New presidential ranking

In the past, I’ve expressed my reservations against rankings of presidential greatness, which traditionally have been skewed by various biases – action bias, power bias, liberal/progressive bias, and so forth.

My own experience in science reminds me that one can “build in” the desired end result to some extent by asking the right, i.e., carefully worded or even loaded questions of the right, i.e., handpicked people, and you can certainly tweak and twist the results, too. That said, I was heartened recently to see a ranking produced by Franklin’s Opus, the trade name of the American Institute of Historians and History Educators.

They asked a small but apparently knowledgeable panel of experts to rank all presidents (excepting only the current holder of the office, and short-termers William Henry Harrison and James A. Garfield) on three criteria, namely how well they “executed the laws and the Constitution,” “promoted liberty and prosperity,” and “exercised good leadership,” and if you think these bode well for Calvin Coolidge, you would be absolutely correct – have a look at the results, and check out the cool animation of what Mt. Rushmore would look like if it represented the survey’s result!

 

The dog that did not bark – a new look at presidential greatness

A new study on presidential greatness revisits some of the ground that has been covered in this blog. While authors David Henderson and Zachary Gochenour use data that have been utilized before, most prominently by Dean K. Simonton, they add the new variable of American lives lost during a president’s tenure. The main finding is that this variable is a strong predictor of presidential greatness – as ranked by historians. I’ll report in more detail, especially as I take issue with some of the older variables, but here is a telling excerpt that features our own favorite president:

(…) historians do tend to think a president is greater if, all other things equal, he has made “tough” decisions. Tough decisions often involve getting the United States into costly wars or, if other countries’ governments have initiated, not avoiding wars. Consider, for example, the following quote from law professor John O. McGinnis: “To be sure, Coolidge was not a truly great president, like Washington or Lincoln. While he successfully handled small foreign policy crises in China, Mexico, and Nicaragua without saddling the United States with permanent and expensive commitments, he was never tested by a substantial foreign war.”

McGinnis is a law professor, not an historian, but the tone of these remarks is similar to that of many historians. McGinnis judges Coolidge negatively because he was never “tested” by substantial foreign wars, rather than positively for having kept the United States out of major wars. McGinnis and many historians commit the mistake highlighted by 19th century economic journalist Frederic Bastiat of not paying attention to “what is not seen.” In this case the unseen is the wars that various presidents could have inserted the United States into but didn’t. Or, to take an analogy, when a president avoids war, it is like the clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze:” the clue was that the dog didn’t bark. It takes a clever man like Holmes to realize that the dog’s not barking is what’s important. It takes an historian different from the usual to realize that a president’s decisions that helped make a war not happen are also evidence of leadership and greatness.

As Zachary Karabell, biographer of president Chester A. Arthur has written: “Presidents who govern during a time of calm and prosperity often suffer the barbs of history. They are remembered as bland.” This indeed troubling. As the authors of the new study conclude:

Most presidents, after all, probably want to be thought of as great. When they spend resources on war, they are spending almost entirely other people’s money – and lives. They get little credit for avoiding war. Martin van Buren, for example, effectively avoided a war on the northern border of the United States. How many people know that today? Indeed, how many people have even heard of Martin van Buren? (…) We should stop celebrating, and try to stop historians from celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn’t happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted.

If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.

 

Sinful Caesar sipped his snifter

100 bonus points for anyone who recognizes the classic “Singin’ In The Rain” as the source for the just barely appropriate headline! It continues “…seized his knees and sneezed.”

Presidential greatness has been a subject on this blog quite a number of times. It does not take a genius to discern that the reason for this is that our favorite man Calvin Coolidge rarely (ok, never) is mentioned among the “great” presidents. And the reason for that is clear as well – the commonly used criteria for greatness (management of great crises, preferably wars, or the expansion of governmental reach into the lives of citizens) have been cleverly framed so as to exclude Mr. Coolidge. I have approvingly quoted Gene Healy and others who have questioned the very concept of whether presidents are supposed to be “great” and I’m pleased to see at the Ludwig von Mises Institute website today another article that questions the greatness of two presidents perpetually jostling for prominence at the top of “great presidents” lists. Lincoln and FDR violated the Constitution in so many ways and created unconstitutional precedents on such a scale that author John V. Denson rightly labels them American Caesars, and while some neocons may take this to be a compliment, it is not intended as one. Writing from Germany as I am, I’m seeing our own administration and parliament embark on such reckless and dangerous actions in the name of “necessity” or of “saving Europe” that I would like to hurl at them the William Pitt quote: “Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants.”

Calvin Coolidge had a deep respect for the Constitution and consulted it to determine the proper course of action. He did not read between its lines and he did not freely interpret its meaning to make it mean what he wished it to. He refrained from acting on stock market speculation because of several reasons, but one was that he felt the stock markets were a matter for the states to handle. He was under popular pressure to lead the U.S. into war with Mexico but instead expressly instructed his ambassador Dwight Morrow to “keep us out of war.” The man obviously had no idea what it takes to be considered great!  In my humble view, this least Caesarean, least imperial of presidents is a clear candidate for the upper ranks of presidential greatness. But then I’m biased.

Happy Presidents’ Day, Mr. Coolidge!

In celebration of Presidents’ Day, here are links to three articles – f i r s t , here’s historian, Coolidge scholar, and occasional reader and commenter on this blog Jerry Wallace with an all-new article on the timeless values of Calvin Coolidge,

s e c o n d, one of my all-time favorites by economist Robert Higgs, cautioning against the notion of presidential greatness,

and t h i r d, a short vignette by Amity Shlaes, highlighting Coolidge as a paragon of the forgotten virtue of thrift.

 

And what did Coolidge himself have to say? I’ve always loved his quote, “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.” I read this to mean that Coolidge had a healthy appreciation of his own shortcomings, and a wise understanding of the Founders’ conception of a president’s function – not as a supreme visionary and great mover and shaker of things, but as a more humble functionary “doing the day’s work” and letting the people go about their own business.