Presidential Biographies: Harry Truman #33

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Harry Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was twofold, and each biography was excellent. The first was The Accidental President by A. J. Baime, and the second was Truman by David McCullough.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on those biographies, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World by A. J. Baime and Truman by David McCullough

The first book I read about Truman was The Accidental President by A. J. Baime, and it was a fantastic read. After a brief introduction to how Truman got to be President, Baime spends hundreds of pages zoomed in on seemingly every aspect of the first four months of his Presidency. During this time, the United States firebombed Japan, gained victory at Okinawa, helped bring about the fall of the Berlin, liberated concentration camps and exposed their brutality to the world, faced mass starvation in Europe, forced the surrender of Germany, founded the United Nations, had a meeting with Stalin that seemingly set the stage for the Cold War at Potsdam, and used the first and only atomic bombs ever dropped on human targets against Japan, bringing about their unconditional surrender. Those four months, in other words, saw some of the biggest changes in history condensed into an incredibly short period of human history.

Reading this book gave me an intimate feel for Truman’s decision making process, his leadership, and the major questions that he faced during the start of his Presidency. One of the most standout features to me was the way it seemed he kept a level head throughout the time, frequently being seen by others as calm and collected even in the most urgent times. It was not aloofness, as the frequent excerpts Baime provides from Truman’s diary show, but rather a personality trait that seemingly kept him even-keeled as he faced some of the most disastrous and urgent times in human history. Of course, much of what Truman did during this time had been started and ushered in by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership in his three + terms in office.  But that should not undermine the accomplishments Truman had in this time period, nor did it take away the fact that it was Truman’s decisions that ultimately shaped the outcomes of many of these major historical moments.

The most controversial decision Truman made–and, argues Baime, perhaps the most controversial decision any President has ever faced–was to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Baime spends quite a bit of time throughout the book detailing the development of atomic weapons, Truman’s knowledge of and involvement in the same, and the decision-making process Truman underwent to decide to drop the bomb. It is easy, going on 80 years removed from the event, to judge it acontextually. Some like to dismiss it as the obvious decision–drop the bomb to save American lives. Others find the decision obviously abhorrent–a direct strike on civilian lives and a war crime. The questions that Truman faced were myriad: Were the lives of (actually) 100,000s of Japanese civilians worth less than the estimated 500,000-1,000,000+ soldiers who would have died invading Japan? Were the feelers Japan was sending out for peace through Moscow indications that the conflict could have been ended without such destruction? Given that fire bombing was occurring, was it more inhumane to destroy an entire city in a flash than destroy an entire country with incendiary devices? All of these questions, and many, many more must get factored into any examination of the event. But apart from that, there were also the questions of warning the Japanese about the bomb, questions about whether it would even work, and questions about how humanity could continue with such immense destructive power. McCullough’s biography highlights some of these latter questions even more, as at least one advisor to Truman was horrified by the destructive capabilities of the bomb. After all of this, I am still not personally sure that Truman made the right decision. The intentional destruction of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives is a terrible choice. I mean “terrible” not in the sense of “bad” or “wrong” as much as I do in the sense of “awful” or “extremely unpleasant” to use a dictionary definition. Baime shows that Truman was not ignorant of these questions, but that he came to see it as a dire decision that he made in order to try to balance everything as he saw it.

And the atomic bomb was just one of the many, many questions Truman faced in his first four months. I briefly mentioned fire bombing, but the United States had adamantly declared its opposition to destruction of civilian lives and areas earlier in the war. The actions of the bomber command seemed to undermine those public disavowals of the actions. The founding of the UN was intended to prevent further wars, but even under Truman, the U.S. would get involved in conflict in Korea. Baime notes that it is possible Truman’s somewhat hardline approach to Stalin was likely a contributing factor.

During the first four months of his Presidency, Truman stepped into enormous shoes and, largely, seemed to fill them fairly well. He didn’t back down in the face of enormous decisions and consequences–choices that no human could truly bear. Of course, after reading this detailed examination of the beginning of Truman’s Presidency, I felt an intense need to read more on him and learn about the rest of his life and, indeed, of his time as President.

McCullough’s biography, Truman, shows, over nearly 1000 pages, the development of Truman as a man, politician, and President. I’ll just highlight several unique points from this phenomenal biography. Truman was, like all too many of our Presidents, on the wrong side of questions related to race. In fact, McCullough tells of how Truman was minutes away from joining the KKK, only to back out once the KKK leader he was speaking with insisted he exclude Catholics from public office as much as was within his power. Truman balked at this–not at the awful racism or anti-semitism–because he’d fought with several Catholics in the Great War. McCullough notes that this incident cannot be excused by Truman’s ignorance of the awfulness of the KKK, either. There was a sense in the second rise of that evil organization that they could be portrayed as a kind of “America first” group. But McCullough points out that Truman had already fought in opposition to the KKK earlier when he sided with Masons against them. This shows that Truman was indeed aware of their vile capacities, and still nearly joined them out of political expediency.

It is easy to portray Truman as a callous, aloof man separated from the decisions he made that impacted thousands or millions of people. Korea serves as one counter-evidence to this narrative. The war in Korea features hugely in McCullough’s biography. It is amazing to see how much public opinion shifted on this war over the course of just a few years. Truman faced tremendous public pressure to send American soldiers and support to Korea. There was a nearly overwhelming feeling that failure to do so would lead to Soviet control of all of Asia and extreme danger to Europe. When Truman read his statement in support of sending troops, it was met with thunderous applause, letters of commendation from the public, and extremely lopsided votes in Congress. As it became clear the U.S. forces were under-trained and poorly equipped and getting killed in large numbers, public opinion rapidly shifted. Truman acted decisively, shuffling command of the military and putting people in place who could turn the tide from total defeat. Korea at the time was viewed by many as a victory, despite its continued status as a divided country with the threat of war looming. The reasoning behind seeing it as a victory was because it was believed that it helped show the Soviet Union that the United States would not stand aside in Asia and allow it unrestricted conquest of the continent. Whether this sentiment is founded on truth or not, analysis of Truman’s legacy ought to include that. On a personal note, Truman kept a letter from the parents of a young soldier who was killed in action with him throughout his Presidency. The letter was a scalding condemnation, including a Purple Heart returned and the wish that Truman’s daughter could join their son on the battlefield on which he was lost. Though Truman didn’t publicly mourn the deaths of so many Americans–probably to his cost–it’s clear the lives weighed heavily on him.

Domestic issues also loomed large during Truman’s presidency, whether it was labor questions or how to re-integrate returning U.S. troops, Truman had to navigate them all. He frequently took hardline stances which showed both his decisiveness and his unwillingness to change his mind once he’d made a decision.

Truman is an incredibly difficult President for me to analyze in retrospect. He was faced with a series of incredibly difficult choices–including some of the most difficult choices any President has ever had to face. Did he choose correctly on all of them? Almost certainly not. Based on the information he had at the time, were his choices easily dismissed? Again, no. Weighing in on his achievements has the feeling, more than I have before, of not only having the benefit of hindsight, but also facing problems akin to trolley problem scenarios.

The Accidental President isn’t just one of the most interesting biographies I’ve read of a President. It stands as one of the most fascinating non-fiction works I’ve read, period. It’s very highly recommended. Remarkably, Truman by David McCullough hits that same standard, making this 1-2 punch of Truman biographies essential reading for anyone interested in history.

Harry Truman’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

(33rd President – Original Ranking #7)- Truman was thrust into some of the most difficult decisions any President ever had to face and somehow navigated through all of it to bring the country out on the other side in largely better shape. Though it is easy to question his decision-making at almost every step, when viewed with the knowledge he had on hand and with the urgency with which he had to make those choices, it is hard to find him at fault for all of them. Whether it was the atomic bomb, Korea, or his handling of the formation of the UN and the early Cold War, these all occurred back-to-back within his administration. I’m not convinced others wouldn’t have done the job better, but I’m also not sure how to fault him for the hand he was dealt and the decisions he made. Truman was decisive in a time that needed decisiveness, and though he didn’t always come out on the right side of history, he did so often enough that he places in the higher rankings of Presidents.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Franklin Delano Roosevelt #32

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the thirty-second President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was… complicated. I actually read 3 different biographies of FDR, with the most influential on my far being Traitor to His Class by H. W. Brands. The others I read were FDR by Jean Edwards Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life by Robert Dallek. The latter two were good reads, but the style of Brands’s writing was much more to my taste. I’ll be focusing my reflection on his biography.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H. W. Brands

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is perhaps the most important political figure in the history of the United States. Yes, arguments can be made for Lincoln or Washington or perhaps a few others, but FDR’s legacy must be acknowledged as looming large even into today.

From an early age, it was clear that Roosevelt had lofty aspirations, and his life of privilege set him up to chase those aspirations. The fortuitous timing of several of his runs for office also helped him on his way. For example, his first public office was won in part because the Republican Party of New York “was fracturing between the progressives and the standpatters” (61). This allowed a Democrat the chance a way through the stranglehold the Republicans had held upon the state. FDR’s move towards naval administration seems an odd stepping stone on the way to the Presidency, but it allowed him to schmooze with top military officials while also driving for major overhaul of the navy. FDR, more than perhaps anyone, helped drive the U.S. Navy into a modern force that could compete on a worldwide scale. This move seems unsurprising today, but at the time it was a radical shift to suggest challenging Britain’s supremacy of the waves (76). It would also seem prescient in the coming years, even though he himself (like many Americans) didn’t predict war in Europe.

Once the Great War did break out, FDR leveraged his position both to make the United States more fit to wage war and for his own political gain. Woodrow Wilson’s presidential victory allowed FDR to stay in office and observe how Wilson operated, letting support for the war build up over time instead of rushing to push the United States into war. FDR also thought about joining the military, seeing it as a potential step on the path to the Presidency, but ultimately was convinced by advisors to stay with the navy in order to help the greater war effort. The interim period, however, struck FDR with a major health crisis, believed at the time to be polio, from which he muscled himself back into American politics. After a stint as governor of New York, he ascended to the Presidency.

His Presidency began in a period of economic crisis, and he appointed powerful men to various offices in a patronage system, though throughout his tenure he seemed to trust his own decision-making far more than any of his advisors or cabinet members. This led to some infighting, but less corruption than other Presidents with similar dispositions suffered. The economic crisis was one FDR moved decisively to impact. He issued an executive order closing all banks in the United States for a “holiday,” which allowed additional time for the federal government to address the massive depression without having all the banks fail. The moves made included giving the President power to close banks and much more centralization of power through the Federal Reserve and its issuing of bank notes.

FDR also put forward the first New Deal that not only created hundreds of thousand of jobs, but also improved infrastructure across the country. This move would prove a stunning blueprint, showing that wise use of government resources could, in fact, provide not just relief and recovery, but also lasting, massive change on a national level. Dams, schools, and bridges were built across the nation, as well as any number of rural projects and roads. These moves were radical compared to previous Presidents’ proposals, but not radical enough for some of FDR’s fellow Democrats, some of whom strongly criticized him for not doing even more. Regardless, the New Deal reshaped America, not just its landscape–which it did–but also its prospects for hope for those impoverished.

The Second New Deal, after a powerful win in the mid-term elections, led to the establishment of Social Security. This program, of course, endures into today and continues to provide benefits that help millions of Americans every day. Later, FDR’s moves towards conservation enlisted millions of Americans to pave trails, plant trees, and make dirt roads all across America. From these programs alone, FDR would be moved to the upper echelon of American Presidents. His actions helped turn around a massively struggling economy. But of course, FDR also led the United States through World War 2.

FDR’s leadership through World War 2 showed, again, his insistence on direct leadership and control. Though he made the Joint Chiefs of Staff to help make final strategic decisions, even this was his own move to maintain control. FDR’s Presidency once again increased the power and prestige of the office, probably well beyond what was intended in the Constitution. That’s a debate for another day, but from certainly from McKinley on–and probably Lincoln and others before him–the Presidency’s power has increased astronomically.

FDR started the nuclear program, securing funds for it even before the United States had officially entered World War 2. FDR’s fireside chats with the nation helped ease tensions throughout his Presidency. He pushed private companies to become major industries of war. He created the G.I. Bill because he saw it as a step in giving all Americans the basic right to health care, housing, and jobs.

However, despite all of these goods domestically and abroad, it must be noted that FDR oversaw one of the worst direct moves by a U.S. President for human rights. At the outbreak of war, he gave in to pressure and his own prejudice to see Japanese people–even U.S. citizens–as direct threats to the security of the United States, despite very little evidence to support it. In response, he ordered more than 100,000 Japanese into concentration camps in the United States. Properties were seized, stolen, and sold, and many when they left the camps found that their American dream had been crushed into nothing. This black stain upon FDR’s legacy is yet another awful mark in the history of the United States.

In Brands’s biography of FDR, Eleanor looms large, and he notes the impact she had on her husband throughout his life. Truly she is an interesting person in her own right, and one wonders over the silent suffering she likely endured over FDR’s illness is one aspect, but even moreso was the man’s apparent adultery or at least attempts at the same. Nevertheless, whether it was love for her husband or her own political clout, she endured and made deep impacts not just from her own actions but from steering FDR in certain directions.

Overall, FDR’s impact on the United States could hardly be understated. His leadership in times of economic and political strife was powerful and decisive, though those decisions were not always for the best. His legacy paved a more progressive path for the United States that has met huge resistance even to this day. If there is a single thing to look at from his life, it is perhaps that he hoped to make things better, and he did so with no small amount of success. That legacy is stained by his decision to inter Japanese people in concentration camps. It shows that even the greatest of American Presidents still suffered from the stains of American sins of racism–sins we continue to need to labor against today.

Traitor to His Class is an exceptional biography. Brands does a fantastic job laying the groundwork of FDR’s early life and successes to show not just how they led to his later moves but also how they had an enduring impact on his life. I’d recommend it highly to those looking for a single volume read on FDR’s life.

FDR’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd President – Original Ranking #1)- FDR is a massively influential President whose push for more progressive policies not only helped stave off the worst of the depression, but also helped pull many millions out of destitution. His handling of many trials throughout his Presidency meant that policies rolled out that would eventually help all Americans, not just the wealthiest, and, sometimes, not just white people. Whether it is social security, various aspects of the economy, greater infrastructure, or wider influence from the President, FDR changed America for good. Today, we still live with many of the legacies FDR left us, and many of those still work–or at least do work that would otherwise not be done. It should be noted that FDR’s place at the top of this list can also be an indictment of the history of the American Dream. FDR’s decision to put 150,000 Americans in concentration camps due to political pressure cannot be excused. His track record on race is spotty. And yet, his impact on the United States cannot but be ranked among the top Presidents of all time. We should see this as a reason to continue to strive to be better, and to make America a place for all citizens to be equal.

Presidential Biographies: Herbert Hoover #31

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Herbert Hoover, the thirty-first President of the United States. My selection process for finding a biography (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was served up Herbert Hoover in the White House by Charles Rappleye. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Herbert Hoover in the White House by Charles Rappleye

Herbert Hoover evokes images of a dam, the Depression, and an ineffective Presidency–if anyone thinks about him at all. Rappleye states at the beginning of his biography of Hoover that he’s looking to draw attention to Hoover’s Presidency. Specifically, he seeks to show that Hoover was more effective than he is often portrayed, while also acknowledging the exacerbation of several situations that his personality sometimes led to. 

Rappleye focuses little on Hoover’s pre-Presidency life, but from other biographies, it is clear that Hoover accomplished quite a bit as, for example, the Director of the United States Food Administration. He ably ran supply chains throughout World War I, and despite being secretary of a fairly minor part of the government, was referenced as a secretary of everything else by those who knew him. He was involved in almost every level of the Wilson administration and decision-making process. After the War, he helped direct relief across Europe, providing food for millions of hungry people across the continent. At no point, so far as I can tell, was he anything but excellent at these jobs, though he certainly ruffled feathers by how involved and even overbearing he could be in offering his opinion forcefully on so many subjects outside his purview. 

Hoover leveraged his popularity from his deft administration under Wilson to become President, though he was helped along by a strategy to win Southern states by appealing to anti-Catholicism and fears of the “urbanite” Al Smith to become President (see Rappleye, 38-39). The strategy paid dividends, and certainly has its parallels in the dog whistles of racism in campaigning today. 

Despite the frequent, popular portrayal of the man, Hoover wasn’t a President who rode the country into the ground, flailing as he watched the Great Depression plunge the world into darkness. Even before his inauguration, he convinced Coolidge to allow him to take some of the reins of the Federal Reserve and other financial movers within the government to try to take action against what he saw as a coming financial crisis. He was proactive in attempting to forestall the Depression, and favored policies that interfered with the market instead of simply letting the financial bubble burst and then collapse. Coolidge’s laissez-faire approach had set the country up for financial disaster, and Hoover swiftly attempted to move to stabilize pricing throughout various markets even as the bubble that had built under Coolidge was bursting.

The main problem with Hoover’s Presidency wasn’t inaction and flailing about without purpose as it is so often portrayed. Instead, it was a kind of self-obsession that refused to share insights with advisors and increasing paranoia that cut Hoover off from potential supporters. Hoover was so insular during his Presidency, in fact, that he didn’t even publicly take credit for some of his great accomplishments, such as feeding the hungry. This latter fact was due to his aversion to government spending, causing embarrassment over his apparent personal torn loyalties to lowering government spending while also trying to care for the hungry (243-245). Hoover also appeared particularly heartless at some points in the Dpression, such as when he refused to provide direct food to farmers, instead providing seed and working to stabilize pricing on grain. Hoover’s motivations for such policy seem, in retrospect, not actually mistaken, but his unwillingness to be open about his decision-making (and his alienation of the Press) led to his popularity plummeting. 

Indeed, it was Hoover who ultimately made the banks solvent through his Herculean efforts creating the NCC and additional policies, even though it is Franklin Delano Roosevelt who typically gets the credit for this (286-288; 459-461). Hoover was effective in righting the ship in many ways from the Depression, but his combative, paranoid personality ultimately lost him credit for much of it. FDR’s extreme aversion to Hoover didn’t help his legacy either, though Hoover did get some rehabilitation of image under Truman. 

Rappleye doesn’t look very closely at Hoover’s foreign policy or Civil Rights record. He does note that Hoover’s lily-white strategy was favored by some African American leaders at the time who thought it a way to keep policies working in their favor even if it involved removing black Americans from positions of power. But this historical compromise hardly speaks well of Hoover’s record regarding Civil Rights, especially given the hearty opposition of many black leaders to this same policy. During his Presidency, Hoover was much more occupied with domestic issues than foreign ones.

Herbert Hoover in the White House is a superb look at a long-overlooked President. Rappleye does not overstate his case, though he does reform Hoover’s legacy in much-need ways. Hoover himself, had he trusted his advisors more and been willing to publicly discuss policy more frequently, could have been more effective. The moves he made were, largely, the right ones, but too often they were too little and too late. They were too late by perhaps a decade, however, so it is difficult to hold that against him. He was a fascinating leader in an incredibly difficult time. 

Calvin Coolidge’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Herbert Hoover (31st President – Original Ranking #17)- Hoover was not as ineffective as he is often portrayed–a blundering idiot unable or unwilling to take decisive action to slow down or stop the ravaging of the economy. He, in fact, did take such decisive action and should be credited with helping right the ship, even if that had only begun under his Presidency. His active intervention in the economy often goes unnoted due to his own reticence to do the exact thing circumstances had forced him to do. Hoover was no champion of Civil Rights, though his policies were favored by some minority leaders in his own time. He held his cards close to his chest, and due to his almost paranoid nature, some of his best moments remained secret during his Presidency. He’s worth investigating further by any interested in the history of the United States. Hoover was a flawed but important President who fought against a tide of darkness greater than many others in United States history. 

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Calvin Coolidge #30

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Calvin Coolidge, the thirtieth President of the United States. My selection process for finding a biography (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was served up Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Coolidge by Amity Shlaes

There are several different ways to write a Presidential biography, I’m discovering. One of the popular ways is to write a biography attempting to reform the image of the subject or highlight positives about the subject that others have purportedly understated. Shlaes’s biography of Coolidge is definitely in this category and style of Presidential bio. But she goes well beyond simply trying to show Coolidge was a better President than he is consistently ranked (in the lowest third). She also tries to argue overall for the superiority of his economic policy and continually praises it, with strong hints throughout that it would be the best policy to this day. 

Shlaes’s portrait is, moreover, quite personable. She presents us an image of Coolidge, who has come down in history as a kind of standoffish, almost prudish figure. But Shlaes notes his convictions as remaining steady and guiding principles throughout his life. These principles were ingrained in him from childhood. His family was notoriously thrifty, and his father was careful with every penny he spent. This led them to a pride in their own work ethic and the way it spurred on the family’s livelihood. This work ethic was clearly absorbed by Coolidge as the way to live and succeed in life. That would play out going forward at every level of government in which Coolidge participated.

Perhaps the most notable political action of Coolidge’s life was his participation in smashing the efforts by police in Boston to organize a union and strike while he was Governor of Massachusetts. Initially, he tried to apply his conservative principle of letting local leaders deal with the crisis. However, as the mayor of Boston called up National Guard and fired the Police Comissioner, Coolidge stepped in. He reinstated the Police Commissioner and supported the firing of all the striking police immediately. When he received a telegram saying that the Police Commissioner essentially helped cause disorder by refusing to grant rights to the officers who were striking, Coolidge issued a public statement that was received with joy by conservatives across the country. He wrote that “there is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time…” and decisively condemned any action by the striking police. This was during the First Red Scare as Russia and other countries were experiencing revolutionary movements by workers. Because of widespread fear of the communist revolution, any action against laborers of virtually any kind was celebrated by many, and Coolidge’s action propelled him into the national conversation on conservativism. Coolidge’s deliberate action here can be seen as emblematic of his career. While favoring local rule, he ultimately saw his own decision-making as taking precedent in nearly every instance. He would speak to and favor policies that made smaller government in many ways, but when smaller government or local decisions went against what he preferred, he’d take nearly every action at his disposal to overturn those decisions and take things into hand for policies and decisions he favored. 

As President, a position he inherited after Warren Harding’s sudden death, Coolidge continued this kind of conservativism. After settling some of the lingering scandals from Harding’s Presidency, he proceeded to cut taxes–including lowering marginal taxes on the wealthiest income brackets by more than 10%. Shlaes celebrates this policy in particular, crediting it with helping to forestall depression of the economy and helping balance out the government budget. Of course, after Coolidge’s Presidency the economy faltered and plummeted. Economic change often takes years to see the long term impact, and while it would be unfair to charge Coolidge’s tax (and other) economic policy with the Great Depression. But to lionize his policy, as Shlaes seems to, as ushering in some brief moment of economic equality and wealth for all is itself a fantasy. 

Indeed, the taxation plan of Coolidge celebrated by Shlaes as helping pay down the national debt led to a massive increase in state and local government spending to make up for the lack of federal support. Shlaes pointing out that the federal government collected far more taxes on Coolidges policy of lowering taxes on all does little to highlight the country’s prosperity during that time–apparently Shlaes’s goal. Instead, it shows that the wealthiest people in the United States–those who were paying the most taxes–ended up becoming far, far wealthier during this time. Thus, the wealthiest tiers were able to make up and exceed all those making under $100,000 a year (in the 1920s!) due to the massive increase of their own wealth. Economics is notorious for relying on correlation, and I’m not an expert (I only took a few undergraduate classes in economics), but it seems to this reader that Shlaes selectively presented only the data which portrayed Coolidge’s policies in the best light. It’s one thing to say that the federal government brought in more money despite cutting taxes. That data point on its own could lead to any number of assumptions, and based on the framing in this book, the assumption one could be forgiven for making would be that it was made up due to overall flourishing of the economy. It’s another to note that that increase was made up entirely by the wealthiest in the country. Together, these points do not equal equity, but rather increasing economic inequality, something that would loom large in the coming decade. 

Shlaes also seems to suggest Coolidge’s policies somehow could have prevented or put off the Depression, when it seems that his laissez-faire approach as the crisis ramped up actually contributed to ushering the Depression in. No single factor could be pinned down as a single cause of the Depression. However, Coolidge’s policy of letting the market run rampant helped increase a financial bubble that would burst, and Hoover, his successor, would largely be blamed. 

If it seems I’ve focused quite a bit on economics, that’s because it is clear Coolidge himself was highly focused on questions of business in the United States. Whether it was his work on tax reform, his fight over farm subsidies (which he opposed, arguing farms should modernize to increase profitability), or his work on flood relief (aka, not doing much), Coolidge was interested in those things which interested him. The spendthrift days of his childhood made him a spendthrift President. Though he gave lip service to civil rights, he did little to back it up. He did call for making lynching a federal crime–something Congress didn’t pass. He also signed the Indian Citizenship Act, though citizenship had already been granted to a large percentage of Native Americans. On foreign policy, even outside of Shlaes’s biography, I found little on Coolidge’s interactions internationally. 

Coolidge is as much an apology as it is a biography of a President. It deftly defends its subject, but it reads as an overstatement. Time and again, looking more deeply into the topics raised economically, Coolidge didn’t quite succeed to the extent that he is praised for in the biography. Intentionally or not, it seems Shlaes fails to fully delve into the economic issues at hand during the Coolidge adminstration–or the longer-term impacts they may have had. Under Coolidge, the wealthy got wealthier, and the status queue was the priority. 

Calvin Coolidge’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Calvin Coolidge (30th President – Original Ranking #26)- Coolidge was faced with financial crises and labor crises as a leader, and responded in basically conservative fashion. He would favor local legislation and rule, and if he felt that it took deeper intervention, would essentially try to restore the status queue at any cost. Of course, when push came to shove, he favored his own intervention in any issue with which he found disagreement on lower authorities. Ultimately, his everyman kind of approach to government can be seen as overshadowed by his actions showing he truly preferred a kind of elitism in which his own decisions took precedent over any local leadership. Moreover, Coolidge as President was so hyper-focused on the economy that it is hard to evaluate him outside of that. His cut taxes policy made the wealthy wealthier, as the evidence suggests. But the long term impacts of his economic policy may have contributed to the Great Depression. He gave lip service to civil rights but brought about little change, and his foreign policy contributions were negligible. He wasn’t an awful President, but whatever impact he has was negated swiftly after his Presidency as the Depression wiped out the economy. 

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Warren G. Harding #29

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Warren G. Harding, the twenty-ninth President of the United States. My normal selection process for finding a biography (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was made difficult by the dearth of biographies written about Harding. You’d think being President would give you a surefire path to having biographies churned out about you every so often, but you’d be wrong. Anyway, I chose The Harding Era by Robert K. Murray. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Warren G. Harding- The Harding Era by Robert K. Murray

Warren Gamaliel [how’s that for a biblical middle name?] Harding was clearly one of the more corrupt Presidents that our country has ever had. Murray’s biography focuses almost exclusively on his Presidency, so I was left to other sources to research Harding’s early life. Harding ran his town’s newspaper before he got fully into politics, and one almost wonders if this impacted his later life as he almost begged to have sordid headlines written about him later on. 

As President, Harding faced many challenges, both home and abroad. The end of World War I still loomed over the world and many questions raised by the armistice were unresolved by the time Harding was sworn in. Demobilization of the military, social and economic readjustments thereof, Congress was largely floundering with no clear leadership, lack of postwar planning in general, and massive labor issues were among the several challenges Harding faced immediately.

The League of Nations was one of the largest foreign policy challenges, and Harding ran, in part, on a kind of opposition ticket. Oddly, he favored something very similar but wouldn’t name it as a “League of Nations,” opting for looser terms. That’s not all that different from many politicians today who fail to acknowledge by name the policies or policy-makers who make popular decisions, but it doesn’t make it any more frustrating. Harding ultimately managed to convene a naval conference that led to limits on the building of navies worldwide and managed to maintain some semblance of peace for a decade until nations flagrantly violated the treaty. One may fairly ask whether Harding’s own opposition to a stronger League may be to blame for the massive military buildups that then occurred. 

Demobilization had to happen swiftly for Americans to be satisfied. The War was won, so the general consensus was there was no reason to keep soldiers in place. But because of a total lack of planning for what should happen after the war–something the biography Murray blames almost entirely upon Woodrow Wilson–this rapid demobilization led to economic turmoil and collapse. Harding thus tried to navigate these economic problems by supporting farmers and then attempting to give some concessions to labor.

But even as he did this, Harding installed benefactors and friends in important positions in government, resulting in numerous scandals as these people proved to be incompetent or blatantly in violation of U.S. laws. Harding botched his handling of many of these affairs, and may have been involved in scandalous affairs himself. 

Harding also strongly supported the notion and wording of “America First,” a policy that many probably don’t know can be traced back to Harding and beyond. Harding’s notion of America First was quite popular and involved strong anti-immigration sentiment. This was backed by anti-Catholic sentiment as well and notions that people from certain European countries were more to be favored as citizens than those from others. This ethnically charged concept of what it means to be “American” persists to this day, and we can thank the legacy of unfortunately popular policies like those of Harding, in part, for this persistence. 

Overall, Harding’s Presidency did help bring peace back to the world, though, as is unfortunately the case with so many of our Presidents, this peace and attempt to bring forward prosperity was largely directed towards select white elites. 

Warren G. Harding’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Warren Harding (29th President – Original Ranking #25)- Harding tackled some of the major problems that the Wilson administration left behind, and did so with some success at points. His navigation of international waters (in some cases, literally) helped bring peace through mutual agreement over naval treaties and other efforts to maintain lasting peace. Though these ultimately failed, it is hard to lay much of the blame for the failure at Harding’s feet. However, we can blame much ongoing racial tension and white supremacy at Harding’s feet and his promotion of the quite popular (now and then) “America First” policies he favored. Moreover, his Presidency was wracked with scandal and corruption on a scale that impacted domestic policy and wide ranges of people. It seems clear more evaluation of Harding is warranted, and it would be interesting to see more modern takes on his time in office.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Woodrow Wilson #28

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was, once again, twofold. First, I read The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made by Patricia O’Toole. I grabbed it from the library on a whim because I couldn’t find one of the most recommended biographies. This much more recent biography (published in 2018) was a fascinating look at Wilson. I had already put in a request for Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr. at the library, and read that one as well. It was another great biography that helped illuminate periods and decisions that the first biography I read did not. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Woodrow Wilson- The Moralist by Patricia O’Toole and Woodrow Wilson by John Milton Cooper, Jr. 

Woodrow Wilson was a principled man who, unfortunately, compromised on some of the most important principles. Patricia O’Toole’s biography especially emphasized Wilson’s moral leadership, which he himself emphasized at key moments throughout his life. John Milton Cooper, Jr.’s biography was instead a more traditional whole-life biography. 

Wilson distinguished himself in academia before becoming President. A celebrated scholar of political theory, he would be the President of Princeton University. There, he engaged in a lengthy battle with the trustees over various reforms of the university–both the ones he wanted to pass and those that he didn’t. For example, he opposed admitting African Americans to the university. On the flip side, he also nominated the first Jew and the first Roman Catholic to the faculty. Wilson’s white supremacy would guide him throughout his life in decision making, as he inconsistently talked about equality for all while continually compromising equality for people of color in favor of elevating others. Wilson’s own Presbyterian faith would also guide his decisions, and he apparently saw no discord between his white supremacy and the teachings of a Jewish man of color named Jesus who commanded that people treat others as they would be treated.

Wilson had a progressive agenda as President of the United States. Confronting the notions of tariffs, trusts, banks, and monopolies, Wilson argued that “We naturally ask ourselves, how did these gentlemen get control of these things? Who handed our economic laws over to them? …The high cost of living is arranged by private understanding” (54). Wilson saw clearly the collusion in moneyed interests to keep power and wealth in the hands of the few, and he had the moral leanings to fight against it. He agreed that the United States was extremely prosperous. But he asked, “Prosperity? Yes, if by prosperity you mean vast wealth no matter how distributed” (51). This comment is a direct allusion to income disparity and Wilson thought this was a huge problem for the country.  He actively fought for destruction of monopolies, and he was influenced in the direction of free market economies regulated by the government. This helped him differentiate from Roosevelt and Taft, his competition in the election for President. 

As President, Wilson immediately worked to free the market up by easing up on crippling tariffs that favored huge monopolies and businesses that dominated the wealth of the nation. The way that he managed to get his economically progressive laws passed, however, was by making racial concessions to Southern and racist interests. Specifically, he bought votes for his Federal Reserve Act, which brought great strides in cutting down class barriers, by agreeing to segregate public services. In essence, he traded some economic equality for whites for even more inequality for people of color. This would be a theme during his Presidency, as he failed to stand up to segregation in military services in World War I, a decision which had no small negative impact on the war effort by relegating people to certain jobs (eg. a cook) purely based on race. Wilson’s legacy includes the legacy of segregation at the federal level, and no discussion of his successes can be complete without noting this blight on his record. However, his policies that created less income disparity for whites in his lifetime would ultimately benefit all Americans as time wore on. The benefits, however, were unequal in their impact, such that even though they eventually would help all Americans, they’d help white Americans more. Wilson’s allegiance to white supremacy is unquestionable, as he was willing to bow to supremacist interests in order to pass his preferred policies. This adds another layer of complexity to his legacy that makes him difficult to fully judge.

Wilson’s foreign policy is clearly most important related to World War I, but also involved no small amount of conflict with Mexico and Japan. treating the latter first, California’s white leadership continued to pass racist laws based entirely on prejudice. For example, alleging that, in California Japanese-descended farmers were a threat to white American farmers, the state passed laws that excluded Japanese people from passing ownership of land through inheritance or from buying new farmland. These were laws explicitly targeting Japanese people, and the Japanese government responded with outrage, even to the point of contemplating war, which at this point would have been disastrous because the United States had no effective navy in the Pacific and would have had to go around Cape Horn to fight against Japan (the Panama Canal wasn’t complete yet). Wilson essentially let the crisis play itself out, but the bad faith the United States had shown to Japan would fester and lead to clear wider consequences later. Regarding Mexico, Wilson failed to act with policy consistent with previous Presidents regarding recognition of new governments. He therefore set a precedent for the President to become an even more powerful, unilateral force in international affairs. The later fight with Pancho Villa and Wilson’s punitive–and possibly illegal?–raids in Mexico exacerbated poor U.S.-Mexico relations. 

World War I is the obvious major event in Wilson’s Presidency, and his leadership during the pre-war period for the United States was defined by his efforts to avoid war. Wilson could not bring himself to support armed conflict, especially when the United States was not directly at risk from enemy attack. Though he was clearly not a thoroughgoing pacifist–as evidenced by the resignation of his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan (yes, that William Jennings Bryan) once it became clear Wilson was favoring the United Kingdom, in particular–he vastly preferred peaceful negotiation to any kind of conflict. He was inconsistent in this application, as he continued to favor the British more and more as the war dragged on, but he would not have joined the war if he hadn’t been convinced that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” The passive voice, as noted by John Milton Cooper, Jr. in his biography of Wilson, expresses quite a bit. Wilson did not wish to impose democracy on the world, but rather wanted to ensure its survival in an era of increasingly hostile and totalitarian nation states. 

Once the United States entered the War, Wilson and those he appointed managed feats that others had deemed impossible, such as raising a huge army and deploying it in Europe in a swift enough manner to turn the tide of war. Wilson’s quiet but powerful speeches stirred people across the States and Europe. Once the war was over, Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations was almost successful, but an increasingly embattled congress rejected entry into the League. This and other actions while building the League would undermine Wilson’s powerful vision for an organization that could help usher in world peace. 

Woodrow Wilson was a flawed President with lofty aspirations that he compromised for the sake of some policy successes. Like too many Presidents before and after him, he did this to favor white people over any others. The reforms that he got through, however, did lay groundwork for additional reforms. One might argue that Wilson’s Presidency was a “one step back, two steps forward” success. There’s no question that many of his ideas and policies have positive impacts to this day, but his legacy of racial injustice also continues to fracture and divide. 

Woodrow Wilson’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Woodrow Wilson (28th President – Original Ranking #7)- There is no question that Wilson’s impact on the United States outlived the man himself, even into today. This impact is both for good and ill. Wilson’s willingness to compromise on racial integration helped underline systems that continue to this day to exclude others. However, his willingness to do so also was probably the only way he was able to pass legislation that would help many Americans stay on their feet through financial hardship. His legislative legacy also helped break up monopolies and usher in a more beneficial–and regulated–free trade in the United States that would ultimately benefit all Americans. Wilson’s legacy is incredibly complex due to the long term intended and unintended consequences of his decisions. Nevertheless, he almost must rank highly because he, unlike many, many previous Presidents, actually made some strides against inequality while also benefiting the United States directly. These strides weren’t intended to help all Americans, but they do now. His legacy is one that should lead us today to wonder: how do we judge figures of the past? 

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: William Howard Taft #27

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with William Howard Taft, the twenty-seventh President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was actually twofold. Initially, I read The William Howard Taft Presidency by Lewis L. Gould. It was tough going, and I felt like I didn’t understand a lot of what was discussed in the historical context in which it was placed. Much hype (in some circles) was on about The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is a kind of dual biography intermingling Taft and Roosevelt, much as they were in their own lives. That massive volume was much more readable and, more importantly, gave me the context I needed to feel more comfortable understanding Taft’s Presidency. 

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

William Howard Taft- The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The William Howard Taft Presidency by Lewis L. Gould

Taft grew up in a comfortable home that pushed him to work hard to better himself. He graduated 2nd in his class from Yale and went to Cincinnati Law School where he got an education that pushed him to increasing heights. He became a lawyer and a judge, eventually rising to be appointed as a Federal Judge. In that post, in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, he surprised many with several decisions striking down monopoly-like practices in what would become a strong record of antitrust work throughout his life. 

An amiable man who was fiercely dedicated to his wife, these aspects served him well as President McKinley opted to send him to the Philippines. Taft tried to work closely with the Filipinos to try to push towards American governance and eventual independence. In this role, he performed very well and was generally liked by both the Filipino elites and the general populace.

Roosevelt was impressed by Taft, having met a few times before, and appointed him Secretary of War. This role, however, was much less about war than it was a kind of advisory role for Roosevelt as well as a way to use Taft on the campaign trail. Roosevelt routinely dispatched Taft to essentially be his mouthpiece during various foreign affair problems of his Presidency. As Secretary of War, Taft was sent to Cuba to reassure Cubans that the U.S. was not intending occupation, to Panama to help consolidate Roosevelt’s imperialistic move to acquire rights to a Canal, to Japan, and back to the Philippines. 

Taft had his eyes on the Supreme Court most of his life, but first ended up in the White House, largely against his wishes. His popularity–and Roosevelt’s–all but assured his nomination as an ideological successor to Roosevelt. In office, one of the largest fights Taft had was over tariffs. Desiring to end some of the protectionist policies that he felt were hampering trade with the United States (among other things), Taft endeavored to bring about tariff reform, a project that would seemingly occupy much of his energy throughout his Presidency. He did ultimately manage to get congress to pass some reforms, but the way these reforms passed all but assured some protectionism would continue and took the teeth out of Taft’s ultimate goals. 

Taft also began to grow apart from Roosevelt, seemingly due to the ego of each of them preventing them from being the first to reach out to the other. Roosevelt felt he was owed by Taft, while Taft felt that his new position as President meant he didn’t have to defer to Roosevelt in all things. The erosion of this relationship was possibly spurred by Roosevelt’s increasingly progressive stances and surely due to Taft’s botching of Roosevelt’s conservationist goals, particularly in regards to mining of public lands. This rift would, unfortunately, push the two apart after they’d worked so closely together for nearly a decade before.

Another blunder of Taft’s administration was his capitulation to racist interests in refusing to appoint African Americans to various posts. It gained Taft support of many southerners who were initially skeptical of him, but also set back civil rights quite a bit and effectively meant during his administration that if complaints were loud enough about a black appointee, Taft would remove that person from office. This awful situation is surely a blight upon Taft’s legacy.

After a contentious campaign for re-election which effectively split the Republican vote between Roosevelt (Progressive ticket) and Taft (Republican ticket), Woodrow Wilson was elected president. Taft initially went back to Yale before being appointed to the Supreme Court, fulfilling his life-long ambition. In the Supreme Court, Taft wrote opinions which allowed private schools, though made them regulated (a kind of mixed win/loss for the Catholic school presenting the suit); supported businesses against taxation that was aimed at preventing child labor (another strange decision); wrote a rare dissent in support of minimum wage for women; and was involved in many more decisions that would shape policy for some time to come.

Taft’s Presidency and legacy is a mixed bag, filled with some successes and some failures. His decisions shaped the direction of the country in several ways, but these were also of varying import and moral and legal quality. Taft was not the most fascinating President ever, but was a dedicated family man who, it seems, largely stuck to the principles he started off with, for better or worse. 

William Howard Taft’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

William Howard Taft (27th President – Original Ranking #14)- Taft’s long-term impact is not difficult to judge, but it is difficult to qualify it within terms of his Presidency. Much of his impact comes from his acts as a judge, including as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His history of antitrust regulation helped usher in regulations of industries that continue to be challenged and sometimes held to this day. Later in life, as Chief Justice, many of the decisions his court would make deviated from industry regulation, though he remained seemingly antitrust his whole life. Taft was arguable one of the more amiable Presidents in U.S. history, assuming much about one’s status alongside his. On a personal note, his devotion to his wife and family is touching and a good example among many poor examples in the Presidency. As President, Taft would help reform foreign policy in ways that favored skill over nepotism, while also effectively maintaining and somewhat expanding the more imperial aspects of Roosevelt’s Presidency. Domestically, Taft’s refusal to appoint African Americans to posts undercut any kind of progression on civil rights issues and set back the progress Roosevelt made in that sphere. He also pushed to reform Tariffs and try to end some aspects of protectionism, which he met with mixed success. Overall, Taft was a President with both good and bad in policy, and his successes were about even with his failures. 

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Theodore Roosevelt #26

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was actually twofold. Initially, I read Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh. I found that one to be extremely dry, to the point where I was forcing myself through. After getting to the end, I decided a fresh look was worth it for Roosevelt, and ended up reading Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life by Kathleen Dalton and Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt by William Henry Harbaugh

Theodore Roosevelt is certainly one of the more fascinating figures in United States history. Both biographers I read pointed out the gulf between the assumptions about his life and legends about the man and the facts of his life. Certainly, the legends and general knowledge have a basis in reality, but his real life is fascinating as well. Time and again, the old aphorism that “Truth is stranger than fiction” applies very accurately to history.

Roosevelt is not what people would describe as the American dream. Unlike some other Presidents who went from relative poverty to the White House, he was born into immense wealth. He did, however, still struggle to make something of himself. Struggling with illness through his youth, it was his father, “Thee” (nickname for the elder Theodore), who pushed him hard to get past physical weakness. His father’s worldview was embraced by Teddy, who himself pushed for what the biographers called a “muscular” Christianity. This term can be misleading in its meaning, but essentially it is a combination of orthodox Christian teaching with an amalgam of cultural baggage largely based around perceptions of what it means to be robust and, by extension, masculine. That same image of Christianity unfortunately is very alive and well in our times as well, as people combine Christian belief with cultural baggage even while claiming it is the latter that just is the former. That aside, it is clear that both Roosevelt and his father were faithful Christians who attempted, however imperfectly, to apply their beliefs to their lives.

Roosevelt before his Presidency is full of the legendary tales that have established him firmly in American folklore. The rough riders, the traveling around the world–all of that is fascinating reading. It also helps show the character of the man himself. Roosevelt did not back down from a fight, whether with force of arms or with weapons politic. He charged forward in his attempts to bring about labor reform, especially working to try to push such reforms through the Supreme Court. He was bitterly opposed in this by basically everyone with money, who did not wish their wealth to not simply increase in massively disproportionate ways.

An absolutely fascinating part of Roosevelt’s vision of reality is his commitment to seeing scientific knowledge and insight as a guiding light for policy and practice. Pair this with his Christian commitments, and it made for a powerful worldview that withstood many tests. But it also led to some serious difficulties. For example, Roosevelt’s worldview held to a strong belief that all people were valuable and that each person should be given a fair chance/fair deal at life. But the science of his time also had some pushing eugenics and “scientific” race theories that argued that people of different backgrounds were, in fact, unequal simply based upon their heritage or birth. Race science is deeply rooted in prejudice and has very little basis in actual fact (for some fascinating reading on this, read Superior by Angela Saini or The History of White People by Nell Irving Painter), but it was and sometimes still is accepted as sober truth. Roosevelt, being well-read and interested in science, struggled to balance his belief in the equality of all people with the notion that people were, in fact, unequal in reality as well. Dalton does not over-emphasize this in his policy-making, but it seems like it did impact him in some ways.

Alongside Roosevelt’s fight to protect what he saw as workers’ rights, he also fought against the peonage system which he saw as little more than an extension of slavery. This fight put him again on the other side of those in power through wealth, which is somewhat surprising given Roosevelt’s own background. But Roosevelt’s fight both against peonage and for workers’ rights demonstrates in reality his actual commitment both to Christian principles of equality and his general belief that everyone deserved a fair chance at life. Another place this was demonstrated was in Roosevelt’s view was ahead of his time was in women’s abilities more generally. When challenged by anti-suffragists who made the argument that only those who could defend the right to vote ought to be given it (i.e. only those suitable for military service), Roosevelt replied by saying that women could one day become “effective combatants” (75). Women, Roosevelt said, should have equality before the law because “though placed by education and surroundings at a disadvantage,” women were “in no wise inferior as regards quickness or acuteness” (ibid).

Roosevelt also truly tried to walk the line between parties, moderating some aspects while pushing for liberalization of others. Whether it was his battle for fairer labor laws or his hawkish foreign policy, Roosevelt truly was a man of principles that he would follow even if they went against the grain of his party or other powerful people/groups. He’s perhaps best known for his conservation work–itself tied into his vision of scientific leadership–and looking back on his legacy, there’s no question that this is properly placed as a major accomplishment for him. Additionally, his foreign policy is a major component, whether his questionable use of force to get the Panama Canal forced through or his personal brokering of the peace talks for the Russo-Japanese War, he was all over the map on foreign policy (sorry), but he also massively expanded the power and prestige both of the President specifically and United States generally in international relations. Going along with that, his support of the navy helped modernize the U.S. Navy and project U.S. interests–colonial or not–globally.

Roosevelt was not a perfect man or President, but he was a fantastic, admirable one. His record of defending the rights of all citizens of the United States–and many non-citizens–is exemplary. He was guided by his devout faith to regard everyone as deserving a fair chance at life, and his policies followed that belief. It is commendable, too, that he allowed the scientific knowledge of his time to guide him more than any previous President–an example that occasionally led him astray, but that has self-correction built into it in such a way that Presidents to this day ought to take note. Though legends often blow their subject out of proportion or downplay their flaws, Roosevelt’s “real life” truly seems to live up to the towering shadow he casts over United States history.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Theodore Roosevelt (26th President – Original Ranking #2)- Theodore Roosevelt exemplified what it ought to mean to be President. He put the needs of the people–all people–first and fought against any who would attempt to take away votes, privileges, or rights from citizens of the United States. He allowed himself to be guided both by his Christian faith and by modern (for him) science, which did lead to the occasional mistake, but largely allowed him to correct himself on several positions. His immense strides for conservation helped usher in an appreciation for nature and science that grew with his efforts. He could have been better on many counts–his imperialism was only occasionally reigned in by his inconsistency of foreign policy–but he constantly tried to be better. He was a man of fine principles who stuck to them, even when it was difficult. Not only that, but he was an excellent, immensely successful President. It is difficult to understate how important and great Roosevelt was.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: William McKinley #25

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with William McKinley, the twenty-fifth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century by Robert W. Merry.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

President McKinley: Architect of the American Century by Robert W. Merry

McKinley is often seen as the first truly modern President, taking full advantage of the powers of the Presidency and also taking advantage of opportunities to expand that power and use the office as a way to move a political ideal forward. Robert W. Merry’s biography certainly affirms that assessment, as throughout the biography Merry seeks to show that McKinley was a deeply influential President on our nation’s history.

McKinley began his life in Ohio, and in his school years he developed a sharp intellect a demeanor that sought to understood opponents’ reasoning, even while not taking offense at having strong disagreements. His family were strong abolitionists, and McKinley held his own strong views, even debating the topic with Democrats who worked at the tannery. Before the Civil War, he already expressed the opinion that Jefferson Davis and others were going towards treason with their secessionist words. He and his cousin enlisted after careful consideration and opted to weigh national interest over their own. He was a competent soldier, though he didn’t rocket through the ranks as some other Presidents had. He remained idealistic about the reasons for the war, and afterwards he became a successful lawyer. From there, he became ever more actively involved in politics. Personal tragedy struck with the death of his daughters, from which his wife’s health never fully recovered. He was a deeply loving husband who ever had time for Ida, his wife, even to the point of sometimes giving offense with his dedication to her.

Following the political advice he received from Rutherford B. Hayes who counseled him to focus on a specific issue rather than diving in to every controversy of the day (70), McKinley became focused on the question of tariffs and protectionism, heavily favoring both policies as ways to defend domestic industries and the economy. He would carry these torches throughout his political career. His policies of protectionism and favoring of the gold standard during his Presidency would lead to economic prosperity, even while he expanded trade ties with other countries in order to open markets more than they had been. Indeed, Merry makes a case that McKinley, despite being so well known for protectionist tariffs and policies, also helped spur ideals of free trade that would later lead to a more global economy.

McKinley rode his knowledge and endorsement of protectionism to being the Governor of Ohio and then to the Presidency. As President, McKinley took an interest in international relations that perhaps no previous President had done. In doing so, he essentially created an imperialist America. He helped annex Hawaii after various political machinations, ousting the rightful rulers in favor of white American interests. Part of this was due to his belief in manifest destiny. After war with Spain, he acquired Puerto Rico and the Philippines, the latter seemed largely against the wishes of the populace. In China, McKinley pushed an open trade policy whilst arguing imperial powers ought not to try to take territory from China. Ultimately, this led to him using U.S. troops in China when the Boxer Rebellion occurred in order to try to protect American interests. This use of soldiers opened the door for future Presidents to use troops without Senate approval, something that the Senate at the time opposed but ultimately did little to forestall. For foreign policy, McKinley’s policies followed what he thought was best for the United States. He was extremely active in promoting the interests of the U.S. while also expanding its influence through an imperial expansion across the globe.

McKinley was, as said before, a strong abolitionist, but when it came to Civil Rights, his record is uneven. He tended to favor attempts to reduce sectionalism instead of promoting defense of all citizens’ rights. His beliefs reflected prejudices of his time, and he failed to have the backbone that others, like Ulysses S. Grant, had for fighting for Civil Rights.

McKinley won a second term, but was assassinated soon after. When he died, he was beloved, though his reputation has somewhat tarnished in hindsight. There’s little question that he brought increased prosperity for the United States, but he did so at the cost of giving up the fight for Civil Rights and an increasingly imperialistic policy. There is no question McKinley changed the role of President, expanding the power and prestige of the office, ignoring Senate’s protests about overstepping the bounds of the Executive Branch, and getting deeply involved in foreign affairs. His legacy is mixed, though it would be impossible to ignore it in the history of the United States. McKinley is a complex figure with a complex legacy that could be debated at length.

William McKinley’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

William McKinley (25th President – Original Ranking #10)- William McKinley used the powers of the President in ways that few before him had imagined. Deeply involved in foreign policy, he wrestled the Caribbean from Spain, took over the Philippines, added Hawaii as a state, forced access to China open, increased ties with Britain, and developed concepts of international trade in ways that hadn’t been done before. Of course, almost all of these were a kind of Imperialist America that did, oftentimes, as much or more harm as good. Domestically, he solidified the gold standard. He failed to be a strong advocate for civil rights, working to thwart sectionalism more than working to guarantee the rights and protections all people deserve. His enduring legacy was cut short by assassination, but he helped usher in an era of economic prosperity and international influence for the United States from which many continue to benefit to this day.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Benjamin Harrison #23

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Benjamin Harrison, the twenty-third President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) is Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Benjamin Harrison by Charles W. Calhoun 

Benjamin Harrison’s Presidency, argues Calhoun, ought to be seen as one of the primary stepping stones to the modern Presidency. Why? Chiefly, because Harrison took the reins of leadership and did not let go, putting himself squarely in the middle of the nation’s domestic and foreign policy, becoming essentially the mover and shaker in the country. How did that play out in his Presidency? Honestly, in a kind of surprising fashion, but one tied to a debate that seems kind of silly from afar until one looks at the complexity of the issues. Calhoun does a great job in this biography of showing us what Harrison did as President and why he should be considered a “modern” President, but nothing can make endless bickering over silver or gold as the standard for the dollar more interesting than it is. It is with that silver/gold standard question we must begin, before getting into other aspects of Harrison’s Presidency.

Silver or gold? Why does it matter? Can’t we just sing the Burl Ives song and say silver and gold? Okay, forgive the joke. Really, it was more a question of whether the dollar would be backed by silver and gold or whether it would just be gold. It mattered so much for a number of reasons, such as the heavy influence some of the silver mining lobbyists had with various voting blocs. Another reason it mattered is because silver is not worth as much, so by having both silver- and gold-backed currency, it allowed a kind of inflation of value of the silver-backed dollars, thus allowing people to pay back government debts in silver and increasing the spending power of the poor. Internationally, countries demanded payment in gold because that was the higher value currency. Harrison favored a system that set the value of silver on its own rather than against the value of gold, thus essentially giving a possible compromise to both sides of this debate. That was important, because the debate wasn’t on party lines; instead, Democrats and Republicans united in different regions based on preference for one or the other option. Harrison ultimately signed into law a bill that he thought would end the debate by being this kind of compromise, but it basically just led to another financial crisis that wouldn’t be resolved in his Presidency.

If the foregoing discussion about gold and silver sounds complex, it is, and that meant that it absorbed much of Harrison’s time and energy as President, which is unfortunate, because other things were happening. In Hawaii, American businessmen effectively recognized a coup as the de facto government and insisted on its recognition (as far as I can tell, because it meant they could do business more cheaply). Native Americans suffered immense horrors under Harrison’s regime, not because Harrison intentionally targeted them (so far as I can tell), but Harrison’s somewhat distracted dealings with various groups led to perpetuation of violence. Most notable is his (mis)handling of Wounded Knee and the Ghost Dance. Basically, the Lakota Sioux were targeted because white settlers were spreading fear about their alleged militarization as the Sioux rallied around Wovoka and the Ghost Dance. The US Military then massacred 146 (or more) Sioux, including women and children, at Wounded Knee. Harrison’s response was to send in thousands of soldiers and try to launch an investigation, but as Calhoun describes it, Harrison was quickly distracted by crises related to the silver/gold standard and the investigation was not nearly as thorough as it should have been. Harrison’s favoring of “assimilation” of Native Americans (at the time, the moderate or reforming policy–as opposed to outright genocide) can be seen historically as an attempt to prevent violence against Native groups, but ultimately resulted in misunderstanding and more violence, as well as displacement.

One of Harrison’s goals as President was to modernize the Navy, and during his tenure in office, he largely succeeded in that regard. In Chile, a brawl that left some American personnel dead lead to much political maneuvering as tension rose and fell, ultimately resulting in Harrison’s preferred outcome of Chile apologizing and giving concessions, backing off war.

Charles W. Calhoun’s biography, Benjamin Harrison, does a fine job introducing us to this President, as well as defending his place in history as the first modern President (a title often given to someone later). Harrison’s Presidency had its share of ups and downs, and it is hard to say his heart was in the wrong place.

Benjamin Harrison’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

Benjamin Harrison (23rd President – Original Ranking #12)- Benjamin Harrison was an important stepping stone on the path to the modern presidency, for better or worse. He took it upon himself to increase the authority of that position, but he did so in a frankly rather boring fashion, particularly related to extensive debates back and forth about gold and silver standards. During his tenure, foreign affairs in the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, and Chile were dealt with in a sometimes deft, sometimes blundering manner. His policy towards Native Americans was that of assimilation, and despite massacres on his watch, he apparently felt himself successful. He wasn’t the most exciting President, and certainly not the best, but for whatever faults he had, he can be endorsed by the underwhelming stamp of approval called “not the worst.”

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.