Who were the best American presidents? It’s a great question to ask on President’s Day. The answer isn’t as easy as it sounds. It depends on what you value.
If you value effective use of executive power, then you’ll agree with C-SPAN‘s newly released Presidential Historians Survey 2017. C-SPAN asked 91 historians and other academics to rate the presidents based on 10 qualities of presidential leadership:
- Public Persuasion
- Crisis Leadership
- Economic Management
- Moral Authority
- International Relations
- Administrative Skills
- Relations with Congress
- Vision/Setting An Agenda
- Pursued Equal Justice for All
- Performance Within the Context of His Times
The top five according to the survey were:
- Abraham Lincoln
- George Washington
- Teddy Roosevelt
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
At the bottom of the bucket?
- John Tyler
- Warren G. Harding
- Franklin Pierce
- Andrew Johnson
- James Buchanan
Use of power isn’t the only criteria for judging a president.
If you value liberty and prosperity, then you’ll agree with the presidential rankings of Ivan Eland, author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty. He turns the C-SPAN list on its head. In terms of promoting prosperity, Eland gives John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes high marks for showing restraint in crisis, limiting federal and executive powers, and opposing high tariffs. His lowest ranking presidents were FDR, LBJ, William McKinley, Woodrow Wilson, and Harry Truman who expanded federal programs and taxes and intervened in the economy.
The presidents who best promoted liberty, according to Eland, were George Washington, John Tyler, and Grover Cleveland who limited presidential power and respecting the Constitution. Eland reserves his lowest rankings for Wilson, Thomas Jefferson, and Harry Truman for the Espionage and Sedition Acts, Embargo Act/Indian policy, and domestic surveillance respectively.
Similiarly, Brion McClanahan, author of 9 Presidents who Screwed Up American and Four Who Tried to Save Her, applauds Jefferson, Tyler, Cleveland, and Calvin Coolidge for their adherence to the Constitution, respect for federalism, and restraint in exercising power.
Why are Eland and McClanahan’s insights on presidential greatness more in keeping with America’s values? In the words of President Ronald Reagan, “As government expands, liberty contracts.” An administration that effectively exercises power may do so at the expense of Congress, the states, and ultimately, the people. In this light, getting things done may be the opposite of greatness and showing restraint, the very definition.
What are your thoughts?
What makes a president great? Is it how well they wield power, or how well they hold back the growth of government to create opportunity for Americans to achieve greatness of their own?