Montreal, October 15, 2012 • No 304


Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.


What Makes a Good President?
A Review of Ivan Eland's Recarving Rushmore


by Bradley Doucet


          In a few short weeks, Americans will go to the polls to select their next president. Libertarian Gary Johnson will be facing off against Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic incumbent Barack Obama. Okay, so the chance that Johnson will ascend to the highest office in the land on November 6, 2012 are astronomically small, despite his impressive record as a two-term Governor of New Mexico. Such is the nature of two-party politics—not to mention that libertarianism is still not widely enough appreciated for that kind of political breakthrough. At least politicians like Johnson, and of course Ron Paul, are helping to spread the word.


          Nevertheless, given the upcoming vote to decide who will occupy the Oval Office for the next four years, it wouldn’t hurt to have a look at the records of the country’s former presidents from a libertarian perspective. In his 2009 book, Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute does just that. Eland devotes a chapter to each of Obama’s 42 predecessors, but avoids the usual emphasis on charisma, activism, and serving during a crisis. Instead, he examines what these men were able to accomplish in terms of keeping the peace, promoting economic growth, and protecting freedom within the constraints of the US Constitution, keeping in mind the times in which they lived.

          What follows is a very brief history of the United States of America as seen through the lens of Eland’s reassessment of the men who have held the office of president (ranking in parentheses).

          America’s first president, George Washington (7), kept out of foreign conflicts and stepped down after two terms despite being popular enough to effectively become a king. His successor John Adams (22) enforced the Alien and Sedition acts and appointed big-government enthusiast John Marshall to the Supreme Court. Thomas Jefferson (26) imposed a punishing embargo on US foreign trade, used draconian measures to enforce it, and began the forced displacement of Native Americans with the unconstitutional Louisiana Purchase. James Madison (28) dragged the young country into the unnecessary War of 1812, which solved nothing, while James Monroe (25) ordered the invasion of Florida, not to mention that his Monroe Doctrine justified future US military interventionism.

          John Quincy Adams (12) pursued a fairly benign foreign policy, although he did raise tariffs, whereas Andrew Jackson (27) got rid of the second national bank and paid off the entire national debt, but also expanded the power of the executive and treated Native Americans harshly. Martin Van Buren (3) allowed the market to readjust fairly quickly after the Panic of 1837, reduced public spending, balanced the budget, and avoided potential wars with Canada and Mexico. William Henry Harrison (not ranked) died 31 days into his term. The best president according to Eland was John Tyler (1), who defied his party in order to veto tariff hikes, a new national bank, and infrastructure projects, in addition to which he ended the longest and bloodiest Indian war in US history. James K. Polk (37), however, provoked a war with Mexico in order to grab California and fulfill the manifest destiny of the United States.

          Leading up to the Civil War, Zachary Taylor (13) resisted the Fugitive Slave Act requiring the return of escaped slaves to their owners, but he raised tariffs and did nothing to stop the slaughter of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush. Millard Fillmore (14) improved relations with Latin America, but he intimidated the Japanese into a coerced trading relationship and signed and enforced the Fugitive Slave Act. Although Franklin Pierce (24) signed a reciprocity treaty with Canada and reduced the national debt by 83%, he also subsidized railroads and the Atlantic cable and helped pro-slavery forces in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. James Buchanan (23) increased public spending, was aggressive in foreign policy and against the Mormons in Utah, and tried to make Kansas a slave state. And while Abraham Lincoln (29) freed the slaves and preserved the union, he did so only at the cost of 600,000 deaths and a significant expansion of government power, whereas slavery was already withering away in much of the rest of the world.

          Andrew Johnson (17) fought inflation but opposed the 14th Amendment and also presided over harsh Reconstruction policies, as did Ulysses S. Grant (19), whose main saving grace was avoiding war with Spain over Cuba. Rutherford B. Hayes (4) solidified his predecessor’s hard-money policy, paid down US debt, lowered taxes, was restrained in foreign policy, and fought government corruption. James A. Garfield (not ranked) was assassinated six months into his term, but his successor Chester A. Arthur (5) supported hard money, opposed pork-barrel infrastructure projects, and tried unsuccessfully to abolish internal taxes.

"The book’s overall argument is a good one: that presidents who are charismatic and who do a lot of things usually get all the love, whereas the ones who simply do their best to respect the Constitution and promote peace, prosperity, and liberty are largely ignored and forgotten."

          Grover Cleveland (2) advocated hard-money and sound economic policies, opposed the annexation of Hawaii, avoided war with Spain over Cuba, and also tried to treat Native Americans fairly, unlike Benjamin Harrison (15), who built up the navy, tried to annex Hawaii, supported the Sherman Antitrust Act, and pushed for high tariffs and loose money, which helped cause the Panic of 1893. William McKinley (38) raised taxes, increased the size of government, started a war with Spain over Cuba and the Philippines, and annexed Hawaii. Theodore Roosevelt (21) avoided any major wars despite his aggressive foreign policy, but he increased the number of government employees by 50 percent and used protectionism to favour some industries and trust busting to punish others. William Howard Taft (20) pursued a less aggressive foreign policy, but he supported the income tax and high tariffs and initiated twice as many antitrust suits as his predecessor in just half the time.

          The worst president of all time according to Eland is Woodrow Wilson (40), who dragged the US into WWI, allowed Britain and France to impose a harsh peace on Germany, created the Federal Reserve System, and presided over the start of alcohol prohibition in the United States. Warren G. Harding (6) cut taxes and spending and pursued a restrained foreign policy, and Calvin Coolidge (10) largely followed suit, although he kept tariffs high and expanded the money supply. Herbert Hoover (18) was also restrained in his foreign policy, but he prevented the market from righting itself after the 1929 stock market crash by lobbying business to keep wages and prices from falling, by raising spending and taxes, and by signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act against the advice of virtually all economists, thereby raising American tariffs to their highest level ever. Franklin D. Roosevelt (31) gets points for ending alcohol prohibition and helping oversee the Allied victory in WWII, but loses more points for defending the needless massive bombing of cities like Dresden, doing little to allow persecuted Jews to come to the US, incarcerating many tens of thousands of innocent Japanese Americans in prison camps, and of course interfering heavily in the economy, thereby growing the welfare state and prolonging the Great Depression.

          Harry S. Truman (39) needlessly dropped atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, helped start the Cold War, and entered the Korean War without a congressional declaration. Dwight D. Eisenhower (9) ended that war and pursued fiscally responsible policies, which led to impressive economic growth during his two terms. The revered John F. Kennedy (35) may have resisted his hawkish advisors and diffused the Cuban Missile Crisis, but he was partially responsible for that debacle in the first place thanks to the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, and he secretly intervened in the Vietnam War. Lyndon B. Johnson (32) did support and sign the momentous Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but he greatly expanded the welfare state and escalated US involvement in the Vietnam War. After pledging to end that war during the campaign, Richard M. Nixon (30) prolonged it, and he also instituted wage and price controls, abandoned what was left of the gold standard, increased government spending, launched the War on Drugs, and was involved in the Watergate scandal. Gerald R. Ford (16) was much more restrained in foreign policy and did not increase spending very much, although he raised income taxes, which helped to cause a deep recession, and he pardoned Nixon before he could be charged, much less tried in court.

          The best modern president was apparently Jimmy Carter (8), who pursued a restrained foreign policy, was a budget hawk, deregulated several industries, and nominated tight-money Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve. Ronald Reagan (34), darling of conservatives, dramatically raised both government spending and the debt, intervened more abroad than his predecessors, was embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, and gets altogether too much credit for “winning” the Cold War. George H. W. Bush (33) pursued an aggressive foreign policy in Panama, the Persian Gulf, and Somalia, he bailed out the savings and loans banks, and he raised taxes after pledging not to. It took Bill Clinton (11) to put the brakes on federal spending and turn the deficit into a surplus, and he also reformed welfare and supported free trade. And George W. Bush (36) for his part invaded and occupied two countries, authorized the use of “aggressive interrogation techniques,” vastly increased government spending and the debt, nominated inflationist Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, and bailed out the financial institutions that made bad loans in the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

          There you have it. For those of you keeping track, Eland’s top four presidents are Tyler, Cleveland, Van Buren, and Hayes, far less well-known than the giants actually enshrined on Mount Rushmore, whom Eland ranks 7th, 21st, 26th, and 29th. There is of course plenty of room to quibble with Eland’s rationales for his rankings, which are only very briefly sketched above. Was Thomas Jefferson really a worse president than Herbert Hoover? Was Jimmy Carter really the best modern president? I myself was not entirely convinced by all of Eland’s specific arguments and rankings.

          But the lively discussions that can arise from such a challenging reassessment of the presidents are a big part of the fun of this book. Such debate can help shake things up, maybe get people to reconsider some of their ideas and beliefs. And the book’s overall argument is a good one: that presidents who are charismatic and who do a lot of things usually get all the love, whereas the ones who simply do their best to respect the Constitution and promote peace, prosperity, and liberty are largely ignored and forgotten. When enough people take the kinds of ideas discussed in this book to heart, then a solid candidate like Gary Johnson will stand a better chance of becoming President of the United States of America.