Presidential Biographies: Zachary Taylor #12 (1849-1850)

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Zacharay Taylor, the twelfth 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 Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower.

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.

Zachary Taylor by John S. D. Eisenhower

Taylor’s life, as I reflect on the biography by Eisenhower, seems almost ho hum. It’s like what one would expect if one had fictionalized the rise of someone to the Presidency in the 1800s. He began as the son of a Virginia landowner who had himself been distinguished in the Revolutionary War. Unlike some of the other Presidents we have already looked into, it doesn’t seem Taylor ever needed to worry about monetary problems. He followed somewhat in his father’s footsteps by becoming an officer in the United States Army. He became a national hero during the Mexican-American War and leveraged that popularity, in part, to ascend to the White House. He was a gentleman farmer from Virginia, which is a rather kind way of putting the fact that he relied on people he’d enslaved for his wealth. Eisenhower notes an anecdote at the beginning of this biography that inspired him–he was speaking with someone who argued that Taylor, had he lived, may have been the person who could have prevented the Civil War. Why is that? Most simply, because it is likely he would have vetoed some things that led to greater national tension. Let’s explore that along with some other aspects of his life and Presidency below.

Taylor joined the army and moved up the ranks, eventually to become a Brigadier General. Due to his more genial relationship with Andrew Jackson and James Polk, he got the nod over more senior generals to command U.S. forces in the Mexican-American war, winning a series of unlikely victories (or at least victories where he was outnumbered) and skyrocketing to national fame. This national fame was enough to get him the nod as President. He viewed himself as somewhat independent, but garnered support from the South due to his own status as a slaveowner and from the North due to some of his statements about not expanding slavery into new territories. Taylor, later in life, would recommend his son purchase a new plantation, complete with slaves. It is clear however moderate his position on this was for the time, he was no abolitionist, and his own frustrations over abolitionist arguments was clear at some points in his life. Nevertheless, neither was he in a hurry to force slavery’s expansion over all new states.

Taylor’s foreign policy included trying to reach out to more countries to establish relations with the United States. A humorous aside is the fact that Taylor sent an “American minister to the German empire, only to discovery, on Donelson’s arrival, that the German empire did not exist” (105). I laughed out loud on reading this sentence, and think it has to be one of the foreign policy gaffes of history. No, it didn’t have a large impact, but it was a big “Oops!” Anyway, he did make contact with a few other countries and, minimally, didn’t damage our relationship in a huge way with Britain or any other major powers.

The question of California’s status in the Union was one that loomed large for Taylor. He would die before it would eventually get resolved, but his own attempts to come to a moderate position led to much vocal opposition from both North and South. Because he opposed things like the Fugitive Slave Act, he was criticized by the South and important figures like Henry Clay as one who wasn’t seeking compromise. The status of New Mexico was also hugely important when he came to office. Yet neither debate, nor the major question of the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act, would be settled while he lived, for he died July 9, 1850, just over a year in office. President Fillmore would effectively rubber stamp whatever solutions Congress offered to these major issues, though it seemed clear Taylor would have vetoed some aspects.

Zachary Taylor was most interested in the preservation of the Union. It seems clear that he could, like others of the time, feel the tensions start to shift and cause fissures in the United States. Whether it was his military record, his upbringing, or something else, he seems to have had a somewhat moderate stance in an age in which there were few moderates. A Virginian, he saw the interests of the country at large as more important than those of his own section of land. A slaveowner, he opposed the expansion of the Fugitive Slave Act. He was an enigma, and it would be quite interesting to know what would have happened had he lived. But he didn’t live long enough to carry out some of the acts that he may have to secure the Union. As such, though he is an interesting play for alternate history buffs, he may remain a rather obscure President.

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

10. Zachary Taylor (12th President- Original Ranking #10)- Taylor had what one might envision as a “standard” story of a soldier rising to the Presidency. But he was also a “gentleman farmer” (read: Virginian slaveowner who used slave labor to bolster his wealth). Interestingly, he may be considered something of a moderate in a time when there were very few moderates. His opposition to things like the Fugitive Slave Act and prioritization of the Union over the interest of the State or region makes for an interesting “What if?” scenario had he survived his entire Presidency and changed more of the course of the country. His life was less interesting than other Presidents, and in death he opened the path for events that would lead to the Civil War–not that he had any control over his timing. The best that can be said for Taylor is that pondering what may have happened had he lived can occupy a great deal of time. He wasn’t particularly effective or country-shaping as President. He was a man of his time, but one who broke the trend by favoring the Union over his own interests.

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.

 

 

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.

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Presidential Biographies: James Polk #11

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with James Polk, the eleventh 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 Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman.

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, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America by Walter R. Borneman

Polk’s career seems to have been defined by destiny. Whether it was his destiny as a man mentored by Andrew Jackson to become President or his utter belief of and living out of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, Polk’s place in history seemed assured from a fairly young age. After studying law, he rose through the Tennessee legislature to get to Congress. Soon integrated into larger issues as a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his friendship with Andrew Jackson grew and he campaigned for the man to become President. Finally becoming President himself, he would expand the powers of the executive office more than perhaps any predecessor, with his eyes upon expanding the borders of the United States as well.

Polk was a firm believer in Manifest Destiny, perhaps one of the most damaging ideas in the history of the United States. The idea was that America was some kind of glorious city on a hill and the spread of American (read: white, largely Anglo-European) settlers across the vast expanse of the west was destiny–a destiny given by God. Though Borneman doesn’t explore the notion much (indeed, in the biography the term is only mentioned a few times, and never in much detail), it is clear through Polk’s actions that he fully bought into this perspective.

When he became President, Polk had four primary goals: “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (353). The first two were clearly goals related to Manifest Destiny, and he would go to war to gain California. The dispute over Oregon was eventually resolved as war loomed with Mexico. The United States wasn’t prepared for a two front war against two different opponents, and Polk fell back from his hardline stance over where the boundary for Oregon should be drawn, thus gaining agreement from the United Kingdom.

California was a different affair, and Polk seemed to realize quickly that Mexico would not easily cede California, and began looking for a way to take it from them. He was, he thought, given a gift when blood was spilled near the Rio Grande, though not on American soil. It did, however, become a rallying cry, and Polk moved to declare war. Rather than letting Congress initiate it, however, Polk presented Congress with a declaration of war and got their approval, a clear expansion of executive power. Even as he did this, and having already prepared for the conflict by moving American soldiers into the area, he moved to use the navy as well. These moves expanded the conflict but also helped get a victory for the United States.

There were a few times in Polk’s presidency when he made clear errors of judgment. Perhaps the most obvious time was with his claim about “American blood on American soil”–his claim that Mexico had attacked and killed apparently innocent American soldiers and killed them in American territory. The claim was false and would haunt Polk as his critics continually pointed out his error. Nevertheless, the claim burgeoned the popularity of war with Mexico and effectively got Polk what he wanted anyway. Another issue was his “54 40 or fight” slogan referring to demanding Oregon from the United Kingdom, apparently over threat of war. Those who took up the cry favored war rather vehemently, and Polk was forced to throttle back his claims a bit. Thankfully, it did not come to war, and P0lk had another victory from apparent error.

Polk owned slaves and wrote into his will to free them when he died–so long as his wife agreed. Some see wills like this as evidence of a kind of softening towards slavery, but I think this is clearly mistaken, as it really just shows people wanted to live by enslaving others and didn’t much care what happened once they died. It was a fairly common practice, but one that does nothing to mitigate the ills of slavery. Polk’s clearly expansionist attitude helped contribute to more atrocities being committed against native peoples as white settlers spread and used military might and deception to displace people who were already on the land they overtook.

Regarding the biography, Borneman writes well, and his outlining of the life of Polk is fascinating and enlightening. I had thought for some time that Polk was a rather forgettable President, but after reading this biography, it seems Polk’s influence–for good or ill–on later events in our country, and certainly upon its borders, is astounding. I recommend Polk: The Man Who transformed the Presidency and America highly.

Polk’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES

6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.

 

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.

The Definitive Ranking of the Presidents of the United States

I continue to read through Presidential biographies, but it has become clear that posting the ranking on the bottom of each post is getting unsustainable. It’s already over 1500 words, so I decided to break it off onto its own post. I’ll update this as I continue through the Presidents, so this is my catch-all page for the ranking. It will also have links to my look more closely at each President.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. But unlike those scholar surveys and others, I don’t cover up clear biases with words like “objective” and the like. You’ll probably end up disagreeing with me at some points. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. James K. Polk (11th President- original ranking- #6): James Polk achieved the goals that he set for himself as he entered the office of the President. As his biographer, Walter Borneman points out, those goals were “resolve the joint occupation of Oregon, acquire California, reduce the tariff, and establish an independent treasury” (Polk, 353). Polk accomplished all of these goals, though it took a war to do so. Moreover, he expanded the power of the executive branch, including in the President’s powers regarding war, getting directly involved in helping order the conflict. His clear belief in Manifest Destiny, that doctrine that ought to be consigned to the trash heap of history, continues to influence nationalism today. The unspeakable atrocities that continued to be perpetrated on those peoples native to the land the United States would gain in international eyes though his Presidency must not be understated. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to find many Presidents with greater impact on our country than Polk had.

7. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

8. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

9. John Tyler (10th President- Original ranking- #8): The Accidental President helped to solidify the role of the President while also balancing concerns for his party and his own political beliefs. As a Congress member and as President he remained adamantly allied to slavery and a slaveholder. He strengthened the position of the President and helped clarify the office’s role in our three party system. He was a major supporter of states’ rights, but again this was largely due to his support of slavery over and against any move by the federal government to oppose it. An enigmatic, oft-forgotten President who may have had more influence than we would think.

10. Zachary Taylor (12th President- Original Ranking #10)- Taylor had what one might envision as a “standard” story of a soldier rising to the Presidency. But he was also a “gentleman farmer” (read: Virginian slaveowner who used slave labor to bolster his wealth). Interestingly, he may be considered something of a moderate in a time when there were very few moderates. His opposition to things like the Fugitive Slave Act and prioritization of the Union over the interest of the State or region makes for an interesting “What if?” scenario had he survived his entire Presidency and changed more of the course of the country. His life was less interesting than other Presidents, and in death he opened the path for events that would lead to the Civil War–not that he had any control over his timing. The best that can be said for Taylor is that pondering what may have happened had he lived can occupy a great deal of time. He wasn’t particularly effective or country-shaping as President. He was a man of his time, but one who broke the trend by favoring the Union over his own interests.

11. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”

12. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

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: John Tyler #10

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with John Tyler, the tenth 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 John Tyler by Gary May.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

John Tyler by Gary May

John Tyler was a man of many firsts for the United States. Often nicknamed “The Accidental President,” he was the first President to succeed a former one because William Henry Harrison died while in office–only 31 days in! He also was the first to have his Veto overturned by Congress. Tyler was a Whig, but one who was a strict constructionist who felt the President should guide policy. It was an interesting balance, and it was somewhat clear his party never really intended for him to be President.

Tyler was born to a powerful Viriginia family that owned slaves and he spent much of his life in positions of power. His upbringing made him an ally of those who enslaved others, and this came through in his Presidency as well. He almost always framed this support in terms of states’ rights, a kind of historical lie that has continued into this day. Tyler, however, was more consistent with his application of this than some of his contemporaries *casts meaningful glances towards Andrew Jackson.* His opposition to Jackson during the nullification crisis is one example of this–though a cynical person might simply argue he was just favoring the South yet again. He was also critical of Jackson during the Bank crisis. Strangely, once he attained the highest office in the land, he worked to expand the power of the President himself, liberally using the power to veto and working to define the Presidency’s role alongside other powers. Internationally, Tyler oversaw treaties with Britain and China, each of which strengthened our relations with foreign powers.

At the start of the Civil War, Tyler was nominated to the Congress of the Confederate States, sealing his position as a treasonous President.

May’s analysis of Tyler is particularly intriguing, because he points out that while Tyler is often seen as one of the “footnote” type Presidents, he actually did quite a bit to solidify the strengthening of the office of the President that Andrew Jackson had really begun to expand. Through his repeated use of the veto, he exercised his Constitutional rights in ways that may not have been fully anticipated by the authors of that document. Moreover, he showed that the office of the President can be interpreted–as Jackson did–as a kind of will of the people. Tyler was an intriguing President, even if he was accidental.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

8. John Tyler (10th President- Original ranking- #8): The Accidental President helped to solidify the role of the President while also balancing concerns for his party and his own political beliefs. As a Congress member and as President he remained adamantly allied to slavery and a slaveholder. He strengthened the position of the President and helped clarify the office’s role in our three party system. He was a major supporter of states’ rights, but again this was largely due to his support of slavery over and against any move by the federal government to oppose it. An enigmatic, oft-forgotten President who may have had more influence than we would think.

9. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”

10. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

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.

The Civil War was not about States’ Rights, it was about Slavery

Image Credit: By George Willis, Navy Agent Pensacola Navy Yard placed July 18 1840. – Pensacola Gazette, runaway slave reward for “SMART” dated July 22 1840,p.3 National Archives and Records Administration Washington DC, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=68445221

Time and again, as I read through primary source documents surrounding the Civil War–one of my historical interests–or biographies of various persons who lived in the lead up to the Civil War, I find that the refrain that the Civil War was really about states’ rights is nothing but a tired canard. It is a myth, one that is used for any number of reasons, not always nefarious. Nevertheless, it is just that–a myth. The Civil War was certainly about slavery and there’s not really a historical question about that. The evidence for this can be found in two broad streams: first, that if the Civil War was truly about states’ rights, there is massive inconsistency on the part of those who allegedly decided to fight to the death for the same; second, numerous clear statements exist regarding the secession of Southern States being about slavery.

Inconsistency on States’ Rights from the South

Those who champion the notion of the “states’ rights” as the reason the South seceded and fought the Civil War have to contend with the numerous violations of states’ rights the South was perfectly willing to put up with and even wholeheartedly endorse. The most obvious of these is the Fugitive Slave Act, which led, for example, to the federal government sending in soldiers to march an enslaved man from Boston under massive protest to a ship and back to the south. The city of Boston was thunderstruck by the Anthony Burns affair, but it was enforced by the federal government. Indeed, fugitive slave laws were abused to even kidnap truly freed black persons and enslave them, ostensibly as escaped slaves. Where was the outcry from these southern supporters of states’ rights during this time? It was non-existent. The law supported the cause of slavery, and so was perfectly acceptable to those whose primary concern was the perpetuation of the same.

The notion that the southern states seceded due to states’ rights takes another heavy blow when we actually read the Constitution of the Confederate States. Therein we find the following:

 In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.

But what about states’ rights in this instance? Their own constitution explicitly makes it clear that slavery is the singular institution that above all others “shall be recognized and protected by Congress and by the Territorial government.” But what if a new state or a part of a territory wishes to be a free state? That is not provided for. What if a state chooses to change away from being a slave state? That is not provided for. Instead, what is provided for in the Constitution of the Confederate States is the use of federal authority to enforce slavery, force states to “recognize” it, and to take their slaves wherever they want, even if those areas do not wish slaves to be brought in. Slavery is enshrined in the very Constitution of these states that allegedly were fighting for states’ rights rather than slavery, and it is enshrined in such a way that it explicitly would violate states’ rights should they come to oppose slavery.

Affirmation that the Secession was about Slavery

The documents of secession of various states are particularly telling when it comes to the question of why states seceded from the union and later fought a war. Georgia’s document of secession states near the beginning that “For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.” That certainly makes it sound like slavery was a huge part of their reason for seceding. Indeed, the document goes on to issue numerous complaints against those who are anti-slavery; not that they were violating states’ rights, but rather just that they were anti-slavery–that was the issue.

South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union” makes it clear that secession was, in part, due to:

The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution.

Unpacking this, South Carolina was upset that several northern states had opted out of making state officials comply with fugitive slave laws. The complaint was that the states were failing to comply with a federal law they opposed. This is literally the exact opposite of supporting states’ rights. If South Carolina supported states’ rights, they’d be all for these other states using their right as an independent state to deny compliance with a federal law they opposed. But no, instead, South Carolina explicitly makes this one of their reasons for seceding. They wanted the federal government to force states to comply with the Fugitive Slave Act. Why? Because this wasn’t about states’ rights; it was about slavery.

Conclusion

Though I’ve only provided a few of the many, many examples that show the southern secession was over slavery, I believe it is enough to have carried the point. The very reasons provided for seceding were centered around slavery. The reasons provided contradict the notion that states’ rights were somehow supreme. These were the reasons for secession and war. Not some high-minded notion of whether the federal government or the state had greater sovereignty. Indeed, the very states that seceded did so explicitly in part because they wanted the federal government to support and enforce slavery.

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 Henry Harrison #9

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with William Henry Harrison, the ninth 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–I actually ended up reading two biographies for Harrison, because I had some trouble finding one that filled in many details about his life.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

William Henry Harrison – Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy by Robert M. Owens and William Henry Harrison by Gail Collins

William Henry Harrison’s journey to the Presidency was different than one might expect. Though he came from a wealthy family, he was sold as a common, log cabin kind of man. His military career began when, after his father’s death, his family ran out of funds to keep sending him to school. He quickly joined the military, where he gained popularity through his victor at the Battle of Tippecanoe against Tecumseh. He went on to become the Secretary of the Northwest Territory and member of the House from the same; then he became the first Governor of Indiana territory. He ran twice for President, winning in 1840 (only with 53% of the popular vote but by a huge margin in the Electoral College). He caught pneumonia and died 31 days into his Presidency.

Harrison was a disaster for anyone looking at human rights. For one thing, he was a staunch supporter of slavery. Not only did he push for slavery in Indiana and most of the Midwest (and he kept doing so even when it became clear that popular support was not with him), but he also continued and helped define the policy of the United States towards Native groups. As Owens put it in his biography, the general attitude was that we should “Kill the Indian, save the man.” What is meant by this is that the complete extinction of Native culture was what was sought, but that the person him or herself would be seen as savable if only they would give up their entire culture and way of life. What this came down to in practice, of course, was a number of fights directed at the extinction of the Native American way of life and indeed of entire people groups.

It is clear that Harrison’s policy towards Native Americans continues to poison policy today. Colonialism still rears its ugly head in interfaith discussions, for example. Native Americans who have become Christians are often expected to give up their way of life, told that things like medicine drums or dances are impossible to reconcile with their newfound faith. The late Richard Twiss, a Native Christian writer, wrote quite a bit on this (see one book review here). The notion that we still must destroy Native culture in order for the people to gain respect is pervasive to this day, in part due to the perpetuation of it in Harrison’s day and through policies that he and others like Andrew Jackson supported.

Harrison, of course, took a hands on approach to perpetuating this attitude, dealing and often double-dealing with Native Americans, insisting that he could sign a treaty with one tribe that would be binding on all, while then turning around and denying the same type of reasoning when the Native Americans used it. Then, when convenient, he would state that one tribe had precedence over others in a territory and so they had no rights, even though they believed they were also in a binding treaty. Effectively, his policy was to do whatever he wanted.

Harrison’s time in the Northwest Territory and as governor of the Indiana territory reveals his sympathy towards people who wanted to expand slavery. He was a proponent of allowing slavery throughout the Northwest Territory and continued to support it. Part of this was certainly due to his upbringing in a slaveholding family, but his insistence on continuing to try to expand slavery reveals his attitude towards it: he seemed to think slavery was necessary and beneficial.

As President, there was extremely little that Harrison himself accomplished, though the directions he would have gone would be entirely predictable, and it would not have been good. Trying to rank someone like Harrison among our Presidents is difficult. As far as his actual term goes, he is little more than a footnotes. But so far as his influence on policy in the United States towards Native groups goes, we still feel the horrible consequences to this day.

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

8. William Henry Harrison (9th President- Original ranking- #8): I know the immediate complaint for not having Harrison at the bottom would be something like “He was barely President for a month! How can he outrank… anyone?” First, the sheer amount of damage that the/those President(s) ranked beneath Harrison did to our country and people moves them lower. As my new saying goes, “Still a better President than Andrew Jackson.” Second, Harrison’s own potential damage to our country was limited as President, but he still deserves a rank quite low not just because he did very little as President but because his whole body of work is a testament to how poorly the U.S. has treated those it considers “other.”

9. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

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: Martin Van Buren #8

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Martin Van Buren, the 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), I picked Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald Cole.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on that biography, and proceed to the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!!

Martin Van Buren and the American Political System by Donald B. Cole

Martin Van Buren – Lived 1782-1862 ; President 1837-1841

Van Buren was a true politician, though not in the way that we may think of that term today. Yes, at times it seems that he simply followed the winds of popularity, but at other times he picked a stance and stood up for it regardless of possible consequences. It is difficult to get a feel for him as a person, however, due to this propensity for changing positions and picking battles. Who was Van Buren, truly? I’m not sure I have a good answer to that question after this biography. However, from reading comments about him other places, I find that to be a somewhat typical response.

A capable lawyer who spoke English as a second language (Dutch being his first), Van Buren leveraged his acumen for people to organize the Democractic-Republican Party in New York. He also helped found the Albany Regency, a powerful political machine that is certainly one of the first organizations that may rightly claim that label. The Regency was a group that exerted much power politically both in New York state and nationwide. Van Buren would spearhead this group and ride its influence to the White House.

Van Buren was very careful to try to give balance to his statements and positions. He allied himself with Jackson and leveraged that connection to expand his influence. He even managed to turn his resignation as Secretary of State during the Petticoat Affair (a scandal in the White House involving members of Jackson’s cabinet in which the wives of several cabinet members worked to ostracize another) into a political win and increase of his power.

One example of how he rode the line between positions is his treatment of slavery. For many years and throughout the Jackson Presidency, he was concerned with alienating Southern power and so he continued to favor policies which slaveowners also favored. However, later in his life he became known as a major proponent of abolition and supporter of Abraham Lincoln. The latter was perhaps not as large a swing as one may think, however. At the time, many Republicans favored abolition, though certainly did not favor equality of all people. Van Buren’s shift on this question may not truly show a change of heart so much as a change on feelings towards forced labor. It was, perhaps, a change of politics, as with many parts of Van Buren’s life.

As President, Van Buren wasn’t as successful as one may have anticipated given his demonstrated capabilities related to political maneuvering otherwise. The beginning of his Presidency was struck with a depression, leading to several blaming him for the economic collapse. He came up with a plan that would eventually turn around the economy of the country by keeping federal funds independent of various state banks, but this plan wouldn’t be implemented until enough hardship had happened for many to become embittered against him. Van Buren was also hesitant to upset the balance that was created from the Missouri Compromise and so fought against annexation of Texas, not only hoping to prevent war with Mexico but also seeing it as something that could spur on further North-South conflict. Though Van Buren preached a Jacksonian policy–and certainly continued the horrors that were visited upon various Native groups in the North America through these policies–he modified it towards his own ends, spurring on the strength of the Democractic Party. As President, however, few of his policies were adopted.

After his Presidency, Van Buren leaned increasingly towards abolition and, as I said, became a large supporter of Abraham Lincoln in his anti-slavery efforts.

Martin Van Buren and the American Political System is a worthy read, if it is a bit dry at times. Cole certainly gives a huge amount of background on the issues that surrounded Van Buren throughout his life. Van Buren is a difficult figure to analyze

THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES*

My criteria for ranking the Presidents will be somewhat arbitrary. Random things I’ve thought of so far is whether they improved our infrastructure, how Presidential they acted/looked, whether they got us into any silly wars, and the like. As you can see, these criteria are somewhat… subjective. So you’ll probably end up disagreeing with me. I look forward to your comments!

1. George Washington (1st President- original ranking- #1): Washington basically defined the office of the President for all who followed him. It was left intentionally vague by the framers, so he had to work within those strictures while trying to expand on them. Not easy, but he seems to have done it rather ably, refusing to become a major partisan while still demanding certain powers of the Executive Branch. During his Presidency the national bank was created, the country’s credit recovered, massive trade booms occurred, the Mississippi was opened for exploration, and beneficial partnerships with other countries were being formed. On the other hand, during his Presidency and life generally, slavery was tolerated and even expanded, Native Americans were brutalized, and throughout it all Washington either participated directly or turned his face the other way. It is difficult to underestimate the impact of Washington on the office of the President. On the other hand, we ought not to lionize him or see him as perfection itself.

2. Thomas Jefferson (3rd President- original ranking- #2): Jefferson’s accomplishments as President, Secretary of State, and Revolutionary cannot be understated. He deftly handled relationships with such countries as France and Spain, while also helping to secure borders of the United States for decades to come. One of the biggest splashes of his Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase, which vastly increased the size of the country. However, Jefferson was also a blatant womanizer, a slave owner who pandered to abolitionist leanings while owning slaves, was clearly racist, and encouraged the destruction of Native groups living on the land that was “purchased” from Napoleon. Back on the positive side, he advocated for religious tolerance–even of other faiths–despite his Deistic leanings. His diplomatic skill is beyond dispute. He actively sought compromise and valued even minority opinions–lessons we need to re-learn now. The legacy he left would impact almost every aspect of the country going forward, for good or ill. It is difficult to fully analyze such a complex, contradictory man.

3. James Madison (4th President- original ranking- #3): Called the “Father of the Constitution,” Madison’s impact is perhaps most important for what he did prior to becoming President. The sheer amount of work he did to get the Constitution written, improve upon it, amend it, and put it to vote is astonishing. As President, perhaps the most important event in his career was the War of 1812, itself a possible foreshadowing of the many and sundry conflicts the United States has entered with tenuous justification since. Though often disastrous, the War did lead to, somewhat paradoxically, better relations between the United States and Britain going forward. Perhaps it is best said that Madison was the consummate compromiser, for good or ill. As with many others, his owning of slaves directly conflicted with his affirmation of the idea that all people are created equal.

4. John Quincy Adams (6th President – original ranking #4): It would be easy to argue that John Quincy Adams was a more successful member of Congress and Foreign Minister than he was a President, and I would concede that argument. So yes, I absolutely tilted his score based on his achievements outside of the Presidency, but that’s because they were such monumental and important achievements it is tough to mark him down due to the opposition his Presidency received. What were those achievements? He negotiated the end of the War of 1812, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, helped shape our country through treaties regarding borders along Canada, Florida, Texas, and California, successfully regained the right of petition for the American people, and stood up against slavery in the courts–specifically with the Amistad case. Yeah, I think that’s worth a significant bump on this list.

5. James Monroe (5th President – original ranking- #4): Monroe was a master of foreign policy, and his Presidency and political career reflected that. Certainly left his mark on U.S. policy in ways that we still feel regarding Europe and South America in particular. Probably to be considered a “moderate” regarding relations with Native Americans and for his stance on slavery, though his positions were still bigoted and rather arrogant regarding both groups of people. Little by way of scandal (see Jefferson for an early example of some rather scandalous things going on with Presidents), so that makes him more Presidential than some. Also, he appeared to be a loving husband and father, overall.

6. John Adams (2nd President- original ranking- #2): There’s something to be said for the fact that Adams basically held the line against all the forces threatening to either break the United States back apart or subsume it under an “alliance” that would turn it into a kind of vassal state. Adams did that, and he managed to keep the US out of another war in its infancy. The political treatises Adams wrote went on to define the constitutions of many states and help clarify the relationship between the state and federal government. Adams did, however, fail to hold his own political party together, whether through inaction or simply not being charismatic enough or willing enough to step into the leadership role he needed to take. Moreover, Adams was an absentee (at best) father and husband.

7. Martin Van Buren (8th President- original ranking- #7): How do you analyze a man who was perhaps first and foremost a politician? Though that word has become something of a pejorative depending on its usage now, Van Buren didn’t play the system so much as he created one. He created what would develop into the modern day political party, taking what Andrew Jackson had started and running with it. He did so on a local and then national level, leveraging it to eventually become President of the United States. His continuation of Jackson’s policies towards Native groups caused enormous harm. His outright support of slavery may be baffling in light of his being remembered by contemporaries as a voracious abolitionist, but this change in policy was later in life and cynics may argue that it was a policy of convenience. He struggled as President to get much passed, largely due to his shouldering the blame for the economic crisis that greeted the beginning of his Presidency. His political skill helped create our modern political system, for better or ill. No matter what you think of him, he does at least give me the chance to use my new favorite phrase of this list: “He’s still a better President than Andrew Jackson.”

8. Andrew Jackson (7th President- original ranking- #7): I’m genuinely flabbergasted by how Jackson manages to get ranked so highly on so many lists of Presidents. On the positive side, he did help prevent an earlier Civil War by, eventually, ending the nullification crisis. He defined the office of President as representative of the people. He also was the first to truly form up a political party around himself and help use it to shape the dynamics of policy. Not an unimpressive list of accomplishments. Yet he was also an extremely staunch defender of slavery, to the point of failing in his office to enforce the law by allowing freedom of speech to be impeded by federal postmasters through the south. He personally oversaw slaughters of Native groups and set up and endorsed policies that would lead to countless thousands of deaths and atrocities against Native Americans. He callously saw only white people as worthy of the words of the Constitution, as demonstrated in both of these actions. Moreover, he used federal power and authority only when it suited him–if he wanted something to happen, he had no qualms about using federal authority; if he did not, he shamelessly looked the other way. He was concerned primarily with himself and ensuring his own success. He is vastly overrated.

*Rankings not definitive

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.