History

Reason Writers Around Town: Presidential Preferences

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Today National Review Online is running a symposium on the perennial question, "Who is your favorite president?" It includes picks by Reason Contributing Editor John Hood, Reason contributor Bill Kauffman, and Reason Senior Editor Jacob Sullum.

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  1. William Henry Harrison.

    He did what I wish the last 5-6 presidents should have done:

    Dropped Dead

  2. Fuck you Taktix? for getting it in first. 😉

    I really admire Washington, Jefferson, and Eisenhower. GWB and James Buchanan are at the bottom.

  3. Buchanan, our only bachelor president and only Pennsylvanian, apparently believed the constitution permitted secession. This is still debated today. So why is he “worst” if he upheld his principled position to defend the constitution? One could as easily argue that the sainted Lincoln was the “worst.”

  4. Coolidge- now more than ever!

  5. Grover Cleveland was pretty good.

  6. Coolidge was the best. Wilson was the worst.

  7. Jefferson:

    The remaining revenue on the consumption of foreign articles is paid chiefly by those who can afford to add foreign luxuries to domestic comforts, being collected on our seaboard and frontiers only, and incorporated with the transactions of our mercantile citizens, it may be the pleasure and the pride of an American to ask, What farmer, what mechanic, what laborer ever sees a taxgatherer of the United States?

    But, uh, Mr. President, when your main source of revenue is trade, do you think neutrality between France and England was the right decision, considering that it led to a total breakdown in trade and military unreadiness, ultimately allowing the British to burn down the first White House?

    We’re still cool though, bro.

  8. Nah, George Washington was a scumbag. He invaded Pennsylvania with the U.S. Army to demand that the farmers there pay Hamilton’s tax on whiskey (which oddly enough kneecapped smaller producers while taxing large producers like George Washington relatively lightly).

    It was also his unprovoked attack on a French diplomatic party which triggerred the French Indian War, which cause a great deal of misery across North America.

    Oh, and he kept getting has ass kicked in the Revolutionary war. Thank God the French Navy was there to save his bacon (and how bad a commander do you have to be to be rescued by the French)?

    To quote Peter Griffin:
    “Not a fan, Louis, not a fan.” 🙂

  9. Oh, and he kept getting has ass kicked in the Revolutionary war.

    Dunno about that. The hardest thing for a commander to do is maintain a viable military force in the face of superior opposition, which Washington did.

    He had pretty much managed to turn the tide by Yorktown, which, after all, consisted of bottling up the British army.

    Thank God the French Navy was there to save his bacon

    The French Navy at no time was a match for the British Navy. By the time of Yorktown, the British public was pretty well worn out on the war (thanks to Washington surviving as long as he had), and they were unwilling to commit to a major naval engagement to keep the war going.

    All the British Navy could have done was evacuate Cornwallis, possibly to put him ashore somewhere else.

    So, I think Washington still gets major props as a commander.

  10. “Buchanan, our only bachelor president and only Pennsylvanian, apparently believed the constitution permitted secession. This is still debated today. So why is he “worst” if he upheld his principled position to defend the constitution? One could as easily argue that the sainted Lincoln was the “worst.”

    A better way of putting it is that the Constitution was not delegated any power to prohibit secession. That is the 10th Amendment.

    Three of the original states that ratifed the Constitution, Virginia, Rhode Island and Massachussetts, explictly stated at the time ratification that they reserved the right to secceed.

    Other states had threatened to secceed prior to the prior to the incorrectly named “Civil War”. Probably the most significant example was a threat by South Carolina to do so during Andrew Jackson’s presidency.

    Lincoln basically ignored the Constitution and illegally used force to conquer the secceeding states and force them back into the union.

  11. ‘Buchanan, our only bachelor president and only Pennsylvanian, apparently believed the constitution permitted secession. This is still debated today. So why is he “worst” if he upheld his principled position to defend the constitution? One could as easily argue that the sainted Lincoln was the “worst.”‘

    Buchanan isn’t the worst, because of all the competition he had in the 20th century. He’s the worst because, *before* the secession crisis, he tried to use federal power – up to and beyond the limits of the Constitution – to force slavery down the throats of the country.

    In the secession crisis, Buchanan actually acted prudently, given that he was a lame duck facing an unprecedented situation. He gets blamed for not starting the Civil War right away, but I’m not going to criticize him for *that.* He didn’t say secession was legal, but he did have doubts as to how far the federal government could go in suppressing secessionists. He didn’t think the feds could act against a state *qua* state, but he also seemed to believe that the federal government could act against individual lawbreakers, even if they claimed the support of a secessionist state. He sent a ship to relieve Fort Sumter, but it was shot at – the war didn’t start then, but it could have.

    I would put Cleveland as the greatest President. Jefferson is in the running for greatest philosopher, but as a President he wasn’t among the greats. Coolidge was OK, as was Harding. They have the advantage of being compared to their predecessors and successors, next to whom just about anyone would look good.

  12. What I meant to say is that the Constitution did not delagate any power to the federal government to prohibit succession.

  13. I should have said that Buchanan is *among* the worst.

  14. Also, Washington and Cleveland are a tie. Washington is greater than Cleveland if you consider *all* of Washington’s career. As Pres, he was Cleveland’s equal.

  15. I wish they had this up at Commentary Magazine, the list would then go: Hamilton, Hamilton, Lincoln, Lincoln, Hamilton, Hamilton, T. Roosevelt, Hamilton, Lincoln, T. Roosevelt, Lincoln, Hamilton.

  16. Woodrow Wilson was definitely the worst both in foreign affairs and domestic. As for “least worst,” well, at this point there are a number of contenders but I would go with van Buren right now.

  17. R.C. Dean,

    The French Navy at no time was a match for the British Navy.

    They didn’t have to be.

    I would note that Rochambeau was the one who suggested marching down to Yorktown; Washington wanted to liberate New York (it was something of a pride issue as I understand). There is a reason why there is a statue of Rochambeau in D.C.

  18. Supreme Leader Aaron Burr III, of course.

  19. Jerry,

    Happily, Hamilton was never President. Though he may have tried to initiate a coup d’etat.

  20. Maybe Jerry is ranking the guys on money:

    Franklin
    Jefferson
    Washinton
    Grant
    Lincoln
    Jackson
    Hamilton

  21. Although Hamilton is worth two Lincolns, any day.

  22. The French Navy at no time was a match for the British Navy.

    They didn’t have to be.

    They would have had to be if the British had decided to put it to the test. Which they didn’t because they didn’t, at that late date, think it was worth it, especially given recent reversals on the ground.

    I would note that Rochambeau was the one who suggested marching down to Yorktown;

    Didn’t know that. No question, the French of the time knew their land warfare. Although I would note that not even Napoleon could beat Wellington in the Peninsular War, in spite of having superior forces, and Wellington’s general strategy has some striking similarities to Washington’s. Wellington, of course, also had a freer hand to avoid standing and fighting than Washington did, fighting as he was in a foreign country.

  23. It’s a good thing I’m not vying for American citizenship 🙂

  24. In what manner he would have performed himself if the holy angels had shoved the Depression forward a couple of years – this we can only guess, and one man’s hazard is as good as another’s. My own is that he would have responded to bad times precisely as he responded to good ones – that is, by pulling down the blinds, stretching his legs upon his desk, and snoozing away the lazy afternoons…. He slept more than any other President, whether by day or by night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored…. Counting out Harding as a cipher only, Dr. Coolidge was preceded by one World Saver and followed by two more. What enlightened American, having to choose between any of them and another Coolidge, would hesitate for an instant? There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.

    H.L. Mencken

    Jacob – Zaphod Beeblebrox FTW

  25. Actually, Buchanan belieced secession was unconstitutional, but too much of a pushover under the thumb of the slave power to do anything about it.

  26. “He had no ideas, and he was not a nuisance.”
    I’ll seriously vote for anyone who adopts this as a campaign slogan.

  27. I don’t have “favorite” presidents. They’re all politicians, so therefore scum.

  28. So Epi, would you favor pond scum, or that scum that forms on your teeth after a night of drinking?

  29. I’m more into shower scum, myself.

  30. So after all the Lincoln love at NRO, can we finally do away with the idea of conservatives being for smaller government?

  31. It was also his unprovoked attack on a French diplomatic party which triggerred the French Indian War, which cause a great deal of misery across North America.

    The Austrian impulse to engage in historical revisionism strikes again.

    Washington received word that there was a raiding party on the way and he ambushed them. A case of mistaken identity, maybe, but framing it as some kind of Archduke Ferdinand moment is not honest! Especially since something so minor could not, and surprise, surprise, did not trigger war in and of itself. War between the British and the French was coming. Blaming Washington is piss-poor history.

    Oh, and he kept getting has ass kicked in the Revolutionary war.

    Again, just not true. Washington and Knox drove Howe from Boston. After that, Washington managed to withdraw from New York without British discovery (if you don’t think that’s impressive, go look it up). Did the New York/New Jersey campaign go well? No, not until the Christmas raid in Princeton, combined with Washington’s direction of the NJ militia during that winter, forcing Cornwallis back to NYC proper.

    I mean, where do you get this stuff?

  32. Bingo | February 16, 2009, 11:27am | #
    So after all the Lincoln love at NRO, can we finally do away with the idea of conservatives being for smaller government?

    Why start now?

  33. Warren G Harding — Conquered a recession with a free market temperament, reversed many of war criminal Wilson’s atrocious policies, put a dent in the Red Scare with a pardon of Debs. Whored around a bit, and was at least corrupt enough for a major scandal. I see no evidence of claim to saint hood, so a good all around bloke.

  34. R.C. Dean,

    Napoleon had a hard time in Spain because what Napoleon was best at – organization and the use artillery – wasn’t that effective in fighting a partisan campaign. That and his efforts really alienated large segments of the Spanish population.

    Anyway, for better or worse w/o the French the Revolution would have been if not impossible to carry off then a far less likely affair to lead to success. Eventually the colonies might have broken away, but that could have been fifty or sixty or a hundred years later.

    That’s not to suggest that the French were altruistic in their support; nor was the fledling U.S. altruistic either (as the peace deal eventually hammered out shows I think).

  35. The Angry Optimist,

    Except for the Whiskey rebellion, I have never fully understood my fellow Austrio-partisans distaste in Washington. Even given the WR, his farewell address should at least make up for much of the things they find to be to their displeasure in Washington.

  36. What, no TJ love?

    Avoiding foreign entanglements.
    Repealing the Alien and Sedition Acts.
    Fighting tooth and nail to prevent a national bank.
    Being a big fat thorn in the side of Hamilton.

    Fuck, even having Aaron Burr as a VP was an accomplishment.

    Zombie Jefferson 12′ !!!

  37. Worst is a relative thing, does Carter really suck worse than Ford, Is Clinton really a bigger douche that Regan? We’re not dead, the country is intact and for the most part today is no so crappy as yesterday through no help or hinderance of el presedente (whoever he/she/it is at the moment) so they must not have been too too terrrible (just because they didn’t further YOUR agenda/position).

  38. No, not until the Christmas raid in Princeton, combined with Washington’s direction of the NJ militia during that winter, forcing Cornwallis back to NYC proper.

    Close enough, but Cornwallis was running the “Southern Strategy” while Gen. CLinton was in charge of the forces occupying NY…

  39. Holy crap, that was way wrong!

    Sorry, I’m not awake yet…

  40. Why do Austrian followers always say the opposite of mainstream historians, no matter what the issue?

  41. BDB – it’s like this compulsive disease.

    Historian: “George Washington was a…”

    AUSTRO-ZOMBIE: “SCUMBAG!!!”

  42. BDB | February 16, 2009, 12:08pm | #
    Why do Austrian followers always say the opposite of mainstream historians, no matter what the issue?

    Mainstream tends to equate greatness with the expansion of power. Just watch a round table discussion featuring Doris&Friends on the Lehrer News Hour for the kind of amorality that should make any Libertarian hurl.

  43. Top three in no particular order: Calvin Coolidge, Grover Cleveland, & Thomas Jefferson

  44. Love me some Coolidge.

    My favorites would probably be Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and our friend Calvin.

    Was Warren G. Harding not involved in the Tea Pot Dome Scandal?

  45. But Washington is ranked as great precisely because he was willing to give up his power when he could have been President-for-Life.

  46. How many other revolutionary leaders can you name that gave up power voluntarily and peacefully before they died? I can’t think of any in modern times besides Washington.

  47. How many other revolutionary leaders can you name that gave up power voluntarily and peacefully before they died?

    Allende comes to mind, depending on where you draw the line between “revolution” and “revolt/coup.”

    Ortego also, maybe, depending on what you mean by “peacefully” and whether trying to take power again democratically counts as “giving up power.”

  48. BDB – Simon Bolivar.

  49. I should rush to add that he wasn’t exactly the model by which leaders should give up power, but strictly speaking, he peacefully left pre-death.

  50. BDB – Fidel Castro

  51. True, but he became a dictator near the end and gave up on checks and balances and democracy.

    Bernardo O’Higgins (of Chile) though, is a lot like Washington.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernardo_O%27Higgins

  52. “Johnny Nowhere | February 16, 2009, 1:15pm | #
    BDB – Fidel Castro”

    Yeah, but he handed it off to his brother. I should have added “democratically” I guess.

  53. “Buchanan, our only bachelor president and only Pennsylvanian”

    No, Clinton was a bachelor too. Oh, and he was also our first black president.

  54. Mainstream tends to equate greatness with the expansion of power.

    True, but in the same way you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, you don’t bring a 19th century Jeffersonian republic to fight fascism and communism in the 20th. Doubly so if your republic has split into 2 (or more) nations that have long simmering disputes that flare up every couple of decades.

    Hamilton was right. Clay was right. Jackson (wrt BUS) was wrong. And if Buchanan and the copperheads would have got their way, liberty is dead by the start of the 21 century.

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