Why are Americans so obsessed with ranking things that really can’t be ranked? For me, it might be an early exposure to top 40 radio, which so mesmerized me that for several years I kept a record of top pop songs of the day, charting their rising and sinking fortunes in a notebook. (What’s your excuse?) Sports is of course the area in American life where this obsession reaches its peak, with every conceivable form of ranking available to the discerning sports nut. Perhaps Americans are so interested in rankings out of a growing sense of national decline—those who shout “we’re number 1” the loudest are probably afraid that we are actually number 2, or even number 3. But rankings exist for one reason, to try to quantify what is basically unquantifiable, and to reduce the complexities of taste and subjective preference to a single numerical value, and the feeling that somehow this is a “harder” and more reliable than mere qualitative evaluation. Nowhere is this American obsession with quantitative ranking more pronounced than for our presidents. Not a year goes by without another attempt at ranking the 43 men who have held the highest country in the land. Do other countries do this? Is there a cottage industry of books ranking the British prime ministers? Do priests in Rome sit around ranking the 264 or so popes? Do members of the imperial court rank Japanese emperors? I do have a book that ranks Canadian prime ministers, from which I learned a lot about Canadian history, but I attribute this to the nearness of Canada to America’s habitual obsessions.
And the problem with the ranking of the presidents is that they almost always come out the same way, with Washington, Lincoln, and FDR at the top of the list, and Buchanan, Pierce, Nixon, and our most recent ex-president, lurking on the bottom. This has the general effect of ratifying conventional wisdom, and has the pernicious effect of letting people think they know more about American history then they actually do. But a recent book offers the most interesting take on presidential rankings that I have ever read; Ivan Eland’s Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty. Eland is basically a paleocon; skeptical of military interventions overseas, and equally skeptical of governmental intervention in the economy or personal liberty at home. He opposes ranking the presidents according to what he calls an “effectiveness bias” (judging presidents on their ability to enact their agenda), a ”charisma bias” (their media appeal), or the “service during a crisis” bias (these crises are often self-created.)
This leads to some interesting rankings. For Eland, there have only been four excellent president, and none since 1897; John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes, and six other good presidents, of whom the most recent was Jimmy Carter, and before him Eisenhower. (Clinton, is ranked average at #11; George W. Bush is ranked bad at #36.) The bottom feeders are not the usual denizens, Pierce and Buchanan, both of whom are put in the middle of the pack, but James Polk #37, William McKinley #38, Truman at #39, and the worst president of them all, Woodrow Wilson. I thoroughly agree with the ranking of Wilson, who led this country into a disastrous war, and then established a still unmatched record for suppression of civil liberties, and Polk, McKinley, and Truman were warmongers all. (He is somewhat kinder to FDR, surprisingly, ranking him #31, just below Nixon, and just ahead of LBJ, daddy Bush, and Reagn, quite rightly not seeing the latter two
as true conservatives.
Eland has the virtues of consistency, which I lack. I support big government at home, and want the US to mind its business elsewhere in the world. Without a big enough government, big business will simply run roughshod over the interests of average people, and Eland’s belief that
business is essentially self-regulating is more utopian and fanciful than any socialist could imagine. Eland ranks Lincoln #29, and his views on the Civil War are complex, and not reducible to simple neo-Confederatism, but when all is said and done, it seems to me that, as the current health care debate shows, if the southern states had stayed in the union after the election of Lincoln, using the power of filibuster and other tools to disrupt Lincoln’s agenda, there is no way that they would have ended losing all their slaves without compensation, and would have avoided a nasty war besides.
But of course the real reason to provide any subjective ranking is to start arguments, and I should probably end this post here, rather than going on and on. But I applaud his rethinking of the ossified rankings of the presidents, and could not agree more that the usual ranking of presidents seems to privilege war-making and war-waging over almost all other qualities, and the ability to keep America out of war should be seen as at least as valuable as the talent for getting America embroiled in them.