Presidential Role Model

On this President’s Day weekend, let us commemorate the record of the best president in U.S. history: John Tyler.

A random poll of Americans would draw mostly puzzled looks at the name, but according to Independent Institute Senior Fellow Ivan Eland, in his 2009 ranking of the presidents, Recarving Rushmore, this 10th U.S. president has the strongest record upholding Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty of any of the 43 presidents to date.

On the prosperity front, Tyler vetoed both the attempt to revive the national bank, and a bill to raise tariffs. His efforts for peace included ending “the longest and bloodiest Indian war in U.S. history,” and cutting the number of troops in the U.S. Army by 33%. He also chose not to respond militarily to both an internal rebellion in Rhode Island, and to a border dispute with Canada, both of which were instead resolved peacefully.

But what of those presidents whose birthdays morphed in “Presidents Day”—Washington and Lincoln—or these two plus one usually ranked as “Greats:” Washington, Lincoln, and FDR?

As Eland points out:

What do these three presidents have in common, then? The answer: a crisis, especially war. The greatest crises in American history were the country’s founding, the Civil War, and the Depression and World War II. Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, not coincidentally, were the presidents during these crises.

Washington ranks #7 using Eland’s Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty (“PP&L”) scale, which keeps him in the “Good” category. Points against him include his handling of the Whiskey Rebellion, and inflating Executive power beyond the Founders’ intent, both in foreign and domestic policy.

Lincoln fares far worse, coming in at #29 and “Bad.” As others have also noted, Lincoln unnecessarily provoked the Civil War, and then made it far worse than it need have been, directly managing the war in an “incompetent, brutal, and dictatorial” manner, including approving total war against the South:

The ruthless General William Tecumseh Sherman unleashed his brutal March to the Sea, and General Philip Sheridan burned the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. These generals bombarded southern towns and cities with artillery, burned them to the ground, and looted and pillaged the rest—all in violation of acceptable conduct in war as enshrined in the 1863 Geneva Convention. Sherman ordered houses to be burned and Confederate civilians to be killed in retaliation for Confederate troops attacking Union soldiers. Sherman wrote his wife that the war’s objective was “extermination, not of soldiers alone, that is the least part of the trouble, but the people.” ….

Eland also dubs Lincoln “the Father of Big Government in the United States,” and cites his civil liberties violations, including his notorious suspension of habeas corpus.

FDR ranks #31, also “Bad.”

Eland agrees with the assessment—extensively documented by Robert Higgs‘s extensive research—that FDR’s policies exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, and cites as well his deceit that took America into World War II. And of course the entire administration stands as the greatest example to date of the Crisis and Leviathan thesis, which precedents continue to haunt us to this day.

As the adage goes, “You get what you measure.” If the PP&L index were the measure, “Presidents Day” would celebrate John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes—names more often found as the answer to trivia contents than those whose visages are carved on Mount Rushmore. So long as warmongering, power-grabbing, civil and economic liberties-violating presidents are rated “Great,” while uncharismatic but principled figures are ridiculed both by historical analysts and in campaign debates, this is what we’ll continue to get. But it needn’t be so, and a president emulating Tyler’s policies wouldn’t be a bad start.

See Ron Paul’s “Afterwords” interview of Ivan Eland on Recarving Rushmore, here.

See audio, video, and transcripts of events held based on Recarving Rushmore:
Bush, Obama, and Presidential Power, with Ron Paul and Richard Shenkman

What President Obama Should Learn from His Predecessors, with Andrew Rutten

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