Monday 20 July 2015

Who were the worst US Presidents? George W Bush, Lincoln, Wilson. Washington if you are British. Were there (m)any good ones?

I remember back in my first term at Cambridge studying US history noticing that American history unlike British history is largely mythic. We see this especially with Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, FDR etc

The Second Iraq War has cast new light on the Civil War. There are many parallels between Lincoln and the younger Bush. Both launched unnecessary and from a legal point of view probably unjust wars that overturned the local elites and social structures of the conquered peoples, with disastrous short-term and long-term consequences. By his foolish over-reaction to the September 11th murders Bush handed the islamists an unimaginable victory. 
Lincoln and Grant are responsible for 100 years of racial disharmony in the South and a race problem that has still not been solved. Though had Lincoln lived he might have been much more conciliatory than the Republican zealots.

If only Lincoln had not won in 1860 but someone else - maybe poor, decent Buchanan - war would not have happened. Not for a while, at least. Buchanan said the Union had no right to prevent secession by force. I think he was right. In any case his view would have saved 800,000 lives.

Washington and his cronies, of course, were responsible for another unjust, unnecessary war. 

FDR I have to be grateful to, I know, as an Englishman but I don't like his domestic policy. Thank God he lived to start his fourth term and the world thus escaped President Henry A. Wallace. 

I believe people should submit to lawful governments, so I do not think the 1776 rebellion is justified, especially as George III's government was a benign one. I sympathise with the good, patriotic people who died or were ethnically cleansed because they were loyal to their King. 

Why do I not therefore think the South should have obeyed the federal government? Simple. Because how can a government that derives its legitimacy from a revolution in 1776 and the pooling of sovereignty between sovereign states then insist that as a legitimate government it is entitled to stop those states seceding. The constitution says nothing on the matter, which means, I think, that the states had not give away their essential right to join or leave but even if I do not persuade you of this, why wage a war to stop the Southern states leaving. As Gladstone said the Confederacy was 
a nation rightly struggling to be free.
I am a monarchist, a throne and altar man, an admirer of Clarendon and Metternich, a conservative in short. But, most of all, I think war needs a strong justification. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Lincoln WAS justified in making war on the South. Very well but how much infinitely more admirable he would be had he given them the right of self determination. If Americans disagree with me why do they approve of European countries giving their colonies independence?

Who were best? Truman was good, though I have never decided whether the Cold War was necessary. George Kernan opposed it for good reasons. Dr Tim Stanley thinks Calvin Coolidge was the best president ever. Dr. Ivan Eland thinks John Tyler was.

It's worth reading Dr. Ivan Eland's criteria for presidents. He's thinks John Tyler was the best. Eland has amassed a presidential ranking system that rewards such qualities as:
commitment to small government; 

faith in a limited role for the executive branch; 

ability to avoid war; 

yielding power to Congress.

I wonder if, apart from Truman and possibly Theodore Roosevelt and maybe Jefferson, there might not have been any, at least not by the standards of English Prime Ministers. There's no one to compare with the Pitts, Canning, Palmerston, Disraeli, Gladstone or Lloyd George. Wellington was not as good a political leader as Eisenhower, it's true, but no one pretends Wellington was much of  a statesman. Gladstone infinitely excels the wretched Wilson, who kept his bust on his desk. I suppose, if you are a socialist, Lyndon B Johnson is a great president.

All Americans are liberals in a very important sense. The Declaration of Independence is a very un-conservative, very Whiggish document. Republics, as opposed to monarchies, are liberal and so is the ridiculous idea that all men are equal. Goldwater and Reagan were right-wing liberals, Mrs. Clinton is a left-wing one. Most presidents were also liberal and idealistic in foreign policy, including Ronald Reagan, although Nixon and the elder Bush were in foreign policy terms conservatives. But George W Bush, egged on by the neo-cons, ex-Marxists who never had a conservative bone in their bodies, was a consummate liberal in his idealistic, un-pragmatic foreign policy. He was very much the illegitimate son of the very disastrous Wilson.

Wilson's legacy was the disintegration of Austria Hungary, innumerable ethnic conflicts and the Second World War. Reader, if you seek George W. Bush's monument, look around you.

One more thing. It was George W Bush's talk about 'the Axis of Evil' (Iraq, Iran and North Korea) that led North Korea to get the bomb. 


  1. Many would say Lyndon B Johnson. I know a few who would. I would have said Calvin Coolidge.

    1. He was a eugenicist which I dislike but on balance Cal was not bad.

  2. Jefferson was a Jacobite, and though he had many admirable qualities,he wasn't above smear campaigning his adversaries through the newspaper he bankrolled, run by James Callender. I like TR and despise FDR. FDR, and Churchill to a degree, betrayed Poland at the end of WWII. Oddly a war that was initially fought over Poland's invasion ended with sycophantic pandering to Stalin. Poland was sacrificed to keep him happy. FDR mistakenly had thought he could jolly and schmooze Uncle Joe into doing the right thing. Churchill, trying to keep on the right side of FDR, found himself destroying a people who had fought so hard for Britain, during the Battle of Britain and in Italy. Churchill ironically created his own Munich Agreement at the end of the war. Taft was a lack luster president, but perhaps he knew how to hold the Constitution dear. A good thing.

  3. American history compared with British is essentially on the other side of the ocean. Are such figures as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, William and Mary not perceived by the public more or less mythically?

    What war was Washington and his cronies responsible for? As an officer of (ultimately) the crown, he fired the first shots of what we call the French and Indian War. When he showed up to command the troops outside of Boston, Massachusetts was already in rebellion, owing to a series of events that he had nothing to do with. He did, as president, send armies to fight with the Indians of what is now Ohio; yet one could argue that this was the logical consequence of the British government's earlier claim to the Ohio basin.

    Buchanan was not on any party's ticket in 1860, as you must recall. Douglas could easily enough have won, had the south been willing to imagine any limit on slavery in the territories, even the democratic vote of the territory's inhabitants. Instead the southern Democrats nominated and voted for Breckinridge.

    "If Americans disagree with me why do they approve of European countries giving their colonies independence?" All of the US west of the Appalachians or south of the St. Mary's river was acquired by the joint effort of the US, commonly in gold for the claims and to some degree in blood for the effective control. Much of the north perceived that the Mexican War was fought for the acquisition of territory for the benefit of slaveholders, but the north jointly with the south funded and fought the war.

    To be an altar and throne man in the days of Elizabeth II, D.F.? My goodness.

  4. I would err on the side of Eisenhower for the 20th centuries greatest President, not just for his Presidency, but for his handling of the Germam people as victims of the Nazis, his insistence on documenting the Holocaust and the very fact that he was simply less venal than so many of the others who held the office. Despite being a soldier he sought ways to lasting peace and tried to warn both America and the world about the inherent dangers of allowing the buildup of a Military Industrial complex, his stand on ending segregation was firm and in my opinion right, though I know not everyone on this forum agrees . However for me his greatest achievement and failure was his attempt to steer the world away from a nuclear arms race before it began. as well as a great Soldier, he was a natural politician, a superb statesman and human.
    In true MP style , finally what did Eisenhower ever do for me? Well there is the enduring legacy of the Interstate system which did more to help the healing of the economic rift between North and South than almost any other single act since the end of the Civil War.

  5. Presidents are compromises and I find it hard to favor any. I think Adams best, Taft next and I respect Washington and Jefferson. Many Americans would say Reagan was the best. I imagine most blacks would say Clinton at one time now Obama.


  6. William Henry Harrison was our best president. Of course he died after a month in office. Would that more of them followed his example.

  7. Presidents don't make history, they deal with it.