Home / General / Most Prominent Politicians (XVII): Ohio

Most Prominent Politicians (XVII): Ohio


After 4 months, I figure it’s worth getting back to the Most Prominent Politician project, particularly since all the other things I have to do this fine Sunday afternoon are either drudgery or intimidating.

Ohio is a very difficult state to rank. It has had a large amount of prominent politicians over its years, but there’s about 18 that more or less all stand together. A combination of powerful but not extraordinary senators with second-rate presidents means that anyone could rank these people differently. Good for arguing, bad for anything definitive.

1. William McKinley. Hardly a great president or even a good one, but McKinley did provide a bit more energy to the office than his predecessors. His primary reason for being here is his role in the Spanish-American War. Although historians have questioned McKinley’s real commitment to imperialism, arguing that he acted because the hard-core imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt were questioning his manhood and patriotism, his approval of the invasions of Hawaii, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, etc., were an epochal change in the history of American foreign policy.

2. William Howard Taft. One of the nation’s most underrated presidents, if by accident, Taft passed a tremendous amount of important Progressive Era legislation. He busted more trusts than TR and conserved more land than TR. He’s forgotten in part because he totally lacked charisma, in part because he was a terrible politician, and in part because Roosevelt turned on him and slammed him in the Autobiography. Of course, he later became a Supreme Court justice.

3. Salmon Chase. Secretary of the Treasury during the Lincoln administration and one of the powerful Republicans who guided the United States through the Civil War. Strong abolitionist, coined the slogan of the Free Soil Party: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.” Helped create the greenback, financing the Civil War. Like his New York counterpart and Secretary of State William Seward, Chase was more than a little outraged that a bumpkin like Abraham Lincoln was president instead of himself and wanted to challenge Lincoln for the nomination in 1864, having lost out to the Illinois man in 1860. To eliminate this threat, Lincoln kicked Chase upstairs, naming him Chief Justice. Very interesting man with somewhat floating politics over the years, having supported Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Free Soil, and Liberal Republican presidential candidates.

4. Robert Taft. Mr. Republican himself and one of the most powerful politicians of mid-20th century America. Taft desperately wanted to be president, failing to more moderate candidates in 1940, 1948, and 1952. He led the conservative movement at a time when it was at its nadir and helped moved the Republican Party back to the right. He authored the odious Taft-Hartley Act, severely curbing union power in 1947. Taft opposed U.S. intervention in World War II and even remained suspicious of foreign entanglements after the war, uncomfortable with NATO and believing the Korean War unconstitutional. Served briefly as Senate Majority Leader in 1953 before dying of cancer.

5. John Sherman. One of the Gilded Age’s most powerful politicians and frequently in the discussion for a presidential nomination. In fact, Sherman was a likely choice in 1880 until his own campaign manager, James Garfield, was chosen instead. Sherman is most known for the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, the first federal law to limit monopolies, even if in actuality it was applied only against unions and never against corporations. Secretary of the Treasury under Hayes, Secretary of State for McKinley. Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations for 10 years, over 2 different periods.

6. Mark Hanna. One of the great political managers in American history and the ultimate Gilded Age figure, Hanna shepherded McKinley into the White House, tied the Republican Party to corporations even more tightly than usual, and eventually became a senator himself. His role as the quintessential Gilded Age insider and plutocrat earns him this high ranking, even if his own record as an elected official is not that outstanding. I am also forced to display this picture of Hanna and his facial hair in 1877, though unlike many men of his generation, he got rid of it when it became unfashionable.

7. Benjamin Wade. Abolitionist and Senator. Criticized Lincoln as “white trash” because the latter was so slow on abolition. Also criticized Lincoln’s lenient ideas for Reconstruction. Authored the Wade-Davis Bill in 1864 that would become the model for Congressional Reconstruction in 1867, demanding 50% of southern white males to sign loyalty oaths for readmittance of a given state into the Union.

8. Rutherford B. Hayes. I’m somewhat chagrined by including Hayes, since the main thing he did as president was accomplished by party insiders, i.e., the end of Reconstruction. Still, Hayes supported the pulling out of U.S. troops from the South and provided only moderate resistance to the crushing of African-American rights, though in this sense he was certainly no more to the right than most northern white Republican leaders in the late 1870s. He also ordered U.S. troops to crush the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, beginning a long tradition of American politicians marshaling the army or national guard to serve as the goons of corporate America.

9. Edwin Stanton. An antislavery Democrat, Stanton had one of the more interesting political careers of the Civil War era. An antislavery Democrat, James Buchanan named Stanton Attorney General. Lincoln brought him on to replace Simon Cameron as Secretary of War in 1862 after Cameron wrote that freed slaves should be used against the Confederacy and not knowing of Stanton’s role in the report. Stanton is most famous for continuing in the position during Andrew Johnson’s administration; his firing sparked the impeachment of Johnson. Grant appointed Stanton to the Supreme Court in 1869 but he died 4 days after being confirmed by the Senate.

10. Warren Harding. Good ol’Harding. Arguably our flat-out most incompetent president. Hell of a golf game. Liked riding bikes. Enjoyed the company of the ladies.

I did think about including some more recent Ohioans such as Howard Metzenbaum, John Glenn, or John Boehner, but I am completely unconvinced that any of them should be in the top 10. The other obvious candidate is James Garfield, but what did he do except get shot and be buried in an unbelievably over the top tomb, which I highly recommend visiting next time you are in Cleveland.

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  • Scott de B.

    It’s obvious you’re not including Grant as an Ohio politician. Where do you put him, given his itinerant career? Illinois? Missouri?

    • Illinois.

      • joejoejoe

        Are mayors eligible for this series? I’m not sure how many municipal officials you’ve covered but Chicago has had a few mayors who deserve consideration when you cover Illinois.

    • joejoejoe

      I’m pretty sure Grant (Galena) spent more time in Illinois than Lincoln (Springfield), Reagan (Dixon), or Obama (Chicago).

      • John

        That is most certainly not true. Grant spent barely any time in Illinois. He grew up in Ohio, then went to West Point, then moved around to various places with the army, then moved to St. Louis for most of the 1850s. From what I can gather, he moved to Galena in 1860, and then stayed there until he re-entered the army in 1861. Then he was mostly on campaign with the army, and then, after the war, he was mostly in Washington running it. He moved back to Galena during the 1868 campaign, but then, of course, moved to Washington to be president. After his presidency, he traveled around the world and then moved to New York City for the rest of his life. So he basically lived in Illinois for at most two or three years. 9 years if you want to be really generous and include the whole 1860 to 1869 period, the vast majority of which he was not really living in Illinois. Lincoln lived in Illinois from 1830 to 1861 – 31 years. Obama was in Illinois from 1985 to 1988, and again from 1991 to 2009 – 21 years, so longer than Grant. And Reagan lived in Illinois from his birth in 1911 until his graduation from college in 1932 – again, 21 years. Grant clearly has by a considerable margin the least connection to Illinois.

        • joejoejoe

          Thanks for the correction. I was under the mistaken impression that Grant was born and raised in Galena.

  • Federal law requires the posting of this Mencken quote:

    I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and a half dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

    • LOL My great grandfather’s farm adjoined Harding’s farm. Most ordinary people in Ohio were astounded that he got elected.

    • John

      What is most remarkable about this is that it suggests that Harding wrote his own speeches. When did the professional political speechwriter emerge?

    • DrDick

      That accomplishment alone qualifies him for a place on this list.

  • Murc

    Warren Harding also impregnated his mistress in the Republican Cloak room.

    • firefall

      I trust this has been renamed the Harding Room

  • Ohio’s second-tier (i.e., non-presidential) politicians always strike me as as interesting and effective as Ohio’s presidents weren’t.

    That said, Akronian Chrissie Hynde’s declaration of “Eh, Oh, way to go Ohio” seems more than apt for this list.

  • Davis X. Machina

    What, no Kucinich? There goes your Real Progressive™ cred, right there…

    • William Burns

      Kucinich is the American politician most likely to be right about everything (at least since he switched to a pro-choice position) but its hard to argue that American history would be different if he had never been elected to anything.

      • Except UFOs.

        • witless chum

          Supposedly he’s not too crazy about them. He just says he saw something in the sky he thinks could have been a spaceship.

          He doesn’t insist they visited him or anything.

      • rm

        He refused to sell Muny Light.That doesn’t put him in the top ten, but it was a decision that looked career-ending at the time but that hindsight has shown to be a very good thing for Clevelanders.

  • Daniel

    Given that he was such a critical figure in the origins of organized anti-slavery politics, I thought about making an argument for Joshua Giddings, but the competition is too stiff. Alas.

    • firefall

      I was thinking Joseph Smith, but I suppose he’ll get shoehorned into Illinois too (or possibly Missouri given a particularly cruel whim)

      • Mike Clinch

        Joseph Smith started out in western New York, where he allegedly found the gold plates he translated into the Book of Mormon (or else made the book up). No real time in Ohio

      • Halloween Jack

        I wouldn’t include Smith, simply because his influence in his lifetime was limited pretty much to being enough of a pain in the ass to get kicked out of Ohio and Missouri and lynched in Illinois; his successors really deserve the credit for making the LDS a political and religious power. Without them, he’d be a footnote in the history of cults in the US, along with David Koresh and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

    • Jestak

      I like Giddings, too–he’d have a tough time making the top 10 here but deserves to be remembered.

  • joejoejoe

    John “The Ohio Icicle” Sherman is the kid brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman. General Sherman could have made this list as well based on the political impact of the terms he made with the Confederates at the end of the Civil War. The “40 acres and a mule” idea came from Gen. Sherman’s order to give property to freedmen in Georgia, an order which the awful Andrew Johnson rescinded shortly after it was issued.

    • Tehanu

      Of course, General Sherman was also the originator of a line we can only wish that more politicians (like Mittens, Newtie, Ricky the Frother et al.) would use:

      “I will not run if nominated and I will not serve if elected.”

      • Also comes in the Udall variation: “If nominated I will run to Mexico; if elected I will fight extradition.”

      • Western Dave

        Sherman never said it. A newspaper reporter put the words in his mouth. Sherman was furious because he did want to run and those words came back to haunt him.

  • Mrs Tilton

    W.H. Taft in fact became Chief Justice, did he not? I understand that he cherished the job, as he had disdained the presidency. And I shall always cherish him, as his tenure on the Court made possible a subtle and wonderful anti-Irish joke that I, as an Irish person, have long treasured. (Indeed I have it hanging, framed, in my office.)

    • CJColucci

      Please don’t leave us hanging so, dear Mrs. Tilton.
      By the way, does anyone remember the National Lampoon comic about the strange oral passions of William Howard Taft?

      • Dimly. I mostly remember him hiding in the branches of a tree waiting to pounce on a woman, thinking of TR’s advice: “Like a leopard.”

        • Well, what do you know about that. NSFW

          • Halloween Jack

            Gray Morrow took a lot of non-traditional assignments in his career as an illustrator and this may be one of the stranger ones

            [georgetakei]Oh, my. [/georgetakei]

      • Warren Terra

        Best Taft joke I know is a true story I read (iirc) in a Stanley Karnow book about the Philippines: Taft was the US governor there, was setting up our colonial administration. It was of course very hot and fetid in Manila, which would have been particularly uncomfortable for the famously corpulent Taft. Having looked into how the British addressed a similar problem in their colonial administration of India, Taft learned that every summer the colonial administration relocated to its summer capital at Simla in the Himalayan foothills. Taft wanted to emulate this idea by establishing a site at a higher altitude from which he and his pals could comfortably rule the Philippines during the hot months. Taft had his staff look for a suitable spot, and one day Taft visited a likely site to examine its prospects. When he got back, he cabled to his boss the Secretary Of State a long report on his having ridden his horse to the site and back, detailing his experiences and discussing the prospects for a summer capital at the site.

        The Secretary Of State sent back a three-word reply: “How Is Horse?”

      • Mrs Tilton

        It’s a cartoon from a British magazine of the time. For background, you need to know that, in 1922, (i) Taft visited England to study its court system while (ii) pro- and anti-treaty forces were fighting a civil war in Ireland.

        So the cartoon shows Taft and Lord Birkenhead, the Lord Chancellor (to a very rough approximation, the UK’s counterpart of the Chief Justice), shaking hands as Taft bids Birkenhead farewell. Taft says,

        “Well, sir, I take away a very favourable impression of judicial procedure on this side”.

        To which the Lord Chancellor replies:

        “Pity you missed the Four Courts“.

      • Mrs Tilton

        CJ, the Taft story is in Moderation Hell, probably b/c it contains a few linkies.

  • Harding pardoned Debs which should be noted as his more credible decision as a politician.

    • Debs, and several other political prisoners of the Wilson years. A tad of normalcy isn’t so bad now and then.

  • Jim Lynch

    “Criticized Lincoln as “white trash” because the latter was so slow on abolition”.


    • Scott de B.

      “In September, 1861, Wade wrote to Zachariah Chandler that Lincoln’s views on slavery “could only come of one, born of poor white trash and educated in a slave State.” Wade was especially angry with Lincoln when he was slow to support the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union Army.”

      • Jim Lynch

        Fascinating. Thanks. Wade stomped the terra, didn’t he? In fact, I seem to recall a thumbs-up book review of the man within the last couple of years. I think I’ll track that book down and read it.

  • Warren Terra

    I was going to jokingly argue for the inclusion of John Glenn on the grounds that he was a fricking Astronaut (because I can’t think of a darn thing he accomplished as a politician, other than becoming a fricking Astronaut again in his late 70s), but then I see that he genuinely made your list of politicians seriously considered for inclusion and then pipped at the post. How do you figure that one?

    • Scott de B.

      Sponsor of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act and … I got nothing.

    • Glenn was around for a long time and was a serious presidential candidate. It wasn’t hard to cut him.

  • Warren Terra

    Oh, and while I’m exploring your also-rans, James Garfield may not have been terribly accomplished as a President, but – if only because of Jim Davis – he’s inspired some pretty good cartoons in recent years.
    Take Kate Beaton, for example. Or Garfield As Garfield.

    I know I’ve seen a good Garfield parody with the President drawn in Jim Davis style at some point (Ruben Bolling, maybe?), but can’t quickly find it.

    • Warren Terra

      Oh, and having followed your link to the website describing the rather elaborate Garfield Memorial: it seems somehow odd to me that we have a civic memorial not for the presidency of the slain President James Garfield nor even for his mortal remains but for his family, including the ashes of a son-in-law who Pres. Garfield never met, who died roughly seventy years after Garfield did. Appropriate enough in a family mausoleum, but it’s odd in something that was created and funded more as a civic shrine.

      • icculus

        Actually, Joseph Stanley Brown was Garfield’s personal secretary during his short time in the White House, at 24, the youngest man to hold that office.

        He was highly thought of by Garfield, and considered almost part of his family. They married several years after he died.

        • Warren Terra

          I guess I just assumed, because when Garfield died his daughter was only 14.

          • icculus

            Yeah, they married in 1888, seven years after Garfield died.

            Coincidentally, I’m aware of all this having finished Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard just last night. Interesting read. Shame his doctors dismissed Joseph Lister and his germ theory as hokum, even as it was saving lives in Europe. Apparently many surgeons of the day considered the crustiness of their aprons as symbolic of their experience and expertise. Garfield, should have fully recovered in a very short time.

    • sparks

      I think Berkeley Breathed did that in one of his Bloom County strips.

  • jeer9

    Karp’s view of McKinley is that he was considerably more Machiavellian than he is given credit for, though the interpretation appears to be a minority view and perhaps one which derives from that particular historian’s preference for conspiratorial frameworks.

  • Jestak

    John Sherman was a busy fellow. In addition to the antitrust law named for him he was the author of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Besides chairing the Foreign Relations Committee, he also, at other times in his long Senate career, chaired the Agriculture and Finance Committees.

  • UserGoogol

    Benjamin Wade as extremely close to becoming President because he was President pro Tem during the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and Johnson didn’t have a VP.

    That doesn’t really make him more prominent since it didn’t happen, but that certainly makes for an interesting alternate history.

    • A brief Wade presidency probably would have made little difference unless the Republicans chose him over Grant in 1868.

      • John

        Isn’t the traditional argument that a successful impeachment of Johnson would have seriously weakened the presidency, and perhaps led the US in the direction of parliamentary style government? I suppose that’s not really about Wade, per se.

    • somethingblue

      Maybe once all the states are done Erik should compile a top ten Presidential-But-For-Whatever-Reason-Never-Actually-Became-President list (Clay, Sherman, Cuomo …)

      • I’m thinking of doing a series of VP candidates on losing tickets.

        • John

          The most accomplished has got to be Earl Warren, I suppose.

          • William Burns

            Wouldn’t FDR come in ahead of Warren?

            • John

              I suppose so. I was thinking of ones who never became president (which is, I think, all of them other than FDR)

        • Halloween Jack

          Would Palin make the list?

  • Amok92

    Aw come on, can’t Garfield’s contribution to mathematics put him over the top?


    On 2nd thought, probably not.

  • Woodrowfan

    you left off the former mayor of Cincinnati, Jerry Springer!

    • rm

      More noted for his legendary journalistic career than for the respect he garnered as a politician.

      • Halloween Jack

        Even as a politician, he’s probably known best for writing a check to a massage parlor (which bounced).

        • Ohio Mom

          Here in Cincinnati it is occasionally observed that Jerry’s extracurricular activity occurred just a short time before ATM machines, in the days when if you ran out of cash, you had to wait until the bank opened. If he had just waited a year or so, he could have made a withdrawal en route and left no paper trail.

          As it was, people didn’t hold his indiscretion against him and he was re-elected handily. It was after he’d been re-elected that I moved here. It was a golden period for Cincinnati. We even had a turn at Best Place to Live in that book series.

          After serving on City Council Jerry had a short career on the local evening news, as a combination news caster/commentator, before he went on to that talk show of his.

          He was actually a very good commentator. Every evening, at the end of the news cast, he talked for a minute or two on some issue of the day. He was funny and insightful.

          • Halloween Jack

            Well, it’s a little more complex than that. He even ended up doing a spoof Amex commercial about it for a local radio station:

            Hi. Do you know me? My face is seen all over Cincinnati, constantly. But when I travel, say across state lines, people don’t know the difference between Jerry Springer and Gerry Ford, so that’s why I carry this. The American Expense Card, it’s the card that’s good at thousands of clubs and motels across the river. I can even get instant, hassle-free check approval. For quick, enjoyable entertainment, it can’t be beat. Just like me.

            But they also point out that he was re-elected to the city council, then as mayor, after the scandal broke. And I can completely believe that he was good at those jobs, and as a newscaster, but it’s also worth reading further down the transcript to the part where he’s talking about the impact that the scandal had on him.

            • Ohio Mom

              What a fun trip down memory lane that link is — lots of people I haven’t thought about in ages. Thanks.

  • Tybalt

    Glad to see this back!

    McKinley a great choice as #1. I will never understand why historians bother trying to figure out stuff like what McKinley’s personal commitment to imperialism was. It doesn’t seem to matter, at all. What matters was what he did – a scoreboard which is very one-sided indeed.

    • John

      Historians are, of course, interested in the causes of events, as well as the results.

  • wkwillis

    I have to agree about Harding. He pardoned all the socialists who were jailed by Wilson during and after our great crusade to keep the world safe from democracy.
    He was also our most honest president. When Secretary of the Interior Fall was convicted of receiving a bribe, he refused to pardon him, even though Doheny was exonerated of giving him the bribe.

    • John

      Are you really arguing that the man who presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in American history was our most honest president? Not pardoning Fall is all well and good, but that’s a pretty low bar.

    • Randy

      I recall reading somewhere that Harding was also the first President to speak out publicly in favor of racial integration. I don’t know if that accomplished anything, and it certainly doesn’t make him even a mediocre President, but it should lift him off the bottom of the list.

      • Halloween Jack

        Harding was probably the last presidential candidate who was rumored, by his opponents, to have African ancestry; his campaign manager strenuously denied it, but Harding himself didn’t seem to give a shit.

        • snarkout

          This is what lead Ishmael Reed to make Harding’s death a major plot point in “Mumbo Jumbo”. (There’s an idea for a series down the road, Erik: best presidential depictions in popular culture. If Abe Lincoln in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is not #1, it will be a crime.)

  • I would like to have seen Tom L Johnson, Democratic Mayor of Cleveland, on the list. He was a firm proponent of Henry George’s Single Tax ideas, a transit magnate, and inventor of the automatic farebox, precursor to the device still used on most transit vehicles. He ran for governor a few times but did not win.

    Two items from his Wikipedia page:
    “According to the inscription on a statue of Johnson in Cleveland, Lincoln Steffens called him ‘The best Mayor of the best-governed city in the United States.’

    “In The American Mayor: The Best and Worst Big-City Leaders (Penn State Press, 1999), Melvin G. Holli, in consultation with a panel of experts, placed Johnson among the ten best, next to Fiorello H. La Guardia of New York City.”

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