Judging Presidents

Gene Healy has an excellent article about historians’ fascination with activist Presidents.

Whether they’re liberal or conservative, presidential scholars seem to prefer militant presidents who stretch against constitutional bounds — or break them.


But is that the right lesson to draw? Is there something wrong with limited-power republican presidents? Or does the fault lie with the scholars who give them short shrift?

Consider Warren G. Harding, dead last in the Schlesinger polls, next to last in the WSJ/Federalist poll. Historians have downgraded him for his scandal-ridden administration. But that can’t be the only reason for his abysmal ranking: Harding wasn’t personally corrupt, after all, and he never profited from his cronies’ misdeeds.

Place that fault against his great merits: Harding presided over the dismantling of Wilson’s draconian wartime controls, ushering in an era of prosperous “normalcy.” (Is it the normalcy that presidential scholars hold against him?) Harding’s good nature and liberal instincts led him to pardon the dissenters that Wilson had locked up, among them Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, imprisoned for making a speech against the draft. “I want [Debs] to eat his Christmas dinner with his wife,” Harding said.

I admit to not being completely up on Harding’s presidency, but it’s hard to be worse than Woodrow Wilson, who would easily make the top five of my Worst Presidents list. Healy also has nice things to say about Calvin Coolidge who, along with Grover Cleveland and James Monroe, counts among the most underrated Presidents we’ve had.

No mention of Presidential lists, though, should go without mentioning U.S. Grant, who is probably one of the most maligned Presidents, as far as lists such as these are concerned. Although his Presidency was far from perfect (there was a lot of corruption going on there), he was tireless in fighting for Civil Rights for blacks and in attempting to improve their status in the South. In that respect, he was far ahead of his time.

(link via Jim Henley)

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Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Mark says:

    Woodrow Wilson: bad president. Bad bridge, too…

  2. James Joyner says:

    Well, they’re fixing the bridge (or, technically, replacing it). The new one seems to be a vast improvement.