Sarah Kliff links to a study that correctly notes the tendency of historians to give high rankings to presidents who kill a lot of Americans in wars during their tenure. That’s a problem both for historical analysis and because it provides incentives to current presidents to believe they need an aggressive foreign policy to be remembered fondly. It’s certainly true that one measure of greatness can be the ability of a president to lead a country through horrible times. That’s one reason why Lincoln rates so high, as well as Franklin Roosevelt. But it’s hardly the only standard. FDR would be ranked very high had he left office in 1940. Moreover, I think there’s some name for the fallacy that argues that we should reconsider low-ranked presidents because we assume their inability to start a war means they are unjustly forgotten.
The danger is that modern presidents understand these incentives. Those who want peace should take historians` ratings of presidents seriously. Beyond that, we should stop celebrating, and try to persuade historians to stop celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn`t happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted. If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.
Of course, Kliff and the study’s authors make one big mistake. There’s a reason we’ve forgotten about Martin Van Buren. He was a terrible president. His handling of the Panic of 1837 was bumbling in the extreme and while perhaps Jackson created that economic panic, it’s not like Van Buren wasn’t Old Hickory’s closest adviser. Politics within the nascent Democratic Party created that crisis. He also oversaw the Cherokee Removal on the Trail of Tears. Van Buren may be one of the greatest pure politicians in American history, but he was a lousy president.
How bad was Van Buren?
Libertarian crank Jeffrey Rodgers Hummel has called Van Buren our greatest president because he did nothing at all to alleive the Panic, among other reasons. This is a man who also lauds such legends as Rutherford B. Hayes and Grover Cleveland. So if completely ineffective governing is your thing, you love Van Buren.
Meanwhile, Tyler did more than almost any president to start the Civil War by thinking he could gain election for a full term by annexing Texas, a strategy that included naming John C. Calhoun Secretary of State, who immediately embarrassed the nation by issuing the Pakenham Letter (interesting analysis of the Pakenham Letter here). Harding was atrocious in a number of ways and arguably the least competent individual in the history of the office. I’m at least willing to hear an argument that Coolidge is underrated given his freeing of the many civil liberties prisoners from World War I and less godawful racial attitudes than most Republicans of the day (including his eugenicist successor Herbert Hoover); on the other hand, he did sign the Immigration Act of 1924, not to mention that he entered the national spotlight by busting a police union strike.
So while there’s some truth to the idea that we overrate presidents based upon the number of Americans they kill, it’s also important to realize that the lack of sending Americans off to war doesn’t necessarily mean that a president is inherently good. Most of our presidents have been mediocre to awful. Usually this reflects more upon the times than the individuals, but it’s only been in the post-World War II world that Americans have demanded presidents play the predominant role in determining American political life. That means there’s a lot of our first 31 presidents who did little of note, domestically or internationally.