Bill Steigerwald: No matter what party partisans say, no American president is perfect — to say the least. But when historians get around to ranking our greatest presidents, the top spots invariably go to the usual titans — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute (independent.org) and an expert on defense issues, begs to differ with the standard consensus -— by about 180 degrees.
No matter what party partisans say, no American president is perfect — to say the least. But when historians get around to ranking our greatest presidents, the top spots invariably go to the usual titans — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute (independent.org) and an expert on defense issues, begs to differ with the standard consensus -— by about 180 degrees.
In his book “Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty,” Eland doesn’t rank our commanders in chief according to how many wars they won or how many new federal government social or regulatory agencies they fathered. He ranks them on how well they adhered to the principles of limited government as put down in the Constitution by our founding framers — which is why obscure John Tyler is Eland’s No. 1, under-appreciated Grover Cleveland is second, derided Warren Harding is sixth, ridiculed Jimmy Carter is eighth, revered Abe Lincoln is 29th, hallowed FDR is 31st, beloved Ronald Reagan is 34th and progressive icon Woodrow Wilson is dead last. I recently talked to Eland by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.
Question: Can you give us a quick, “elevator-ride” description of your book?
Eland: The reason it’s called “Recarving Rushmore” is because I believe historians, political scientists and journalists evaluate presidential success based on the wrong factors. They often use charisma, whether the president was a bold activist, or whether he served in wartime or crisis, even if he had contributed to the crisis or didn’t prevent it or made it worse. I try to evaluate presidents only on their policies. I try to block out all extraneous factors, whether you liked them or not or whatever, and just go on whether their policies promoted peace, prosperity and liberty and whether they stuck with the original intent of the framers of the Constitution to limit executive power.
Q: Why did you feel you needed to write it?
Eland: I just thought the presidential rankings were askew. We just had Presidents Day and a slew of presidential rankings came out and they were pretty much the same as they always are, with FDR, Lincoln, Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson up at the top. Most of the people on Mount Rushmore. I believe they are wrong in how they evaluate them.
Q: Who would be the four presidents that you’d put on Mount Rushmore?
Eland: They are very obscure presidents, and they’re kind of boring, actually. But I go on the premise that the American people — with their hard work, values, etc. — are the people who really make the country and the government should stay out of their way. I picked presidents who were for limited government, a limited executive role and a restrained foreign policy as the founders wanted — and those would be John Tyler (1), Grover Cleveland (2), Martin Van Buren (3) and Rutherford B. Hayes (4). The general public probably hasn’t heard of any of them.
Q: Why not George Washington?
Eland: George Washington I rated seventh. But even Washington expanded the presidency beyond what the people at the Constitutional Convention wanted during his eight years. He set some good precedents and some bad precedents. One of the things he did was use military forces to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. He never shot anybody or hanged anybody for the rebellion. He kind of let it go. But that set a really bad precedent. There were some other things he did as well. He made the presidency slightly more powerful than the founders had wanted.
The reason I rank him so high is that I think he got the whole shebang kicked off at the start of our constitutional system. … This seems ridiculous but it’s very important in a republic to have rotation of leadership. He was a true republican and he believed that. He left office voluntarily after two terms. We take that for granted now but that informal precedent lasted clear up until the mid-20th century until FDR broke it. It was so enshrined by Washington that when FDR broke it they made it a constitutional amendment so that presidents can only serve eight years. Washington could have been king or at least the leader for life, but he didn’t do that
Q: John Tyler — a Whig — was president from 1841 to 1845. What makes him No. 1?
Eland: He took over from William Henry Harrison, who only served a month. So he served almost four years. He was almost impeached by his own party because he stuck up for a limited government, a restrained foreign policy and a limited chief executive. As an example, in foreign policy he settled America’s longest and most bloody Indian war, the Second Seminole War, and he did something that is unique in American history; he actually settled it to the Indians’ advantage. He let some of them remain on the reservation, which is all they wanted to do because this reservation had been promised to them and they were being run off it. He also prevented a few other wars. Presidents rarely get credit for staying out of wars. They usually get credit for starting them, even if they are blatant aggression like the Mexican War to grab territory. So Tyler deserves a lot of credit
Q: Was anyone else close?
Eland: Grover Cleveland (1884-1888 and 1894-1898) was certainly a very good president. He made a couple of errors. He had the Venezuelan incident, where he was a little too enthusiastic about enforcing the Monroe Doctrine. He also busted the Pullman strike, using force, which Rutherford B. Hayes, by the way, didn’t do.
The other thing Cleveland did that was bad is that he created the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was of course the prototype of regulatory agencies. These are transgressions that Grover Cleveland did, but I don’t want to minimize his presidency because he was for limited government. He’s the last limited-government president we ever had.
When William McKinley came in, he created the modern presidency, which is a euphemism for a larger role for the president than the Ffounders had intended. I think Cleveland was a very good president; he’s No. 2 because he was for limited government, a limited president and for the most part a restrained foreign policy. Cleveland was very competent and people perceived him as being very honest. He was probably our most honest president.
Q: What was the methodology you used when you did your rankings — for Ronald Reagan, for example?
Eland: I had a 60-point scale: 20 for peace, 20 for prosperity and 20 for liberty. Of course, you don’t want to over-quantify the thing, because it is a value judgment in the end. As far as Reagan goes, he wasn’t the small government president that his image made him out to be. I think that’s the case of a lot of presidents — their image somewhat deviates from reality. In Reagan’s case (ranked 34) it was quite great. He was perceived as a macho guy in foreign policy, defeating the Soviet Union. He was also perceived as a small-government president, but of course he increased government spending as a percentage of GDP. This was something that I discovered in my research, which I never would have realized: the two presidents who reduced government spending as a percentage of GDP are Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and those are Democrats. Eisenhower did pretty well; he held it constant. But people like Reagan and of course George Bush increased the government as a portion of GDP. I think that’s very important.
Q: Your politics obviously skewed your rankings.
Eland: I make that explicit in the introduction. Most of the rankings that you’ll get on Presidents Day include all these historians, but of course they all have political biases as well, but they’re never stated. I state mine up front. I’m not partisan, because I found great and good presidents from both parties and really poor and bad presidents from both parties. I don’t think I have a partisan bias, but I do have a bias toward limited government in all aspects of things and a restrained executive and a restrained foreign policy. I think that’s the bias of the founders. If the founders were here today, they would be loosely and broadly libertarians.
Q: Who is the most undeserving of the presidents that we and our culture generally rate as “great.”
Eland: I think John F. Kennedy. Even historians rate him as one of the most overrated people in American history. He almost incinerated the world in the Cuban Missile Crisis and he gets far too much credit for his behavior during that. He moderated his behavior — if he had followed the advice of his generals we would have had a nuclear war.
Also, I think Woodrow Wilson would qualify. He is the worst president that I ranked. He really ruined the whole 20th century. World War I was the single most important event in the 20th century. The History Channel and whatever other channels show World War II all time, but World War I was more important because it caused World War II. Whenever Wilson decided to get into this war — God knows why, since the United States had stayed out of most European wars throughout its history on purpose — we tipped the balance and allowed the British and French to expand their empires and demand heavy reparations from Germany. And of course Wilson demanded the abdication of the Kaiser, which paved the way for Hitler to take power, using the economic conditions that were exacerbated by the reparations.
Also, Woodrow Wilson kept the Russian provisional government in the war by bribing them and pressuring them, and of course the Bolsheviks used that to take power. They were the only anti-war party. So you could also say that Woodrow Wilson contributed to the Bolshevik Revolution and then after that happened he invaded Russia to try to reverse it. So in addition to all Wilson’s monkeying around in Latin America and his practically nationalizing the entire economy, for the first time during a major war the U.S. government took over most of the economy. Of course FDR during the Depression used that precedent and brought back many of the wartime agencies and even many of the people who ran them. So this type of model continued during World War II and we’re still seeing some of this stuff even today.
Q: Peace, prosperity and liberty — do Americans really still value those values?
Eland: Well, I would hope so. Sometimes both liberals and conservatives get a little into this “Hey, we’ve got to go and defeat this foreign character” — like Saddam Hussein. When you really think about it, Saddam Hussein was never much of a threat to the United States itself. We kind of go on these crusades overseas.
But the reason I think that Americans have drifted away from this is because they really haven’t fought a war on their own soil for a long time. Basically I think most Americans do favor peace, prosperity and liberty, but I think that what most Americans don’t realize is that peace is very important for the economy and also for liberty. We’ve seen the liberties erode recently because of overseas adventures. And now we’ve seen the economy go down. Of course the economy didn’t go down just because we’ve had two simultaneous wars, but certainly that didn’t help it. Some people say erroneously that war helps the economy, but it really doesn’t because it sucks resources that could be used more productively in the commercial sector into weapons and bullets and missiles that are expended and if anything destroy other countries’ productive capacity. So peace is very important for our economy and also for our liberties here at home
Q: Who needs to read your book and get the message?
Eland: I think people from all political stripes should read this book. Peace, prosperity and liberty — I think for liberals, conservatives, Green Party members, libertarians, those should be the goals that we’re striving for and to stay within the Constitution. … It’s very important to stay within the Constitution and stick up for peace, prosperity and liberty and that’s what we want the government to do. The different factions may have different ways to do that. But I think mine is essentially an alternative history of the U.S. seen through the office of the presidency. We’ve seen that the president has drastically expanded his powers over the years, so we don’t really have the government that the Founders set up. It’s been altered. I don’t think most people have realized that and I think they would benefit from an alternative history.
It really impacts today’s world. For instance, the Hoover-FDR period is very instructive for what’s going on with the Bush-Obama period, because it is sort of analogous. It has big implications for what could happen with the economy. That’s just one example, but I think you can benefit because almost anything that’s happening now has roots in the history of America and this book gives a concise summary of each president’s accomplishments or non-accomplishments in peace, prosperity and liberty. It really causes us to think about some of the titans in history like Lincoln, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR that we enshrine in the hall of fame when maybe they shouldn’t be there.
Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.