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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/6273/no-more-great-presidents/

No More Great Presidents

February 19, 2007 by

My idea of a great president is one who acts in accordance with his oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Not since the presidency of Grover Cleveland has any president achieved greatness by this standard. Worse, the most admired have been those who failed most miserably. Evidently my standard differs from that employed by others who judge presidential greatness. FULL ARTICLE


Tim Kern February 19, 2007 at 9:27 am

Higgs touches on an important point: presidents cannot declare war. Further, Congress does not have the option to abrogate its duty to do so, when war is necessary. Congress cannot hand its power to another branch of government, but “authorizing” a president to act as if we were at war. All so-called presidential war powers, in the absence of a declaration of war, are moot; and all actions authorized only by the presidential war powers are illegal, lacking a declaration.

One wonders if any of the military ever care about their oath to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign AND domestic. In researching this question through historians at the three big military branches, I found that no one has ever received any punishment, ever, for failing to protect the Constitution from a domestic enemy. Predecent be damned, it’s about time somebody did his or her duty.

Mark Brabson February 19, 2007 at 10:17 am

Grover Cleveland was unarguably the best President, with Calvin Coolidge being the best of the 20th Century.

It’s much easier to rank the worst:

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. FDR

3. Wilson
4. Theodore Roosevelt

5. Truman

6. LBJ

7. Richard Nixon
note, mostly due to his horrible economic and trade policies, setting aside the Watergate scandal
8. Jimmy Carter
note, again mostly due to his horrible economic and trade policies and totally clueless foreign policy.

Francisco Torres February 19, 2007 at 11:13 am

You also have to mention James K. Polk, who demonstrated the (political) profitability of attacking weaker nations.

Robert Merting February 19, 2007 at 11:53 am

Good article. I just wanted to add a thought regarding President Washington. His actions during the revolution and as president may well encourage the historian to give him the highest ranking, and I to value his two term precedent. With that said, I believe his actions between the war and his presidency are despicable. The Articles of Confederation were the most libertarian government the United States has known for it delegated practically all power to the states. The federal government did not exist, and the congress representing the united States (capitalization intended) did not have the power to levy taxes nor to wage war. Without the support of General Washington it is unlikely that the Constitution would have ever been ratified. I believe Washington, more than any other single individual, is responsible for the destruction of the Articles of Confederation and eventually the annihilation of states rights (through the expansion of federal powers seen in the next 75 years). For this act alone Washington would fall to the lower tier in my list. (Technically Washington was not President of the United States at the time of the Constitutional Convention, but he was president of the Convention and popular belief held him as the only viable person for the first presidency.)
Like I said earlier, this is a great article that picks apart the media’s leaning to Constitutional abuse and destruction as a President’s greatest contribution to society. Nicely written.

Mark Brabson February 19, 2007 at 12:43 pm

Your are right on Polk. Guess he would need to be slipped onto my list, between LBJ and Nixon

Larry N. Martin February 19, 2007 at 12:54 pm

I like Warren G. Harding. Anybody who played poker in the Oval Office can’t be all bad.

J D February 19, 2007 at 1:00 pm

It may be to late to get them to mention it but let’s all forward this article to:


Maybe the small group of program moderators will give it some thought.

The broadcast this morning featured call-ins and previously submitted short videos in which the public named their favorites.

Those who called in and submitted videos seemed to be using some inverted form of Mr. Higgs criteria.

With no tabulation, FDR seemed the favorite.

I fault our unconstitutional educational system.

Michael February 19, 2007 at 2:26 pm

Paragraph 11 is missing an apostrophe in the phrase “historians ranking.”

Matt Robare February 19, 2007 at 3:03 pm

I seem to remember the Federal government taking little interest in the railroad strike until the Pullman Company put the mails on the trains being held up.

Anyone ever read “Dune” by Frank Herbert? He was writing about this kind of thing decades ago. He said that people naturally make their leaders into gods and the leaders encourage them.

gene berman February 19, 2007 at 3:24 pm


You must be young. As you get older, you’ll most likely come to learn not to hold against people attitudes common in their day, especially due to insufficiency of knowledge and/or understanding.

An example is the English general reactivated to suppress the slave-trading activity in the vicinity of Khartoum, which had recently become more lawless on account of the army of the Mahdi. Though an active abolitionist, his experience of the poor black peoples of the area (and he did fight strenuously and dangerously against the slave-traders) boiled down to an opinion that most were so primitive and so ill-equipped intellectually that slavery represented their only chance of a decent survival and life (even as he was rescuing them from their captors). We might have other ideas but I find it unreasonable to find that fellow (whose name I forget but he was played by Alec Guiness in the movie “Khartoum.”) “despicable” for his thought. Same for Washington.

A way to think about this is whether you feel most of the people existing in the colonies-about-to-become and the new US were, to use the word again, “despicable.” In 70 years, I’ve found most “despicable” people are, in fact, despised of their contemporaries, even though the emotion might be suppressed at the time. (I do not mean this to be universal. People sometimes come to despise those they hadn’t and vice-versa. Some are better at fooling others and some are more easily fooled.) And plenty of the ordinary, too, are despicable, quite frankly.

The main point I’m making is that Washington was one of the most universally admired people of his day among (but not limited to) Americans.

Almost the only people of whom I’m aware that spoke negatively of him were those we would now recognize as having “conflicts of interest” with respect to position.

On his “Farewell” trip from DC to NYC (about 250 miles, approx.), the esteem in which he was held was clear in the turnout, along his route, of virtually the entire able population (including many who travelled considerable distances to take a place along that route).

That the Articles (and a future under them) were in any way superior to the eventually-ratified Constitution cannot be proven except by a stretch of the imagination–an exercise in “what if.” It matters not at all that you (or I, because I am sympathethic to the idea) think that things would have been better: that’s not what happenned and we have no alternate history from which we might choose the preferable between the two. This was a NEW place, different from every other place, in which most simply did their best to see that it might work for the best. Even then, they had their doubts.

The founders might have loved liberty, even in an amount primarily limited to their own. But they weren’t “libertarians” in a sense we’d recognize today. They hadn’t the knowledge or understanding that would emerge later. No one questioned a role for gov’t in “regulating commerce.” Some were influenced by the (French) Physiocrats, who had a rudimentary appreciation for the advantages of free trade and commerce. “Wealth of Nations” was only published in 1776, did not concern with minutia of political arrangements, and, indeed, provides only a very general recommendation for
non-intervention of authority.

Whatever you understand of the quest for freedom and the role of economic knowledge in that quest, you seem to forget that, like us all, you “stand on the shoulders of giants” in connecting the two spheres. Menger found subjectivity of value and sniffed his way along marginal analysis; Jevons and Walras saw subjectivity but didn’t draw it out further. Bohm learned from Menger and taught others. But only Mises put it all together in a somewhat unified theoretical framework; without his physical survival and work in this country, it’s likely the rest would all be long-forgotten (and it’s unlikely you would know enough to have much of an opinion on these matters, either).

Jacob Steelman February 19, 2007 at 3:32 pm

My vote as is the author’s is Grover Cleveland who resisted the pressure to inflate the currency during a recession. The creation of the Federal Reserve took over this responsibility and good by sound money.

gene berman February 19, 2007 at 3:55 pm

Should be an honorable mention for Eisenhower. A guy who slept and played golf as much as he did had to have had some deep-down distrust of gov’t activism. And “military-industrial complex” ain’t half bad, either.

Speaking of Eisenhower, I happened to be one of the very first people to know “his hat was in the ring” for the Republican nomination. I was 14 at the time and, by extraordinary circumstance, sat at the same table as had Ike just hours before when he told the guy I was talking to (who had persuaded him) that he’d decided to run. I should have taken bets!

Matt Canavan February 19, 2007 at 4:13 pm

I’d be interested to hear people’s thoughts on Reagan. I was suprised their has been no mention of him since he at least said that he wanted to reduce the role of government. Whether he did or not is another question.

The Dirty Mac February 19, 2007 at 6:13 pm


Pro – There is nobody today even remotely in the mainstream advocating returning the top income tax rate to 72% or any percentage approaching it.

Pro – He hastened the decline of the USSR by advancing policies that resulted in the price of oil declining.

Con – War on Drugs, govermnment spending

This has nothing to do with ideology, but Reagan was a positive change from the apocolyptic sadsack who preceded him.

Don Clark February 19, 2007 at 6:27 pm

I’ve told people for many years that my favourite President was Grover Cleveland. I’m glad to at last find someone who shares my preference. His message to Congress of 18 December 1893 opposing the annexation of Hawaii ranks as one of the greatest documents of American history, and I wish it were much better known.

A few choice quotes:

“If national honesty is to be disregarded and a desire for territorial extension, or dissatisfaction with a form of government not our own, ought to regulate our conduct, I have entirely misapprehended the mission and character of our Government and the behavior which the conscience of our people demands of their public servants …

“Our country was in danger of occupying the position of having actually set up a temporary government on foreign soil for the purpose of acquiring through that agency territory which we had wrongfully put in its possession. The control of both sides of a bargain acquired in such a manner is called by a familiar and unpleasant name when found in private transactions …

“It has been the boast of our government that it seeks to do justice in all things without regard to the strength or weakness of those with whom it deals. I mistake the American people if they favor the odious doctrine that there is no such thing as international morality, that there is one law for a strong nation and another for a weak one, and that even by indirection a strong power may with impunity despoil a weak one of its territory.”

Truer words were never spoken. Mister, we could use a man like Grover Cleveland again!!!

(P.S. At the very bottom of the list of Presidents–the absolute worst!–I would nominate the current occupant of the White House: George W. Bush, Jr.)

Mark Brabson February 19, 2007 at 6:56 pm

I personally would omit current and contemporary Presidents from ranking. President Reagan is just getting far enough in the past to view from a purely historical point of view. Probably another five years or so before we can historically evaluate the first President Bush.

However, the simple fact that President Bush has not, yet, slaughtered 600,000+ of his own citizens would seem to prevent him from obtaining a number 1 ranking over Lincoln for worst.

Don Clark February 19, 2007 at 7:45 pm

I personally don’t think we need a lot of historical perspective to know that a President who openly endorses torture as a national policy is an enemy of constitutional liberty and a menace to everything free people hold dear. One of the advantages of studying the past, after all, is to better judge the present.

I did find it rather interesting that several of the Presidents listed as “failures” (e.g. Cleveland, Grant) were hard-money advocates, while nearly all of the “greats” and “near-greats” inflated the currency (Washington being an exception). (In today’s climate even William Jennings Bryan would probably qualify as a “hard money advocate”.)

While studying Cleveland’s life, I have come to understand and agree with his position on the gold standard. By removing any rational limit to the growth of government, fiat money has probably done far more harm than good to ordinary people. In effect, it puts a penny in the fusebox.

The Pen February 19, 2007 at 8:15 pm

Too bad this opinion is the minority and not the majority. I get so tired of hearing people say how great FDR was.

Don Clark February 19, 2007 at 8:38 pm

I’m planning to give a history lecture on Benjamin Wade, who missed becoming President by one vote (during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial). If Wade had gotten in, he would have made FDR seem like Murray Rothbard.

P.M.Lawrence February 20, 2007 at 2:43 am

Gene Berman, you are thinking of the Scottish General Gordon (calling a Scot English is a definite faux pas, not a minor matter).

Interestingly, Burton observed that Muslim law regarding slaves forbade them being freed against their will – food for thought, until you find out just what was involved in freedom and slavery in those times and places.

It contrasts well with the case law that led to the abolition of slavery within the U.K., when someone had simply thrown out a sick slave and then tried to reclaim him after a kind stranger had helped him back to health.

The British approach led to throwing out all slaves, which was OK on that scale because of enough kind strangers, but a disaster for at least some when Lincoln did it. A lot of slaves were past an age and health when they could fend for themselves any more – so much for Lincoln’s suggestion that they should just root like hogs.

Also interesting is what happened to slaves who got freed in French and Belgian colonies. They were simply moved across to native armed forces, which were then topped up from orphans who had outgrown missionary care – something very like Uganda’s rebel armies today. Oh, and freed convicts in French Guiana were worse off than serving ones, who at least had barracks and rations.

gene berman February 20, 2007 at 8:11 am


You’re damn right! I do make passes at them French foxes. Prolly do better when I kin git some of the lingo, too.

And I don’t care where he was born–he was English if he was “a-servin’ of Her Majesty, the Queen.” And, by that token, the bhisti was English, too–and maybe the elephants, if you looked into the matter.

It is something interesting to note (and I don’t believe I’ve EVER seen it mentioned before, though I’ve understood it for nearly 50 years):
it’s impossible to actually outlaw slavery. The contracts may be criminalized and any coercive restraint, etc., as well. But the relationship, though suspected, cannot even be detected, given determined conspirators.

John Pappas February 20, 2007 at 8:51 am

On Universities there is an old saying regarding tenure ” Publish or perish”. Historians gravitate towards war presidents because History books having to do with war sell the best.

Bill Ott February 20, 2007 at 12:28 pm

I like Eisenhower and Grant:
Neither had this nation killing its own or someone elses children for pointless reasons. Neither did much(ALWAYS A GOOD THING IN THIS DAY AND AGE). Neither could do much as their agendas were contrary to that of their Congresses.

I guess these historians would like Presidents who got along with Congress and pass volumes of freedom killing legislation and lived on the fringe of getting the US into a war.

My votes for worst are from worst:
Nixon-He had the gaul to pick the collegiate national football champion. He bombed the poor people in Cambodia, he passed wage and price controls.
FDR-enough said.
Wilson-Enough said.
Bush 2-Literally almost as bad as the others.

Ken Larson February 20, 2007 at 6:29 pm

Politicians make no difference.

We have bought into the Military Industrial Complex (MIC) ever since we took on Russia in the Cold WAR.

Through a combination of public apathy and threats by the MIC we have let the SYSTEM get too large. It is now a SYSTEMIC problem and the SYSTEM is out of control.

I am a 2 tour Vietnam Veteran who recently retired after 36 years of working in the Defense Industrial Complex on many of the weapons systems being used by our forces as we speak.

There is no conspiracy. The SYSTEM has gotten so big that those who make it up and run it day to day in industry and government simply are perpetuating their existance.

The politicians rely on them for details and recommendations because they cannot possibly grasp the nuances of the environment and the BIG SYSTEM.

So, the system has to go bust and then be re-scaled, fixed and re-designed to run efficiently and prudently, just like any other big machine that runs poorly or becomes obsolete or dangerous.

This situation will right itself through trauma. I see a government ENRON on the horizon, with an associated house cleaning.

The next president will come and go along with his appointees and politicos. The event to watch is the collapse of the MIC.

For more details see:


P.M.Lawrence February 20, 2007 at 7:07 pm

Mr. Berman, your earlier remarks could have been put down to an innocent ignorance. But you have just been told, so your “I don’t care” tossing the term “English” around like that is gratuitously offensive to people like me, of Scottish and Irish ancestry, for whom British is an accurate description but English is not.

Mr. Berman, given that you not only now know that you should not call people like us English, but you repeated the offence and rubbed it in by adding that you did not care – given all that, it is clear that whatever elase you are, you are an offensive boor.

Kent McManigal February 20, 2007 at 9:25 pm

I fully understand the importance of upholding the oath of office, but I also realize that voters do not place any importance on this anymore. The only thing they are concerned about is “what can the government give me?” In my campaign for president, I am not holding my breath that Americans will decide to hold politicians accountable anytime soon. I will still preach “Liberty” regardless.

DS February 21, 2007 at 6:26 am

“They hadn’t the knowledge or understanding that would emerge later.”

So where did the anti-federalists get their ideas? The anti-federalists, the defenders of the article of confederation, understood a greta many things that were “forgotten” once the constitution was ratified. The knowledge was there, it was simply pushed into the back country. Read “the anti-federalist papers”.

gene berman February 21, 2007 at 11:46 am


The ideas to which I referred are those of Economics, not those of political organization.

I have no dog in the dispute between those who bemoan that the Articles were not more faithfully replicated in the Constitution. The arrangement under the Articles provided more clearly for seccession, an idea I favor–but I couldn’t give you much in the way of a reasoned argument for my preference, just that that’s what I think is a better arrangement. And, as long as the present arrangement doesn’t allow for seccession, I don’t see much point in talking or even thinking about the benefits–which are not actually perfectly obvious, no matter what one might prefer. The arguments in favor of each were already in existence at the time, as you’ve pointed out.

But that’s not what I spoke of. The economic arguments do not favor one form of arrangement over another–they favor the regognition, in the arrangement of whatever entity exists, that interference by that entity with the economic activities of its people or the redistribution of the wealth of some of them to others–is “no way to run an airline” and will lead to worse conssequences than the ones they sought to make better with their original interference. That’s something that applies to both (or either) of the organizational types we’re discussing. The smaller or less-centralized State is not particularly less likely to engage in bad economic policies or even in infringement of various rights: they’re just somewhat less capable of enforcing their bad judgment over those who might choose to “vote with their feet.”

gene berman February 21, 2007 at 12:49 pm

Mr. Lawrence:

I see that I’ve offended you and assure that it wasn’t my intention. As a matter of fact, I even interpreted your original post as somewhat tongue-in-cheek with regard to the words “not a minor matter” and hadn’t even connected it to an actual feeling provoked by my conflation of the two peoples. Indeed, just an ordinary consideration for accuracy would have prevented that mistake
in the case, for instance, that your name had been signed Macgregor, one more recognizable (to me) as Scottish. You may believe that my mistake was not innocent but I am certain I was guilty of no intention to offend nor even of indifference as to whether my remarks might offend. In all honesty, it simply didn’t occur (at the time) to me as a likelihood that anyone might have such feelings–as I said, I took the parenthetical expression (in your correction as to Gordon’s nationality) as a jest, perhaps alluding to more distant animosities.

I’ve tried to be clear. Everybody’s entitled to whatever happen to be their feelings and I NEVER
intentionally attempt to damage same or even engage in remarks which seem to me likely to do so. I’ve got 60 years behind me of consistent behavior in that wise and some more about which my memory is only somewhat less reliable.

That’s my apology. Additionally, I’d like to add that there are hundreds of millions of people to whose opinion of me as an offensive boor I’d be completely indifferent. But you are not one of them.

gaius gracchus February 25, 2007 at 5:55 am

I quite agree with you the Constitution is a flop. What the framers intended and what they expected are neither of them what we actually have after more than 2 centuties of buffeting by history – nor, in some regards, what we would want.

So, time to try again?

Would you suggest specific changes to the existing constitution, or do you think things have gone so far wrong we ought to give this business of constitution-making from scratch another shot?

Third try a charm?

David White February 25, 2007 at 7:29 am

gaius gracchus,

Since the enemy is the state, and since constitutionalism is statism, the goal must be to decentralize the state (dissolve the Union via secession) until free society finally gets its chance, demonstrating that neither a state nor a constitution is necessary.

Daniel M. Ryan February 25, 2007 at 1:57 pm

A good point, David, and one that explains the paradoxical hostility, back in ’81 and ’82, to the (1982) Charter of Rights and Freedoms amongst otherwise freedom-oriented Conservatives in my home land of Canada.

Don Clark February 26, 2007 at 12:09 am

I realise that what I have to say will not be popular in a libertarian blog, but I will say it anyway, because I think it’s the truth.
If one believes, as several of the posters here seem to, that “the enemy is the state”, then the solution is obvious: abolish government altogether. But, if one believes (as I do) that government is both absolutely necessary and mortally dangerous, then a way must be found to empower government to do what it must do, while preventing the people’s servant from becoming their master.
I feel that there are at least three structural features that, in tandem, can accomplish this result:
1) There should be a hard currency, backed by a precious metal such as gold, silver, or platinum (my own preference being silver), so that government, like individuals, must live within its means;
2) The units of sovereignty should be kept as small as possible, so that people can personally know those whom they entrust with their affairs, and so that government will be “demystified” (i.e. seen as a human agency for meeting human needs, and not converted to a demi-god and made the object of quasi-religious worship); and
3) It seems to me that there are only two fundamental principles by which heads of state can be selected: ambition and chance. Since political ambition is always dangerous to individual freedom, the second principle should be preferred. So the best form of government is probably some kind of constitutional monarchy.
I am not opposed to democracy per se–indeed, I feel that it should be the dominant principle of government. But it should be balanced by other principles in order to compensate for its shortcomings, and to prevent democracy from self-destructing.

David White February 26, 2007 at 7:33 am

Don Clark,

“If one believes, as several of the posters here seem to, that “the enemy is the state”, then the solution is obvious: abolish government altogether.”

The problem is, the state won’t allow those who oppose it to divorce themselves from it, nor will it allow the decentralization that even those who recognize that the state is inherently immoral would favor.

To me, this only reinforces the fact that the state is the enemy, all the more so as our present welfare-warfare colossus exhausts itself amid the burgeoning fiat fiasco. But look for it to expand rather than contract, at least in the near term:


Mark Brabson February 26, 2007 at 10:34 am

Don Clark:

In my proposed “Articles of Confederation” I have specifically addressed your first point. Any proposed governing document must have strong prohibitions against fiat money. As you can see, I have gone the full length to strangle inflationary robbery before it can even get started.

From proposed Article VI.

No State shall emit bills of credit nor charter a central banking institution. Each bank under a State’s jurisdiction shall be required to maintain one hundred percent reserves on its demand deposits and one hundred percent reserves against any banknotes. All banknotes issued shall state particularly the commodity backing the note, the weight of the commodity and shall state the note shall be redeemable on demand. No State shall ever pass any legal tender laws. All money coined under State authority or privately shall be gold or silver and each coin shall state its content of gold or silver. All States shall only make disbursements in gold or silver coin or bullion. No State shall make any law prohibiting the use of money lawfully coined in any other state. This section shall not be construed to prohibit the coining of platinum money for collector purposes.

From proposed Article VII.

Each state shall raise its assessment in such manner as it shall see fit. Each state shall pay its assessment to the Confederate Treasury on a quarterly basis. The Confederate States in Congress assembled shall establish the due dates for each quarterly assessment. All assessments shall be paid in gold or silver coin or bullion. Special assessments levied under the provision of the second section of the eighth article shall be remitted separately from regular assessments and all assessments collected under such section shall be placed in a separate Treasury fund to be used solely for paying off the instrument of debt for which the assessment shall by law be made.
All payments and disbursements made by the Confederate States in Congress assembled shall be paid in gold or silver coin or bullion.
The Confederate States in Congress Assembled shall never emit bills of credit nor shall the Congress charter any central banking institution nor pass any legal tender laws nor coin money.

Mark Brabson February 26, 2007 at 10:41 am

Don Clark:

As for your second and third points:

I have designed a confederation, rather than a union, so that the individual states would be the sovereign units, not the confederacy, in fact in Article I, I go so far as to make this explicit.

As for the whole issue of the head of state. There would be no central executive at all. Department heads would report to Congress directly and would serve at the pleasure of Congress. The President would essentially be a ceremonial figurehead only, serving at the pleasure of Congress. I have dealt with the dangers of a strong executive, simply by eliminating the position entirely.

Clifford F. Thies February 26, 2007 at 1:49 pm

I think it is fair to contrast the historians to contemporary popular opinion.

The historians count as near great Woodrow Wilson, who was re-elected with a minority vote and who was succeeded by the candidate of the opposing party.

Contrariwise, historicans are dismissive of Calvin Coolidge, who was elected in his own name in a landslide and who was succeeded by the candidate of his party.

If “greatness” required being re-elected (or elected in your own name following an ascension to President) in a landslide and being succeeded by the candidate of your party, then we have had only two great presidents since Coolidge: FDR and RR.

FDR, it might be said, saved us the Great Depression; or, it might be said, prolonged the Great Depression, depending on how you interpret the numbers. Putting that matter to the side, FDR could be credited with being our president during the war against fascism, and saving us and the world from a very, very bad thing.

RR, it might be said, restored America’s confidence following a period of inflation, creeping taxes, economic malaise, and the expansionism of Soviet-style communism. I think it could be said that his “greatness” was mostly in un-doing the problems that were befalling us due to inflation.

At this juncture of our nation’s history, with an advanced welfare-warfare state, it seems to me that it is be very difficult for anybody to be a great president.

Don Clark February 27, 2007 at 12:36 am

It seems to me that what we want is not so much great Presidents, or even a great country, but rather a country in which individuals can be great because they are free.

It has long seemed to me that the greatness of a nation’s leaders tends to have an inverse relationship to the greatness of its people.

J.G March 25, 2007 at 10:52 am

You all are up in your sleep

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