The other day I wrote that strongmen or dictators (Rodrigo Duterte calls them despots which is more derogatory) cannot escape the judgment of history. Usually, history is harsh on them.
But did you know that America’s great presidents were strongmen, dictators, despots, and oppressors. You can be bad but still be rated great later.
I came across an article by Doug Bandow, an American political writer, nationally syndicated columnist, and a resigned senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He recalls that 50 years ago historian Arthur Schlesinger organized a poll of 55 historians to rate America’s presidents.
“Presidential greatness is defined as action, the more frenetic the better. Which means big government, the more intrusive the better,” Bandow writes.
Per the Schlesinger father and son, the 12 great and near great presidents of the US are: 1. Abraham Lincoln, 2. George Washington, 3. Franklin D. Roosevelt, 4. Thomas Jefferson, 5. Andrew Jackson, 6. Theodore Roosevelt, 7. Woodrow Wilson, 8. Harry Truman, 9. James Polk, 10. Dwight Eisenhower, 11. John Adams, and 12. John F. Kennedy.
Abraham Lincoln is the unanimous No. 1 for greatness, according Bandow. But the guy plunged the nation into a civil war in which 620,000 Americans died.
“Lincoln also began a tradition of subverting constitutional liberties. He unilaterally suspended habeas corpus; his administration jailed political opponents, banned critical newspapers from the mails, and manipulated border state elections. At his urging Congress conscripted men into the army and turned paper money into legal tender. Moreover, the Civil War proved the truth of the adage that war is the health of the state: Abraham Lincoln created the first national government that intimately intruded into the lives of its citizens,” says Bandow.
The second great was FDR. But, says Bandow, “his economic policies were a failure. The New Deal, as he termed it, might have improved Americans’ morale, but it did not spark a sustained recovery. Now, decades later, we are reaping the bitter harvest of many of his misguided initiatives: deposit insurance, which led to the S&L debacle; Social Security, which is heading over a fiscal cliff; and pervasive government meddling, which has slowed our economy’s growth and reduced our freedom.”
“Moreover, while his wartime leadership may have been competent, he had a wildly naive view of mass murderer Joseph Stalin. Equally important, Roosevelt maneuvered secretly to drag the United States into the worst war in human history, a decision which deserved to be debated fully by the American people. Finally, he committed perhaps the single greatest violation of civil liberties of any president—the incarceration of over 100,000 Japanese-Americans based on their national origin. Equally grotesque was his administration’s refusal to allow the entry of Jewish refugees even while the Nazis were destroying European Jewry.”
The third great president, Washington, Bandow notes, “is the only one who deserves that designation, as much for what he did not do as for what he did. Washington … rejected the opportunity to accumulate power. Nor did he see America’s role as that of an international nanny; to the contrary, he warned against foreign entanglements. He truly believed in individual liberty and republican government.”
Both Jefferson and Jackson “had their flaws; the latter favored slavery, for instance. But neither mistook a desire to expand state authority with public-spiritedness. Both inveighed against the use of government to enrich the politically powerful.”
Wilson, says Bandow, “is a man who pushed the US into World War I and sacrificed 110,000 lives in his belief that he had been anointed to save mankind. His administration was the most repressive in US history; it persecuted critics of both conscription and the war and inflamed popular hysteria against anyone who demonstrated anything other than enthusiasm for the president’s policies. Wilson even proposed outlawing criticism of the government. He ended his presidency crippled by a stroke but hanging onto power by deceiving the public.”
To Bandow, Theodore Roosevelt “was a complex and fascinating man, but his appetite for war was probably unmatched by any other president. The specific opponent didn’t matter—over the years he advocated conflict with Britain, Germany, and Spain. Rather, he believed in war as a matter of principle. His view of non-Western peoples was disgraceful. His interventionist economics ultimately made the economy less, not more, competitive.”
On the other hand, “Truman is impressive only insofar as he rose above the worst sort of machine politics with a performance adequate to avoid disaster in the dangerous post-World War II era. But his international policies exacerbated the Cold War, yielding the national security state and outsized military that plague us to this day. His mistakes in Korea turned a small regional conflict into a lengthy war with China. Constitutional limits did not deter him, as exhibited by his attempted seizure of the steel industry. His domestic policies were marked by inefficient economic intervention.”
Polk was “an unabashed imperialist. He initiated what was, truth be told, a war of aggression against Mexico that led to the seizure of half of that nation’s territory. He was frugal when it came to economics, but his belief that territorial expansion warranted war was more befitting a twentieth-century dictator. Today we can thank him for the addition of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas; the people subjugated by US troops probably had a different view, however.”
In contrast, writes Bandow, “Eisenhower, who ended the Korean War, warned against militarism, and moderated domestic federal expenditures, is judged to be merely average. At least he now comes in better than he did in 1962—an embarrassing 22nd out of 31.”
“Calvin Coolidge, who presided over prosperity and peace, is rated below average. He had no grand initiatives, since there was no cause for grand initiatives. But to establishment historians, leaving the American people alone is considered to be a sign of mediocrity, not greatness.”
“Warren Harding, whose associates were notoriously corrupt, is termed a failure. But it was Harding who restored civil liberties after the repressive Wilson era. He also kept America aloof from France’s vindictive post-World War I policies and presided over a strong economy. This is a better record than that amassed by most of the supposed greats and near greats.”
Do you see shades of Duterte among these great US presidents?