At Human Events, Jarrett Stepman presents his selection of the top five most underrated U.S. presidents. They are: Warren G. Harding, James K. Polk, Thomas Jefferson, William McKinley, and Ulysses S. Grant.
It’s a strange gathering. On the one hand, it’s nice to see Harding make the cut, since, as Stepman puts it, Harding “turned the economy around by introducing an economic program opposite of President Obama’s,” a program that included tax cuts, spending cuts, and the elimination of various government regulations. Stepman doesn’t mention it, but Harding also deserves credit for rolling back the wartime assault on civil liberties launched by his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. Among other things, Harding pardoned the socialist leader Eugene Debs, who had spent three years in federal prison for delivering an anti-war speech that ran afoul of Wilson’s notorious Espionage Act. Wilson steadfastly refused to free Debs even after the First World War was over.
But other entries leave something to be desired. Although Stepman does stipulate that “each one of these five men had flaws and significant failures during their time as president,” his case for William McKinley comes up particularly short. Yes, McKinley had been moving slightly away from protectionism and towards a more free-trade friendly position by the time he was assassinated in 1901, but Stepman’s celebration of McKinley as “an effective war leader” is just bizarre. The Spanish-American War, which McKinley launched in 1898 in order to “liberate” Cuba from Spain, quickly spawned America’s long and bloody occupation of the Philippines, an undeclared conflict that lasted until Wilson’s presidency and resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Filipinos as well as several thousand U.S. troops. Like the Cubans, the Filipinos only wanted out from under Spanish control. Instead they found themselves subjected to the rule of portly U.S. Governor-General William Howard Taft (among other American officials). I don’t see anything worth honoring about McKinley’s wars.
Finally, for my money, no list of underrated presidents is complete without old Grover Cleveland. Though he too had his shortcomings, particularly when he called out federal troops in 1894 to suppress the Pullman strike on dubious Commerce Clause grounds, Cleveland mostly stuck to the classical liberal side of things by supporting free trade, sound money, and non-interventionism. If only we could say that about either major party candidate today.