A year ago I commemorated Presidents’ Day by shirking conventional wisdom and maligning the mediocre, and in many ways subpar, presidency of one Abraham Lincoln. Since then, there has been a clamoring of demand for my opposite list: “If Abraham Lincoln was not a good president, then who, oh, American-marsupial-who-also-studies-history, do you think is a good president?” And by “clamoring of demand,” I mean one dude clicked “like” on my last post. Anyone want to wager he’s from the South?
Other than Lincoln, my Top Five is going to have some overlap with the “Official Lists.” It’s hard to ignore Jefferson. The Louisiana Purchase might have just fallen in his lap, but still, he had to go against his own beliefs to do it. As a “small government” guy, Jefferson did not think the president had the power to unilaterally make that purchase. But he did it anyway, and if you’re an American west of the Appalachian Mountains today, you can thank him.
Sure, “going against what you stand for” might not be seen as a hallmark of greatness, particularly by today’s standards. But I wish more presidents would put the strength and progress of the nation ahead of your own personal goals and fortunes.
Plus, with that act, Jefferson set the presidential precedent of breaking campaign promises. What could be more American?
The other president that usually appears in most people’s “Best of” list is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Again, this is a hard one to argue against. His leadership during World War II was instrumental, and even if his results in battling the Great Depression were mixed (as was every other non-Dictator’s on the planet), he infused optimism when it was desperately needed.
However, I always take FDR with a grain of salt because of how long he was president. He had three terms compared to everyone else’s one or two. (He was elected to four terms, but died a few months into his fourth term, so that barely counts.) Had he stepped aside in 1940, like every other President in history, would he be remembered as being so great? If all of those pictures of the Big Three victors of WWII featured John Nance Garner or Wendell Willkie, would FDR still be at the top of the list for his Fireside Chats alone? I’m not sure.
So, yes, FDR is one of the best, but he cheated.
Here, then, are my Top Three Presidents. Two of them are not overly surprising, as they usually appear in the second grouping of presidents, with one often “On the Bubble” of the top list. But Number Three is largely forgotten in history, and I’m not sure why.
#3 James K. Polk. The general consensus of historians is that, after Monroe, the only two nineteenth-century presidents of note were Jackson and Lincoln. Not so! Sure there were some abysmal presidencies, but there were a few bright spots. John Tyler had a pretty solid presidency, especially considering he was the first “accidental President” after dumbass William Henry Harrison gave an inaugural address that ended up killing him. Later in the century, the Garfield/Arthur combined presidency as a particularly accomplished one, as well. And not only because it gave us both a hilarious cartoon cat and the greatest sideburns in history.
But Polk stands as the best president of the nineteenth century. He was elected as Manifest Destiny was sweeping the country and he promptly went out and gobbled up the rest of the continent. He annexed Texas and then provoked the Mexican-American War. Maybe that’s seen as too proactive and violent. I guess we like our presidents to sit there and have the war fall in their lap. But at least in the Mexican-American War, we kicked some ass. None of this “almost losing a war in which we have numerical, technological, and economic superiority,” which I like to call the Lincoln Special.
But Polk wasn’t just about war, he was about stretching from sea to shining sea in the most efficient way possible for the United States. Because after winning the war against Mexico, many of his supporters wanted to take on England for the northern half of the Oregon Territory. Ever heard of the motto “54’40 or Fight?” Guess what? We did neither. The border between the United States and what would become Canada was negotiated to be the 49th Parallel by President Polk. So just like Jefferson, he knew when to tell the stalwarts in his party to shut the fuck up for the good of the nation.
And thank God he did. 54’40 would include all of British Columbia. I mean, there’d be a bunch of Canadians in America. Don’t they drive on the other side of the road? No? Isn’t maple syrup their national drink? Are you sure? Oh, I know! They have the metric system. But wait, they wouldn’t if we had taken them in 1848? Dammit! Stanley Park is beautiful – England, is it too late to renegotiate this thing?
But the most impressive thing about President Polk is that he was only president for four years. One term and he was out. He’s the anti-FDR. Why? Because that was his campaign promise. He said he would only run for president once and he would take over the rest of the continent in that time. And he did.
No wonder he doesn’t make people’s list. Getting shit done and keeping your promises? That, sir, is NOT what we look for in our Presidents.
#2 Harry S. Truman. I understand why Truman was overlooked for most of the last seventy years. He came after FDR, and he made a number of controversial decisions. Correct decisions, but controversial and unpopular at the time.
Nobody knew who Truman was when he became president. FDR had picked him as a new Vice President for his fourth term, so he had only been Veep for a few months when he became President. However, FDR knew he was dying and knew that, for the first time in our history, one person alone was going to pick the next President.
Then again, had FDR told the people that he was on his death bed when he was running for his fourth term, he might have helped Truman’s popularity a little bit when the inevitable happened. It might also have helped if he had mentioned the whole Manhattan Project thing to that hand-picked successor. Ah, FDR – America’s first dictator.
And of course, that pesky Manhattan Project ended up being one of the definitive decisions of Truman’s presidency. I don’t think it was the right call, since Japan seemed willing to surrender. But I still give props to a guy who went from junior Senator from Missouri to Vice President to first new President in many people’s lifetimes in the span of a year to get up to speed and have to make that decision.
But the atomic bomb kind of fell in his lap, and I never like basing the strength of a President on things outside of his control, like the plebians do with Lincoln. So instead I like to point to a few of Truman’s later decisions to judge his fortitude.
Truman went toe to toe with Stalin in the early Cold War, and almost always came out on top. The Berlin Blockade and the crises in Greece and Turkey that led to the Truman Doctrine could easily have gone against him. But he showed the country and the world that we were the new superpower in the world. Sure, the idea of containment would end up biting us in the ass twenty years later, but if Truman hadn’t stood up for Berlin and Greece, there never would’ve even been a South Vietnam for us to fuck up.
President Truman also knew when to back down. In the Korean War, when MacArthur wanted to advance into China, Truman told him no. MacArthur went to the American people, who backed him. A President with less testicular fortitude would have backed down to the experience of the World War II-winning general. But Truman not only stood up to MacArthur, Truman fired him. Whoa!
Again, this was an unpopular decision, but it was the right decision to make. I don’t know how many of the forty-three presidents can consistently say they cared more about the future of the world than the future of their job.
As there are fewer and fewer people who remember Truman, or remember their parents complaining about him, he is slowly starting to rise up most historians’ lists. Hopefully in another twenty years, he’ll take his deserved place near the top.
The opposite seems to be happening for our best president, whose confidence and braggadocio makes many of today’s Americans uncomfortable.
#1 Teddy Roosevelt. How amazing is it that a guy who voluntarily put himself in front of enemy fire just three years before becoming President, then went on to fight monopolies, reform the government, and create the national parks and Panama Canal is usually referred to as the “other Roosevelt.”
Oh, and we also carved his face into a mountain. But that was all before his distant cousin took over and relegated him out of most historians’ Top Five List.
But they are wrong. Instead of Lincoln and FDR, Teddy should be everyone’s definition of a President.
Much like Truman, he was a Vice President who took over after the death of his predecessor. But unlike Truman, he was not hand-picked to be the next President. Quite the opposite. The party bosses were worried about the popular upstart after he brought his own photographer to his Spanish-American War soiree. He had already made some major reforms as New York City Police Chief and then as Governor of New York.
So they put him in the most feeble and pointless job in the United States to stop him from making waves.
The weakness of the vice president is predicated upon the president staying alive.
To list the achievements of his seven-year presidency would push this already long entry way past the tl;dr designation. He didn’t sign the Sherman Anti-Trust Act but he swept off the twenty years of dust it had been collecting. Everything from food inspection to civil service itself were greatly solidified under his watch. He even invited Booker T. Washington to dinner at the White House, the first African-American to ever have that honor.
He did most of this without overstepping the power of the presidency. Most of reforms either involved enforcing laws that were already on the books or using his popularity to get what he wanted passed in Congress. Some later critics complained about his use of gunboat diplomacy in Panama or his harsh policies dealing with insurrection in the newly-acquired Philippines, but he had to pursue the best goals of his country (See above: Polk, James K.). And, hell, the fact that he only threatened, and didn’t actually attack, Colombia to secure the Panamanian land, made him positively pacifistic by early-20th Century standards.
More than anything, though, Teddy symbolized how Americans saw ourselves, and how many still see ourselves today. A rugged individual with boundless energy, halfway between city slicker and frontier cowboy. Someone who seized every opportunity given to him, but rarely for personal glory or gain. And someone who rose to the highest position in the country only to blow up the status quo once he was there.
And if only some of our more recent presidents and politicians could remember the first part of his Big Stick adage. Always speak softly.