Top Five Underrated U.S. Presidents


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.

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  1. I second the Grover Cleveland sentiment. I didn’t know much about him, but after learning more – including a recent “History Channel” special on the presidents – I gotta give some love to any Pres who vetoes as many bills as he did.

    Grover Cleveland – Top 5 Fer Sure

    1. Yup. Thirded. He gets screwed in history books b/c of the 1893 Depression, but he was honest. Or as honest as you can get in a politicians.

    2. He tried to un-annex Hawai’i. The man is an unsung hero.

  2. “It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged. ”

    ? G.K. Chesterton

    1. Now that is a quote I can love.

      1. “Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilisation, what there is particularly immortal about yours? “

  3. Free Eugene Debs!

    Wait, that would make for a great protest sign at an Occupy rally.

    1. You know who else promoted policies based on scientific racism, thought civil liberties were an intolerable impediment to his plans for the nation, got his nation into a World War, and imprisoned socialists?

      But seriously… what exactly distinguishes Wilson’s political philosophy from generic Fascism?

  4. Millard Fillmore gets no love? I am disappoint.

    1. He got a comic duck named after him.

      1. I’m still not sure if that’s love or not.

        Considering how funny that strip usually is, it’s more like a back-handed slap.

        1. Are you saying it is Bok-ian in quality?

  5. James K Polk is underrated? He is already ranked in the top tier.
    I’d say top 5, easily.

    1. Well he does have a TMBG song about him, so that’s gotta count for something.

  6. We are the mediocre presidents.
    You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
    There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
    There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
    There’s William Henry Harrison,


    1. I died in 30 days!

  7. Tom Woods, in one of his books on US history, had a great section about how absurd the criteria is for who gets declared a great president. A president who was more or less hands off and didn’t try to manage the country gets dinged because he didn’t have enough “accomplishments” but presidents who push through mountains of legislation, go to war, and expand government get credited, even if the results were disastrous.

    1. A president who was more or less hands off and didn’t try to manage the country gets dinged because he didn’t have enough “accomplishments” but presidents who push through mountains of legislation, go to war, and expand government get credited, even if the results were disastrous.

      That’s how some argue that Ron Paul’s stint at Congress was “ineffective,” despite the fact that all his proposed bills could pass Consitutional muster with flying colors and more.

      1. I have a friend who makes the exact same argument about Rand Paul. Authoring bills and vigorously defending civil liberties or trying to get us out of wars isn’t enough. He needs to “work with the rest of them” to get his bills passed, otherwise he’s just a waste.

    2. Well, “great” can mean either very good, or very large. I think that they must mean the latter when they refer to “great presidents”. Their accomplishments may not have done good for the country, but they were on a large scale. Can’t really argue with that.

      1. I don’t think so. I’m referring the the various historical rankings (which are best on who was the “best”) that are published, as well as general public sentiment

        1. Those rankings are also doubly hilarious because the current president is always ranked near the top or near the bottom. Apparently we don’t have mediocre presidents anymore.

          1. It is almost like the historians let their partisan views get in the way.

            My guess is that in a hundred years no one will remember Bill Clinton anymore than people remember Grover Cleveland. When the history of the late 20th Century is written, it will be people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who are remembered just like people remember Rockefeller and Carnegie and forget all of the Presidents between Grant and Teddy Roosevelt.

            1. We’ve had a very long run of mediocre-to-shitty presidents. Congress is even worse.

              1. Eisenhower was very good. Kennedy was at best an incomplete. Johnson and Nixon were horrible. Ford was the definition of mediocre. Carter was horrible. Reagan was very good. Bush I was good. Clinton was mediocre. Bush was somewhere above horrible and below mediocre. And Obama has been horrible.

                1. Bush I was not good. He should never have gotten involved in Iraq and when he did he should have finished Sadaam off instead of leaving the mess for his son.

                  1. He should have ejected Iraq from Kuwait. That was a huge success. And as for finishing Saddam. He knew doing that would take ten years of occupation. And he was right. The country didn’t have the will to do that at that point. And he didn’t have the international mandate to do that.

                  2. I dunno; the more I read about Bush the elder the better I think he was. We probably should not have gotten involved with Iraq/Kuwait at all, but at least he was smart enough to know that going into Iraq and removing Hussein would open an immense can of worms. Shame his son wasn’t that smart.

                2. Eisenhower engineered the system by which the federal government killed the 10th Amendment (want your highway grant money? Bend over and take it in the shorts.) Kennedy was not incomplete, just breathtakingly incompetent, especially in the realm of foreign policy (Vietnam was his baby, despite what the press would like to believe.) Johnson, I concur. Nixon only committed two sins: first he was in the wrong party. Second, he was born 40 years too soon. In the age of extraordinary rendition and drone process, burglary wouldn’t have made the front page.

            2. I’d say Eisenhower was mediocre, maybe above average, Kennedy incomplete, Johnson and Nixon awful, Ford mediocre, Carter bad, Reagan above average, Bush I mediocre to below average, Clinton mediocre, Bush II bad, Obama horrible

              1. Bush I strikes me as the last adult president that we’ve had. Not particularly good, but not an example of arrested development, either.

              2. I’d say Eisenhower and Kennedy, pretty awful. Johnson and Nixon, very awful. Ford, pretty awful. Carter, awful. Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, pretty awful. Bush II and Obama, very awful.

                How I pine for a mediocre president.

    3. Agreed Cali dissident,
      The criteria should start with peace and prosperity. Two things politicians promise yet can’t seem to deliver.

      Or as a little green philosopher once stated, “Wars not make one great.”

      1. If peace and prosperity are the criteria, Eisenhower should be near the top. He got us through the worst of the cold war and out of Korea.

        1. No argument from me on that. I like Ike.

          1. Didn’t Ike expand SS?

            1. Yes he did, But this isn’t a list of libertarian purity. I can’t think of one president who was pure.

        2. Eisenhower should be near the top

          If rephrased in terms of ‘least bad’, that’s pretty hard to argue with, if for no other reason than the farewell speech (military-industrial complex). That much actual content, let alone reasonable content, is just about inconceivable from any mainstream politician nowdays.

  8. Jefferson is underrated?

    I guess maybe as a president, but he does have two currencies with his picture.

    1. He’s movin’ on up!

  9. i actually think Washington’s underrated in terms of actually BEING president. His restraint, consideration for precedence and ability to manage his warring cabinet all suggest what a great leader he was.

    Jefferson? I think he’s actually overrated. Or maybe it’s overvenerated.

    1. Washington’s at the top of my list. He could’ve destroyed limited government but chose to embrace it instead.

      1. I especially like Washington and cut him a lot of slack because he had so much personal integrity, such as turning down several people urging him to become a military ruler, and because he didn’t want to be President, but only did it because it helped start the new country going. Or at least that’s my take on him.

        His warning about foreign entanglements warms my heart. I only wish we could get rid of all foreign treaties, bases, embassies, and everything else related to foreign entanglements. Rent the UN land at a fair market price, make them pay property taxes, and otherwise ignore them except that no diplomatic immunity; you forget to pay the meter, they tow your car.

    2. Jefferson thought a lot of goofy things. He pretty much rejected the industrial revolution in favor of small self sufficient rural communities. Had Jefferson had his way, there never would have been a modern US economy.

      Libertarians like to bitch and moan about Hamilton. But history proved Hamilton right.

      1. Jefferson also totally ignored the Constitution when it suited his purposes. The Louisiana Purchase and the retaliatory attack on the Barbary Pirates were constitutionally questionable by contemporary standards. The treason prosecution of Aaron Burr was completely unconstitutional by any reasonable standard.

      2. Why, thanks!

      3. I think Jefferson was wrong on some things but right on others. More often, he was right, at least philosophically speaking. However, I think Hamilton was generally not right.

        1. He got the government on a decent financial footing after the revolutionary war. Hamilton set up the banking system. Economically he was totally right.

          1. I think central banking was a big mistake, but he did help to alleviate all of the debt. He hurt us quite a bit with some centralizing precedents, though I suppose they were inevitable.

            1. You can’t blame what FDR did a hundred and twenty years later on Hamilton. I would take the government Hamilton created back in a minute.

              1. Precedent. Heck, I’d trade the government twenty years ago for now.

                1. Just five years ago, pre-bailout spending anyone?

              2. You can’t blame what FDR did a hundred and twenty years later on Hamilton. I would take the government Hamilton created back in a minute.

                Central banking was revived under Woodrow Wilson, but Hamilton pioneered its use in the U.S.

      4. Hamilton was right. History has proven that being a lying shitbag who pays lip service to limited government while actually using government to further the ends of you and your cronies is a fairly stable and workable strategy.

      5. Hamilton may have been right in that industrialization was a good thing, but the way he wanted to go about it was awful. This was the guy who wanted presidents for life and senators appointed by the president, and a move towards a unitary federal state. Not to mention his take on industrializing was by no means a free market one. He supported all sorts of cronyist ploys. Fuck Hamilton. Hamilton was the earliest big advocate of a lot of the stuff that is wrong with this country

      6. Jefferson was correct that tax money shouldn’t have been used to fund internal improvements. If a less modern industrial economy resulted from this, it is not something that anybody was entitled to anyway.

      7. Libertarians like to bitch and moan about Hamilton. But history proved Hamilton right.

        Hamilton pushed for a strong central bank and an active market in government debt.

        History will prove Libertarians correct, when this Hamiltonian dream government comes crashing down along with its currency.

  10. Chester Arthur gets no credit for reforming the spoils system and setting up an actual civil service. I think Bush I is underrated. Compare his handling of the SL crisis to his son’s and Obama’s handling of the 08 bank crisis sometime. And the 1990 budget deal was in retrospect a very good bill. The only real blemish on his record is the ADA.

    1. We’d be better off with patronage than an entrenched bureaucracy.

      1. No. We really wouldn’t. Patronage was horrible. And it took an act of Congress to fire any of them. It is not Arthor’s fault later Congress’ fucked up his system.

        1. Now we have the worst of both worlds.

      2. Thanks to Solyndra, we can have both!

    2. Plus, Chet Arthur was known for being a lazy, dandy layabout who worked the fewest hours of any president in his era. That puts him high on my list.

      Although for me personally, virtually all of those Gilded age presidents between Grant and McKinley were the best. My top five would include Chet Arthur, Cleveland, and Hayes. Throw in Washington and Coolidge and that’s my list.

  11. 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.

    “They want to turn us back to the same failed policies that created this mess in the first place!”

    In McKinley’s case, he did indeed deviate from the failed policies that created the mess in the first place, with much better results – nobody remembers the Great Depression of 1919-1920.

    1. No one remembers the crash of the early 1890s.

      1. Just google “The panic of”, there’s been a shitload.

        1. 1873 was probably the worst. Deeper than the great depression. It just didn’t last as long.

          1. None of the panics and depressions before the creation of the Federal Reserve lasted as long as those after it, even though it’s stated purpose was to stabilize the economy.

      2. Or the Depression of 1920?21 – that Harding / Coolidge policies reversed.

      3. Before Keynes and FDR, economic slumps sorted themselves out in a year or two.

        Now that the government views its role as preventing capital from being reallocated from unproductive means to productive means, and preventing price mechanisms from telling the truth, economic slumps drag on and on.

        It won’t be long before all self correcting market mechanisms are prohibited, and the next depression becomes permanent.

        1. The panics of 1837 and 1873 were much worse than the crash of 1929. They lasted a while, three years in the case of 1973. But not as long as the Great Depression.

          1. Because there were no price controls, no wage controls, no paying producers not to produce in order to prop up prices, and all the other interventions in the economy that prolonged the misery.

            Just as this Great Recession will continue as long as the government does everything in its power to prevent housing prices from hitting their eventual floor. Had that been allowed at the get go, I believe it would have been over years ago.

            1. Just as this Great Recession will continue as long as the government does everything in its power to prevent housing prices from hitting their eventual floor.

              In all honesty that is not the major problem anymore. It has not gone away…but a bigger one is eating away at the economy now and threatens to get even bigger.

              We are at 100+% debt to GDP. That means the economy is being slowed by at least 1% GDP each and every year and we have been doing it for at least 2 years now. (recent economic studies show 90% Debt to GDP ratio cuts at least 1% from GDP…higher ratio means more GDP loss)

              Until we get debt down we are in not lost decade territory but lost generation territory.

          2. Also, deflation in those cases, IIRC, and we didnt enter an never ending deflationary spiral either.

    2. Sorry, in HARDING’S case.

  12. I assume Harding is on the list and Coolidge not because Coolidge isn’t underrated any more. I didn’t think Polk was underrated either.

    Chester Aurthur was a guy nobody expected anything out of (coming out of a political crony machine system) – and he did a decent job.

    1. Polk was awful. He’s highly rated in most of the historian surveys, isn’t he?

      1. He got California and Texas from the Mexicans didn’t he?

        1. Oregon territory from the Limeys without firing a shot. Term limited himself too. Polk was one of the best.

        2. He got Texas from the Texians. They had to much debt to continue as an independent country. Polk didn’t start the War with Mexico (they, or Fremont did) but he damn well finished it.

          1. Yes he did. that shocked the world. No one thought the US was any kind of military power.

            1. Hm. I also got the impression Polk was ‘imperialist’. Should’ve have known better.

          2. Polk didn’t start the War with Mexico

            Zachary Taylor did cross the Rio Grande into Mexican territory and occupied Matamoros.

            Then the Mexicans came north of the river and started killing people. Then Polk made it a big issue and called for a Declaration of War. But Taylor was futzing around first.

            1. Zachary Taylor did cross the Rio Grande into Mexican territory

              OPEN BORDERS

            2. Did Taylor actually cross the Rio Grande before the Thornton affair?

      2. Polk was awful. He’s highly rated in most of the historian surveys, isn’t he?

        Polk was considered by some historians to be one of America’s “near great” Presidents.

        1. I like Polk because he sat in front of the White House and met anyone who had a complaint.

      3. Other than the Mexican War, Polk was a very good president.

        Awful? In what fucking way?

        He lowered tariffs. Pennsylvanians hated him for this, maybe that is your problem.

        He negotiated the Oregon Territory boundary without going to war.

        He vetoed the Rivers and Harbors Bill.

  13. lol, well now that makes a lot of sesne dude. WOw.


  14. U.S. imperialism in the Philippines was later important in removing Japanese imperialism from the Philippines.

    America was also probably a better imperialist in the Philippines than the Spanish.

    1. America really did implement a democratic lawful system over there.

    2. Doesn’t make it ok, or make McKinley a better president

      1. Going to war with Spain made it okay, I think.

        Lets not get too presentist with our history.

    3. America was also probably a better imperialist in the Philippines than the Spanish.

      Don’t get too enthusiastic with your praise, now.

    4. Among warmongering imperialists, we’re at the top of the list, I suppose.

  15. Thomas Jefferson is underrated? His being a slave owning, proto-Confederate is underrated, but as a founding father surely not.

    He’s on Mount Rushmore for crying out loud!!!

    1. He died in 1826. So we will never know. But I don’t think he would have been a pro Confederate. Jefferson would not have rolled with the fugitive slave act and confederate terrorists trying to force slavery onto the territories.

      1. Oh… I think we do know. He didn’t free his slaves. And by the time he died he was on the slave state side of the sectional conflict.

        His opinions went from “it’s bad”, to “it’s good for my State and America, because it’s good for me.”

        He was not stupid.

        1. He was not stupid. He was just broke and liked high living too much. He knew the right thing to do was free his slaves. He just couldn’t bring himself to make the sacrifice. He was weak.

          1. Yep, his negro chattel was his patrimony.

            That’s what the sectional conflict and eventually the Confederacy were all about.

  16. Any president who openly drank during Prohibition is tops with me.

  17. I’ve really come around on Harding. I guess I was too much influenced by Mencken’s take, but Mencken didn’t have the benefit of seeing what we’ve been saddled with since.

    1. As much fun as Mencken is to read, you have to take him with a huge grain of salt. The man was a professional contrarian and misanthrope, and his instincts were to go against popular sentiment, whichever direction it was blowing.

      1. Which almost always put him on the right side of every major issue.

  18. I always thought Harding was president in the 1800’s. This despite having attended, er… Warren G. Harding Elementary School.

    1. Doesn’t speak well for the elementary school – or the High School that followed.

  19. William Henry Harrison spent his presidency in bed and did not step outside his constitutional powers. Wouldn’t we love such a prez today?

    1. And he was efficient. Most presidents take 4 or 8 years to complete their term.

  20. I was under the impression the revolutionary war debts were paid off by government seizing land to the west and selling it to private owners. I wouldn’t be surprised if any 19th century president ” balanced the budget” the same way. Manifest destiny.

    SpeakIng of, isn’t it time we retained our rightful ownership of Canada and had a good ol fashioned yard sale?

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