Recently, my friend Seffi (of Iran Meal fame) posted a Facebook status that said "The first question when assessing presidential greatness must always be: "would the United States exist without this person?" If your answer to that is "yes," then the president you're thinking of is not our greatest president, because, in the case of Washington and Lincoln, the answer is "almost certainly not." " He quickly clarified that FDR was #3 and a lively but polite discussion ensued of people discussing their metrics and presidential rankings.
Of course, I took it one step further, and made a google doc. Over 250 comments later, and me, Seffi, another friend Edward, and a new friend named Michael worked out a ranking that none of us are totally happy with, but we can all accept.
I wanted to share the list and give it a permanent home, so I decided to put it on the blog and open our ranking up for wider consumption and comments. With each President, I've listed what's the "Pro" column, or good things they did, and the "No" column, or the awful things they did. Sometimes the No column is bigger than the Pro column and that's why someone is far down the list. Sometimes the No column contains some pretty unacceptable stuff, but those things shaped our nation, and as a result, the person is high on the list. You'll all see what I mean soon. Only what someone did as president counts. Nothing post, and pre-presidency actions only count in the case of a metaphorical tie.
Couple of caveats here, as usual. Each and every president has some pretty major dealbreakers that make them less than stellar humans. For all the good some of them did, there are some awful things that these presidents either ordered or facilitated. At best, their inaction and lack of leadership still led to deaths. I ask everyone to remember I'm not making a list of the best people in America, I'm ranking our flawed presidents, sometimes in order of who is least flawed.
You're free to disagree with the ranking, you're free to make comments! I welcome it! Just know that I realize they're all imperialists, I realize they're all flawed leaders, and I realize that many decisions made by the United States and the government have made life a lot worse for a lot of people.
Now that we're all on the same page, let's get started!
1. Abraham Lincoln
Pro: He freed the slaves. Sure, his Emancipation Proclamation only applied to the Confederacy, where he had no real power and many states had already abolished slavery but the Emancipation Proclamation shifted the focus of the war more towards the abolition of slavery, and was a pivotal document. And no other president had ever taken even that type of concrete step to end slavery throughout the nation. It also goes without saying that Lincoln's leadership held the union together, and if a different man had been President, we wouldn't have the America we have today.
No: He got rid of habeas corpus, which is the part of law that allows people to challenge unlawful detention. When the Supreme Court said Lincoln wasn't allow to suspend habeas corpus, Lincoln told them to mind their own business, and did it anyway. A great statesman such as Lincoln should know that a war is no excuse to disregard our basic principles, but we all have our baggage.
2. George Washington
Pro: In my view, the best thing George Washington ever did was resign the presidency after two terms, refusing to be a king. With that act, so unprecedented at the time, Washington truly made our country a democracy. Despite some opinions to the contrary, I believe no other colonial leader would have had the foresight and humility to do that. Most people do not have the ability to see the potential for absolute power and not grab it. Seffi argues there's also great things Washington did in his presidency, but to me, how he left it is what's important.
No: He did own all those slaves.
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Pro: As a well-documented fan of big government, FDR's many New Deal programs laid the groundwork for the social safety net I so covet. He shepherded the country through the Great Depression, appointed the first female cabinet secretary, and established Social Security. Plus, his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt is my favorite person in the universe, so he gets points for that.
No: Could have done a lot more to promote racial equality, and did not. Left boats of Jewish refugees sail back to Europe to be systematically murdered, rather than accept more refugees. Interned the Japanese. Cheated on his amazing wife.
4. Lyndon B. Johnson
Pro: Did more for civil rights than any other president, ensuring the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Johnson's War on Poverty created new programs like Medicaid and Medicare, food stamps, Title I, which helps students in poor schools, and Head Start. He basically took all the great domestic programs FDR created and expanded the whole idea. If it wasn't clear at this point that this list has a strong Democratic bias, it should be clear by now.
No: Vietnam. What a poorly handled war that killed too many American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. Some (including my friend Molly) will take issue with my putting Johnson so high on the list, because he truly dragged out our involvement in a war we did not need to be in.
5. Harry S. Truman
Pro: This is an incredibly controversial pick for #5, and I'll own that. I don't think it would be who I would pick, but there are some solid arguments to be made, and after LBJ, the ranking starts to become blurry. Truman oversaw the end of WWII and desegregated the armed forces. Founded NATO, which helped countries struggling to throw off subjugation. He also signed the charter for the UN and ensured American participation, knowing that if America did not participate, the UN would fail like the League of Nations did. He created the Marshall Plan to help economic recovery in Europe, to try to prevent the debt many countries had after WWI that contributed to WWII. His middle name is just the letter S.
No: He nuked a lot of people. Like. A shocking amount of unnecessary nuclear bombs (by which I mean 2). One could argue that he set the stage for our current North Korea fears by not creating a strong international treaty on nuclear weapons.
6. Thomas Jefferson
Pro: Doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. Despite his own history with slavery (we'll get there) did stop the slave trade. Repealed the Naturalization Act, making it easier to become an American. Because he sort of ties with Theodore Roosevelt, Jefferson gets extra points for writing the Declaration of Independence.
No: Long-term rape and abuse of his slave, Sally Hemmings, who was only 14 when Jefferson first raped her. She had his children, and he didn't even free her or his own kids. There's also the hated Embargo Act, but it's mostly the slave rape.
7. Theodore Roosevelt
Pro: Preserved 230 million acres of public land, and established National Parks. Broke up monopolies and passed laws to prevent trusts. Apparently, TR won a Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the end to the Russo-Japanese War, which I never knew! And in my favorite TR story, his commitment to building the Panama Canal led to a health program where many of the disease carrying mosquitoes in the are were eliminated, in a process known as vector control.
No: Laid a lot of bad groundwork for US colonialism in Latin America, by asserting the United States' sole right to intervene in our hemisphere.
8. Barack Obama
Pro: Is it too early to put Obama in the top 10? I say no. Being the first black president in a nation that used to own black people is an amazing feat. I also believe that if/when the Republicans stop trying to gut the Affordable Care Act and allow it to flourish, it will eventually be regarded as a pivotal peace of social welfare legislation, much like Social Security or Medicare.
9. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Pro: When Arkansas refused to integrate their schools, instead of a weak defense saying the Supreme Court could enforce their own laws (oh Andrew Jackson, we will get to you), Eisenhower chose to send the National Guard to ensure black students made it to school safely. Did his best to limit the size of our military, calling attention to the military industrial complex. It didn't work, but he tried so hard!
No: He did negotiate from a position of military strength, and it worked which makes his military industrial complex comments ring just a little hollow.
10. John F. Kennedy
Pro: We had some spats about this, but I think JFK's swift and well-thought out action during the Cuban Missile Crisis really saved our bacon. He moved the needle forward on civil rights, and propelled us into space, truly the final frontier. And even though we forget it now, it was a big deal to have our first Catholic president. So he has historical points.
No: It's not JFK's fault he died before he could finish his term and do more meaningful work but his short term, and bungling of the Bay of Pigs means he's only #10.
11. Ulysses S. Grant
Pro: I'll be honest, the list really falls apart between #11 and #31. So you may think, "Bella, why didn't you and the dudes just make a top ten list?" And the answer is that we are completists who care about all our presidents, even our most forgotten. Of course, Ulysses has a leg up on some of the others because his actions as a general helped end the Civil War. He was president during a very challenging time for the nation, but supported some strong Reconstruction efforts, restoring black legislators and using a strong hand for still rebellious Southern states. We're grading Grant on a bit of a curve here, because the other Reconstruction presidents did so badly, which is why he ranks so high.
12. James Madison
Pro: Madison wins our tie with the other founding fathers because he wrote the Bill of Rights. He also reauthorized the charter of the Bank of the United States, which everyone (except that pesky Andrew Jackson) agrees was very important. He also had a super cool wife, which gives him points in my book. Unknown to me until now, he also ordered the military to protect Native American lands, once again pissing off Andrew Jackson.
No: Led us into the War of 1812. Never a good thing to have a President lead us into war.
13. George H.W. Bush
Pro: People rode hard for George H.W. Bush in a way that I was surprised about. Edward in particular gave him a lot of credit for his handling of the end of the Cold War, which I suppose is something I can agree with as well. He pushed for reunification of Germany, but generally had the necessary light touch to deal with the end of the Cold War. Bush also signed the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Ryan White CARE Act, which provided affordable treatment for HIV/AIDS. And when I first heard "George H.W. Bush at #13," I was as flabbergasted as you likely are, but I will say, the pickings are slim. He's as good as anyone else who could be #13.
No: High deficit spending, and basically started the Iraq War his son would later plunge us into.
14. William McKinley
Pro: Apparently we're in a McKinley renaissance right now, if this wildly overstated Politico article is anything to go by. When Cuba tried to throw off Spain, McKinley tried to find diplomatic solutions, but eventually it led to war, which he helped win. The country gained some territory, which leads us to the No column.
No: Possibly the granddaddy of American colonialism. He's the reason we have Hawaii, Puerto Rico, our involvement in Cuba and the Philippines. McKinley's decisions did help the US become an empire, and the jury is very split on whether or not that is a good thing. However, it did make us the country we are today, and I think that's why he's ranked so high.
15. Chester A. Arthur
Pro: I'm a little surprised everyone let me rank Chester A. Arthur this high. I have a soft spot for Arthur, who took over after Garfield was shot by someone who felt he should have been given a political job. In response to his boss's murder, Chester A. Arthur (who did love the spoils system before he was president) undertook major civil service reform legislation. Arthur didn't write the act, but ensured that it was fully implemented, which as a civil servant myself, I appreciate.
No: He wasn't very good on civil rights in the South, or with Native Americans. Prior to his election to the presidency, he was a bit of a corrupt civil servant himself, but he fortunately got past that.
16. James Monroe
Pro: The Monroe Doctrine, giving the United States authority to intervene and support revolutions. So it's great he wanted to show sympathy for people trying to throw off colonialism, but the Doctrine later became colonialist, which makes this one a challenge.
No: The Missouri Compromise, which I guess could sit on the line of Pro and No, but I think in retrospect we can all agree it pushed us that much closer to Civil War.
17. John Adams
Pro: Avoided war with France, though his actions during the XYZ affair led to skirmishes between the US and France.
No: Passed absolutely terrible laws, making it illegal to insult him, making it harder to become a citizen and giving Adams power to deport people. The man was described as temperamentally unsuited to the presidency which about sums it up.
18. Richard Nixon
Pro: Who's ready for some controversy? I ranked Teddy Roosevelt pretty high for his conservation efforts, and it's only fair to extend the same courtesy to Nixon, who created the EPA, passed the Endangered Species Act, and made sure that our air and water was clean. That's some widespread conservation that benefits us all. He opened the path to China, and did his best to draw down the Vietnam War. In Nixon's presidency, we actually went to the moon, and he oversaw the integration of many Southern schools.
No: Well...he did resign in disgrace. My best friend Elyse pointed out that our favorite college professor said that Watergate was the moment Americans lost faith in their government. And that may be true, which is a big vote against Nixon. And that corruption was probably present throughout his presidency. Does the good outweigh the bad? I think so, and that's why he's #18.
19. Bill Clinton
Pro: What, you say? Richard Nixon is a better president than Bill Clinton? Yes my ducks, and here's why. Richard Nixon created a new federal agency. Bill Clinton didn't create those same widespread programs, but he tried. He did create CHIP, which gives healthcare to children and he passed the Brady Act, which helped gun control. And the mental health parity act. Generally really good legislation stuff, but none of it has really stuck.
No: All that sexual harassment. I mean, he almost had to resign in disgrace because of it! Would Bill Clinton be higher if we didn't currently have a rapist in the White House? Maybe! Did he also sign the Defense of Marriage Act, the Crime Bill, and NAFTA which everyone apparently hates now? Yes. Welcome to the middle of the pack Bill.
20. Ronald Reagan
Pro: Look people, I wanted to put Ronald Reagan lower. I was resoundingly outvoted, so I have put the Gipper as high as I am physically able to. People always say if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all, so here's what I'll say. He appointed the first female Supreme Court justice. He granted amnesty to 3 million immigrants. He tore down a wall.
No: AIDS. I shouldn't need to go on about how Reagan's silence facilitated the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans, and let a health crisis spiral out of control. I also shouldn't need to go on about how his economic policy caused the gap in wealth to increase and exacerbated homelessness. And I don't think I need to talk about the Iran-Contra affair. If there's one president who actively made my current life harder with his crappy policies and hatred of gay people, it's Ronald (excuse the profanity) Fuckin' Reagan. I don't like that guy, and I want it on the record.
21. James K. Polk
Pro: Lots of people who think they are funny like to say that Polk was our greatest president because he kept all his campaign promises. It wasn't that hard, since there were only four (4). Cut tariffs. Re-establish an independent treasury. Get Oregon. War with Mexico. And he did it. The independent treasury is great, and one could argue that he really shaped the way America looks today.
No: He got us into a war. I sort of feel like my childhood in New Mexico makes me dislike James K. Polk, since he was the guy who took the territory where I live from Mexico by force. It's hard to love a colonizer. Especially one who had so few ambitions.
22. William Howard Taft
Pro: If you liked Teddy Roosevelt and his work busting up monopolies, then you are going to love William Howard Taft, who filed 70 antitrust suits in 4 years (compared to Roosevelt's 40 in 7 years). The man fought corruption, and for that, we are thankful.
No: He popularized the idea of "dollar diplomacy" sending money to Latin American governments to keep out European influence, which many Latin American governments resented. Not great on civil rights, and perpetuated American colonialism. Once said "I don't remember that I ever was President" which is not something you want the chief executive to say.
23. Woodrow Wilson
Pro: Started the League of Nations which is the originator of the UN (which isn't always effective but at least we have it). I also have to give Wilson props for ushering in (white) women's right to vote. He also shepherded the United States through WWI.
25. John Quincy Adams
Pro: Life wasn't easy for John Q. He had to preside over a Congress that really hated him, and didn't want to pass anything he wanted. But he did have some good ideas. He wanted to create a national university and a national observatory which would have been great. I think the best one could say about John Quincy Adams is that he didn't do much, to help or hurt the country.
No: Like I said, he didn't do much. His support of western expansion didn't help Native Americans though.
26. Martin Van Buren
Pro: Strongly against the expansion of slavery, and opposed the annexation of Texas for this reason.
No: Like Jackson, the president before him, Van Buren opposed the Bank of the United States, pulling the US deeper into a financial crisis. He also encouraged the removal of Native Americans from their lands, though not quite to the extent of Jackson.
27. Grover Cleveland
Pro: Only person (so far) to serve two non-consecutive terms, so that's pretty cool. He fought against government corruption by vetoing fraudulent pension claims and not taking part in the spoils system.
No: Thought Reconstruction was a failed experiment, did not support civil rights. Presided over a financial panic, and sent troops to break up a railroad strike.
28. Zachary Taylor
Pro: Remember how I said my childhood in New Mexico made me dislike James K. Polk? Taylor is almost the opposite. Without Taylor, Albuquerque, New Mexico could have been part of Texas. That's what Texas wanted, but Taylor sided with New Mexico in the dispute. This is very good news for me, since I hate the Dallas Cowboys. He also tried to prevent slavery in the Mexican territory.
No: He died pretty soon into his presidency, so he couldn't really hold the line against pro-slavery forces. He owned slaves himself.
29. Calvin Coolidge
Pro: Worked to stop corruption, appointed a special prosecutor to deal with the Teapot Dome scandal. Was president during a period of economic growth. Someone once bet him that they could get him to say three words during dinner and he turned to them, said "you lose" and didn't say anything for the rest of the meal, which is a sick burn.
No: Kept us out of the League of Nations. Opposed farm subsidies which was a real problem during the Dust Bowl. Had a hands off approach to economics, which may have contributed to the Great Depression.
30. Benjamin Harrison
Pro: Signed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act into law, which prevented monopolies. He facilitated the creation of National Forests. Proposed federal education funding and the enforcement of voting rights for African-Americans but neither of those came to pass.
31. John Tyler
Pro: Gave America access to Asian ports through a treaty. Annexed Texas. Tried to be as non-partisan as possible, which I guess is a plus.
No: Presided over a financial panic, kept vetoing bills to create a bank. The Whigs tried to impeach him. Was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress during the Civil War.
32. Warren G. Harding
No: I don't fully understand the Teapot Dome scandal, even though I played a Reacting to the Past game about it (primarily because I was playing Harry Daugherty and I just wanted to commit as many crimes as possible), but I think that someone took bribes and Harding was basically fine with it. Almost everyone in his administration had some type of corruption attached to them. Named his penis Jerry. It's not that this is bad but it is something I need you all to know.
33. Gerald Ford
Pro: Only president to never be elected. He took the office of Vice President after Spiro Agnew resigned, and when Nixon resigned he became the President. Supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and his wife's openness about her breast cancer and drug problems moved America a long way towards being open about health and mental health.
34. George W. Bush
Pro: Did more to fight AIDS abroad than any president before or since.
No: Right out of the gate, he came into the presidency only because the Supreme Court stopped Florida from doing any more recounts. Got the United States involved in 2 wars, on in Afghanistan in 2001 and another totally useless one in Iraq in 2003. Used torture in Guantanamo Bay. Poor response to Hurricane Katrina. Did not act quick enough to stop the Great Recession. Wow, I honestly forgot how bad of a President Bush was until I did this. He earned this spot on the list for sure.
35. Rutherford B. Hayes
Pro: Did some civil service reform.
No: He ended up in a disputed election and as soon as he took office, he removed troops from the South and ended reconstruction. Seems corrupt to me! Removing troops from the South was not supported by African-Americans, and made it more dangerous for them to live in the South. Supported the military in bloody conflicts against Native Americans. His wife had the absolute worst taste in china patterns.
36. Andrew Jackson
Pro: He did revolutionize campaigning, but this isn't about campaigning. This is about the presidency, and Jackson doesn't have a lot going for him in my view. He did prevent the succession of South Carolina, so that's good. He also created term limits on presidential appointments, in a move to try to stop nepotism.
No: Time was, you could call Andrew Jackson a great president and no one would argue with you. But now we listen to Native Americans, and a man who presided over a cultural and actual genocide such as the Trail of Tears is not going to get top billing. Not on this blog. When the Supreme Court said that Cherokee Native Americans were allowed to stay on their land, Jackson said "John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it." Enforcing the law is actually the job of the President, and not the court, but Jackson removed the Cherokees anyway. And if you're out there thinking "well sure, but is that any worse than what other presidents did" the answer is an unqualified yes. Over 4,000 Cherokees died of disease, exposure and hunger. That means, while forcing the Cherokees off their land, the United States government also starved them and did not give them proper protection from the cold. People being forced to leave their land, being put in confined spaces by the government they're not allowed to leave, and being starved to death? We now call that ethnic cleansing! And to defend Jackson is to defend a president who wanted to remove a race of people from our nation. So. He's not a good guy. He wasn't a good president.
Lest you think I'm all about the genocide, there's other bad things about Jackson. His dissolution of the Bank of the United States caused a financial panic. He also perpetuated the spoils system and patronage, which my Main Man Chester A. would have something to say about.
37. Millard Fillmore
Pro: Wanted a transcontinental railroad which I guess would have been cool if it happened.
No: Supported the Compromise of 1850 and enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, pushing us ever closer to the Civil War. Anyone who teed up the Civil War the way Fillmore did earns his place on the bottom of our list.
38. Franklin Pierce
Pro: Bought some land from Mexico.
No: The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would have allowed the citizens of a territory to choose if they wanted slavery or not, ended up being a terrible move. People not from Kansas came to Kansas to vote for slavery, and it led to violent conflicts. Of course, Pierce supported the act. The President after him was Buchanan, and Pierce just isn't much better than Buchanan.
39. Jimmy Carter
Pro: The Camp David Accords I guess. He was certainly more impressive after he left the presidency.
No: Either he messed up the Iran Hostage Crisis because he was a poor leader, or because the Iranians didn't like him, but he still completely bungled that hostage crisis. There was also a major energy crisis, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and he was so bad, someone in his own party challenged him in a primary.
40. Herbert Hoover
Pro: Some people (Seffi) thought that Herbert Hoover should be higher on the list, but I refuse. In the face of the worst economic crisis the nation has ever seen, Hoover didn't really do anything.
No: Sure, FDR didn't end the Great Depression, but he made people feel supported and gave them options. Hoover, a real bootstraps guy, gave federal aid very reluctantly which exacerbated an already bad situation. Anyone who has shanty towns named after them did not do enough.
41. Andrew Johnson
Pro: He was better than Jefferson Davis would have been.
No: At a time when the country could have used strong Reconstruction and powerful federal support for African-Americans, Johnson did not provide it. There were lots of moments where Johnson did not step up and support Reconstruction, and Congressional Republicans had to override his vetoes.
42. William Henry Harrison
Pro: The country he was inaugurated into was the same as the country he died in.
No: He just didn't have a chance to do much. He died only a month after his inauguration day, and spent much of his time in office very ill. Not, as some say, because he didn't wear a coat and got pneumonia, but rather because of fecal matter in the White House water. I'm never going to shut up about that. Fecal matter in the White House water killed several presidents. If we just learned how to have clean water earlier, William Henry Harrison may be higher up on this list.
43. James Buchanan
Pro: I don't...think there is anything that helps Buchanan out of this hole. There is a reason he's consistently ranked as one of the worst Presidents. He's also maybe gay which is not great for my people.
No: He was morally opposed to slavery but believed it was constitutionally protected, and was very sympathetic to Southern interests. Supported Dred Scott. He supported Kansas becoming a slave state. Basically, Buchanan did nothing to stop the onslaught of the Civil War, and was not the leader the country needed when tensions mounted.
44. Donald Trump
Pro: Nothing I've seen so far! Even if you agree with what Trump says, he hasn't put any of those views into practice, and he's a very ineffective leader.
No: It's not proper historian behavior to rank Trump so low just because I don't like him. But I really don't like him. Can I truly say he's worse than a President who led us into the Civil War? Maybe! It's been less than a year. He could be the worst president of all time. He's certainly gunning for the title.
So in lieu of a picture of Trump, I'll just plug Call Them In, where you can block Trump's agenda in a meaningful way. It's what all the other Presidents would want.