It’s Presidents Day in America and below I offer a list of the five best and five worst among the 44 men who’ve served in the office since 1789. My standard is this: how closely did the president hew to the U.S. Constitution (as required by oath) and how much did he preserve individual rights, a free economy, and national security.
I believe the five best U.S. presidents were Washington (1789-1797), Lincoln (1861-1865), Grant (1869-1877), Coolidge (1923-1929), and Reagan (1981-1989). Runner-up: Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897). In contrast, I contend that the five worst presidents were Madison (1809-1817), Wilson (1913-1921), FDR (1933-1945), LBJ (1963-1969), and Nixon (1969-1974). Runner-up: Hoover (1929-1933).
On the bright side: Washington helped established the nation’s legal, economic, and military foundation and showed how to rule both wisely and modestly after a revolution (rare in history); he was also wise to rely on Hamilton’s advice. Lincoln maintained the union with even greater liberty, by abolishing slavery. Grant’s ‘Reconstruction’ prevented Southern backsliding into feudalism and helped launch the golden age of capitalism (the prosperous “Gilded Age” of 1870-1910). Coolidge slashed tax rates and federal spending while also reducing the national debt amid peace and prosperity (the “Roaring Twenties”); he believed unabashedly that “the business of America is business.” Reagan’s supply-side economic policies revived American prosperity and his principled policy of favoring military superiority and opposing the U.S.S.R. ended the Cold War peacefully and liberated East Europe. Cleveland is a runner-up because he fought successively against anti-capitalist populists to preserve limited government, the gold standard and free trade.
On the dark side: Madison denuded the military, wrecked the public finances, imposed punitive protectionist measures on Britain, and instigated a war with that nation (1812-1814) which the U.S. nearly lost. Wilson, as a progressive-statist interventionist, endorsed the first permanent federal income tax, the Federal Reserve, and U.S. involvement in World War I; he effectively terminated America’s only fully capitalist half-century. FDR, with his much-vaunted “New Deal,” went off the domestic gold standard, busted the budget, launched a soon-to-be public Ponzi scheme (Social Security), inflicted a vast new regulatory net, gutted the political independence of the federal judiciary, and pushed the U.S. into World War II. LBJ expanded the self-sacrificial war in Viet Nam and quickened the path to socialized medicine in America by endorsing Medicare and Medicaid. Nixon took the U.S. completely off the gold standard (1971), imposed wage and price controls, and launched a punitive new wave of anti-business regulatory agencies, like the EPA. Hoover is a runner-up because he imposed harsh protectionist measures (the Smoot-Hawley Act), triggering the stock-price crash of 1929-30, then materially hiked income tax rates (from 25% to 62%), turning a recession into a depression.
Lists can be fun. They can reveal what the list-maker values most (or least) and provoke interesting debate as well. Perhaps my list will provide some “food for thought” – including thoughtful “pushback” on some of my choices.