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Our Most Underrated President?

If I had to name the most underrated president in American history, Warren Harding would be at or near the top of my list. Harding is routinely ranked at or near the bottom in presidential ratings by historians and other experts.

In Sunday's New York Times, Yale historian Beverly Gage has an interesting article suggesting that Harding may have been the first "black" president in the sense that it is possible that he had a remote black ancestor. Unfortunately, Gage's article about Harding and race relations completely ignores the fact that Harding made a well-known speech advocating full legal equality for southern blacks in 1921, in Birmingham, Alabama. As W.E.B. DuBois pointed out at the time, Harding went farther in advocating equal rights for blacks than any other post-Reconstruction Republican president (the Democrats, at that time the party of southern whites, were even worse). Indeed, no president went as far as Harding in advocating equal rights for southern blacks for several decades thereafter. Harding also lobbied hard for a federal anti-lynching bill to curb the rampant lynching of blacks by whites in the South - again, the first post-Reconstruction president to do so (the bill passed the House, but died in the Senate due to the threat of Democratic filibusters). As DuBois pointed out in the linked article, Harding was not wholly free of the racism common among whites at the time. But he was a lot better than the vast majority of his contemporaries.

Nor were these Harding's only positive aspects. As Gene Healy discusses in his interesting recent book, The Cult of the Presidency, Harding is also notable for reversing the severe violations of civil and economic liberties that had proliferated under his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. It's easy to belittle Harding's campaign slogan - "Return to Normalcy." But Harding's notion of "normalcy" included an end to the imprisonment of political dissenters (such as Wilson's notorious "Palmer Raids"), abolition of wage and price controls, and the reversal of Wilson's numerous illegal seizures of private property. As David Bernstein and I briefly discuss in this article, Wilson's administration was also highly racist and segregationist even by the standards of the day; here too, Harding was a sharp contrast.

I'm not arguing that Harding was a great president. His administration included some serious corruption (such as the famous Tea Pot Dome Scandal), and his intellectual and political skills were not especially impressive. And, as with most politicians, his successes were to a large extent the product of broader political trends, not just his personal efforts. However, Harding's achievements in ending Wilson's harmful policies and his laudable efforts on behalf of civil rights greatly outweigh the relatively limited harm caused by his corrupt underlings. And, by all accounts, Harding himself was clean (though many of his appointees definitely weren't).

Harding will never be ranked among the top few presidents. But he deserves much greater respect than he gets.

elektratig:
I won't fight over who is entitled to the top spot on the "most underrated" list, but Millard Fillmore also deserves serious consideration. Growing up in grinding poverty, he become a leading citizen of Buffalo, NY, and a good man. After Fillmore unexpectedly became president upon the death of Zachary Taylor in July 1850, he used a combination of firmness and tact to help engineer the Compromise of 1850 within a matter of months. David M. Potter (The Impending Crisis, p. 110) has rightly said that "Fillmore settled a very inflamed crisis . . . with such adroitness and seeming ease that history has scarcely recognized the magnitude of his achievement."
4.8.2008 6:59am
vassil petrov (mail):
Unfortunately, I derive much of my knowledge of US history from Gove Vodal's novels. But on Harding he seems to agree with Ilya's assessment.
4.8.2008 7:43am
Hoosier:
elektratig--The Compromise of 1850? That foisted the Fugitive Slave Act on the North. Plus Fillmore ran for president in 1856 as the American Party ("Know-Nothing") nominee. So I have to say no to him.

I have not read the article but I will. But just to add, in Harding's favor, that he and Charles Evans Hughes conducted a very successful foreign policy, including an actual /disarmanent/ treaty. (Not arms /control/, but real sinking of ships. They negotiated peace treaties with the Central Powers. They started the US on the road to what later became the Good Neighbor policy in Latin America. As part of this, Hughes articulated a rather stringent non-intervention policy for Latin America and negotiated a compensation agreement with Columbia (for the loss of Panama.)

Finally, and surprisingly forgotten, Harding decided to make the US a member of the League of Nations for all practical purposes. The US thus set up an "observer" office in Geneva, which grew to be rather sizeable. And soon America was participating in commissions and committees. The LoN failed, but *not* because the US refuse to participate.

For a long time, I've argued that McKinley is our most underrated president.

Let the Great Debate begin.
4.8.2008 8:44am
corneille1640 (mail):
I must disagree slightly with what this post implies about the progressiveness of Harding's Birmingham speech. (I have not read the speech, but I did read the link to DuBois's comment on that speech.) DuBois certainly did say the speech evinced much stronger advocacy for equal rights than anything T. Roosevelt or McKinley may have said or done. However, most of DuBois's thoughts are quite critical of what Harding said. DuBois does not seem all too surprised that someone would speak for segregation and against "amalgamation," but he does criticize the president's lack of liberality on that score.
4.8.2008 9:45am
taney71:
Harding's support for southern black Republicans was suspect in terms of appointments. He, like other Republican presidents of the day, supported the Lilly-White movement that largely tried to push the black southern machine organizations out of the Republican party and give whites more political power.

From what I remember, there were two reasons for doing so. One, the black organizations were as corrupt as they came. Two, the Republican party wanted to expand by creating a two-party system in the South. The only way to do so was to win over southern white support with patronage.

The movement started with President Rutherford Hayes (probably the worse Republican president in terms of race issues) in the late 1870s. Senator Conkling, who was a huge supporter of black rights, opposed the plan and thought the president was misguided for giving former Confederates political offices. Anyhow, I guess my point is the Republican party's attempt at a "Southern strategy" occurred well before 1968.
4.8.2008 9:57am
Prof. S. (mail):
4.8.2008 10:23am
The Cabbage (mail):
Anyone would look good after History's Greatest Monster Wilson
4.8.2008 10:28am
Timothy Sandefur (mail) (www):
Harding also invented the word "normalcy," at least according to H.L. Mencken

[EV writes: That turns out not be so, as I noted last year. He may have popularized the term, but it was included in the 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, and the Oxford English Dictionary attests it back to 1857. Don't believe everything you read, even from H.L. Mencken.]
4.8.2008 10:42am
Tobias:
James K. Polk. Certainly we can disagree over his policies, but it is absurd that no one knows who he is after he did so much (and in only 1 term!).
4.8.2008 10:42am
rmd (mail):
So calling Bush "worst president since Warren Harding" is unfair to Harding? So how much deeper do we need to dig? Worst since Andrew Johnson?
4.8.2008 11:02am
Chris Bell (mail) (www):
In Sunday's New York Times, Yale historian Beverly Gage has an interesting article suggesting that Harding may have been the first "black" president in the sense that it is possible that he had a remote black ancestor.

Don't we all have "remote" black ancestors?
4.8.2008 11:31am
steven lubet (mail):
My vote for most underrated goes to Zachary Taylor, who was the first U.S. president to take a stand against the expansion of slavery while in office. Taylor supported the Wilmot Proviso (which would have prohibited slavery in the Mexican Cession) and opposed what became the Compromise of 1850. Unfortunately, Taylor died before he could derail the Compromise of 1850, thus allowing Fillmore to sign and enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.
4.8.2008 11:33am
rarango (mail):
Except for the NY Yankees and the great wall street crash, my knowledge of the 1920s is very limited. I do recall hearing WG Harding as a man who presided over good economic times and whose administration was marred by scandals, both personal and poltical.
4.8.2008 11:35am
treebeard (mail):
My prediction is this:
If it is verified that Harding was black (to a sufficient degree, although I don't know how many drops that takes), then his presidency will be reassessed, and the history of that time will be rewritten. And public school students will learn all about our country's first great (but "hidden" or "passing") black president, and how much he did for his country.
On the other hand, since Harding was a Republican, maybe this won't happen.
4.8.2008 11:39am
BJ (mail) (www):
taney71 appears to buy into the commonly repeated nonsense about Hayes and the "end of Reconstruction", perhaps esp. that there was a "Compromise of 1877" in which he traded protection of black rights for the Presidency... hardly how it happened.

The failure of Republican Reconstruction efforts was already essentially sealed by the end of 1875 with the success of the vicious "Mississippi Plan". The GOP lacked the means (including political support) to sustain its efforts against determined white Southern Democrats of the old ruling elite willing to do almost anything to regain power (in the grossly misnamed "redemption" of the South), and able to play on racial fears born of the evils of slavery. As for Hayes, the accusation that he didn't care what happened to blacks is absurd. He actually thought he had some assurances that Southern states WOULD respect black rights (esp the franchise)after the inevitable withdrawal of the few remaining troops. For that matter, for a time they seem to have done so...

For more on what REALLY happened (and more importantly DIDN'T happen)in the aftermath of the disputed election of 1876and for that matter Hayes's whole Presidency) I invite you to check out the Ari Hoogenboom biography, Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President (University of Kansas, 1995). Start with chapter 17"Disputed Election"

A note on Polk — I don't think "underrated" applies if people don't know much about him, that is, if they don't rate him at ALL. It's more about the opinion of those who know or THINK they know about what these folks did and who will blithely comment on how awful Harding was, or extend their display of ignorance by attacking Coolidge and assuming his policies were the same as Hoover's....

Common theme here — ALL Republicans of the 1920s are blamed for the Depression, Hayes is blamed for the end of Reconstruction... looking at actual events, policies, etc., is not needed...
4.8.2008 11:45am
Rainmakers (mail):
I'd have to give Eisenhower some props here as well. He is notable for two under looked reasons, in my estimation. 1) Perhaps the most serious investment in America's domestic (now crumbling) infrastructure. Literally next to nothing has changed since his wise investments in this arena. 2) His prescient warning against the military-industrial complex, which is so nicely highlighted in Jarecki's 'Why We Fight.'

Both of these points are driven home under today's challenges. Eisenhower points at the inevitability of wars such as Iraq in his condemnation of the military-industrial complex and just as America's infrastructure begins to fail us in fatal terms (see Minneapolis) we are bled dry of the trillions needed to get our infrastructure to join us in the 21st century by war profiteering on the highest American coporate level.
4.8.2008 11:46am
taney71:
BJ:

I wasn't talking about Hayes pulling troops out of the South, which he did. I was speaking to Hayes's Southern appointment policy in giving ex-Confederates and former Democrats appointments in exchange for supporting administration backed bills. Unlike Grant, Hayes was much more gentle to the South and wanted to start the home-rule movement began by Lincoln/Johnson.
4.8.2008 11:59am
taney71:
If we are talking about blacks and civil rights why not bring up Grant? He showed that overwhelming force could end domestic terrorism in the form of the KKK. Under Grant, blacks achieved more in the South than any other time in this nation's history up to, in my opinion, the 1980s.
4.8.2008 12:02pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
Wilson was a disgrace as a President. Of course, in college a few of my professors acted like he was a brilliant leader.
4.8.2008 12:09pm
Connecticut Lawyer (mail):
I agree that Polk is undervalued; he added California and and the southwest to the US, which did more to make the US a continental power than anything else beside the Louisiana Purchase.

The historian Paul Johnson has also had some very favorable things to say about Harding.

For my money, the very worst president of the past 100 years was Jimmy Carter. I suspect that is a judgment most future historians will come to as well.

As for Bush? It's too soon to say. Ask me in 25 years.
4.8.2008 12:16pm
A. Nony Mouse:
I'm with Tobias and CT lawyer - Polk is not only one of the most underrated presidents, he may be one of the most underrated men in American history (although George Mason is at the top of my list for that honor).

I am willing, as of now, to put Bush 43 as the 2nd worst president in American history - with only FDR being worse.
4.8.2008 12:37pm
Hoosier:
Re:Polk--I don't consider him underrated, since professional historians usually rate him quite high in those "rankings." Recent books on him have certainly reflected this status.

But that's based largely on an assessment of how effective he was in achieving his desired goals. It's tough to imagine his methods and ends would be considered all that admirable--especially by Absolut Vodka.

BUSH gets the rap from some quarters for "lying to get us into war" and "cooking intelligence." POLK actually asked Congress for a declaration of war, claiming that he *had* documentation to prove Mexican provocation, but it was "at the printer's." So he couldn't show it to Congress before they voted.

"Mr. Bush, you are no James K. Polk."
4.8.2008 12:39pm
rarango (mail):
In my college days in the 1960s the political science profs liked to talk about Harry Truman and Ike as failures. Subsequent have proved those assessment to be badly off the mark, I think. I had the privilege of listening to President Eisenhower during my college days, and he said that one his fears was that America would lapse into a depression following the WWII economic build up, and he didn't want to be remembered as another Herbert Hoover. Fear of another depression was one reason for Ike's heavy investment in the Interstate Highway System (then the Defense Interstate Highway System). I hope whoever becomes president thinks about American infrastructure.

Amazing what the passage of time does. As for Bush 43: it will take two generations, IMO, to sort out his presidency, and much will depend on how events in the Middle East unfold. On the domestic side, I am willing to be involving the Federal Reserve in the investment industry is going to be a biggie.
4.8.2008 12:55pm
rarango (mail):
...I am willing to BET....
4.8.2008 12:56pm
Thoughtful (mail):
Rainmakers is unintentionally ironic in his praise of Eisenhower (who, I agree, is underrated). He praises him for his warning of the military-industrial complex, with which I agree (and "Why We Fight" is a brilliant documentary). But at the same time Rainmakers promotes his overseeing the massive expansion of the national highway system in this country. But it is my understanding this was done primarily for military reasons--all the better to get tanks from point A to point B. Eisenhower got the idea from seeing how the German Autobahn enhanced German military efficiency, and when President Eisenhower went to Kansas to announce the interstate highway system, he announced it as "the National Defense Highway System."
4.8.2008 12:58pm
Thoughtful (mail):
Rainmakers is unintentionally ironic in his praise of Eisenhower (who, I agree, is underrated). He praises him for his warning of the military-industrial complex, with which I agree (and "Why We Fight" is a brilliant documentary). But at the same time Rainmakers promotes his overseeing the massive expansion of the national highway system in this country. But it is my understanding this was done primarily for military reasons--all the better to get tanks from point A to point B. Eisenhower got the idea from seeing how the German Autobahn enhanced German military efficiency, and when President Eisenhower went to Kansas to announce the interstate highway system, he announced it as "the National Defense Highway System."
4.8.2008 12:58pm
Coolidge fan:
Calvin Coolidge. He had many of the same positives that Ilya notes regarding Harding and more, including tax cuts, resisting demagogic spending, and speeches on race that were, for the time, a step forward. See his speech at Howard, hiis criticism of the Klan, etc.

He also did not succumb to the crony-corruption problems of Harding, and his Court appointments were solid.

He presided over a period of REAL growth. That accomplishment was unfairly diminished by New Deal historians, and by modern historians, who (1) call the growth period merely a speculative bubble, and (2) blame the growth period for "causing" the Depression. Both counts are wrong.

First, the growth was real. Millions of Americans got cars, radios, and especially houses. Across America, people still live in great 1920s housing stock. Just because the growth eventually receded doesn't mean that the growth itself was not real. It was also not "just the rich," as these "luxuries" moved down the scale very broadly and very quickly, and decades' worth of immigrants moved from poverty to working class to middle.

Second, the Depression, after he had left, was deepened by, among other things, stupid Federal Reserve monetary policy, and by Hoover's "activism," which presaged FDR and was a break from Coolidge.

Reagan hung Coolidge's portrait for a reason, and he was right.
4.8.2008 1:14pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):

For my money, the very worst president of the past 100 years was Jimmy Carter.


His mediocrity is too great for him to be actively bad.
4.8.2008 1:23pm
Toby:
I have read speculation that some of the Harding scandals was motivated, like some of the last few decades scandals, by political witch hunts. Today they are partisan, then, they were tied to that recent black ancester. In his case, after a very corrupt period, he was, perhaps, tarred for business as usual. The question is, whi did Congress and and the political press suddenly care?
4.8.2008 1:42pm
Boynton Cousin:
Sounds vaguely like Clinton (B. that is, H. will have a nice long career in the Senate I'm sure) will be remembered similarly to Harding. Lots of corruption and scandals both personal and political, though Clinton's of course ended in impeachment; presided over enormous economic expansion brought on by the end of a long military conflict; rather blinkered when it came to the fights that would consume his successors. Though I suppose one could say the last about a lot of presidents, Buchanan foremost.
4.8.2008 2:19pm
dearieme:
Is the most over-rated FDR or JFK?
4.8.2008 2:24pm
Jason F:
I don't know much about President Harding, but I do know that he is a character in one of my favorite novels of recent years, Carter Beats The Devil. What a great book!
4.8.2008 2:35pm
HipposGoBerserk (mail):
"with only FDR being worse."

I'd really like to know how one concludes that FDR was our worst president.

While admitting that one can have differing opinions of his domestic legacy, it seems his work preparing us for WWII has to put him into the top 10. I can't imagine how his war record can be outweighed by enough to put him LAST.
4.8.2008 3:02pm
Bretzky (mail):
Who is the most underrated president? It depends upon what rating you are measuring the president against.

Assuming that Harding is generally placed at the bottom of historical assessments of American presidents, I think he's properly placed there. The bottom line on Harding is that he had no control over his subordinates, and the country was the worse off for it. (This is the worst scandal since Teapot Dome!!!)

My most underrated is Grover Cleveland. The man vetoed 584 bills in eight years. We could use a president like that now.
4.8.2008 3:06pm
Bretzky (mail):
Regarding Millard Fillmore and the Compromise of 1850: they together probably saved the US from permanent division. In 1850 the southern states were in a much stronger position viz. the northern ones. Had all eleven states that seceded in 1860-61 done so in 1850, the Civil War either would have been won by the south or would have been even bloodier for the north to win. The extra ten to eleven years gained by the Compromise of 1850 gave the north the time it needed to undergo its population and industrial expansion that saw it far outstrip the south in either category.

This expansion in the north in the 1850s may also have contributed to the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri voting to stay in the Union, because they saw, much better than the states further south did, how overwhelmingly superior the north's power was viz. the south.
4.8.2008 3:09pm
Bretzky (mail):
About a year ago, I actually sat down and ranked the presidents myself from 1 to 40. (I left our W.H. Harrison and James Garfield because they served so little time as president.)

My bottom five:
36. George W. Bush
37. Herbert Hoover
38. Lyndon Johnson
39. Andrew Johnson
40. James Buchanan

My top five:
1. George Washington
2. Abraham Lincoln
3. Franklin Roosevelt
4. Ronald Reagan
5. Grover Cleveland

I'll give an honorable mention to Calvin Coolidge because I had a tough time choosing between him and Cleveland for the fifth spot.
4.8.2008 3:13pm
Virginian:
Thanks to my fine public school education, I learnt that Harding is BAD because of Teapot Dome. I don't really know anything about Harding or Teapot Dome, but I know they're bad! Same with "robber barons."
4.8.2008 3:26pm
rarango (mail):
Hippos: I wondered about that ranking for FDR myself; and I suspect it has to do with the centralization of executive power. (or more accurate, perceptions of)
4.8.2008 3:43pm
Dave N (mail):
I agree with the posters who have argued that there has to be some period of reflection before evaluating a President--and I think this true of both Presidents Bush and President Clinton.

Personally, I think the two worst successive administrations in history belong to Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan. Andrew Johnson and Ulysses Grant are almost as bad--but the key word is "almost."

As for Warren Harding, history has treated him fairly. His administration was corrupt and he was inept as President. Does that mean he was devoid of admirable qualities as well and may done some positive things as President? Of course not.
4.8.2008 4:40pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
There is confusion here. The issue is not whether Harding was a good President, but whether he deserves to be ranked at or near the bottom. Much of the negativism about him comes from his personality - the amiable oaf, sneered at by H. L. Mencken (who nonetheless voted for him). The corruption issue was real, but so were the accomplishments: the naval treaties, the tax cuts, the rescission of Wilson's war regime, the mild but real stand for civil rights. But they weren't the sort of things "progressive" academic historians like, so they get ignored. Wilson gets boosted by his personality as an Ivy League intellectual with the right sort of achievements - so his gross failings are forgotten.

Coolidge, Polk - not IMHO underrated. Coolidge is not praised but not condemned either. Polk gets credit for doing what he set out to do, on a grand scale.

The worst Presidents? In no particular order: Carter, Hoover, Andrew Johnson, Pierce, Buchanan. Clinton, Wilson, Nixon, Madison, Tyler. Lyndon Johnson, Franklin Roosevelt - great flaws, but some great positives too.
4.8.2008 5:01pm
c.gray (mail):

I'd really like to know how one concludes that FDR was our worst president.


I think from an ideological libertarian perspective, FDR is pretty bad...

...until you compare him to everyone else on offer at the time. The USA could have easily done much, much worse given the political turmoil unleashed by the Great Depression and WWII. It's hard to construct a _plausible_ counterfactual that isn't worse. A lot worse. Most other industrialized countries did, in fact, do a lot worse.
4.8.2008 5:02pm
Bpbatista (mail):
Most overrated: Thomas Jefferson. A disaster in nearly every way. And the Lousianna Purchase fell into his lap. Only an idiot would not have bought it.
4.8.2008 5:05pm
JBL:
I was pleased to see FDR nominated for the bottom. I don't know as I agree, but it's worth considering. As I see it, his domestic contributions were huge and negative. On the other hand, he gets a fair bit of credit for his preparation for WWII; there's a reason many people who are by no means liberal see him as great.

The question is not only the relative impact of the events themselves, but FDR's unique contributions; the things that he did that a different president wouldn't have. I don't know the history in enough detail to make a judgement in that regard.

Part of the difficulty is that the flaws of the New Deal are relatively easy to expound, but the "what if we weren't prepared for WWII" question is necessarily much more hypothetical.
4.8.2008 5:06pm
Snowdog99 (mail):

"So calling Bush "worst president since Warren Harding" is unfair to Harding? So how much deeper do we need to dig? Worst since Andrew Johnson?"


Geez rmd. How old are you anyway? OK, how about...worst president since Bill Klinton? Bush is no prize, but I'd hardly rank him among the worst of the 20th century, when we have such sterling examples as: Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, Wilson, FDR, the aforementioned Mr. Klinton, etc....
4.8.2008 5:40pm
FDR critic:
I admit that I am sometimes tempted to give FDR credit for the WWII part, and weigh that against the New Deal evils.

But then I ask - what Prez, outside of an actual Nazi sympathizer, would not have risen to the occasion? After Pearl Harbor even? (Recall that Hitler declared war on us right after Pearl Harbor, saving us the trouble of deciding whether getting into it with Japan should automatically get us in against all the Axis.)

Also, in his conduct of the war, isn't it still a good question whether the "unconditional surrender" demand bound the Germans together more tightly, and undercut the chance of an anti-Nazi coup by patriotic military officers who wanted to break with Hitler but cut a deal that would let them back down through armistice and negotiations?

Further, didn't he go further than he had to in cozying up to Stalin, and selling out half of Europe at Yalta? Was trading Hitler for Stalin such a great deal for Eastern Europe? Everyone, Jewish or not, was enslaved for forty more years.

So no, I don't give him a lot of points for his was handling. A few nice speeches don't make up for his tactical and strategic blunders.
4.8.2008 6:00pm
HipposGoBerserk (mail):
FDR critic,

I would suggest you do some more research on WWII and consider revising your opinions on FDR's behavior. Western Europe was saved from Soviet domination and the Pacific war was won in 1940 as FDR pushed through a large expansion of the army (laying the basis for our expansion after Pearl Harbor and allowing Overlord as early as 1944) and the ordering of huge numbers of new warships (that turned the tide in the Pacific as they began launching in 1943). By Pearl Harbor, it would've been too late.

I continue to be astonished that any one could think US behavior could/did influence Stalin's behavior at any point during WWII in a manner inimical to our interests. And yes, Stalin was better than Hitler - that "war" stayed cold, remember?
4.8.2008 6:09pm
R Gould-Saltman (mail):
Harding may have had a black ancestor, and hid the information? Old news; didn't any of you-all read ishmael reed's Mumbo Jumbo back in the days when reed could still write interesting and experimental stuff? It's got the Knights Templar and the Illuminati in there, too! Possibly one of the great surrealist race conspiracy theory novels of the 20th century! Even Harold Bloom liked it!


r gould-saltman
4.8.2008 6:39pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
I think the people trying to rank Cleveland as a great president should study his disastrous economic policies of his second administration. He helped make the depression of the 1890s even worse.

Although the economic policies of the previous administration (Benjamin Harrison's) were also disastrous, and did a great deal to cause that depression.

Harding is underrated, partly because the main things anyone remembers about his administration are Teapot Dome and his womanizing. He did a positive service in reversing the repressive policies of the later Wilson Administration. The pardon of Eugene V. Debs was more than mere symbolism. He's still mediocre, but I wouldn't put him among the failures like Hoover and Carter, and certainly not among Pierce and Buchanan, who actually made things worse and helped bring about the Civil War.
4.8.2008 6:43pm
MarkField (mail):

The corruption issue was real, but so were the accomplishments: the naval treaties, the tax cuts, the rescission of Wilson's war regime, the mild but real stand for civil rights. But they weren't the sort of things "progressive" academic historians like, so they get ignored.


Huh? Since when are arms limitation treaties, restoration of civil liberties, and standing for civil rights things progressive historians don't like?
4.8.2008 6:57pm
egn (mail):
James K. Polk. Certainly we can disagree over his policies, but it is absurd that no one knows who he is after he did so much (and in only 1 term!).

They Might Be Giants fans know.
4.8.2008 7:43pm
Dystopos (mail):
Harding's Birmingham speech argued for political equality (i. e. full voting rights), but did not argue for social equality. As he put it, "racial amalgamation can never come in America."

The full text of the speech is available (as a scanned .pdf) in the New York Times archive. (link)
4.8.2008 7:51pm
elektratig:
To return to poor Millard, it is certainly fair to question whether the achievement of the Compromise of 1850 was a good thing. I tend to agree (as you might expect) with Bretzky: had the Compromise not been reached, it is likely that war would have resulted -- a war that the Union might well have lost. I disagree only on the details: the war would most likely have broken out between Texas and New Mexico, and spread unpredictably from there.

A couple of other miscellaneous comments. President Taylor did not "support[] the Wilmot Proviso." He did support the immediate admission of California and New Mexico as states, bypassing the territorial phase and presumably as free states.

On Millard's run as presidential candidate of the American Party (the Know Nothings) in 1856, it so happens that I have written a series of posts on precisely that topic, explaining (again, as you might expect) why it ain't that bad. Start here.
4.8.2008 8:29pm
Constitution Fan:
I agree that FDR is, at least, near the bottom of the list. He as much as said that the Constitution was worthless ("more suited for horse and buggy days") in light of his ambitions. I give him full props for prosecution of the war, but even in that he utterly ignored the constitution.

By that standard I consider almost every president since Washington (clearly the greatest and best) to be poor custodians of the constitution. The big dividing line has to be with 'honest' Abe Lincoln. He was the first president to ignore the constitution wholesale.

I am also a big Coolidge fan for having the guts to refuse to sign legislation that was not permitted by the constitution.

I also like Harry Truman because he was willing to take personal responsibility for his actions and decisions as president - something that no president has done since and precious few did before.
4.8.2008 8:33pm
FDR critic:
Hippos, I'll respond more tomorrow if I can, but quickly for tonight -

I agree that Pearl Harbor was too late for pre-entry buildup, so I perhaps misspoke (mistyped) by using that as a benchmark, but I stand by the idea that many Prezzes would have built up in response to the gathering storm.

What about the unconditional surrender blunder?

On the Stalin points, we stopped at the Elbe to let the Russians take Berlin. We knew, or should have known, what that meant for everyone who lived there. Yes, it saved American GIs' lives, but we did condemn millions to the Stasi etc. The Cold War was not so cold for all those who lived behind the Curtain, or for all those who fought in the many proxy wars. FDR also gave Stalin a big propaganda boost by promoting the Uncle Joe persona. I accept dealing with him to fight Hitler, but we didn't have to get so close and cuddly about it. FDR actually seemed to trust the guy. That's poor judgment. Churchill, by contrast, was fully willing to work with Stalin, but kept a wary eye on his moves. While we were still fighting Hitler, Stalin was already plotting the next steps and placing troops with that in mind, and we did not respond in kind.

Oh, and the forced repatriations of refugees into Stalin's waiting arms -- absolutely abominable.

FDR goes on my wall of shame.
4.8.2008 8:35pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
elektratig:
To return to poor Millard, it is certainly fair to question whether the achievement of the Compromise of 1850 was a good thing. I tend to agree (as you might expect) with Bretzky: had the Compromise not been reached, it is likely that war would have resulted -- a war that the Union might well have lost.


Not necessarily, since the best American general at the time, Winfield Scott would have been leading the Union armies in the field. In 1861, he was no longer capable of doing so for health reasons.
4.8.2008 9:19pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Hoosier, by my lights, most of those things (naval disarmament, League of Nations) were bad ideas. Especially naval disarmament.

Coolidge fan (and one or two others), there was no 'genuine prosperity' in the '20s. The farm sector (40% of the population) crashed in 1922.

Harding nor Coolidge ever noticed. As long as the Mellons were raking it in, they didn't care. By 1928, for example, the Nebraska version of the FDIC was bust, and banks across the state (and other farm states) were going extinct.

This was before the stock market crash, but it wouldn't have taken very big brains to figure out that the one would be followed by the other.

I understand that there is a tremendous push on to blame Roosevelt for the Depression, but it was a pure Republican creation. Economists like Rex Tugwell had doped it all out, published it and proposed solutions beforehand, but free-market idiocy reigned supreme.

By my lights, Coolidge and Wilson were among the very worst presidentsm for different reasons. (Wilson is my all-time worst, for plowing under 200K American boys for nothing.)

Harding was pretty bad, but you can find bright spots; just as with Truman, who was very good, you can find dark spots (loyalty oaths).
4.8.2008 9:25pm
c.gray (mail):

Further, didn't [FDR] go further than he had to in cozying up to Stalin, and selling out half of Europe at Yalta?


No. The notion the USA "signed away" Eastern Europe at Yalta is a fantasy.

There was absolutely nothing the USA could do to prevent Stalin from imposing puppet governments across Eastern Europe. The Red Army was already there. All FDR could do was hope for the best (or maybe make a separate peace with Hitler and then hope for the best).

The alternative to Yalta was not a free Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. It was Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak S.S.Rs incorporated into the USSR. How would that have been better?

Realistically, it was only possible for the USA to effect Stalin's behavior on the margins. For the most part, the marginal changes FDR actually got proved fairly useful both in the near and short term.
4.9.2008 12:33am
Syd Henderson (mail):
dearieme:
Is the most over-rated FDR or JFK?


For some reason John Adams often gets rated high and I'm not sure why, other than his aura as a Founding Father. His presidency was nothing special, and in some ways positively bad. Except, of course, he did luck out in one of his last-minute appointments to the Supreme Court.
4.9.2008 1:14am
Hoosier:
c. gray--Well put. There is no basis for condemning a president for failing to exercize an option that was not available to him. Did the Red Army have something like 90 divisions in Europe at the time? (The number escapes me; 90 strikes me for some reason.)

"Yalta" has taken on the same sense as "Munich" to some Americans. But if you read the Yalta accords, you find that the agreements that were reached actually call for power-sharing, free-elections, international observers, and so forth for the post-war Eastern European governments. (No where near perfect, as FDR readily acknowledged: As FDR told Adm. Leahy: "It's the best we can do for Poland at this time." Stalin held th territory, and thus the cards.)

If Yalta was a sell-out to the Soviets, why did they put so much effort into *violating * the agreements?
4.9.2008 8:35am
Bretzky (mail):
Regarding FDR's supposed failure with the New Deal:

I think many people here who criticize the New Deal are using the same criteria that FDR's critics used in the 1930s (i.e., it's unconstitutional). What this argument fails to acknowledge though, is that the United States was, quite frankly, on the cusp of rebellion in the 1930s.

The question is often asked why countries like Germany and Italy and Spain succombed to totalitarian movements in the 1930s and countries like the US and Britain and France did not. There are two answers to that question. First, American, British, and French societies were more steeped in freedom and democratic governance; people in these countries expected to be able to redress their grievances through the ballot box. Second, and the one that I think is more important, the American, British, and French governments actually tried--and succeeded to a great extent--to mitigate the harsh effects of the Depression. The people saw that their governments were attempting to make things better.

Did the New Deal fix the economy? No, it probably delayed the eventual recovery from the Depression until we entered WWII. Did it save the country from a lot of violence? Yes, it most certainly did.

This is the side of it that always made FDR mad about the reaction to the New Deal he got from his fellow plutocrats. FDR felt that the New Deal saved many rich people from having their heads stuck on pikes in front of their mansions. I think he was right.

The New Deal was lousy economics, but it was great psychology.
4.9.2008 12:26pm
Thrasymachus (mail):
FDR one of the worst Presidents ever? The views expressed in this thread say more about the political biases of the posters than about Presidents' actual achievements. Every poll of historians and political scientists ranks FDR among the top three Presidents of all time.
4.9.2008 2:25pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
A lot of the anti-FDR noise comes from people who are still angry that he didn't join with Hitler to fight the real enemy, communism.

Their view, not mine.

I'll go along with Bretzky for the most part, but to say that the New Deal prolonged the Depression is nonsense.

The New Deal was strangled in its cradle. It was working. Might even have continued to work.
4.9.2008 2:49pm
c.gray (mail):

What this argument fails to acknowledge though, is that the United States was, quite frankly, on the cusp of rebellion in the 1930s.


Yep. The two large countries hardest hit by the Depression were the USA &Germany. By the mid 30s, Germany was having the best economic recovery while the US was having the best POLITICAL recovery.

With the benefit of hindsight, its seems obvious that the US got the better deal. Its not like there were not plenty of extremists, on both the left and right, waiting in the wings to take advantage of more turmoil. Hoover's administration was the period of the Bonus Army, the Woolies, the Technocrats, The Republic of Huey Long's, etc... There were as many people offering easy answers and radical solutions in the US as in Europe. FDR managed to defuse the calls for radicalism much more extreme than anything he proposed, let alone adopted.

Did FDR make mistakes? Sure. All politicians do. But when you compare his record to that of his contemporaries and near contemporaries, his record is really very good.
4.9.2008 4:27pm
another skeptic:
In response to this:


FDR one of the worst Presidents ever? The views expressed in this thread say more about the political biases of the posters than about Presidents' actual achievements. Every poll of historians and political scientists ranks FDR among the top three Presidents of all time.


I agree that the anti-FDR views here reflect the posters' biases. But, in fairness, those historian/poli sci profs' polls also reflect the pro-FDR biases of those people. In one sense, though, there's nothing dishonest about that, if you admit that by "best" and "worst" you are incorporating your normative notions about what policy moves are good/bad.

If, on the other hand, you purport to exclude your policy preferences, then two options remain: (1) the normative policy slips back in, whether to a lesser or greater degree, but we're not all honest about it, or (2) if you truly exclude normatives, you end up dealing with things like "Hitler was great, on the amoral scale, because he met many of his goals" or some such thing. Obviously, that reductio ad Hitlerum does not apply to the US President list, but I think it better illustrates the point than any President.

One approach to attempting a non-policy-normative view might be to measure a President against his own goals for success/failure. But then Coolidge might turn out okay after all, as some posters would have it, because he wanted to be laissez-faire, and he was. FDR would do well on that scale, but perhaps behind Coolidge since he did lose the court-packing, and the more ambitious NEw Deal things that the Court rejected, etc. I don't know if Coolidge failed to get something he wanted.

But that approach totally favors the anti-govermenters, as it's easier to meet your own to-do list if you have nothing on it.

On the other hand, I think most historians, in rewarding "big impact," end up privileging big government, because FDR "did a lot." So that is a normative policy approach being smuggled in, as noted above, without being honest. That modified version does let Reagan earn points for big tax cuts, I suppose, but it puts poor Coolidge in an impossible bind, because he couldn't cut all that much, and all he could do (by his best lights) was mostly hold steady.
4.9.2008 5:18pm
Wm Henry Harrison's ghost:
Why are the libertarians just picking Harding or Coolidge? If you really believe that the government that governs least governs best, how could anyone beat me? 30 days and out, with no harm.
4.9.2008 5:23pm
elektratig:
Syd,

Having General Scott on the Union side would have been a Very Good Thing. I still doubt that the Union could have prevailed in a hypothetical 1850 or 1851 secession. As it was, the Union got very lucky in 1861-65.

I've never found a great discussion of this issue. Have you?
4.9.2008 8:07pm
Hoosier:
"The New Deal was strangled in its cradle. It was working. Might even have continued to work."

Nice thought. But it wasn't strangled by anyone, with the possible exception of FDR himself. And the record on relief is not the whole story. The New Deal delivered relif in a time of great need.

In the area of reform, the record was mixed. Good on banking, on the eldery; pretty good on labor (in the cities); poor with regard to Blacks; nothing much long-term for farmers.

When it comes to the "Third-R", recovery, it did next to nothing. Check out the comparison of unemployment rates in 1933 and 1938. No progress to speak of. Economic recovery came as a result of war orders from Europe. The New Deal just didn't help much at all on the macro-economy.

NB: I'm NOT one of the ideological anti-FDR folks. Just he facts.
4.9.2008 10:37pm