up, companies were
no longer able to take out short term loans to cover payroll, and mass firings
and business closures commenced. Soon, the economy of the US and the world
at large were in a complete tailspin.
It was a disaster of colossal and unprecedented proportions, and the newly sworn
in President was not equal to them. As the dominos of a complex economy
collapsed, Hoover not only failed to prop them up, but helped push some of
them over.
So what went wrong with the “Master of Emergency” that made him fail so
miserably? Several things.

He was too timid.
Early on, strong action by the federal government to close banks until the panic
died down could have saved a number of banks across the country. Hoover
was hesitant to do it, believing that mass closures would cut off access to the
money supply. But that supply was cut off anyway as bank chains, drained of
their capital by panicked investors, folded in unheard of numbers. The problem
was exacerbated even further because Hoover was unwilling to wield the Fed
as the lender of last resort it was intended to be, allowing many banks to fail
before meaningful interventions were made. Rather than directly intervening to
relieve businesses, he simply encouraged them to participate in the practices he
felt would be beneficial, hoping they would voluntarily submit to them. This
stemmed out of his belief that the government couldn’t force regulations on
private enterprise, but the panicked business world had no interest in altruism at
a time when their empires were crumbling around them. And he left too much
up to the states, which were ineffective leaders without the tools required for an
effective responses, and who quickly created a mishmash of policies that lead to
nationwide inconsistencies in rules and regulations.
He didn’t understand economics.
Hoover, while an effective government administrator, was not a policy wonk. And
the people he surrounded himself with gave him some remarkably bad advice.
Hoover believed that high wages were the path to a strong economy, as they
would give workers purchasing power and allow them to circulate currency. He
first encouraged and then forced businesses to keep up wage levels. In a strong
economy he may have been right. But with lines of credit drying up, businesses
couldn’t afford to keep all their workers on at the rates they were earning. So
rather than cutting wages and saving jobs, they just cut jobs. Suddenly, millions
of Americans were making nothing rather than less, and that purchasing power
that was supposed to save everyone dried up entirely. This caused even more
business closures. Making the problem worse, the President then cut off foreign
trade by pushing through the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. This imposed punitive
sanctions on imports to protect American goods, but also caused other nations
to slam the door on the United States, effectively cutting off our ability to
export. This was especially devastating to farmers. An excess in crops had
lowered food prices even before the Depression had started, and a the sudden
collapses of American purchasing power lowered them further still. Now Hoover
had effectively shut them out of the world market, and despite hunger becoming
a serious problem for the first time since the 19th Century, food stores were
rotting in the bin, and what food was being sold was done so at such a discount
that farmers were hemorrhaging money. By the thousands, they lost their farms
He wasn’t a politician.
And in these days that’s considered high praise. But contrary to what many
may tell you, being an elected leader is about more than kissing asses. It’s about

understanding policy, which Hoover clearly didn’t, but it’s about balancing the
needs of many. When the tariff bill was being negotiated, for instance, he met
with dozens of business leaders. And while there’s no doubt that some industries
needed protection, every businessman who met with him convinced his cabinet
that they needed to be included. Soon, hundreds of goods were tariffed, and
our international trade collapsed. This is an example of a problem that played
out over and over, and when he didn’t simply cave to people, he grew indecisive
about policies that might hurt someone.
And as an administrator, Hoover was extremely effective. But government
administration is about issuing mandates. As an elected official, you must not
only be able to work with others to pass your ideas, but be able to sell them to
the public. Hoover failed miserably at this. A fantastic example was his bank
bailout proposal, not at all unsimilar to what George W Bush rolled out when
the Housing Crisis of 2008 hit. Hoover proposed a direct capital injection into
failing banks to help prop up the nation’s beleaguered financial system. And this
was 100% the correct policy route to take. It would prove very effective when
FDR pushed it through after his election. But Hoover couldn’t do it, because it
doesn’t matter if you’re right if you can’t get anyone on board with you. Hoover
had not only refused to use government to intervene on behalf of farmers and
industrial workers, but he’d also preached a message of self-reliance and calm.
Don’t give in to fear, we’ve got this, just take care of yourself and work hard
and you’ll be fine. But the optics on this were horrible. Lots of hard workers
had lost their jobs. Was the President just accusing them of not working hard
enough? And how is he going to justify giving millions to banks when he won’t
even help out an average Joe like me? You’re telling me I’m just giving in to
panic, but the bank is taking my farm from me! Outrage was palpable over the
proposal and Congress fled from it.
And lastly, he was indecisive, often too timid to act on an idea quickly enough
for it to help or switching tracks before his measures could start to work.
I don’t mean to imply that the Depression was as bad as it was because of
Hoover. It was an economic super crisis that was going to devastate the country
one way or the other, and many of the major issues I’ve outlined here were going
to happen with or without his help. And in fairness to Hoover, nobody had
ever dealt with anything like this before, and he was deep in uncharted water.
But a great leader can navigate such waters, and in the critical early years of
the Depression, Hoover either failed to take the necessary actions to stem the
disaster or actively fueled it by taking the wrong ones.
To his credit, by the end of his term, Hoover had started to hit on some good
ideas. Many of them were ideas that Roosevelt would carry on to successful
conclusions when he took office. But by the time the 1932 election rolled around,
the public was done with Herbert Hoover and had blamed many of their woes on
him. Old newspapers were “Hoover blankets”, “Hoover leather” was cardboard
taped to cover holes in shoes, and the shantytowns that foreclosed homeowners
erected were “Hoovervilles”. These were the desperate straits that millions of

Americans were living in, and they bore Hoover’s now toxic namesake. Voters
turned Hoover out in a 42 state landslide.
Being Herbert Hoover sucks. While I don’t think that Hoover would have been a
great President even in the best of times, I don’t think he’d go down as one of the
worst either. Yet he’s consistently at the bottom of every Presidential ranking.
I think he could have been an effective Calvin Coolidge if times had remained
good, but simply didn’t have the skills he needed to instill any confidence in his
leadership. And when he left office, the US was at one of the bleakest moments
of her entire history.


“Economic depression can not be cured by legislative action or executive pro-

nouncement” - Yup. That’s why everyone hates you, buddy.

Grade: D-

Another potential F candidate that I’m going to go easy on. The Depression
was a disaster of unheard of magnitude, but he still sucked at managing it. He
gets a D-.

WWII and The Cold War

32. Franklin Deleno Roosevelt (1933-1945)

Football people often make the argument that Jerry Rice is the greatest player
of all time, because he was so great for so long that if you divided up his career
into two halves, both of them put up Hall of Fame caliber numbers.
I would make a very similar case for the Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
I wouldn’t quite call him the greatest President of all time (That distinction will
always go to Lincoln). But I would put him at a reasonably close number two.
Because FDR’s is really the tale of two presidencies. In the second, he guided
us through World War II and helped define the world that came after it. And
in the first, he very arguably saved the American systems of democracy and
capitalism as we know it.
If that last sounds hyperbolic, it needs to be understood just how bad a way
America was in on March 4th of 1933. Unemployment had hit its peak, with
nearly one out of every four Americans out of work. In many rural states like
Iowa and Minnesota, armed barricades were formed around towns to prevent
bankers from foreclosing farms and in a handful of cases, bankers and judges were
the victims of lynch mobs. Stock prices were down 74% of their value pre-crash,
median household income down more than half. And if all that weren’t bad
enough, the country was teetering on a second banking crisis that risked wiping
out the remainder of America’s savings and creditors. Major publications were
openly discussing if a fascist direction for America, or even a communist one
would put us on a better path, because it certainly seemed that the system in
place was failing.
Roosevelt came into office promising Americans a “New Deal”, and he was a
uniquely perfect man to give it to them. He wasn’t an ideologue. He had no
specific commitment to one political philosophy or another, and no concrete
plan on how to attack the Depression. That may not sound like a compliment,
but the Great Depression represented an unprecedented crisis that required
unprecedented solutions and it was important that we had a leader who was
ideologically flexible enough to be adaptable. In the first New Deal, experiments
were tried. Those that failed were abandoned, and those that succeeded were
expanded upon. FDR surrounded himself with bold, competent people, creating
a cabinet of rivals not seen since the Lincoln administration. He would often offer
the same assignment (Say, draft our new policy on banking regulations) to as
many as four people. He’d take their solutions and compare notes, posing them
to experts in the field to form a consensus around one idea. It infuriated the
people working under him, but it allowed FDR to choose from his best options.
There’s a mistaken perception today that the New Deal represented the American
Government trying to spend its way out of the Depression. While the goal of
agencies like the Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration

and Civilian Conservation Corps was to get the unemployed off the streets and
put them to work doing something useful, the New Deal was about a great deal
more than that. Roosevelt effectively took the US off the gold standard, giving
the government a great deal more flexibility in setting monetary policy. He
implemented the SEC and a host of new banking regulations that stuck around
until the 90s (and whose repeal lead directly to the 2009 economic crash). He
embarked on a program of trade liberalization that freed up American goods
on the international market, and created a series of agricultural price control
regulations that stabilized an absolutely flailing farm economy.
And even the quick cash injections had significant long term impacts. The Public
Works and Works Progress Administrations built schools, roads and major pieces
of infrastructure that stand to this day and the Tennessee Valley Authority
modernized the rural US. The Civilian Conservation Corps especially was an
amazing long term success, planting 3 billion trees and protecting 20 million
acres of land from erosion. Many of those forests are now the center of pulp and
timber industries that exist to this day.
And the second New Deal’s impact was even more lasting, seeing the passage of
the Social Security Act, the Housing Act of 1937 and a number of labor reforms
that all remain intact to this day.
I’m writing pretty glowingly here, but not all of FDR’s programs were a success.
The National Recovery Administration mired dozens of industries in nitpicky
regulations before it was struck down by the Supreme Court, and the Federal
Reserve’s tightening of monetary policy in 1936 almost caused a second Depres-
sion. And the New Deal saw one of the greatest black marks on FDR’s record,
which was the Supreme Court packing scheme that so soured his relationship
with Congress that he never enjoyed another victory on domestic policy for the
rest of his Presidency.
But the New Deal, whether through its effectiveness of policy or simply building
confidence in the American people, stopped the tailspin that the US economy
was in and put it on a path to recovery. None of it would have worked without
the man who started it, and the confidence and poise he showed in his leadership.
He spoke calmly and confidently, imparting in Americans that he was in control
of the chaotic situation. And he brought that message straight into American
living rooms through his Fireside Chats.
While the actual impact of the New Deal will always be debated, it set a precedent
that the US Government was not simply a manager of domestic affairs, but could
take charge and be an actual solution to the nation’s problems. And he was only
getting started, because in 1941, and the years leading up to it, his focus shifted
from domestic recovery to World War II.
Despite circumstances forcing Roosevelt’s eyes on domestic policy for the entirety
of his first two terms, Roosevelt always had his eye on the deteriorating situation
in Europe. And although the United States didn’t formally enter the War until
Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, we were actively involved in the conflict long

before that point. As early as 1939, the US had dramatically stepped up its
arms production, both for its own benefit and to export war materials to the
UK. In fact, the United States was instrumental in keeping Britain afloat during
the early days of the war when Germany had crushed the mainland alliance
and Britain stood alone. Through the Lend-Lease Program, Roosevelt issued
no-strings attached offerings of arms, ammo and important materials like rubber,
steel and oil to its beleaguered ally. In total, the modern equivalent of $681
billion were sent to the UK, China and the Soviet Union through the program,
and it was critical in staving off the Nazis.
When Japan did attack, we took the gloves off, and it essentially decided the
war. This isn’t to minimize the efforts of the British, Chinese and especially
Soviets. But WWII was a conflict that was ultimately decided by manpower
and industrial production, and the US was the wealthiest, most industrialized
nation on earth, with a huge population completely untouched by war. Before
the US entered the war, victory for the Axis was unlikely. After we did, it was
FDR only deserves so much credit for that. From the moment we entered the
war, it was a numbers game in our favor, and the commanders we’d selected
were excellent. For the most part, FDR sat back and let the war machine do its
But it’s not entirely fair to say that he deserves no credit for the conduct of
the war. He was directly in charge of its financing and the war rationing, and
balanced the needs of big manufacturers and labor organizations to prevent the
sorts of critical labor disputes to war production that marred much of Europe
throughout the conflict. He separated the US intelligence service from the Army,
forming the OSS that would eventually evolve into the CIA. And he oversaw the
passage of the GI Bill, granting housing, unemployment and education benefits
to returning vets.
And it’s FDR’s administration of WWII that leaves him with the blackest mark
on his record; the internment of Japanese American citizens for which there is
no justification. Over 130,000 American citizens were imprisoned without due
process, their property and businesses subject to theft and closure. It was an
indefensible and extremely unnecessary action that will stain Roosevelt’s legacy
Roosevelt’s biggest post-war legacy lies in the negotiations that took place at
the close of the war. He took the lead in negotiating the Bretton Woods and
Dumbarton Oaks agreements that set up a post-war global finance structure
(tying much of the world’s economy to the US dollar) and forming the United
Nations. These two accords established the US as the economic superpower and
leader of the Democratic world in the wake of WWII.
There is no doubt that Roosevelt made mistakes. But at the end of the day,
he took control of a nation that had been sent into a tailspin by its greatest
domestic crisis since the Civil War, and not only lead it through that but through

the most devastating conflict in human history. And when he was finished, we’d
emerged on the other side as the greatest superpower that the world had ever
seen. And it’s largely because of the foundations that he left in place.


“Sometimes the threat to popular government comes from political interests,

sometimes from economic interests, sometimes we have to beat off all of them
together. But the challenge is always the same — whether each generation facing
its own circumstances can summon the practical devotion to attain and retain
that greatest good for the greatest number which this government of the people
was created to ensure.”

Grade: A+

I won’t defend everything Roosevelt did, and there are certainly black marks
on the record. But the man was in office for the 12 most tumultuous years in
American history outside the Civil War era and not only got us through them
but made us stronger and more stable in the process. He completely transformed
America’s perception of its government and the role of the federal government.
In spite of the missteps, he earns an A+ from me.

33. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)

When FDR died of a brain hemorrhage in 1945, he left in office a President that
nobody had voted for and that had been so widely disliked by his cabinet that he
had scarcely been included in any policy or decision making conferences. Truman
became the Vice President to give FDR’s ticket some southern credentials when
it was clear how much the conservative wing of the Democratic party hated
Henry Wallace. But despite his Missouri background, Truman was a New Deal
stalwart who was behind almost all the President’s major policies. And when he
took office, he vowed to continue and even expand upon the Roosevelt platform.
Though he didn’t enjoy his predecessor’s longevity, Harry Truman’s presidency
can be similarly divided between foreign and domestic policy. Upon his ascension,
Truman announced a “Fair Deal” policy of expanding the New Deal into non-
emergency peacetime. He successfully sought passage of the Housing Bill (which
saw the creation of the first federal housing projects) and an expansion of the GI
Bill to cover education as well as housing aid. Yet despite holding a congressional
majority in both chambers for much of his early term, most of his initiatives from
Civil Rights to social reform to an expanded social safety net died on the vine.
In 1946, a Republican wave election gave control of both houses of Congress to
the opposition party, who promptly shut down his agenda and forced Truman
on the defensive. Truman would use the veto 180 times in his attempt to curb

the Republican Congress; an all time Presidential record that stands to this day.
He successfully vetoed rollbacks of New Deal regulations and the social safety
net and unsuccessfully vetoed Congressional rollbacks of civil liberties as the
early Cold War gave birth to the Red Scare of the 1950s.
But while Truman wasn’t a terribly effective domestic President, he was no less
than a genius one on the foreign field. Though the European Theater of WWII
had been all but wrapped up by the time Truman took office, the Japanese were
still standing defiant. Truman ended that by ordering the atomic bombings
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While this order is controversial today, there was
little doubt at the time or by modern military analysts that the invasion of the
Japanese mainland that would have been required without the bombings would
have produced horrendous casualties for both sides of the conflict and widespread
suffering across the Japanese mainland. Truman also acted quickly to pacify
the defeated empire, enforcing a soft occupation (and gradual withdrawal) that
helped turn Japan into the staunch US ally that it is today.
A special note on the atomic bombings before we move on, though. While hugely
controversial today, they not only made tactical sense at the time, but in a
very grim way, it’s important that they happened. The military was eager to
unleash its new toy after seeing the tests of what it was capable of. When they
pitched it to President Truman, the Joint Chiefs argued that it would be like
any other bombing. The target would be factories and military bases and that
it would have a minimal impact on civilians. Instead, it leveled a city. It was an
important watershed moment for multiple reasons. First, it showed the world
just what the power of the atom looked like in practice, and it was a horrifying
wakeup call to what a new age of nuclear war would entail. That alarm bell had
been sounded by the time two adversarial powers were able to use it against one
another. Had the world not seen full destructive power of the nuclear bomb, its
full horrors might not have been realized until the Soviets and Americans were
actively exchanging fire.
And on a level more immediate to our purposes, it woke up Harry Truman to the
weapon he had on his hands. The military was not only eager to use their new
weapon, but believed that (like any other armament), it was theirs to control.
And after the bombings, the Joint Chiefs immediately planned 7 more nuclear
strikes on Japan. Yet when Truman began to see the intelligence reports of
what his bomb had actually done, he ordered an immediate end to future atomic
bombings. And not only that, but he insisted that no future use of nuclear
weapons was to take place without the President’s expressed permission. This
was a massive break from the precedent of putting tactics and weaponry in the
hands of generals, and was both revolutionary and extremely controversial at
the time. But Truman was wise enough to recognize that the atom bomb was no
conventional weapon, and couldn’t be handled in any conventional manner. He
established the precedent that a nuclear strike could only be authorized by the
President, and as the Fat Man and Little Boy developed into intercontinental
ballistic missiles that could annihilate cities in a matter of minutes, that precedent

would prove valuable beyond measure.
But Japan was only one of the problems on Truman’s plate, and frankly the
smallest after the war ended. As relations between the Soviet Union and the
United States rapidly deteriorated, Truman was responsible for making the first
moves of what would eventually become the Cold War. Deciding that the world
couldn’t afford Europe to fall into the hands of communists, but that it also
couldn’t afford to exit one devastating world war just to throw itself into another,
he created a policy known as “containment”. This policy was to isolate the Soviet
Union politically and stop the spread of communism through proxy conflict and
diplomacy rather than direct confrontation with the Soviet Union. Different
presidents to come would vary on how much diplomacy and how much proxy
conflict they employed in pursuing this policy, but containment would be the
dominant philosophy of the United States government throughout the Cold War;
yet another important precedent started by the Truman Administration.
The Cold War was an ultimately stupid conflict rife with folly on both sides. But
one of its few unambiguously brilliant strokes was Truman’s handling of post-war
European reconstruction. Recognizing that Europe, which was in absolute ruin
following the constant and murderous bombing campaigns of WWII, was a
hotbed of unrest and strife, Truman sought to head off both communist influence
and any potential reversion to fascism by injecting large amounts of American
capital into the continent. The Soviet Union, themselves nearly crippled in the
fighting of WWII, were simply incapable of matching US aid. The Marshall
Plan, as it would come to be named after Secretary of State George C Marshall,
not only stopped immediate supply shortages, but made sure that the recovering
nations aligned with the United States, their clear benefactor.
Fuel, food and rebuilding aid wasn’t the only carrot that Truman offered the
battered continent. He also offered them a military alliance. The closure of
WWII not only left Europe weak, but much more of it in Soviet hands than
had started. And European leaders were keenly aware that a massive Soviet
army could sweep across it at any time. Combined with the Soviet acquisition of
nuclear weapons and Stalin’s obvious taste for expansion, the nations of Europe
were justifiably concerned about future aggression. Truman successfully took
those fears and turned them into the NATO alliance. By joining the military
strength of Europe with that of the Americans, and adding in the American
nuclear capability, Truman made a strong statement that further expansion into
Europe by the Soviets was off limits. Most all of free Europe signed onto the
accordings, creating a huge network of military bases and a coordinated defense
plan that acted as a successful deterrent. The alliance was buoyed by a massive
American troop injection that placed thousands of American soldiers at the
ready in case anything were to happen. The NATO alliance was a resounding
success, and its deterrent effect on Russia’s expansion continues to this day.
Containment, of course, was not limited simply to Europe, and it is outside of
Europe where the cracks in the ideology really opened up. As a communist civil
war threatened to overtake the Korean peninsula, Truman rallied the US (under

the banner of the United Nations) to intervene. To make a long and complicated
conflict short and simple, the early intervention was wildly successful, nearly
defeating communist forces outright. Sensing the imminent fall of an important
Asian communist ally and geographic buffer against American intervention,
Communist China decided to involve itself in the conflict. Its enormous army
swept in Korea and pushed US forces back to where they’ started. The Korean
War amounted to little more than a long, bloody march to the status quo
antebellum in which North Korea remained in the hands of the communist forces
that had captured it, while the South remained. . . well. . . not that (though the
particular character of its non-communist government has undergone significant
evolution over the years).
But while the Korean War would become an unproductive quagmire for US
forces, another extremely important precedent would be set along the way. At
the height of American setbacks, Korean theater commander Douglas MacArthur
advocated, among other things, a US backed invasion of mainland China, US
invasion of Manchuria and most frightening of all, the use of nuclear weapons
against Chinese forces. Recognizing that all of this, particularly the use of
nuclear weapons, could escalate a Korean conflict into an outright world war
with the Soviets, Truman denied these actions. MacArthur tried to go around
the President, writing to the House and to the press that he was forced to
abandon a strategy of “total victory” and even advanced his troops beyond the
authorized points that Truman had specified. Ultimately, Truman held firm and
dismissed MacArthur from command. It damn near set off a constitutional crisis
over the true head of the military (High command or civilian) that was diffused
by Truman’s resolve and cooler heads in the Senate bringing to light some of
the broader concerns of MacArthur’s strategy.
It’s very difficult, in retrospect, to look at MacArthur’s proposals and not see a
scenario in which either US nuclear strikes or a direct invasion of China wouldn’t
have prompted Soviet retaliation. It is very possible, and I would consider almost
certain, that in denying McCarthy, Truman prevented a world war. And in
doing so, he established very firmly that decisions of this magnitude, that could
potentially alter a conflict from regional to global, were to be made strictly by
the civilian government and not aggressive field commanders.
Throughout the early Cold War, Truman was navigating uncharted waters. And
the stakes were nothing less than nuclear war and the annihilation of mankind.
He recognized early on that a direct war with the Soviets would devastate the
world, and crafted his strategy to avoid that while still remaining firm on the
spread of communism into the western world. He set the early precedent that
while it was acceptable for the US to become involved in world conflicts, there
was a limit to how much risk to the world she should assume in doing so. And
without knowing it, he had created a policy that would guide mankind through
the perilous age of nuclear war by establishing the principle of mutually assured
destruction. If we go to war, we all die. So let’s do whatever we can to avoid that.
As we traverse the Cold War presidents, it’s important to remember just how

many alternative timelines ended in the world being bathed in nuclear hellfire.
That that didn’t come to pass was often accidental. Someone ignoring an order
here, or a system’s failure there. But it was also often the shrewd navigation of
our Presidential leadership that avoided such a profoundly grim timeline. And
Truman deserves special credit, because the guys after him were maintaining
the status quo that he set. He even enabled that leadership by taking control of
nuclear weapons out of the hands of overzealous commanders and putting them
into the hands of the Presidency.
It was all remarkable stuff, and it redeemed a Presidency that otherwise floun-
dered at home. Truman himself would ultimately step away from the Presidency,
surrendering the mantle to Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 Presidential election. He
remained active in public life, however; a mover and shaker in the Democratic
Party who helped keep the party liberal and honest under the Congressional
leadership of men like Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson throughout the 50s.
Though lambasted throughout the Cold War as soft of on communism for not
throwing down with the Soviets, his image and his approach to its opening
stages were largely vindicated as the conflict progressed. Moreover, many of the
issues he failed to make headway on, like healthcare for the elderly and poor,
meaningful civil rights reform and his defense against civil liberties in the face of
a mounting red scare would all prove extremely popular in the long run. So while
he left office as one of the least popular presidents in all of American history,
Truman has enjoyed something of a resurgence of opinion in recent years. Being
right about many of the issues he was did him very little good, as he could get
few to join him. But his measured, cautious approach to foreign policy and the
integrity with which he conducted himself make clear how important it is to give
a President’s legacy a few years to ripen before you try to slap a grade on it.


“A man who is influenced by the polls or is afraid to make decisions which make
him unpopular is not a man to represent the welfare of the country.”

Grade: B

Truman’s tricky to grade. They basically all are from here on, with one or two
exceptions. On one hand, he wasn’t terribly effective in getting the domestic
legislation he wanted. On another, what he wanted was usually right. And on a
third hand still, he was an absolutely brilliant foreign policy leader who basically
set the US’ modus operandi for the Cold War. I’ll go with a B.

34. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)

There were six presidents who moved straight from military command to the
White House; George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison,
Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. And excepting Jackson
and Harrison, all of them were drawn to the office out of some perceived sense
of duty rather than conventional political ambition. Firmly in that category, Ike
didn’t aspire to be President. An inherently apolitical man, he had developed a
reputation for giving calm, sober defenses of Roosevelt and Truman foreign poli-
cies when in service of them, avoiding any political rancor that could potentially
sabotage his military career. Sensing that Democrats were deeply in trouble,
Truman begged the popular war hero to run for President on a Democratic
But Eisenhower was more shrewd than that, and saw two trends on the political
landscape. First, that after almost 20 years in executive power, a Democratic
candidate had a snowball’s chance in hell in 1952. And second that the emerging
voices in the Republican Party were overwhelmingly isolationist, threatening to
tear up Yalta, NATO and to roll back Presidential authority to deal with foreign
policy. This he felt was extremely dangerous. As NATO’s commander, he saw
the need for an effective deterrent against Soviet aggressive, and he realized that
repudiation of the Yalta accords (the agreement made between the allies defining
the terms of a post-war peace) threatened to throw the entire European order
into chaos. Further, he had a sense of American obligation to the world at large,
and believed firmly that the US had paid for that obligation with the blood and
capital spent on WWII. He believed that a retreat from the foreign field after
sacrificing so much to have a say in it was a reckless waste.
To defeat the isolationist wave, this man who never really had an interest in
elected office proceeded to hat up and win himself the Republican nomination,
which he did comfortably. And he even more comfortably blew Adlai Stevenson
out of the water in general and became the 34th President of the United States.
Among American Presidents, Eisenhower was a bit of an oddity. Though he ran
as a Republican, but he’d never politically identified as one until his Presidential
bid. He billed himself as a Progressive Conservative, which is just a contradiction
of terms. So while the Republicans were glad to have him (his nomination far
more than their previous frontrunner, Robert A Taft, all but guaranteed them
the White House), it was fairly obvious from the onset that they didn’t know
quite what they were getting in him.
And right out the gate, Eisenhower proved to be a bipartisan figure. He pushed
to cut back federal spending, in line with conservatives, but also pushed for
the building of the Interstate Highway System, which was far more evocative
of the New Dealers than Taft’s wing of conservatives. He clashed with his own
party on a number of issues, including limitations on the President’s foreign
policy, infrastructure expansion and investment in America’s Space Program.
All of this provided red meat to Democratic House Speaker Sam Rayburn and

Senate Minority Leader Lyndon Johnson, who saw (not unwisely) working with
Eisenhower as a means of riding his popularity.
But none of this is to say that Ike was some secret liberal. In terms of fiscal
policy, he was a very pragmatic budget balancer that refused to lower tax rates
until the requisite spending cuts could would match it. He clamped down hard
on Latin immigration, launching a snatch-and-deport sting known as, and I
swear to God I’m not making this up, Operation Wetback. And he oversaw
some of the most extensive crackdowns on Unions since Grover Cleveland sicked
the Pinkertons on them.
The black marks on Eisenhower’s domestic policy lay not in his actions, however,
but rather his inactions. When the Red Scare was at its height and Joseph
McCarthy was actively persecuting his fellow Americans, Eisenhower did nothing
to stop him. He didn’t even publicly admonish the rogue Senator. And in the
arena of Civil Rights, he was absolutely silent through the vast majority of his
Presidency. To his credit, when the Brown v. Board ruling was handed down
by the Supreme Court, he did dispatch federal troops to enforce the ruling, and
he signed the (admittedly weak) Civil Rights Act of 1957 into law. But he did
both of those as his perceived duty, and he never made a firm commitment to
either side of the issue.
While his domestic legacy is both non-partisan and mixed, his foreign policy
was much more clear cut. Eisenhower, like Truman (and really all Cold War
Presidents when you get right down to it) favored a containment strategy of
isolating the Soviet Union. But his version of it was more nuanced than Truman’s.
He immediately withdrew from Korea, allowing the US military great flexibility
in responding to world threats. Unlike Truman, Eisenhower eschewed big military
engagements in favor of covert actions, and favored the US acting unilaterally
rather than building world coalitions. And it is worth noting that when Ho Chi
Mihn’s communist uprising claimed the northern half of Vietnam, Eisenhower
pumped aid into the southern half without ever committing to it militarily.
And he was really good at telling Europe to get bent. At a time when the powers
of Europe were desperately trying to keep their colonial holdings, Eisenhower
skeptically viewed any requests to reassert colonial authority as suspect, and
correctly theorized that the best way to the hearts and minds of the postcolonial
world was to support them over their former rulers (who he knew perfectly well
were going to remain loyal US allies anyway, so long as the treat of a Soviet
invasion hung over their heads). He ignored anti-colonial uprisings, and backed
anti-colonial pushes for consolidation of power. No single event signified this
approach more clearly than Suez Crisis, in which Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel
Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France immediately moved to
retaliate, and Eisenhower forced them to stand down. It was a bold move, but
one that cemented Egypt as a US ally for years to come (Mostly. This is actually
a pretty complicated relationship).
In regards to the actual Soviet Union, Eisenhower built up the United States

deterrent power and managed to hold the American line first with Stalin and
then with Melenkov and Kruschev without ever escalating the conflict. While
the two nations exchanged barbs in proxy battles, the threat of open hostility
between the nations was never as high as it was in the Korean War days, or
under the Kennedy Administration to come. It is somewhat ironic that in the
era in which Americans most feared and prepared for a Soviet nuclear attack, it
was probably the least likely. Even after after a US spy plane was shot down in
Soviet territory, creating a significant international incident, a tense peace was
And while all of that is a credit to Eisenhower’s leadership, his foreign record has
stains on it as well. Favoring covert intervention in foreign conflicts is all well and
good, but one has to see them in a long term. In Guatemala, US intervention
overthrew socialist President Jacobo Arbenz, who’s leanings scared Washington.
He was replaced with a dictator who would so destabilize the country that by
1960, the country would be in a protracted state of bloody civil war. In Iran, it
was Socialist Mohammed Mossadegh who was overthrown along with his entire
democratically elected government. He was also replaced by a right wing dictator.
The Iranian action, rather than being a product of a geopolitical goal, was done
mainly at the behest of the Anglo Iranian Oil Company and its British masters,
who successfully lobbied the White House to protect a strategic oil source for
their ally. And its long term costs would be disastrous, as Shah Reza Pahlavi
would so anger his people that the entire system of secular government would
come crashing down in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. That would install the
government of Ayatollah Khomeini and the creation of a fundamentalist, pro
terror government that has been a bane to our foreign policy goals in the region
ever since.
Despite this moral and political missteps, Eisenhower built an impressive record
of foreign and domestic stability, and he left America in a better place than he
started it. Though initially considered a do-nothing President, the full extent
of his stabilizing foreign strategy and the light hand he took on sensitive issues
at home have lead to a positive reevaluation of Eisenhower in the years that
followed. He was a good leader for the transition period that was the 1950s,
where America settled down form its back to back wars and into a prosperous
peace. He maintained both the peace and prosperity, and did it while balancing
some of the most difficult issues of the day.


“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in
the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are
cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is
spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its

Grade: B

This isn’t an easy presidency to grade. My liberal sensibilities would like me to

dock him for his inexcusable silence on McCarthyism and civil rights, but I’m
grading on legacy here and not politics. That legacy certainly suffers a bit from
the long term impact of some of his foreign missteps, but he’s still good for an
overall B grade.

35. John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961-1963)

John F Kennedy was born to Rose and Joseph Kennedy in 1917, their second of
four eventual sons. And his early life is the all American stuff of legends. He
graduated from Harvard as Summa Cum Laude. He saved his crew in WWII
from the sinking PT 109, elevating him to war hero status. And when his older
brother was killed in WWII, Jack became the new family standard bearer. He
spent time as a reporter for the famous William Randolph Hearst in New York
before returning to Boston to run for the House of Representatives in a race
in what would be the first of his many extremely narrow electoral margins of
victory when he captured 12% of the vote in a 10 way race for the Democratic
primary of his House seat in 1946. He defeated Henry Cabot Lodge to become a
US Senator in 1952. His early political success could be attributed to three main
factors: his father’s wealth and connections, his amazing oratorical abilities and
his outrageous work ethic. In the 1952 race, he pushed himself extremely hard to
campaign in every Massachusetts town, and grew so sick in doing so that he was
given last rites (It would be the first of three times he went through the ritual,
the second while he was a Senator, and the third and final time in Dallas).
After a term and a half in the Senate, Kennedy ran for President in 1960. He
beat out the presumptive nominee, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, in
order to do so (and we’ll get to that more in a minute). Johnson was ultimately
selected to be his running mate, mostly to keep the the Southern states in line,
as any departure of their for a 3rd party candidate would have mortally wounded
the ticket. It damn near failed to win the election as it was. Kennedy beat
Richard Nixon by a mere .17% of the popular vote, which is one of the single
closest margins of victory in Presidential electoral history. That victory helped
along by some possible voter fraud in Illinois and very probable voter fraud in
Texas (and again, more on that in a minute).
But don’t get it twisted; Kennedy won the election on the strength of his rhetoric.
After a decade of conservative leadership, Kennedy offered a breath of fresh
air to the American people. Kennedy didn’t win simply by proposing ideas to
people, but by challenging them to do more for their country. Dubbed “The
New Frontier”, his platform was a combination of a sunny spin on the Cold War
that included the establishment of a Peace Corps abroad and the conquest of the
stars, as well as the righting of injustices and economic runs at home. He pitched
an aggressive space program, healthcare for the elderly, housing for the poor,

bold pollution control, expanded education and immigration reform. Above
all, he wanted to finally kill off the century old monster of black segregation
and voter suppression. To help guide these policies, he came into office with
a brilliant cabinet full of young men in the tops of their fields; the legendary
“Whiz Kids” who would serve as his advisers on all the issues about which he
was less educated.
And practically all of his proposals died in Congress.
Before I launch into my favorite tirade about Kennedy’s shortcomings, I want
to give him credit where it was due. Because I don’t want to imply that he
accomplished nothing in office. He did secure funding for a space program that
would eventually put men on the moon. He saw the enactment of the Peace
Corps, which helped enhance America’s reputation abroad (ish. America still
had a pretty bad rep back then). While he generally deemphasized Civil Rights,
he did help secure the passage of the 24th Amendment, which abolished the poll
tax (though this too is something that’s hard to give him too much credit for;
even a lot of southerners hated the poll tax). And while his successor would
ultimately be the one that signed it into law, the Clean Air Act was largely
ushered through Congress by Kennedy’s Administration. This latter was perhaps
his greatest legislative triumph, as it was one of the first landmark pieces of
environmental legislation that set regulative standards to stop the causes of
pollution rather than simply cleaning it up.
But most of his agenda was dead on arrival in Congress, especially in terms of
major legislation. His proposals for universal healthcare for the elderly fared
no better for him than they had for Truman or Roosevelt. His reforms to the
education system remained minimal, as did his push for public housing. His
proposals for tax reform also stalled. Americans were being taxed at draconian,
almost WWII levels despite the nation’s extended peace. But Kennedy ran
up a deficit, and withotu finding places to make spending cuts to match them,
Congress denied him a tax cut that would relieve Americans.
Perhaps most damning of all, Kennedy was bearish on Civil Rights. The reasons
for this were twofold. First, he was trying to get his other legislation passed,
and the Southern Democratic Caucus was very good at holding legislation that
Presidents wanted hostage until the the civil rights bills they hated were defeated.
And he knew that he’d be facing a tough reelection fight, and that losing the
South would doom his hopes. For both reasons, he avoided alienating the South
as long as he could. But the actions of civil rights activist, namely those of
Dr. Martin Luther King, pushed him into the civil rights fight. As fights like
the Birmingham protests and the March on Washington captured the attention
and respect of the American people (at least in the north), Kennedy engaged
Congress to pass a series of civil rights reforms that would eventually become
the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But that Bill, under Kennedy’s leadership, not
only became hopelessly mired in Congress (most notably in the purgatory of
Rep. Howard E Smith’s Rules Committee), but underwent a number of revisions
that all but gutted the measure.

The central problem at the heart of all of Kennedy’s struggles was a lack of
legislative acume. In Congress, Kennedy had been more of a playboy than a
statesman. Though he was a brilliant policy wonk, neither he nor anyone in his
cabinet formed either the understanding of what levers of power could be used
to move Congress, or the personal relationships required to work with the men
who wielded them. He simply didn’t know how to use the Presidency to move
Congress, and because of that, most of his agenda died on the vine.
Kennedy’s foreign policy was a great deal more successful, and was defined by
two geopolitical flashpoints and one unambiguous triumph of diplomacy. The
first of these flashpoints was Cuba, which erupted in crisis not once, but twice
in Kennedy’s Administration. The first was a self-inflicted crisis. CIA Director
Dulles had been training a band of 1,000 Cuban exiles with the intent of sicking
them on the Castro regime in Cuba. Eisenhower was deeply skeptical of the
operation, and his Secretary of Defense had actually cancelled the operation,
warning Kennedy against it during the transition. But Kennedy’s own DoD
chief Robert McNamara was hugely in favor for it, and persuaded Kennedy to
authorize the plan. The result was the Bay of Pigs Invasion, a complete debacle
that was Kennedy’s fault from start to finish. While the initial invasion was
successful in overwhelming the Cuban Revolutionary forces, a counteroffensive
pushed them back to their beachhead. Kennedy had promised air and naval
support for the operation, but as it became increasingly obvious that the US was
behind the whole thing, he demurred. This lack of support hung the insurgents
out to dry, and they were quickly overwhelmed.
That crisis, and the the stationing of American ICBMs in Italy and Turkey,
touched off the second one when the Soviet Union moved its own nuclear missiles
into Cuba. The US throughout the Cold War was keenly aware of the fact that
it had hundreds of nuclear missiles pointed at it. But launched from Cuba,
they’d be striking the Eastern Seaboard before the US even knew they were up
in the air. Known to history as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the move of missiles
into Cuba touched off a tense diplomatic standoff. Kennedy’s advisors urged
everything from an invasion of Cuba to peaceful negotiations, and ultimately
it was the latter, calmer heads that won the day. Kennedy worked out a deal
with Soviet Premier Khrushchev, that in exchange for the US moving missiles
from Turkey, the Soviets would remove theirs from Cuba. It was a triumph of
diplomacy that averted nuclear war at one of the moments when humanity most
closely teetered on the brink of it.
And it fundamentally shifted the way Kennedy approached his nuclear policy.
Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy and prominent cabinet members like
McNamara believed that a nuclear war was not only viable but winnable. It
would be catastrophic, but not world ending. Coming as close to the abyss as
Kennedy did in 1962 changed all that. And it ushered in a cooldown in Soviet
relations that resulted in one of the greatest and most enduring triumphs of
Kennedy’s legacy, the Partial Test Ban Treaty. It’s exactly what it says on the
tin; an agreement by both the US and USSR to (partially) halt future nuclear

tests. It was prompted not only out of a desire to just, chill things out a little bit,
man. . . but also because of increased levels of strontium-90 (a key, carcinogenic
element produced by radioactive fallout) in soil and food products. It is slightly
terrifying that the limited nuclear tests going on at the time were producing
these levels, and haunting when you consider it in the context of what global
thermonuclear war could have produced. The crisis also lead to a direct “red
line” being installed in the White House; a direct link to the Soviet Premier’s
office in Moscow to allow for instant communication between the leaders. This
would be hugely important in staving off the ghosts of nuclear crisis future, and
is one of the charming relics of the Cold War; a unique and bizarre conflict in
which the combatants were so close that they established a hotline between their
Guys, the Cold War was fucking fascinating.
The other bane of American foreign policy was of course Vietnam. And on
this theater, Kennedy could best be described as indecisive, willing neither to
make a full, boots on the ground commitment nor to withdraw. He rode that
uncomfortable middle ground throughout most of his Presidency, though it is
very worth noting that he issues orders to begin troop withdrawal late in his
presidency. Then again, those orders were issued in October, before the coup
that overthrew (and murdered) Ngô Ðình Diem and his brother and threw South
Vietnam into chaos. That Coup lead to events that precipitated the Vietnam
War, and given how heavily Kennedy relied on Robert McNamara, and how
badly he wanted to escalate the conflict, it certainly remains possible that that
order might have been reversed.
But whether or not Kennedy would have avoided the War, or gotten his legislative
shit together to become a great president rather than an idealistic one, will
never be known. Because only two weeks after the death of Diem, Kennedy
himself was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald on a PR stop in Dallas. What
followed was a national outpouring of grief not collectively seen since the attack
on Pearl Harbor, and not to be seen again until the attacks of September 11th.
The entire population was glued to the television as Cronkite relayed news of
the President’s treatment and death, and saw pictures of Johnson being sworn
in amid a packed Air Force One. They saw Jackie in a pink dress covered in her
husband’s blood, and watched as his 3 year old son saluted his father’s casket as
it was lowered into Arlington. Even now, as someone born 25 years after the
fact, imagining it all stirs emotions. That’s the kind of indelible mark Kennedy’s
death made on America’s collective conscience.
And I think, at the end of the day, that’s what accounts for the discrepancy
between America’s perception of JFK and his actual effectiveness as President.
Kennedy’s death was a national trauma. That sort of “where were you when
you heard” moment that you hear people talk about, but that only actually
happens once every 2 or 3 generations. And in a very odd way, his lack of
concrete accomplishments allow him to represent many things to many people.
For liberals, he’s the glowing embodiment of those better angels that Abraham

Lincoln once extolled. For conservatives, he represents toughness on communism
and calm, resolute American global leadership. And for all Americans, Kennedy
stands in the annals of history as an idealistic, moral leader for a confused nation
that challenged its people to be bigger and better. He spoke in soaring rhetoric
that’s inspiring even 50 years after its utterance and called Americans to rally
around causes greater than themselves and their social fears.
But, to an extent that’s painful for people to recognize, the greatness of his
memory overshadows the greatness of the man. Most of his best ideas were never
realized. When he finally stopped dodging the great cause of his era, his efforts
died a slow death in Congress because he lacked the skill and leadership to get
them passed. Despite the fact that Americans typically rank him in the top 5
all time Presidents when polled on the matter, political scientists and historians
tend to put him in the middle of the pack. He’s become a myth more than
a man; a symbol that means more to us than his actual accomplishments did.
And while that’s not a bad thing, I think it’s important to keep in perspective
when we try to think about what leadership is and isn’t as it pertains to our


“The road has been long, the burden heavy, and the pace consistently urgent.
But we cannot be satisfied to rest here. This is the side of the hill, not the top.
The mere absence of war is not peace. The mere absence of recession is not
growth. We have made a beginning — but we have only begun.”

Grade: B+

Kennedy had a B+ foreign policy with a C- slate of domestic achievements. I’ll

split the difference and give him a C+.

36. Lyndon Baines Johnson (1963-1969)

To understand who Lyndon Banes Johnson was, and what made him the President
that he was, it is essential to understand where he came from. Johnson was
the son of a Texas state legislator who was popular, but lacked business sense.
Bankrupted by 1920 (when Lyndon was only 12), the Johnson family was forced
to sell their ranch, and Lyndon was forced to work to help support the family
through backbreaking jobs like picking cotton and wielding a sledgehammer to
beat earth flat so that it could be paved into roads. All of this added up to
create the three traits that defined Johnson’s complicated nature; a hunger for
politics, a desperate fear of failure, and a deep well of empathy for the poor.

He won his first seat in Congress in 1937 at only 29 years old, and immediately
had success bringing electricity to his district. He also formed a deep and lasting
bond with Democratic Leader and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. Rayburn
(a fellow Texan) was widely considered to be one of the most effective House
Speakers of all time. This connection would pay dividends for Johnson, who
used it to build a base of Texas political support. He “won” (read, shamelessly
stole) a seat in the US Senate in 1948, becoming America’s youngest senator. In
the Senate, he excelled even more than he did in the House. Johnson’s political
gifts were many. First, he was a masterful reader of people and their intentions,
able to determine what motivated men and how to use those motivations to
his advantage. He tirelessly studied legislative rules and parliamentary tactics,
understanding them better than just about anyone else on Capitol Hill. He was
also good at making friends in the right places, endearing himself to Senatorial
heavyweights such as Dick Russell and Harry Byrd. By the end of his first term,
Johnson was the Senate Majority Leader, a role he completely transformed from
ceremonial overseer to the immensely important position of power brokerage
that it is today.
The tale of Johnson’s brilliant legislative career is far too long to be recounted
here, but it is no exaggeration to say that he was the 3rd most powerful person
in the Federal Government (behind Eisenhower and Rayburn) for most his
time in the Senate. And he absolutely transformed the institution by the time
he left it from the stodgy, slow moving place where legislation went to die to
an efficient machine that cranked out bills even quicker than the House did.
Johnson attracted the support of rich Texas oil barons by selling out to support
their causes, and wielded their fortunes as fundraising tools he could direct
at whatever Congressmen he needed to in order to move votes. At the peak
of his Senatorial career, Johnson controlled a massive fundraising apparatus,
unchallenged authority over Senate committee assignments, the Speaker of the
House and an army of Congressional pages that knew what was going on at all
times with all Congressmen. Moreover, LBJ knew every parliamentary tactic in
the book, knew who had the most influence in Congress and how to influence
them and had a good working relationship with just about everyone in Congress.
He was, as biographer Robert A Caro puts it, the Master of the Senate, and
legislation lived and died based on his desires and his personal ambition.
And throughout his entire political life, his ambitions were presidential. In 1960,
he (sort of; long story) launched a Presidential bid where, after a lot of backdoor
maneuvering, he failed to unseat John F Kennedy from the nomination he had
secured in the primaries. Instead, with a promise that he could help Kennedy
carry the South, Johnson was selected as Kennedy’s VP. And it is very difficult to
see how Kennedy would have been able to cross the finish line without Johnson
delivering on that promise.
But despite Johnson’s assistance, Kennedy disliked Johnson, who he saw (not
inaccurately) as too hungry for political power and (quite inaccurately) as a
political and intellectual inferior. Instead of utilizing his excellent legislative

skills, Johnson was divorced from the administration’s legislative battles as the
Administration’s’ Civil Rights and tax reform policies floundered. He was so
widely disliked by Kennedy and his cabinet that he probably would have been
thrown off the 1964 ticket and was following a path toward complete irrelevance.
And then, on a 1963 PR stop in Dallas, everything changed. Kennedy was
killed and Johnson sworn in to the job he’d always wanted. Now, lazy political
theorists and historians will tell you that Johnson was able to use the sympathy
from Kennedy’s death to initiate the unprecedented string of legislative victories
he was about to enjoy. But while he certainly did that, the full reality is
a lot more nuanced. It was not just Kennedy’s death, but rather Johnson’s
shrewd understanding of the Congressional landscape and how to work it to his
Despite now finding himself in charge of a country that hadn’t voted for him, a
Senate intent on killing Kennedy’s initiatives and a cabinet that largely hated his
guts, Johnson hit the ground running. Knowing that tackling the Civil Rights
Act would suck all the legislative oxygen out of Washington, he first moved to
pass Kennedy’s tax reform initiative. At the time, Americans were still being
taxed at WWII levels and it was a serious burden to the economy. Kennedy had
helped created a package of tax cuts designed to relieve Americans, but refused
to cut spending in order to do it. The Republican and Democratic deficit hawks
in the Senate wouldn’t pass the measure because they viewed tax cuts without
spending cuts as reckless fiscal policy.
Boy, those were the days, huh?
This opposition was headed by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harry
Byrd, who absolutely would not release the bill from committee until spending
cuts sufficient to bring the Federal Budget under $100 billion, a figure which the
Kennedy Administration thought was flexible, but which Johnson (simply by
virtue of having a close relationship with Byrd) knew was not. Johnson worked
tirelessly with his agency directors to save every penny he could, and got the
budget below that number while at the same time cajoling Byrd with the flattery
he knew worked best on the old man (“You’ll get to be the first finance chair
to say he got the President to spend less.”). By tethering the tax cut to Byrd’s
legacy, Johnson was able to secure his support.
The Revenue Act of 1964, while slashing taxes, actually increased revenue due
to the oppressive burden it took from the taxpayer base. It’s one of those things
that every politician looking for a tax cut promises, but this was one of the only
times the increase in revenue actually materialized. Unemployment fell from
5.2 to 3.8% in 1966. And more importantly than even that, it removed a vital
hostage that Southern Senators could hold when Johnson took on his next and
greatest initiative; the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Whenever a Civil Rights
Act would make the rounds before, Southern legislators would delay it through
committee and filibusters until enough senate business piled up that Senators
needed to pass to secure their reelection that they could put the squeeze on

them. “Oh, you need this appropriation to take back to your voters? Let civil
rights drop and we’ll see what we can do”. By getting the Revenue Act out of
the way, Johnson took the most vital hostage that Southern leaders had away
from them. Moreover he accomplished in only 6 weeks what Kennedy had failed
to do for most of a year.
Johnson came out swinging on Civil Rights Act despite enormous political risk to
himself. Johnson’s primary base of support, up to that point, had been Southern
Senators, who would strongly oppose him on basically everything if he were stab
them in the back over Civil Rights. The South itself was critical to Johnson if he
wanted to win reelection as well, as every Democrat up to that point had relied
on Southern states to carry the necessary electoral college majority. Losing the
South represented not just a political blow to Johnson’s hopes, but at the time
may have spelled death for the entire Democratic Party. The Kennedy advisors
that had stayed on to help him agreed with this assessment, arguing that the
cause was lost (they themselves had failed to get a meaningful civil rights bill
passed for over a year). They warned him off the Civil Rights Act fight in a
crucial election year, telling him that a Presidency only had so much political
capital, and he ought not spend it on a cause that was both lost and which
would hurt him. Johnson’s response is iconic. “Well then what the hell is the
Presidency for?” Despite the risks, he took complete control of the fight for the
Bill, demanding not only its passage ahead of the election, but that it be passed
without any of the amendments added to it which had weakened its power or
The maneuvering to get the CRA assed began in earnest after the passage of
the Revenue Act. To get it out of the House, and specifically out of Smith’s
Rules committee, Johnson circulated a discharge petition that would force it out
of committee to the floor. This was a pretty radical maneuver, and politicians
were reluctant to support it as it undermined the power of committee chairmen.
Kennedy’s people had tried to circulate one over the CRA, but had failed
to gain much support. Johnson knew how to put the squeeze on the right
people. To woo a delegation of Texas Congressmen, he bribed them with a
fundraising boost from his oil baron allies. To bring around reticent Midwestern
Republicans, Johnson brought House Minority Leader Charles Halleck into the
fold by promising federal funding for Purdue University, a major engine of jobs
in Halleck’s district. Though the discharge petition was never passed, it gained
enough support that Smith released his bill from committee willingly rather than
suffer the humiliation of having it taken from him; a concession that Kennedy
never got out of him. His fight to pass the bill in the Senate was even more
difficult, but Johnson did it by assembling a coalition of Midwestern Republicans
and Mountain West Democrats (this last with generous promises of favorable
land appropriation rulings that were bread and butter to Western Senators). He
relentlessly hammered Republicans, the self proclaimed Party of Lincoln, to get
in behind the measure at a time when most of them were on the fence, and he
made successful overtures to convince Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen
to join him in the fight (Dirksen had held before that Republicans should only

support the Bill under a Republican President, so that their party could capture
the black vote, but ultimately caved due to Johnson’s overtures and pressure
from within his own party). And when Johnson had finally muscled it through
the committees, he and his future VP Hubert Humphrey organized a vigorous
floor fight against the Southern filibuster. They marshalled senators into teams
that kept rigorous discipline so that enough Yay votes were present at all times in
case a flagging Senator had to be taken off. After outlasting 60 days of filibuster,
it finally passed.
I’m dramatically simplifying the steps that Johnson took in order to pass the
Civil Rights Act. The fight to get the CRA passed can and has had entire books
written about its complexities. And I don’t want to downplay the personal role
that Civil Rights leaders and other Senators took in its passage as well. But
when it was facing Congress, Johnson was the man who pulled the legislative
strings. It is telling that Kennedy’s efforts to pass the same legislation had
gone nowhere, and Richard Russell (the leader of the Segregationist bloc in the
Senate) admitted himself that while he could have beaten Kennedy on the Bill,
his one time protege Lyndon Johnson was too savvy. Throughout this series, I’ve
used “passed a law” as shorthand for a President successfully securing passage
of a bill he favored. Sometimes, he merely proposed legislation and let Congress
figure it out. Sometimes he merely endorsed something Congress was already
passing. And sometimes he played an active role in negotiating its passage. But
make no mistake; Johnson was absolutely essential to the passage of the CRA,
and was critically involved in every stage of its success.
How important was the Civil Rights Act? The CRA first and foremost ended
the practice of Southern states to deny African Americans the vote based on
race, which they did through all manner of provisions from literacy tests to
voting “voucher systems” (which required unregistered voters to have a certain
number of registered voters, often as many as 6, to vouch for their character
in order to register. Obviously blacks had trouble finding people, and the fact
that one person was only allowed to vouch for so many other voters crippled
black registration efforts) to simply ignoring registration requests made by black
voters. It banned segregation by any public businesses or states from enacting
provisions to ban anyone from public facilities based on race, including private
businesses open to the public. It required the Attorney General to target schools
deliberately dragging their feet on desegregation and sue them into submission.
It, in short, outlawed racial segregation in American society. It was the most
dramatic victory that the Civil Rights movement had codified into law, and the
decisive turning point in the effort to end segregation. It is one of the single
most important pieces of domestic legislation ever passed, and Johnson was
essential to its passage. To quote his biographer, “Abraham Lincoln freed the
slaves. Lyndon Johnson gave them the vote”.
And Johnson was only just getting started. After decimating Republican candi-
date and racist reactionary Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential campaign
(winning every state BUT the Deep South), LBJ kept the party going in his

first term. Coined " The Great Society“, Johnson launched the most aggressive
legislative campaign aimed at social equality since the New Deal; a veritable
wishlist of liberal desires before and since. Medicare and Medicaid, two longtime
goals of the Democratic party, were passed under Johnson’s leadership, granting
health insurance to millions who desperately needed and were unable to obtain
it. He established the Federal Student Loan program that sent millions to
college, as well as the Federal Student Work Study Program. Americorps was
founded to aid non-profits and community based projects aimed at eliminating
poverty. Federal funds were granted to primary and secondary schools for the
first time. The Food Stamp Act was passed, enabling badly needed food aid to
be granted to the poor. The Housing and Urban Development Act established
HUD and enabled the building of dozens of housing projects in underdeveloped
neighborhoods. And he established immigration reform that removed racial
barriers to immigration under the National Origins Formula and allowed for a
Family Reunification Program to be established, uniting families and allowing
immigrants from non-western European nations to immigrate to the US. He
even kept up the civil rights fight, pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1968
and Voting Rights Act of 1965 to further drive home the point that segregation
and voter suppression would not be tolerated. All totaled, Johnson passed
through Congress the most liberal agenda in the nation’s history, enjoying a
Congressional success rate almost unheard of in all of Presidential history.
Almost all of these programs exist today, many of them considered untouch-
able sacred cows. Johnson’s domestic policy reflects nothing less than the high
watermark of American liberalism. He achieved it over the objections of con-
servative Southern Democrats and Republicans through his close relationship
to US lawmakers and a shrewd understanding of how to maneuver legislation.
The bills he championed fundamentally changed the quality of life for millions
of Americans and permanently shifted America’s political landscape. Though
much of Johnson’s life was characterized by a cynical and often selfish pursuit of
power, once he had it, he permanently changed the face of the United States for
better and forever.
And then he fucked it all up in Vietnam.
Because as much as Johnson’s legacy is that of dynamic social change, it is also
of the military quagmire that was the Vietnam War. Faced time and time again
from the Gulf of Tonkin attacks to the failure of Operation Rolling Thunder to
Defense Secretary McNamara’s own warning that the War could not be won,
Johnson escalated America’s troop presence in Vietnam. He set our policy as
one of prolonged intervention, and the result was the loss of nearly 60,000 young
American men. And not only did he escalate the Vietnam War, but he lied
about it repeatedly. From his famous proclamation that he refused to “Send
American boys 9 or 10 thousand miles to do what Asian boys ought to do for
themselves” to his repeated assurances that the War would end quickly with
each new escalation, Johnson’s promises regarding the War created a spirit of
distrust around Presidency that previously had not existed. And he did it out

of a fear of looking weak, and simply inexperience in matters of foreign affairs
required to exercise a timely withdrawal. He simply couldn’t allow himself to be
perceived as a failure, and in a vainglorious pursuit of bettering his own image,
tens of thousands died.
Despite his successes, by 1968, Johnson faced a rebellion from the left due
to the Vietnam War and the increasingly bad way it was going and potential
Congressional investigations over his handling of it. The election chant “LBJ for
the USA” that he used in his 1964 campaign had been replaced by the anti-war
cry “Hey, hey LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?” He declined to seek a
second term in office.
Lyndon Johnson leaves a complicated legacy, which is befitting of his complicated
personality. He was, at once, a brilliant legislator and domestic policy mind who
enacted some of the most difficult and necessary reforms in the nation’s history;
a passionate man with a deep well of empathy for the poor and mistreated who
challenged American society to reform its treatment of the have-nots. Even among
more conservative historians, there are few that would argue that Johnson’s
domestic agenda didn’t permanently improve the lives of the downtrodden in
the United States.
At the same time, he was a ruthless political opportunist who would do whatever
it took in order to cement his power and image. And in chasing that desire
all the way to war in Southeast Asia that he felt he had to win, he ruined
his career and tied his legacy to America’s most costly foreign disaster. The
flagrant dishonesty with which he conducted himself forever sowed distrust in
the office of the Presidency and contributed directly (along with Watergate)
to the disenfranchisement of Americans in their government that lead to the
Reagan Era a couple decades later. We’ve been steadily undoing much of his
domestic work ever since.


“Rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself.
Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare
or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our
beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue.
And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer
the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people
and as a nation. For with a country as with a person,”What is a man profited,
if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

Grade: B+

To speak on a personal note (the grading is literally where I get to espouse my

opinions), I’ll confess to a bit of bias in all this. I’m attracted to men who can

get shit done, and nobody got as much shit done as Lyndon Johnson. He’s
my favorite President. I even have one of his campaign posters hanging in my
living room. He represents a romantic notion of a man who could come up
from nothing, and by nothing but canny political skill and an irrepressible force
of will, rose to the highest position of power in the nation. And he put that
power to use in service of the most noble causes in American history. Ultimately
Vietnam destroyed much of his legacy, but that also makes him a uniquely
underappreciated figure. Where Kennedy’s image looms larger than his failures,
Johnson’s failures loom larger than his successes. But while Kennedy made
speeches, Johnson made laws. As badly as I want to give him an A for all the
goodness he accomplished, I have to give him a B+ because Vietnam would be
such a horrible scar not just on his legacy, but on all of America’s. But make no
mistake about; this country is better off for the time Lyndon Johnson spent as

37. Richard Milhouse Nixon (1969-1974)

Nixon was an unlikely President. After losing the Gubernatorial election in 1962
(his second electoral defeat in as many cycles), he famously told the press “You
won’t have old Nixon to kick around anymore”. It seemed like his life in politics,
even to him, was at an end.
But Nixon’s career was defined by improbability. He enjoyed a meteoric rise in
the 50s. By 37, he was a senator, a youthfulness almost unheard of at the time.
By 40, he was named Eisenhower’s VP nominee. Kennedy’s youth and charisma
is much ballyhooed when talking about his rise to power, but Kennedy was only
4 years younger than Nixon when they were running against one another. And
he did all of this despite being dogged (and you political history buffs out there
will know that’s a Checkers pun) by numerous personal scandals.
This rise to power was accomplished by two gifts that defined his political life: an
ideological flexibility that tended toward whatever was popular, and a canniness
in slipping out scandals that threatened to embroil him. In the 1950s, he made
a name for himself playing off the Red Scare, but was able to distance himself
from the McCarthiest tactics that gave the anti-communist movement a bad
name. Despite being an ardent fiscal conservative at heart, he embraced the
policies of economic liberalization and regulation in the aftermath of the New
Deal when they had overwhelming support. And he was always able to straddle
a line between supporting civil rights while placating its critics who felt the
movement was going too far.
And timing helped too. After embarrassing himself in the wake of the California
gubernatorial loss, he was sidelined for the disastrous 1964 election that saw
Republicans everywhere get embarrassed in their support of Barry Goldwater.
By the time 1968 rolled around, the party lacked leadership, and Nixon was
able to step in and fill the void. The Democratic party was deeply divided,

too, and falling into a factions due to the southern branch’s split on civil rights.
Alabama Governor George Wallace decided to form his own Democratic Party
with blackjack, hookers and institutional racism and took Georgia, Alabama,
Louisiana and Mississippi with him. Suddenly Hubert Humphrey found himself
without enough electoral votes to put a winning campaign together, despite
trailing by a measly .7% in the popular vote.
But to chalk up Nixon’s 1968 victory entirely to the Democrats’ internal struggles
would be unfair. 1968 America was coming apart at the seams. King had been
shot. Kennedy had been shot. There were anti-War riots everywhere. The
country was reeling from the aftermath of the Tet Offensive and teeming with
racial strife as the South grappled with its newly empowered black citizens. Nixon
projected himself as a calm, collected leader from another era; a throwback to
the Eisenhower years and their relative simplicity. He was tough on communism
while promising an “honorable” end to the Vietnam War. His message of bringing
America back to a simpler, stabler time resonated with voters and helped propel
him to victory.
As a domestic policy president, Nixon was kind of all over the place, which
speaks to his political pragmatism. He talked a conservative game, advocating
a “New Federalism” that would keep the Great Society’s safety net in place,
but pass the buck to state and local governments. In terms of legislation, this
approach went nowhere. He taxed like a liberal, aiming “tax minimums” at high
end taxpayers. In an effort to tamp down the pervasive inflation problem that
would start to plague the nation until the Reagan years, he put the final nail in
the gold standard’s coffin, though Roosevelt had effectively killed it back in 1933
anyway. To this end, he even tried price and wage controls, which is a downright
communist policy and had to have been at odds with his deeply conservative
roots. He was an aggressive welfare slasher, and worked very hard to kill early
(and at that time, much more acceptable) calls for single payer health insurance,
which was a call growing in popularity after the early successes of Medicare and
Medicaid. He was an environmentalist, but only to a point. While it’s true that
he established the EPA and signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 and Signed the
Endangered Species Act, he also vetoed the Clean Water Act. And he a very
bullish President on crime. Under Nixon’s moral leadership, many states (along
with the federal government) passed much harsher sentencing laws, including
controversial Three Strikes policies that would imprison third time felons for life.
It was really under Nixon’s leadership that the drug war got going in earnest,
and it’s been a costly failure ever since.
One arena in which Nixon deserves considerable credit is that of Civil Rights.
While President Johnson had passed sweeping Civil Rights laws, it was up to
Nixon to enforce them. And he did so admirably. Rather than issuing sweeping
edicts that would force institutions (especially schools) to desegregate, Nixon
took a reactive approach. He created a system by which blacks could lodge
complaints that the Justice Department would then enforce. For Nixon, this
served the dual purpose of keeping both the conservative southern and liberal

black voters off his back; the former because he wasn’t aggressively knocking
down the walls of their lifestyle, the latter because he was pursuing egregious
violations. But to his credit, less than 10% of black students were in segregated
schools by the end of his Presidency, and segregated public spaces were rapidly
If all that domestic stuff seems like a flyover, it’s because there wasn’t a lot
of landmark legislation passed during Nixon’s Presidency. Nixon and the over-
whelmingly Democratic legislature were at odds, but rather than going at one
another’s throats, the two provided checks on each other. The result was the
series of meaningful legislation listed above, but a slow down of the grandiose,
sweeping reforms that had characterized Johnson’s leadership. And it’s also
worth noting that even though Congress was overwhelmingly Democratic, it
was only narrowly liberal. Johnson’s singular genius for working legislation had
kept much of the reform agenda moving in spite of conservative Republican and
Democratic objections. But once he was out of the picture, Nixon was perfectly
content to watch liberal and conservative Democrats slug it out, signing whatever
compromises made it through while more liberal proposals simply died off. It
helped give him the appearance of a bipartisan figure, but the reality of Nixon’s
leadership is that he seldom took an active role in Congressional fights.
Really, though, it was the foreign field where Nixon’s legacy was the most
strongly felt (well, that and in a certain DC hotel that we’ll get to in a minute).
First and foremost, he got us out of Vietnam. And while that is mainly what
history remembers him for, a number of asterisks should be added to that
accomplishment. First of all, there is very compelling evidence to suggest that
his campaign scuttled Johnson’s peace efforts near the end of the election. It’s
a little convoluted, but through backchannels to South Vietnam’s ambassador,
Nixon encouraged the South Vietnamese to hold off on peace negotiations until
after the election, as he could secure a better deal for them. And while Nixon
and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did negotiate an end to the conflict, they
had to escalate it by several magnitudes in order to do so. This included a huge
troop injection and a foray into Cambodia to cut off North Vietnamese supply
routes. Again, I don’t want to deny that Nixon successfully negotiated an end
to the conflict, but it should not go ignored that his actions prolonged the war
before that happened, and that thousands of people died as a result.
Leaving Vietnam wasn’t his only foreign triumph. When the Sino Soviet re-
lationship broke down into border conflicts and a near war, Nixon (and the
imminently brilliant Kissinger) sensed an opportunity. Rebuilding relations with
Beijing, he negotiated an “opening” of China. If not an ally, China became,
with US support, a massive counterweight against the Soviet Union, striking
out on its own geopolitical goals instead of being beholden to Moscow’s. The
Soviets would have to go it alone in future ventures rather than having Chinese
support. The blow marked the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, and
it cost the US almost nothing to deliver. Despite intense criticism for his his
doing it at the time (critics on both the both right and left accused him of

Chamberlainian appeasement), Nixon’s courting of China was one of the Cold
War’s few unambiguous master strokes.
That said, Richard Nixon was not a good guy, and ideology yielding to pragma-
tism not his greatest flaw. Nixon was notoriously paranoid about his “political
enemies”, viewing the media as the greatest enemy of all. To keep information
away from them, he organized a gang of former FBI and CIA rowdies to make
sure nobody leaked anything to the press, and they harassed anyone they sus-
pected of doing so. The Committee to Reelect the President (CREP, fittingly
referred to as Creep) spied on a number of his perceived enemies from politicians,
to media outlets to Hollywood stars, and he regularly used the government to
harass them by ordering frivolous tax audits and the like.
The stabilization of the American political scene, its withdraw from Vietnam
and its foreign policy successes left Nixon extremely popular. He won the 1972
election by the largest landslide in Presidential history. Nixon captured 60% of
the vote and all but one state, a victory whose magnitude makes subsequent
events all the more astounding.
And it all fell apart from there.
Almost immediately as his second term began, the economy crashed on Nixon.
Inflation, which had been a problem throughout his Presidency, took an enormous
spike when the stock market crashed in 1973, and right on its heels, OAPEC
declared an oil embargo on the US for its intervention in the Arab Israeli conflict,
which staggered the US economy. Stagflation, a huge spike in inflation and
unemployment, rocked the economy, and the Nixon Administration was almost
paralyzed to stop it.
And right about the same time all that was hitting the fan, the details of the
Watergate scandal began to emerge. To make an extremely long and complicated
story short and simple, the Democratic National Committee was headquartered
at the Watergate Hotel complex during the 1972 election cycle, and Nixon’s
campaign hired a crew to break into Democratic HQ and wiretap it. A second
team sent in to fix the listening devices when they stopped working was caught
and arrested. Nixon’s campaign denied any involvement, but details of the
burglars’ connections (they were, almost to a man, employed by the campaign)
started leaking out. The break in itself was bad enough, but as the investigation
into its origins unfolded, now re-elected Nixon took great pains to cover it up
and deny it. The story made its way to the media via a leak, and Congress got
involved by opening investigations and demanding the appointment of a special
prosecutor. Again, I’m simplifying a great deal here, but when it was clear that
the Special Counsel was going to come down with a damning verdict, Nixon
fired his Attorney General, Deputy Attorney General and the Special Counsel in
a move that would be known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
But rather than protecting Nixon, it was the beginning of the end. By this point,
the Senate Investigation into Watergate had already been underway for a while,
and had forced the release of the recordings Nixon kept of his private White

House conversations. The now famed Watergate Tapes revealed undeniably
that he knew about the Watergate break in only days after it occurred, and
that he took steps to cover up the truth (and, by the by, revealed a vast litany
of racist, anti-semitic and paranoid diatribes he made that gave the American
people a very disquieting window into what kind of man he was). Congress began
drawing up articles of impeachment for charges ranging from conspiracy, to illegal
espionage, to obstruction of justice. Facing a trial that would certainly result in
his impeachment, Nixon resigned from office. And you have to think that in an
election he was certain to win, taking a step like ordering the Watergate breakin
has to go down as the greatest unforced error in the history of American Politics.
Why did he do it? The simple answer is that it’s who he was; paranoid, power
hungry and desperate for approval. He was a deeply insecure man who took all
criticism to heart and saw all critics as enemies not just of himself, but of the
United States. If he’d left it alone, or turned down the Watergate scheme with a
level of indignation that would have befit an American President, Nixon would
have been remembered as a pretty good President. He had a mixed record of
successes and failures domestically, but there’s no doubt that he got a lot of
credit for stabilizing a politically unstable America. In foreign policy, his record
is one of resounding success. Yet that’s not his legacy. His legacy is that of
dishonesty, corruption and of abuses of power in the pursuit of power. His actions
would forever taint the office, sowing in Americans distrust in the President to an
extent that we’ve never fully recovered from. While Nixon is unfairly maligned
as an arch conservative enemy of liberty, and unfairly portrayed as bumbling
in a lot of popular media, his enduring reputation for crookedness is absolutely
deserved. Historians tend to rank him among the worst US presidents, and given
the damage he did to America’s institutions, it’s hard to argue with them.


“In a civilized nation no man can excuse his crime against the person or property
of another by claiming that he, too, has been a victim of injustice. To tolerate
that is to invite anarchy.” - says the man who would repeatedly claim to be a
victim of injustice to excuse his crime.

Grade: C-

Oh, Nixon, Nixon, Nixon. . . .how do I grade you? This is the hardest one to
grade. On one hand, taken without watergate, his actual presidency probably
warrants a B or a B-. On the other, Watergate is one of those lasting damages
to the integrity of the Republic that would typically earn an F. I’ll split the
difference and give him a C-.

38. Gerald Ford (1974-1977)

Nobody ever voted to put Gerald Ford in the White House. And I mean nobody.
I’ve thrown that phrase out a time or two throughout this series when talking
about VPs who ascended due to the death of the President. But at least in an
academic sense, people voted for those tickets. But Ford was appointed VP after
the 1972 election. So in a very literal sense, nobody voted for him.
Gerald Ford rose to prominence from the House of Representatives. And it is
there that he held his only ambition; to be Speaker of the House. He quickly
rose up the Republican ranks during the Eisenhower years, and his prospects
looked pretty good. But Democratic victories in Eisenhower’s midterm elections
rapidly transformed into a permanent Democratic chokehold on Congress. He
still ranked high in Republican leadership, but that wasn’t the same as being
the House Speaker. By the time Lyndon Johnson was pushing his Great Society,
Ford was the House Minority Leader leading the opposition to it (and badly,
I might add. Of the 87 bills submitted by Johnson’s cabinet to Congress, 84
were signed into law; a flabbergasting 97% record of victory for his agenda).
He really began making a name for himself with his opposition to the Vietnam
War, which he believed was too costly, poorly managed and that the American
people lacked the willpower to decisively win. He emerged as one of Johnson’s
chief Congressional critics, making regular appearances on various talk shows to
propose alternatives to the Johnson agenda.
But he was, by the time of his rise to the Presidency, a very tired man. By 1973,
he’d spent the better part of a decade being held back from his real ambition
by a Democratic majority that seemed all but unshakable, and he’d resigned
himself to retiring. But following the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew
for his own criminal scandals, he accepted the Vice Presidency from Nixon as a
“nice conclusion” to his career; a quiet way to ride out his remaining years in a
position that would give him great esteem and allow him to relax.
And within a year, Watergate had exploded, Nixon resigned and Ford was
catapulted to the Presidency. A nice conclusion indeed.
And man was he ever dealt a bad hand. Obviously assuming power due to
a criminal investigation that derailed your former boss’s political career and
forced him to resign under threat of impeachment is an inauspicious way to get
going to say the least. And the scandal and investigations were still the political
focus in DC as Ford tried to cobble together an administration. He was faced
with a difficult choice. The investigations were sucking up all the oxygen in
Washington, making it impossible for him to get anything meaningful done. But
pardoning Nixon outright risked poisoning his relationship with the Democrats
who controlled Congress. Ultimately, he decided that no progress could be made
while the public was in an uproar about Nixon, and he pulled the trigger on a
pardon. This, surprise surprise, poisoned his relationship with the Democrats
who controlled Congress, which blocked him from making any progress at all.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, Ford also inherited an economy that was
still in an advanced state of recession. The economy dominated Ford’s domestic
agenda as he, like Nixon, scrambled to find a solution to the crisis.The double
pronged issue of stagflation, both high inflation and unemployment, was an
economic nightmare scenario and Ford chose to try to tackle the inflationary
side of it. But he didn’t really have any tools or legislation in mind to do it with.
Instead, he launched the Whip Inflation Now initiative, encouraging Americans
to spend less, save more and to cut their fuel consumption (gas prices being
the crisis’ driving factor). Like almost all of these volunteer, hearts and minds
campaigns, it had almost no effect whatsoever. In terms of foreign policy, he
essentially continued Nixon’s policies, from detente with the Soviet Union to
the continued opening of China. But all in all, Ford boasted very few actual
That lack of accomplishment would help propel Jimmy Carter to defeat him in
1978. I don’t want to imply that Ford was a useless President. His granting of
clemency to Vietnam draft dodgers and his increase of CIA and FBI transparency
were very commendable. But he never really had a chance to do much. To find
a President who had been as blatantly screwed over by circumstance, you’d
have to go all the way back to the pre-Civil War era. And even those guys
contributed plenty to the crisis. Ford inherited a toxic political situation and a
toxic economy, and although he was an all around good guy, he didn’t have the
tools to overcome it.


“I am a Ford, not a Lincoln.”

Grade: C-

I feel really bad for Gerald Ford. He didn’t want to be President in the first place,
and he rose in circumstances so sadistic that they almost sound fictional. But
the worst thing that can be said of Ford is that he was largely inconsequential.
I’ll give him a C- and leave it at that.

39. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)

Carter came to the office by way of the Georgia governorship, where he had
established himself as an aggressive reformer. He’d shrunken and re-structured
government, battled relentlessly against Georgia’s poverty, pushed it into an era
of desegregation and reformed its badly outdated tax codes. Using that record,
along with an uplifting message about restoring trust in American government,
Carter was able to edge out a reelection bid by Gerald Ford to become America’s
39th President (that’s right guys; I only 5 more of these writeups to go).

If the Johnson Presidency was a master class in how to pass a Presidential
agenda through Congress, the Carter Presidency was a cautionary tale about the
dangers of pissing it off. And indeed, political scientists frequently use Carter as
a case study in ineffective Congressional management. His problems were twofold.
First, he aggressively antagonized Congress by criticizing a large number of local
spending initiatives (many of them important infrastructure projects) as “pork
spending”. He had a “hit list” of such projects he’d put together, and used it to
shame Democrats and Republicans alike. By doing this, he also took away an
important lever of Presidential power; the ability to leverage such projects to
help garner support for his agenda. Carter quickly developed a reputation for
telling Congressmen how it was going to be rather than actively working with
them to barter for his initiatives, earning their quick enmity.
This problem of soured relations with Congress was compounded by his inability
to prioritize his agenda. Successful Presidents like Johnson or the Roosevelts
tackled one major initiative at a time, making sure they had all the votes in
place and that the entire presidential apparatus could focus its messaging on
the initiative. They had clear lists of demands for each piece of legislation that
they pushed for while leaving Congress with wiggle room to iron out the final
details. Carter, on the other hand, assigned different initiatives to different
cabinet and staff members, meaning that his administration was trying to push
several items at once. Congress couldn’t focus on all the items his aids were
putting forward to them, nor were they getting cohesive demands or bargains
from the Administration. Because Carter tried to tackle too much at once, he
was never able to effectively use the bully pulpit to advocate any one policy. As
a result, issues like welfare and tax reform and healthcare reform died a slow
death, while the passage of his energy reform bill was so badly delayed that it
couldn’t have a substantive effect on energy prices in time to do him any good
in his reelection campaign.
Which isn’t to say that he accomplished nothing. That aforementioned energy
policy was huge, establishing the Department of Energy and setting the first real
vehicle fuel economy standards that the nation ever had (and that it desperately
needed at the time), as well as significant investments in alternative energy
that helped advance America’s move away from fossil electrical production. He
oversaw a huge injection of spending into education, as well as the formation of
the Department of Education to set national standards of performance. And he
passed significant tax cuts and spending cuts in his effort to combat inflation
(though it wasn’t terrible effective in doing so).
In terms of foreign policy, Carter pursued a sort of moral detente that saw
the United States ratchet down the Cold War with a particular emphasis on
eliminating proxy battles that saw the US propping up brutal dictatorial regimes.
Not that we didn’t continue to do it under Carter, but there was a significant
tightening of support of dictatorships like Iran (more on that in a minute),
Nicaragua, Chile and others. Smart governments like those of Pinochet sought
reforms that put him back in the US’s good graces. Stupid governments like

those of Anastazio Somoza fell to the socialists. While the move put the US
back in some degree of moral authority, it also weakened many of its anti-
communist allies, resulting in an uptick of revolutionary movements that was
fiercely criticized by Carter’s political opponents.
And it is in foreign policy in which Carter’s most enduring achievement was
made. Shortly after taking office, Carter’s Secretary of State Cyrus Vance
approached Syria’s Al-Assad, King Hussein of Jordan and most importantly,
President Anwar Sadat of Egypt (Egypt owned the overwhelming majority of
the Arab coalition’s military strength) about a peace negotiation with Israel.
Their proposal was that Israel withdraw from the occupied territories it had
won in the 6 Day War and secured in the Yom Kipur War in exchange for an
acknowledgement that the nations involved acknowledge Israel’s right to exist
and refrain from future attacks against it. The initiative bore fruit with the
Arab nations weary of spending their capital on failed campaigns against Israel
and the Israelis, who were worried about their ability to survive in the wake of
repeated offensives. The result was a secret, 12 day meeting at Camp David
that produced the aptly named Camp David Accords. It is to date the most
comprehensive Mid East peace accord. By removing the enormous armies of
Egypt and Syria from the equation of any future attacks on Israel, Carter insured
that the other non-signatory Arab nations would form too powerless a coalition
to effectively challenge Israel. Although the Nobel Prize went to Egypt’s Sadat
and Israel’s Begin, Carter was instrumental in the process.
But it would ultimately be two crises, one domestic and one foreign, that
would color Carter’s final legacy. Domestically, the economy, which had been
suffering from minor stagflation through all of the 1970s, exploded in 1979. The
energy crisis which had been building came to a head, exploding fuel prices
and raising the cost of any good that needed to be transported by land. Job
creation suffered as the personal spending of the average American dried up,
and consumer confidence plummeted. The economy was in a full on state of
recession, and recession with a massive inflationary element as well, and Carter
ultimately proved incapable of stemming the tide.
And right about that same time, the stewing pot that was Iran boiled over into
an American crisis. Carter’s refusal to back the American installed Shah Reza
Pahlavi severely weakened his government. Efforts by the Shah to liberalize his
way back into the US’s good graces gave enough freedom to Iranian radicals
to embolden them to ramp up protests until the Shah finally lost patience and
dropped the hammer on them in 1978. The crackdown resulted in thousands
of deaths, and insured that the Iranian Protests devolved fully into the Iranian
Revolution. By 1979, the revolutionaries had seized control of the country, and
in doing so, took 66 American Embassy workers hostage. At first, this was
a massive boon to Carter’s popularity. Attacks on Americans tend to rally
support behind the President. But as the hostage crisis dragged on without any
apparently solution, the public turned on him, especially after a rescue operation
designed to extract them ended in failure.

Between the hostage crisis and the failing economy, Carter’s fate was sealed.
With his approval at Nixonian lows, he barely survived a primary challenge by
Senator Ted Kennedy, and was absolutely obliterated by insurgent Republican
Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election.
Carter would go on to be an influential public spokesman and diplomat, not
unlike Harry Truman. He’s travelled the world under the American banner
to build empathy with foreign leaders, and at times has even been employed
as a diplomat in an official capacity. And he’s remained extremely active in
Democratic politics. I won’t argue, as some do, that he was more effective
outside of the White House than in it. That’s just unfair. But he has definitely
become a larger, more respected political figure. It’s just a shame that the savvy
he learned since his Presidential days couldn’t have been developed during them.


“America did not invent human rights. In a very real sense, it is the other way
round. Human rights invented America. Ours was the first nation in the history
of the world to be founded explicitly on such an idea. “

Grade: C-

Carter was a good man who made a crappy President. I sympathize with most
of his ideas, and especially with his moral leadership. But as I’ve said many
times, being on the right side of history is only as good as your ability to get
others to join you there. And Carter never could. I give him a regretful C-.

Modern Era

40. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

Reagan was an against-the-grain politician who preached early and often about
the “evils” of big government. His was a breed of conservatism that was not en
vogue at the time of his election. He believed in decentralizing federal power,
cutting federal spending and that the main purpose of the federal government was
to create a strong national defense that could oppose America’s enemies. Though
this refrain is familiar conservative doctrine now, it was pretty revolutionary
stuff at the time.
But when you look at the political landscape in 1980, it’s not hard to see why
his ideas gained so much traction. After America’s failed adventure in Vietnam,
the disgrace Nixon brought to the office, the ineffectual Presidencies of Ford and
Carter and the decade long failure of the US to reverse its worsening economic
problems, faith in the federal government was at an all time low. Reagan’s
personality didn’t hurt anything either. He was an incredible public speaker, and
possessed a warm, friendly delivery that made even his most ice cold proposals
seem sensible. In terms of political style, he was pure Roosevelt, addressing
America’s sense of pride, hope and optimism rather than pandering to its fears.
He rather famously idolized FDR despite being his ideological opposite. The
famous phrase he used to thrash Carter “Are you better off now than you were
four years ago?” was lifted straight from a 1934 Roosevelt stump speech.
And thrash Carter he did. Reagan walloped Carter in 1980, winning by 9% and
collecting 489 electoral votes to Carter’s meager 49. And while he inherited
Carter’s problems, he took an entirely different approach to handling them.
Inflation had, for years, been choking out the US economy. Reagan tried to
attack it in two ways. First, he tried the now-Republican-staple supply side
theory of cutting taxes and easing regulatory burdens on businesses. The idea
is that, with reduced cost of doing business, companies could use the added
revenue to lower prices and/or increase employment. And strictly in terms of
ending the inflationary crisis of the 70s and 80s, it failed pretty miserably.
This lead to a reevaluated approach. Reagan landed on a strategy advocated
by his Fed Chairman Paul Volker. Volker believed in a “tight money” theory
premised on the notion that the government could control inflation and unem-
ployment by toying with the interest rates. To simplify some extremely complex
economic theories to explain this approach, a normal economy, when inflation
is high, goods are expensive, and that increase in revenue allows businesses to
increase wages and hire extra help, lowering unemployment. When unemploy-
ment is high, money tends to be scarcer and businesses have to lower prices
in order to sell goods. In an unhealthy economy this principle doesn’t really
apply, but Reagan sought to rebuild that balance by weaponizing unemployment.
Essentially, he instructed the Fed to jack up interest rates, which denied cashflow

to businesses (who often take short term loans for payroll and expansion). It de-
creased hiring dramatically, driving up the unemployment rate. This tightening
of monetary flow lead to unemployment rates as high as 12% by 1982, which
cause an enormous amount of economic hurt at the time.
And it totally worked.
By 1985, the double digit inflation rates that had been racking the US economy
for almost a decade had fallen all the way down to almost normal levels. The Fed
turned the tap back on by flat-lining interest rates and unemployment declined
shortly thereafter. It was difficult medicine, but ended the stagflation that had
defined America’s economy through the late 60s and 70s. The approach has,
despite many Administrations since trying, not been duplicated since, so I don’t
want to make it sound like Reagan reinvented the wheel on economic policy
(though many continue to falsely claim that he did). But he did end a decade
long, persistent problem, and for that he deserves credit.
The rest of Reagan’s domestic agenda will look pretty familiar to those who
follow modern politics as the typical run of conservative dogma. He was an
ardent tax cutter, who slashed taxes whether he found spending cuts to meet
them or not. And Americans today are taxed at a comparative fraction of
what they were in the 60s and 70s, and that is all an echo of Reagan’s time in
office. He was an extremely effective union buster, too, frequently weighing in
either with the bully pulpit or direct action to break up a number of strikes.
Without the backing of the federales, and in fact receiving a great deal of
antipathy from them, organized labor became demoralized under Reagan and
union membership dropped precipitously. He was also an obsessive deregulator.
From the environment, to finance, to labor rules, Reagan absolutely gutted
regulations of all kinds across the business spectrum. And it’s actually here
where his longest term legacy might be felt today, as deregulation has become a
central platform of the Republican Party ever since.
His policies were more nuanced than arch conservative caricatures of him today
would have you believe, though. Rather than slashing social spending programs
like Republicans of the future, spending for programs like Medicaid and EIC
increased under his watch. And while that is almost certainly due to the
Democratic congressional control he had to deal with throughout his time in
office, the comprehensive immigration reform initiatives he pushed (and the
granting of amnesty to over 3 million aliens) was not. This was the most
comprehensive and liberal immigration package since Lyndon Johnson’s in 1965,
and it transformed Latinos (who were its primary beneficiary) into a genuine
force in American politics.
None of this is to say that Reagan’s domestic agenda is without its black marks.
Reagan presided in the rise of the Crack epidemic and its resultant increase in
crime. While I am not one of those who would argue that he was responsible for
it, there is little doubt that it drove his policy of doubling down on the Drug War
through a series of policies designed to punish users and low level dealers. And

this is, frankly, the wrong track. While other nations in both the developed and
developing world have had succeed in reducing drug use by offering rehabilitation
programs and instituting programs aimed at relieving the economic conditions
that trap people in addiction, the US has pursued the predominantly punitive
policy set forth by Reagan. It’s a policy that has lead to mass incarceration,
made the process of drug distribution much more violent than it is in other
countries, and one that ultimately fails to solve the root problems that lead to
mass drug abuse in the first place. The 50 year failure that is America’s drug
policy didn’t start under Reagan, but it intensified drastically under him and
his actions have guided our approach ever since.
And I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t bring up Reagan’s failure to address
the AIDS crisis. Though America’s relationship with HIV/AIDS started in the
70s, it was in the 80s when we first began to understand what it was and how
it spread. Reagan’s approach to the epidemic, which would eventually become
the most serious in American history, is often characterized as “indifferent”,
but I would argue that even that was too charitable. At best, the Reagan
Administration laughed it off and at worst, actively suppressed talking about
it. It wasn’t until 1987 when Reagan began actively confronting the issue,
and even that was primarily through a laughably useless abstinence campaign.
And all of this happened while Congress set aside more and more funding
(AIDS funding authorized by Congress expanded a thousandfold under Reagan’s
tenure), Reagan either didn’t use the funds or put them to use ineffectively.
He ultimately saw AIDS as a gay diseased, and blamed its spread on a failing
of moral character. The results are clear enough. If a proactive educational
campaign complete with condom distribution had been made, or research into
proper medical treatments aggressively pursued, the HIV/AIDS epidemic might
not have become the catastrophe that it did. Instead, research stagnated for
want of government funding and people continued to be infected and killed well
into the 90s, when our approach was substantially improved.
Reagan’s impact on the world stage was every bit as profound as his domestic
agenda. Reagan was the coldest of Cold Warriors, and brought the policies
of detente to a screeching end. Dubbed the Reagan Doctrine, Reagan wasn’t
content simply to contain the Soviet Union and limit its influence. He wanted
to destroy them. And he sought to do it in two primary ways: ramping up
regional proxy conflicts and forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself to death to
keep up with the US. Now, this former approach was a total mixed bag. He was
largely unable to stop the spread of socialism in Latin America, though he did
successfully beat back such movement sin Africa. In Afghanistan, he delivered
a decisive (really, crippling) defeat to the invading Soviets by pumping billions
of dollars to fund the Mujaheddin resistance. But this same group (or rather
some of its more radical elements) would eventually build a terror state there
that would give rise to, among other groups, Al Qaeda.
It was in his pursuit of expanded proxy warfare that Reagan embroiled himself
in his most enduring scandal. One of the casualties of Carter’s moral detente

was the right wing Nicaraguan government of Anastasio Somoza. His was one
of the regimes cut off by Carter and failed to reform its ways enough to regain
US support. Lacking that, it was overthrown by the socialist Sandinistas. A
group of Somoza loyalists formed a resistance known as the Contras and fought
a protracted civil war with the new government. As you might suspect, an
organization fighting to bring back the good ol’ days of outlandish corruption
and human rights abuses was not the nicest of organizations, and rumors of the
Contras atrocities made its way back to the US. Congress passed measures that
forbade the CIA and FBI from assisting them.
But Regan never met an anti communist he didn’t like and he sought to find
ways to subvert the rules Congress had put in place. To this end, he assigned
NSA operative Oliver North to. . . well, it’s a little. . . shall we say. . . controversial
what he did or didn’t assign North to do. But North orchestrated a scheme
by which, in exchange for the release of American hostages taken by Iranian
backed extremist group Hezbollah, the US sold the Iranian regime a whole
lot of high powered missile systems. North then redirected the proceeds to
everyone’s favorite anti-communist Nicaraguan terrorists. When the transaction,
and the apparent cover up surrounding it, inevitably leaked to Congress, a special
counsel was appointed to prosecute the affair. North was granted immunity
(along with several conspirators) in exchange for his testimony, and once he had
that immunity in hand, promptly took all the blame on himself.
The Iran-Contra Affair deeply damaged Reagan’s already strained credibility
with Congress to the breaking point, and it’s not hard to see why. The official
line is that Reagan simply didn’t know what was going on in his agencies. That,
in fact, even the NSA director didn’t know. Even this charitable reading of
events means that Reagan was hardly blameless. If you’re the President, you
can’t let your subordinates act like a bunch of cowboys. Reagan’s critics would
charge that North and company were instructed to get funds to the Contras by
any means necessary, so long as they kept the Administration in the dark so
that they might maintain deniability. However you choose to interpret it, his
administration armed a despicable rogue nation in Iran, along with the terrorists
it supported so that they could fund a group of their own terrorists in Nicaragua.
But while Reagan’s alphabet soup of proxy wars was indecisive, his policy of
bleeding the Soviets financially was not. By forcing the Soviets to keep up with
arms production, keeping them bogged down in Afghanistan and forcing them
on wild goose chases like a counter to his Star Wars program, Reagan absolutely
annihilated the Soviet future. Now I actually believe that Reagan gets a bit too
much credit for this. Many of the processes that lead to the Soviet collapse were
pretty well along with or without Reagan. Bu in forcing the Soviet Union to
overextend itself, he definitely supercharged its issues and turned a decaying
state in a collapsing one. By the end of his successor’s term in office, the Soviet
Union, that arch rival that had defined American foreign policy for nearly half a
century, would be no more.
Reagan has rightfully gone down as one of the most influential Presidents of all

time. And in doing so, Reagan closed the book on one era of US political history
and begins another. If you follow the history of the American Presidency, some
clear eras emerge. From Washington to JQA, you had the Founding Era, which
saw America get on its feet and try to figure out its identity. Jackson opened up
the Expansion Era, which saw us move west and south, filling out the borders we
have today. And so on and so forth. The Roosevelt Era, which started with FDR
and peaked under Lyndon Johnson, was characterized by progressive reforms,
the expansion of federal powers and was driven by Keynesian economic theory.
Even nominally conservative Presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon fought for
a sturdy social safety net, tough business regulation and government stimulus
spending, because that was the dominant ethos of the day.
That all ends under and after Reagan. From there on, there’s been a slow
but steady rollback of the progressive gains made between the 30s and the
60s. American politics became more partisan as the differences between liberals
and conservatives widened. Politics have become more individualistic and
conservative, and even the nominal liberals like Obama and Clinton would move
much further to the right than their predecessors 30 years prior. That’s all
because of Reagan, his message, and the popular impact he had. The successes of
the Reagan Presidency and the things it came to represent transformed American
politics and the American character for at least the next 30 years.


Whatever else history may say about me when I’m gone, I hope it will record
that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence
rather than your doubts. My dream is that you will travel the road ahead with
liberty’s lamp guiding your steps and opportunity’s arm steadying your way.

Grade: A

For ending the Cold War, a lingering economic crisis and reshaping the ideology
of the nation, Reagan gets an A. There were definitely black marks in there
(they’re the only thing holding him back from an A+), but Reagan’s presidency
was nothing less than a tectonic shift in the American political landscape.

41. George HW Bush (1989-1993)

George HW Bush had the sort of Presidency that reminds us why it takes years
to evaluate a President’s legacy. Because the initial reviews were not good, but
the historical minds that study such things (insomuch as we can even call the
early 90s history), have softened on him quite a bit over the years.

Their reasons for criticism were obvious. After the kind of sweeping electoral
victory that generally implies a mandate, Bush came in with a lot of public
support for his agenda. But it quickly ran into two major realities. First, on the
domestic front, he inherited a MASSIVE national debt. It had tripled in the
time Reagan spent in office. This problem was compounded by a savings and
loan banking crisis that was threatening to drag down the economy. To prevent
that, Bush orchestrated a $100 billion bailout program that inflated the deficit
even further and has remains controversial to this day. The impact it made on
the deficit, which was already enormous, required new taxes on fuel and income
to be instated, which proved hugely unpopular.
Domestically, Bush Sr. accomplished very little else, however. He had to grapple
with a Democratic legislature that really put a stop to most of his conservative
initiatives. And it’s primarily this reason that his brief tenure was so widely
viewed as a failure.
But his foreign agenda has aged much better, and it’s done a lot to rescue
his legacy. Because the second major reality facing Reagan’s successor was
the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Where other
Presidents might have antagonized the failing state as they fell apart, Bush made
overtures to them instead, developing a working rapport with Soviet Secretary
Gorbachev. This would pay dividends as the US helped guide the USSR through
its dissolution process, particularly when it came time to negotiate nuclear arms
reductions. The result of this latter effort was the Strategic Arms Reduction
Treaty (bafflingly known as the acronym START despite there not really being
a T word anywhere in there. Guess it just sounded catchier) which saw an 80%
reduction in the world’s nuclear arsenal. It also enabled the destruction of both
sides’ nuclear delivery systems, including a significant reduction in submarines,
planes and missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to their targets. It’s
hard to overstate how important this agreement was to the future of mankind,
as the number of weapons (tens of thousands of nuclear warheads) disabled was
more than enough to destroy all of mankind had they fallen into the wrong
hands during the chaotic Soviet breakup and I genuinely don’t feel that Bush
gets enough credit for that
And then there was the Gulf War. The quick and short of it is that Saddam
Hussein, whose country had been left crippled by its financial and militarily
disastrous war with Iran, decided that the cure to his nation’s woes was to take
over a country with a ton of oil, specifically, oil rich and practically defenseless
Kuwait. Kuwait, at the time, accounted for about 20% of the world’s oil
production by itself, and its conquest would turn Iraq into a regional powerhouse
capable of steamrolling just about any nation it desired in the region. Bush
pushed for a coalition of forces to oppose the invasion, citing the principal
that, in the new world order, the United States owed it to smaller nations to
come to their defense when their sovereignty was threatened. After receiving
authorization from Congress (remember when that was still a thing?) Bush went
to war.

The result was Operation Desert Storm, in which a coalition of forces led by the
US steamrolled Iraqi forces. On January 15th, the US began actions against the
Iraqi Army in Kuwait. By the end of February, they’d been evicted from the small
nation. The coalition suffered 292 causalities to Iraq’s 25,000-50,000, and over
100,000 Iraqi soldiers had defected from the army entirely. The way to Baghdad
was completely open, and if the Administration could have marched an army
in to depose Hussein altogether. Ultimately it decided not to, citing numerous
sectarian groups within the country that would oppose the US in the power
vacuum that such an overthrow would create. They reasoned that overthrowing
the regime would require a long occupation and that simply chastising Hussein
and creating a DMZ along the Kuwaiti boarder would suffice.
We shall shortly revisit the prudence of this decision.
And ultimately, that’s how George HW’s presidency should best be remembered.
He wasn’t revolutionary. He wasn’t dynamic. But he was a smart, prudent
leader who took steps to insure the safety of the world as it underwent some
pretty radical shifts. He deserves a lot of credit for that, even his domestic
accomplishments remained lackluster. What ultimately proved to be his undoing
was a mild recession (and compared to the Ghosts of Recessions Past and Future,
it was very mild) that hit just in time for his reelection bid to get underway in
earnest, and a billionaire named Ross Perot that split his base. He would lose
re-election, but go on to be an important, bipartisan figure in American politics.


The Government is here to serve, but it cannot replace individual service. And
shouldn’t all of us who are public servants also set an example of service as
private citizens? So, I want to ask all of you, and all the appointees in this
administration, to do what so many of you already do: to reach out and lend
a hand. Ours should be a nation characterized by conspicuous compassion,
generosity that is overflowing and abundant.

Grade: C+

HW gets a bad wrap. I’m going to be a bit more generous to both him and
his son than a lot of people are. I give Senior a C+ grade for being a brilliant
foreign policy leader at a time when we really needed one, even if his long term
impact was somewhat minimal.

42. Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

When political scientists, historians and arm chair hacks like myself attempt to
evaluate how effective each President was, the easiest ways to do it are to look

at the President’s agenda and how much of it was accomplished and to gauge
the state of the Union and how they handled it. But what do you do with the
Presidents that don’t have a clear agenda? If the President inherits a good state
of the Union, how much credit do they get for it? These questions make Bill
Clinton a singularly difficult to evaluate.
His election in 1992 was remarkable for a few reasons. He was the first southern
Democrat to win the job since Lyndon Johnson. He was the first Democrat in
the Reagan Era, and his election ended 12 years of Republican leadership. And
he didn’t win with a majority of support, but rather a plurality of it, splitting
the vote both with Bush and independent Ross Perot.
A liberal man in a conservative world, Clinton had a tight rope to walk, and
early on, he didn’t attempt to walk it at all. He had campaigned effectively on
the (not unwarranted) charge that Republicans had massively grown America’s
deficits and done nothing to curb them. As a solution, he pushed for and saw
passage of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (OBRA-93), which
essentially amounted to a huge tax increase. He signed the most expansive gun
control measures since the 1920s too, including the Federal Assault Weapons
Ban. Riding high on those victories, he then turned his attention to the great
Democratic White Whale: Healthcare reform. In that fight, Clinton championed
an extremely liberal policy that failed so spectacularly in Congress that 15 years
later, Barack Obama would be lobbying for the Republicans’ counter-proposal.
That defeat, coupled with a shutdown over budget negotiations in 1994, lead
to the Republican Revolution; massive gains by Republicans that gave them
control of both chambers of Congress for the first time since the 1950s.
And then a funny thing happened to Clinton. The onetime liberal crusader
started playing conservative. Clinton was, first and foremost, a political survivor.
And when a conservative backlash hit him, he essentially threw his agenda out
the window, hunting for opportunities to exploit Republicans weaknesses where
he could find them, and to work with Republicans where it was prudent. From
that point on, his policy was all over the place. He worked with Republicans
to slash welfare and social safety net programs and to enact harsh criminal
sentencing laws, including the federal three-strikes felony policy. And he was an
aggressive Reagan-esque deregulator, working to ease restrictions on everything
from telecommunications to stock trading to the banking system. This latter
effort, particular the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that repealed limits on the
size of banks and the kinds of assets they were allowed to trade, would have
particularly disastrous consequences that contributed directly to the 2008 crash
of the housing market.
In terms of foreign policy Clinton’s record was hit or miss. He proposed using
the US military to prevent the most revolting injustices in the world, but his
execution of this principal was a bit of a mess. He drug his feet before embarking
his Somali and Balkan adventures, deploying force too late to prevent atrocities
and in the case of Somalia, too late to achieve his long term objectives. All of his
military operations were messy, but he did achieve his goals of restoring Haitian

Democracy and protecting newly independent Kosovo. But while his military
operations were generally sloppy, he possessed genuine vision when it came to
trade policy. An aggressive free trader, Clinton would negotiate over 800 trade
agreement throughout his time in office, most notably seeing NAFTA ratified by
Congress (thought in fairness, the details of that one were actually negotiated
by HW Bush). The result was an explosion of US trade, and while that has
recently become a controversial issue again, there’s little debate that the US
benefited handsomely from the trade his policies engendered (the auto, textile
and agricultural industries, especially). He also organized an $50 billion bailout
of the Mexican Peso when it was on the verge of collapse; an action that kept
Mexico a viable trading partner for decades and likely spared us from a refugee
crisis had it been allowed to collapse. It was a prudent, if extremely unpopular
Oh, and this is a little known and seldom discussed part of his Presidency, but
there was a lot of sex stuff.
Clinton’s sexual scandals actually started with a personal scandal; specifically
an investigation regarding his investment in a shady bankrupt business venture
in the 70s that became popularly known as the Whitewater Controversy. It’s
become a fan favorite of the right wing, which has alleged everything from the
plausible charge that the Clinton’s took out illegal loans to finance the project,
to the absurd theories that they had people assassinated in order to cover it
up. I won’t get into the details, but the furor was such that Clinton authorized
his Attorney General to appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate the matter
and put it to bed. Kenneth Starr, a former solicitor general to HW Bush was
appointed, and found nothing in the affair that implicated Clinton in any obvious
criminal activity.
But the law around Special Prosecutors worked differently back then. Under
provisions of the Ethics in Government Act (a charming side effect of the
Watergate Scandal), Special Prosecutors were not only unimpeachable, but had
broad latitude to investigate anything they wanted. A charitable interpretation
of Starr’s actions would be that he felt an obligation to act as a Clinton watchdog,
though there were some that labeled his actions that of a Republican hatchetman
there to do simply dig up any dirt they could on him. However you judge his
motives, he broadened the scope of his investigation to include Clinton’s sexual
misconduct and discovered that Clinton had had an affair with White House
intern Monica Lewinsky. It is worth noting that even Starr himself admitted
years later that he exceeded his initial mandate. You all know the jokes so
I won’t bore you with the lurid details, but when directly asked under oath,
Clinton lied about the affair despite unassailable evidence that it had taken
House Speaker Gingrich recognized this as an illegal act, and lead an effort to
impeach Clinton and remove him from office. The effort was successful in the
House, where he was impeached, but his Senate trial fell short of even a majority
impeachment vote, much less the 2/3rds required to remove him. The affair

was turned what could have been disaster for Clinton into a disaster for the
Republicans, who the public overwhelmingly felt had overreached in trying to
remove the President for a consensual sex act. That’s somewhat disingenuous,
as they actually impeached him for perjury, but the act was probably more
warranting of a Congressional Censure than a full impeachment push.
Clinton enjoyed extraordinary popularity from that point forward, leaving office
as one of the most popular Presidents in American history. I would call that
only somewhat earned. Today he’s remembered fondly for balancing the budget
and for leading the country through an extremely strong economy. But while the
economy was strong throughout his Presidency, Clinton’s policies did practically
nothing to cause that. And while he did drive down the massive deficits America
had gained through Reagan and Bush, it was not particularly difficult to do
so. Prior to Clinton taking office, the US was spending money to grow its
military at Cold War levels. Clinton spent only to maintain the military, and
closed down a large number of expensive bases. This alone brought was most of
what brought the US back in the black, and it was as obvious as it was a one
time ploy. He was a President with a great deal of foreign policy vision, but
his domestic record speaks not of a man with a principled set of ideas, but a
penchant for surrendering to the forces around him, as he all but abandoned his
liberal ideology in favor of easy political wins. Whether you call that softness or
pragmatism, judge it as you will.


“Now, I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the old ways don’t work.
Trickledown economics has sure failed. And big bureaucracies, both private and
public, they’ve failed too. That’s why we need a new approach to government, a
government that offers more empowerment and less entitlement. More choices for
young people in the schools they attend- in the public schools they attend. And
more choices for the elderly and for people with disabilities and the long-term
care they receive. A government that is leaner, not meaner; a government that
expands opportunity, not bureaucracy; a government that understands that jobs
must come from growth in a vibrant and vital system of free enterprise.” - Not
an inspiring quote unto itself, but it sort of encapsulates that Bubba charm that
worked so well for him. Bill is a fascinating politician, even if I don’t necessarily
like him.

Grade: B-

Did I say Nixon was the hardest to grade? Because that’s a fucking lie. It’s Bill.
How do you grade a guy who’s so good at politics but so indifferent to policy?
He had a lot of successes, but what were they in service of? I guess I’ll give him
a B- I guess. He achieved his ultimate goal, which was the surival of Bill Clinton.

43. George W. Bush (2001-2009)

To say that the 2000 election that resulted in George W Bush’s Presidency was
contentious would be a considerable understatement. Not only did Democrat Al
Gore win the popular vote, but the vote in decisive Florida was so close (the
initial count showed that only 537 votes separated the two) that it triggered
a recount. The recount was shut down by the Supreme Court before it was
finished, so they effectively declared that George Bush was the President.
Which is not to say that he “stole” the office. In fairness to Bush, he had a lot of
popular appeal. He campaigned as a “Compassionate Conservative”. This was in
contrast to the bombastic, combative Newt Gingrich style of conservatism that
had dominated the 90s. Bush billed himself as a conservative with a heart who
wanted to reinforce the social safety net while still spending responsibly. That
message, particularly after the toxic feuds between Clinton and Congressional
Republicans, was welcome.
Compounding the controversial Presidential election results was the indecisive
results of the Congressional ones. The Senate found itself split between 50
Democrats and 50 Republicans while the Republicans held onto their House
majority by only a slim 12 votes. In was in this narrowly divided government
that George W Bush was sworn into office, already unpopular and a mid a swarm
of controversy. In such an environment, Bush was immediately required to help
bridge ideological gaps on almost every single major bill and issue addressed in
the legislature.
And in the complete spirit of fairness, he did kind of a kick ass job.
No President since Lyndon Johnson accomplished more in his first term in office
than did George W Bush. He worked hand in hand with Congress on a broad
range of issues, often bridging the ideological gap that separated Democrats and
Republicans. He pushed for an secured passage of a massive tax cut law by the
end of March, which lowered rates from the high Clinton ones required to pay
down the Reagan deficits. That one passed 58-33 in the Senate and contributed
considerably to the strong economic growth following the brief recession of
the early 2000s. He helped usher through an education reform package in the
No Child Left Behind Act, which would create a standardized testing system
designed to reward performing school and penalize under-performing ones. That
one passed 91-8, although its implementation has been a bit of a disaster ever
since, despite the enormous support behind it at the time. In 2002, he was critical
in negotiating the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. This was a landmark in
campaign finance reform which, among other things, tightened “soft money”
campaign contributions (I.E. the means by which outside groups and partisan
organizations spend money to benefit a political campaign without contributing
to the campaign itself) and making them subject to the same spending limits
that campaigns were subject to, as well as prohibited corporations or unions
from purchasing ads that explicitly favored one candidate or another. It was

enormously successful in curbing the growing problem of money in politics, at
least until the Citizens United Supreme Court decision struck it down, and the
fact that Bush helped negotiate it despite it largely existing as a response to the
spending that occurred on his own campaign is striking. And in 2003, again with
great bipartisan support, secured passage of the Medicare Modernization Act.
This bill created Medicare Part D, which allowed for Medicare and Medicaid
recipients to receive coverage for self administered prescription drugs (where
previously, any drugs covered by Medicare/caid had to be administered by a
doctor). On one hand, the bill allowed millions of underprivileged and elderly
Americans to have access to basic and often life saving medication. On the other,
it prohibited Medicare/caid from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical
companies, or from turning to generics, which drove up the cost to the government
It wasn’t all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows of course. His Social Security
reform proposal faced unified opposition from Democrats and his crusading for
Christian conservative causes looks very backward even 20 years after the fact.
But on the whole, it was a brilliant era of bipartisanship that truly saw the two
parties come togethers. Bush and Congress worked hand in hand on a wide
range of issues, and the result for the American people was comprehensive, well
deliberated legislation aimed at tackling important problems. Though not all
policies worked, there was a spirit of cooperation in government so shocking
to our currently embattled politics that it’s almost difficult to believe that it
only happened 20 years ago. And Bush deserves a great deal of credit for
that. Thought not himself a policy wonk, his staff was skillful at negotiating
the finer points of legislation, and Bush quickly established a warm working
relationship with a number of high profile legislators that made working with
them considerably easier.
But while there was a great deal of bipartisan cooperation in Bush’s first time
after it, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 changed everything, both
for Bush and the bipartisan spirit his early first term represented.
Endless ink has been spent on the ways in which 9/11 changed our politics and
national discourse, and I won’t go into all that because that’s not why we’re
here. What I can say is that while it lead to Bush’s highest peaks of popularity,
his response to it would ultimately mire his legacy in a far darker place than
it started. Declaring a full scale “War on Terror”, Bush announced that both
terrorists groups and the nations who supported them would be subject to US
intervention. Dubbed “The Bush Doctrine”, The President described his foreign
policy based on four principles, which I’ll quite directly from the man himself.
“Make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbor them — and
hold both to account.”
“Take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us again here at
“Confront threats before they fully materialize.”

“Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression
and fear.”
And these premises, to put it bluntly, were absurd. “The nations who harbor
them”? Saudi Arabia is the largest provider of support and sanctuary to terrorists
in the world. Pakistan is teeming with terrorist activity in its western provinces.
Both are our extremely close allies, and even under Bush were the recipients
of billions in US military aid. What threats would constitute those worthy of
invasion? What was even the final goal of all this? Terrorism is, after all, a
tactic rather than unified entity. It’s impossible to destroy.
Bush’s failure to answer these questions in any substantive manner lead to results
that were both ineffective and inconsistent. In 2001, before the dust had even
settled on 9/11, Bush invaded Afghanistan to attack the Al Qaeda organization
that perpetrated the 9/11 attacks. And while he was successful eliminating the
Taliban, Al Qaeda would exists as a serious threat for over a decade after the
attacks. The invasion bogged the US down in a nation building exercise that it
remains committed to almost 20 years later. The Administration then targeted
the Hussein regime in Iraq on some eventually refuted “evidence” that it was
developing weapons of mass destruction. Though the Iraqi Army fell quickly,
the invasion destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure and left the nation destitute.
Oh, and remember how I told you back during the HW Bush writeup that his
Administration didn’t take out Hussein during the Gulf War because they didn’t
want to commit the US to cleaning up a mess of sectarian violence that would
inevitably crop up in the power vacuum? Well, in taking out Hussein, Bush
committed the US to cleaning up the mess of sectarian violence that inevitably
cropped up in the power vacuum. For almost 10 years, Iraq burned and the US
had to run around putting out the fires. We were committed to two massively
difficult nation building projects in countries with sectarian tensions that were
not even close to the social and economic stability required for Democratic
The “War” was controversial at home, too. Bush championed the Uniting and
Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept
and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 (Catchily known as the US PATRIOT Act),
which established a Department of Homeland Security and drastically increased
the government’s ability to spy on its citizens. Several civilian agencies, such
as the INS, were reorganized into organizations like ICE that suddenly had a
decidedly more hostile bend to them. The Act also allowed assault weapons,
vehicles and armor to be distributed to police, which dramatically increased the
militarization of the nation’s police force.
Because of all of this, Bush’s popularity suffered. Though he won a narrow
reelection victory in 2004, growing public disillusion with the War on Terror and
his catastrophic response to Hurricane Katrina left him deeply unpopular. In
2006, that unpopularity resulted in a Midterm election that was disastrous for
Republicans, losing them control of both the House and Senate. And to be fair

to Bush, he kind of started to right the ship after this. The Iraqi troop surge of
2007 did wonders to stabilize the country, and the Comprehensive Immigration
Reform Act of that same year saw him return to his bipartisan roots. Though
it didn’t ultimately pass, it represented his willingness to work across the isle
to solve problems (as well as the most progressive piece of immigration reform
since Johnson’s in 1965).
But it was right about that time that the second bombshell of the Bush Presidency
dropped. By mid 2008, as Bush was a lame duck President and the campaign to
replace him was thoroughly underway, the bottom fell out of the US housing
market. To dramatically simplify a very complicated economic situation, banks
had been growing larger and larger in the US since the banking deregulation of
the Clinton Era. They grew in size, gobbling up smaller banks, and traded assets
at an almost unprecedented rates. Much of that trading was the trade of loan, in
which banks bought loans from one another as a form of speculative investment.
Essentially, banks bought and made large amounts of money on loans with
extremely high interest rates that other banks had already lent out. In the short
term, there was a lot of money to be made, and it made the lending of Subprime
Mortgages (loans to borrowers with serious financial liabilities whose loans could
be charged a high interest) very attractive venture. They made the loans, and
packaged them for sale, and enjoyed a tidy profit while the entire financial
market became flooded with awful loans (Toxic Assets as they would later be
known) that the borrowers had little to no hope of paying back. The bubble
began to burst in late 2007, as a cascading number of defaults, combined with a
precipitous drop in real estate values, pushed even the largest national banks to
the brink of financial ruin. One of those banks, Lehman Brothers, was ruined,
forced to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September of 2008. The bankruptcy
meant that all $600,000,000,000 of Lehman’s assets (Yes, that number was 600
BILLION) were essentially worth pennies on the dollar. It triggered a cascade of
other collapses as banks and mortgage firms teetered on the brink of insolvency.
Banks as large as Bank of America, with all their assets and savings, were almost
wiped out entirely as investors bailed in droves and the value of their assets
(both toxic and non) plummeted.
It is almost impossible to overstate the catastrophe that the world economy faced
in the autumn of 2008. If the smaller banks had been allowed to collapse, the
largest banks would have collapsed. Money would have become frozen. People’s
retirement and life savings would have been wiped out by the millions. Millions
of businesses, who would have had no access to the short term payday and
operational loans required to just to function, would have at least been forced
into mass layoffs and may have been forced to close entirely. And we’re not just
talking about major investment firms. Companies as strong as General Electric
and McDonald’s pleaded that without such loans, they may have been able to
stay afloat for only a short time. It was nothing less than Armageddon for the
world economy.
And the Bush Administration acted accordingly. It authored and secured passage

(with no small degree of difficulty) of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP)
which injected $700 billion in federal loans to stabilize the flailing institutions.
It was a naked corporate giveaway, but it work. The banking market stabilized,
and the world economy was steered away from ruin. By 2009, all but two of the
companies had paid back the TARP loans in full, with interest, and even those
had paid back most of what they were loaned. Bush was not only able to avert
a catastrophe for the global economy, but did so at little long term expense to
the American taxpayer. By any objective measure, it was as complete a success
as any government initiative. But while no longer mortal, the damage to the
world economy was already considerable. The Great Recession had begun. I
won’t bore you with the details because every single one of your reading this
lived through it and suffered for it yourselves. But without the swift and decisive
action taken by Congress and the Bush Administration, it could have been far,
far worse.
Bush often takes the brunt of the blame for the Great Recession, which is
extremely unfair. The issues that caused it were almost exclusively passed
during the Reagan and Clinton years. He was just in office when the shit hit
the fan, just as he was for 9/11. Given Bush’s exemplary record leading up ton
9/11, one has to wonder what kind of President he could have been. He was a
canny leader who was very capable of working with both sides of the isle, and his
legislative track record is something beyond impressive. Today, Bush is graded
poorly for his mishandling of the War on Terror (which is valid), the onset of
the Great Recession (which is not), and his social conservatism that has, to put
mildly, aged very poorly. But I do think that if not for 9/11, he could have been
a damn good President. And in some ways, he WAS a damn good President.
Though historians generally rank him low, I think he’ll see his standings improve
as time bears out his legacy.


While many of our citizens prosper, others doubt the promise, even the justice, of
our own country. The ambitions of some Americans are limited by failing schools
and hidden prejudice and the circumstances of their birth, and sometimes our
differences run so deep, it seems we share a continent, but not a country. We do
not accept this, and we will not allow it. Our unity, our union, is the serious
work of leaders and citizens in every generation. And this is my solemn pledge:
I will work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity. I know this is in
our reach because we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates
us equal in His image. And we are confident in principles that unite and lead us

Grade: Incomplete

Incomplete. We’re less than 10 years out from the end his Presidency and that
is not even close to time enough to see if his policies panned out. Remember
that Truman was considered an abject falure when he left office, but 30 years
later was reknowned as a foreign policy genius. We just don’t know yet. That
said, I think he’ll fall into the C range when the dust settles on his legacy. But
without more time baring it out, that opinion is all I can offer.

44. No. 44 Barrack Obama (2009-2017)

Barack Obama seemingly came out of nowhere. Announcing his bid for President
in 2008, he rose quickly in popularity with soaring rhetoric that scored with
an America that was war weary and increasingly looking down the barrel of a
recession. He preached a method of hope, change and national unity, winning
the election decisively to become America’s first African American President.
And it probably helped that he was one of the most gifted orators in American
Obama’s early record can be defined by three major pieces of legislation: The
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Affordable Care Act and the
Dodd-Frank Financial reforms. He took office just as the true effects of the
Great Recession were being felt by millions of Americans, and his first priority
was to attempt a quick and decisive solution. That solution manifested itself
in the first item on that list. ARRA, at its core, was essentially an old school,
Rooseveltian injection of capital into the economy in the form of community
based infrastructure projects, a reinforcement of the social safety net and relief
programs targeted at ailing sectors of the economy. The results of this were
mixed. Most economists agree that it moved the needle, but at an $830 billion
price tag, one has to ask if the costs justified the result. Several of his more
specifically targeted programs, however, were a great deal more successful. The
extension of aid to the unemployed that allowed them to draw benefits longer
was critically needed as the economy shed jobs long after the initial 90 days
that recipients were allowed to collect ended. Numerous programs designed to
assist indebted homeowners bore fruit as well, substantially cutting down the
numbers of foreclosures. And while not covered under ARRA, Obama launched a
successful bailout and rescue of the American auto industry, which was teetering
on the verge of bankruptcy early into his Presidency. An $80 billion loan was
paid out to the big three companies, and all but $14 billion was paid back. But
these actions, while helping, did not save the American economy, which would
eventually hit lows of employment not seen since Reagan was deliberately driving
up the numbers. It was an ugly, drawn out recession and there wasn’t a great
deal that Obama could do about it.
Banking reform too was an important priority for the Administration, as the
cause of the 2008 financial crisis was clearly linked to the rollback of FDR Era

banking regulations during the Reagan and Clinton years. Obama sought to
reestablish control of what assets could be traded between banks, a comprehensive
regulation and transparency of financial institutions and a reduction in bank
size. To all but this last, he succeeded. The bill was a sweeping change over
the regulation of the financial industry. Several agencies were consolidated to
streamline regulation, comprehensive regulations aimed at transparency were
put in place and a number of consumer protections established to prevent the
predatory lending practices that helped created the 2008 market crash. Though
it was not a full repudiation of Glass-Steagall, it helped rein in the industry.
But the crowning achievement of the Obama era was the Affordable Care Act.
The ACA was the product of intense negotiations and Obama himself took a
pragmatic approach to it. He had a few conditions that had to be met for any
bill he’d sign, but for the most part, he let Congress do the negotiating. What
they came up with was a bill predicated on three principles: Expanding coverage
through Medicaid and young adult insurance coverage, creating a mandate that
required every individual to buy an insurance policy and breaking down regional
monopolies so that consumers could choose between providers. The results of the
bill have been dramatic. The percentage of Americans without health coverage
dropped from 17% to as low as 8 in 2016, before major efforts to roll back
the law gained traction. The bill was estimated by the Congressional Budget
Office to save more than $200 billion from federal deficits, and preventable
deaths due to lack of insurance coverage dropped by 50,000 in its first years
of implementation (this according to a Washington Post study). Furthermore,
thousands of people who could not acquire health coverage due to pre-existing
conditions were protected, along with thousands more recent college graduates
who could stay on their parents’ insurance policies while waiting to enter the
workforce in positions that offered benefits of their own.
It was a landmark bill, and Obama spent enormous political capital to get it
passed. It galvanized Republicans, who were able to whip up such opposition to
it that they were propelled to sweeping gains in 2010. They won back control of
the House, which allowed them to shelve Obama’s agenda from then on. Liberals
hated the bill because they felt it didn’t go far enough while conservatives hated
it for going too far (this despite the fact that it was more or less a retooled
version of what Republicans proposed in opposition to Clinton in the 90s). As a
result, ACA was enormously unpopular at the time of its passage, but enjoys
broad support today. Republicans learned that the hard way when they failed
to repeal it last year despite campaigning on nothing but Obamacare repeal for
the last 7 years.
Facing a divided government, the legislative initiative of Obama came to a
screeching halt. Republicans unilaterally vowed to dig their heels in and oppose
Obama rather than cooperate with him, with then Senate Minority Leader Mitch
McConnell saying that the top goal of Congressional Republicans was to “Make
Obama a one term President”. Even on issues as simple as routine debt ceiling
votes, America was dragged to the precipice of loan defaults by Republicans

demanding concessions from the White House. The rancor got so bad that the
US credit rating was downgraded for the first time in its history.
But Obama was a canny tactician. Congress may have refused to work with him,
but he was still able to exercise much of his agenda through a clever (and fairly
expansive) use of the executive order. The EO had been a tool in government
for decades, but few politicians were as good at using it or had the opportunity
to use it that Obama did. Now, the EO is one of those political terms that’s
thrown around a lot that people don’t really understand. It’s not a blank slate
that the President can use to do whatever he wants. But a lot of legislation has
been passed in the nations’s 250 year history. All regulatory legislation gives the
President and his administration (the various agencies) the ability and authority
to enforce the laws Congress passes. The Executive Order is a tool Presidents
use to determine how they go about doing it. The Clean Air Act, for instance,
requires that air pollution to be regulated and not to exceed certain levels. But
the President has a lot of leeway in determining how that’s done. Obama used it
to regulate the auto industry, requiring it meet uniform emissions standards by
2020. The result has been a significant increase in fuel economy across vehicle
fleets, effectively setting new industry standards that have survived Trump’s
Tools like this were employed frequently by Obama, particularly after he lost
control of Congress. He used it to set environmental policies from air pollution
control, to waste disposal to the investment America made in alternative en-
ergies (which expanded considerably under his Presidency). He used it to set
immigration policy, allowing children brought to the US illegally a chance to
more permanent citizenship (The DACA program that’s in the news today).
He created a Common Core education standard through the Department of
Education that has generally increased test scores. He redefined the internet as
a public utility and sought to expand it as much as his authority allowed and
allowed states to decriminalize marijuana through his inaction against states
that legalized. Despite not having legislation in hand, he was able to move the
needle on a number of progressive policies simply by interpreting the rules that
were in place when he got there. Not that the process took place without friction.
He was taken to court repeatedly over various measured and while most of his
executive actions were upheld, some were overturned.
And on one last domestic note, it should not go unnoted that Obama acted
as something of a moral leader. By advocating for socially progressive causes
like systemic racism in the criminal justice system, gay rights and women’s
equality, he moved the country to a more progressive place socially. Issues like
gay marriage, abortion rights and racial divisions became talked about issues
and he opened up minds considerably in terms of the dialogue surrounding them.
In terms of foreign policy, Obama was essentially Bush lite. He continued
the War on Terror, though in a more nuanced manner than his predecessor.
Rather than continuing the Bush Doctrine outright, he carried on the war
by dialing down our military occupations, but funding local groups and using

strategic, limited operations to strike at terrorists. Think funding the Kurdish
Army to fight ISIS and strategic drone strikes. While this approach to the
‘conflict’ was less expensive, it wasn’t markedly more effective. His increases
in American bombing operations generated a high degree of collateral damage
(though notobaly less than invasions like Iraq and Afghanistan did), and he did
receive some criticism for the rise of ISIS. While it’s true that his troop withdrawl
from Iraq precipitated the group’s rise, we could hardly have stayed there forever.
And his use of strategic operations and local intelligence was responsible for
the death of numerous terrorist leaders, notable Osama Bin Laden. He was
an aggressive free trade believer and pushed numerous agreements to further
US strategic interests through trade (isolating China and Russia by opening up
world markets to the US and its allies). And while the Bush Administration
was preparing for military operations against Iran to stop its missile program
(actions I think would have led to war under a McCain Administration), Obama
tackled the issue through diplomacy and successfully negotiated one of the most
comprehensive disarmament agreements in the post Soviet age.
Obama was the first truly liberal President in the Reagan Era, which has been
defined by conservatism. Because of that, I think he inflamed a lot of passion,
and some of them unduly. He was, in terms of policy, a center left Democrat.
Liberal next to a Bill Clinton, but not by the standards of a Lyndon Johnson or
a JFK. The backlash against him was more cultural in my opinion than policy
oriented. And yes, there were elements of racism there. I don’t say this to call
Obama’s critics racist. But you can’t honestly believe that a white man named
John Smith would have had to suffer questions about whether or not he was
born here, or had his ideology likened to that of a “Kenyan anti-colonial” by his
political critics. Obama’s election to the Presidency stirred up a lot of emotions,
and he opened up dialogue on a number of long festering social wounds. Those
things are bound to stir up strong feelings, even if I think history will mostly
remember him as a competent administrator and dignified moral leader who was
creative at using executive power.


“I’m asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change - but in yours.
I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents;
that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants
and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by
those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a
creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes, we
can. Yes, we did.” - Textbook Barrack from his farewell address; appealing to
America’s sense of optimism and reminding us of what we’ve done when we’ve
worked together.The man was such a powerful speaker. I still get a little misty
when I read/listen to some of his addresses.

Grade: Incomplete

Incomplete again. It’s going to be really interesting to see how history bares out
Obama’s legacy. It’ll utlimately come down to have history judges turn of the
century liberalism. I personally think that ideas like campaign finance reform,
industry regulation, gay rights and above all environmental regulation is going
to go down as sensible policy that shouldn’t have been controversial, and the
Republican leaders like McConnell a bunch of insane, cynical reactionaries. If
that’s the case, Obama will look like a smart leader who was blocked by a bunch
of obstinent yahoos. But he could easily go down as a failure if the conservative
movement under Trump advances the US.