(Reposting this from 2010 in light of Father Z’s comment, with which I agree, that he would prefer to vote for Millard Fillmore’s rotting corpse in preference to Clinton-Kaine.)
Time for my annual rant on Presidents’ Day. I see no reason for a day to honor all presidents. The great presidents, my personal list includes Washington, Jefferson, Polk, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Truman and Reagan, are deserving of honor, and should not be lumped in with bad, mediocre and justly obscure presidents. One of our worst presidents is also perhaps our most obscure president, Millard Fillmore. Therefore, on a holiday I dislike, I will write about a President who deserves to have something toxic named after him.
Fillmore was born on January 7, 1800, in Moravia, New York, the first of the American presidents to be born after the death of George Washington. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a cloth maker. Not wanting to spend his life making cloth, Fillmore attended the New Hope Academy in New Hope, New York for six months in 1819, and began to study law, that never failing route of social advancement for people who are glib but have no other discernible talent. Admitted to the bar in 1823, he hung out his shingle in East Aurora, New York. In 1826 he married Abigail Powers who he had met at the New Hope Academy. They had two children, Millard Powers Fillmore and Mary Abigail Fillmore. Fillmore prospered as a lawyer and in 1834 he formed a law partnership, Fillmore and Hall, which eventually became one of the most prestigious law firms in western New York.
In 1828 Fillmore took his first step into politics by being elected to the New York state legislature as a member of the anti-Masonic party. The anti-Masonic party came into being to oppose Freemasonry after the disappearance of a William Morgan in 1826 in Batavia, New York. Morgan had left the Freemasons and had made it known that he intended to write a book exposing them. After he disappeared, a public furor erupted, with many people suspecting that Freemasons had murdered Morgan. The anti-Masonic party was the result, with members vowed to oppose the influence of freemasons in society. The party grew in strength as it became a vehicle for protests against social and political ills, and waned in strength as anti-Masonry lost its saliency as a driving issue, with most of the members of the party becoming Whigs, opponents of the Democrat Party established by Andrew Jackson. Continue reading
The second part of my rating of US Presidents. The first part may be viewed here.
24. John F. Kennedy-From a moral standpoint perhaps the worst man ever to sit in the White House, the recent revelations of his teenage White House intern mistress during that time period helping to cement that status. Kennedy was a strong advocate of the space race and set the country the goal of landing a man on the moon which the nation met in 1969. He presided over a prosperous economy, helped along with a reduction in marginal rates which he pushed through. In foreign policy he presided over the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and our widening involvement in South Vietnam, lending support to the coup that toppled Diem. He will always be best known for the Cuban Missile Crisis which he successfully navigated, but it was a very close shave for the world. On civil rights, he gave much lip service to it, but it would be his successor who would push through the key civil rights legislation. The second most over-rated president in our nation’s history.
25. James Garfield-A Union Civil War general with a superb combat record, Garfield was also a canny politician with seven terms under his belt in the House. During the brief four months he held the office before his assassination, he staked out positions in favor of civil service reform, the hot domestic issue of the day, and reform of the post office. He refinanced a substantial portion of the national debt at a lower interest rate, saving the nation millions in interest payments. An ardent advocate of civil rights for blacks, he sponsored a bill to provide for universal federal education to combat the fact that in many Southern states no provision was made to educate blacks. It failed in Congress after Garfield’s death. He appointed many blacks to federal office, and began to reverse President Rutherford’s policy of conciliation white Southerners at the expense of blacks. Garfield began the policy of modernizing the Navy carried forward by President Arthur.
26. John Tyler-Known as “His Accidency” by his critics after he took over when President Harrison died just after thirty days in office, Harrison set the mold for Vice-Presidents who assumed the office. It was by no means clear that he would be called President and that he would have the full powers of the President or be considered to be simply conducting a caretaker “regency” until the next election for President. Harrison had none of that. He insisted on being called President and was quite clear in his own mind that he had all of the powers of an elected President. Aside from this setting of precedent, the most signficant event in his presidency was the annexation of Texas at the very end of his term. Tyler was a former Democrat and he acted like a Democrat as president, vetoing almost the entire Whig agenda, including vetoing a proposed national bank twice. The Whigs in the House, for the first time in the nation’s history, began impeachment proceedings. Tyler probably would have been impeached if the Whigs had not lost their majority in the 1842 election in the House. Tyler died in 1862, shortly after his election as a representative to the Confederate Congress. Stunningly, he still has two living grandsons.
27. Herbert Hoover-Hoover rose from poverty to become a self-made millionaire as a mining engineer. He was a noted philanthropist, organizing relief efforts in Europe throughout World War I, saving tens of millions of lives. His administration was dominated by the Great Depression. To combat the Depression Hoover initiated policies that set the precedent for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like the New Deal, Hoover’s policies were largely unsuccessful in combating the Depression. Out of office, Hoover became an outspoken critic of the New Deal which he regarded as socialism by another name. Hoover lived on until 1964, staying active in various causes, and being called upon by all his successors as president for advice and to conduct special missions for them. The only exception was Roosevelt, who shared with Hoover a cordial enmity.
28. Gerald Ford-Our only president never to be elected either president or vice president, Ford was left to pick up the pieces after Nixon resigned in disgrace. Pardoning Nixon was probably the right thing to do to avoid the nation having to go through several more years of the Watergate melodrama, and Ford took immense grief for doing so. In foreign affairs his hands were tied by a Democrat leftist dominated Congress that came to power in the election of 1974, and 1975 witnessed the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the Communists, and set the stage for Soviet adventurism in Africa and Afghanistan. Domestically, the country went through a short but sharp recession in 1974 largely caused by the Arab oil embargo. Inflation was still a great problem, but the economy had vastly improved by 1976 and Ford probably would have beaten Carter but for Ford making a verbal mistep in one of their debates, claiming that Poland was not under Soviet domination, and stubbornly refusing to correct himself for several days. He died in 2006 at 93, making him the longest lived president, beating Reagan for that distinction by 45 days.
29. Millard Fillmore-Fillmore took over as the last Whig president following the death of Zachary Taylor. He helped push through the Compromise of 1850 which delayed the Civil War for decade, and after you have mentioned that you have largely accounted for any historical importance of the Fillmore administration, other than the opening of Japan by Commodore Perry which occurred under President Pierce but which Fillmore initiated. In retirement Fillmore turned down an honorary degree from Oxford, saying that he was unworthy of it, and noting that it was written in Latin and that a man should never accept a degree that he was unable to read. Continue reading
Time for my annual rant about Presidents’ Day. I see no reason why great Presidents like Washington and Lincoln should share a date with miserable failures like James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter. Technically the federal holiday is still George Washington’s birthday, although that makes absolutely no sense as the holiday has to fall between February 15-21, and thus can never occur on February 22, Washington’s birthday. A popular sport for Americans has always been rating their Presidents. All such ratings are of course subjective and mine is no exception. I weigh the good and the ill that a particular president did and that determines his place in my ranking. Feel free to note your disagreements in the comboxes. Here is Part I of my list from best to worst:
1. George Washington-The Father of our Country is the standard by which all presidents should measure themselves. Victory in the American Revolution would have been impossible without his leadership. At the Constitutional Convention, his quiet leadership was a steadying force for the often quarrelsome and contentious drafters. His presence ensured that the constitution drafted would be taken seriously by the States. As President he established endless precedents for his successors to follow, dealt successfully with the huge national debt left from the Revolution, and knit the Union together. None of his successors come close to him except for Lincoln.
2. Abraham Lincoln-In just a little over four years he fought and won our Civil War, ended slavery and preserved our Union. His speeches are masterpieces of the English language. The great tragedy for our nation is that he was slain before he could attempt to guide the nation through Reconstruction. Washington and Lincoln are in a class by themselves.
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt-I believe that his policies during the New Deal were truly voodoo economics and that much of what he did was wrongheaded and retarded recovery and economic growth. However, only a fool could deny that his raising of American morale through the New Deal was anything less than brilliant. As a war president he was wise enough to let the generals and admirals fight the war, and, in general, he chose them wisely. He is largely responsible for the creation of modern America, a fact that will earn him both boos and plaudits.
4. Theodore Roosevelt-With the first Roosevelt to occupy the oval office, America strode onto the world stage. From building the Panama Canal, resolving the Russo-Japanese War to the sailing of the Great White Fleet around the globe, Roosevelt set the framework for the American Century.
5. James K. Polk-He settled the Oregon dispute with Great Britain and successfully waged the Mexican War which added vast territories to our country. Few presidents have accomplished as much in two terms as Polk did in one. He also had the good grace to die shortly after he left office, a policy some other former presidents would have been wise to emulate.
6. Ronald Reagan-The successor to one of our worst presidents, Ronald Wilson Reagan restored American prosperity and morale. His policies initiated an economic boom which, with minor lapses, endured for almost a quarter of a century. He masterfully brought the Cold War to a successful conclusion with an American victory. The best president of my lifetime. Continue reading