Who were the best and worst U.S. presidents? In the past when historians and scholars have rated the presidents, their evaluations often have been based on individual charisma, activism, and service during periods of crisis.
Taking a distinctly new approach in Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland profiles each U.S. president from Washington to Obama on the merits of his policies and whether those strategies contributed to peace, prosperity, and liberty. This ranking system is based on how effective each president was in fulfilling his oath to uphold the Constitution. Contrary to the preferences of modern conservatives and liberals, this oath was intended to limit the role of the federal government.
Readers will be intrigued to discover why, of the four men given exalted representations on Mount Rushmore, only Washington deserves the honor. They will learn why Teddy Roosevelt has been overrated; why Jefferson hypocritically violated his lofty rhetoric of liberty; and why Lincoln provoked a civil war that achieved far less than believed. Readers will uncover why some presidents are rated much higher than the conventional wisdomfor example, Warren Hardingand some rank much lowerfor example, Harry Truman.
As for more modern U.S. chief executives, Republicans will be astounded to learn that Nixon was the last liberal president and that Reagan wasnt all that conservative. Democrats will be amazed to learn that Clinton was in some respects more conservative than George W. Bush and why both Obama and Bush are ranked as bad. Readers will learn why the author goes against the grain and anoints Eisenhower and Carter as the two best modern presidents.
Table of Contents
Chapters 1 44: Chronological Profiles of Presidents Conclusion
U.S. presidents who are regarded highly by historians, journalists, law professors, and the public often fare poorly when we consider the ill effects of their policies or their unfaithfulness to the Constitution. A new ranking of the presidentsone that focuses on how effectively they advanced peace, prosperity, and liberty within the limits of their constitutional powersvirtually turns upside down those rankings that praise a president because he was a charismatic leader, a good manager, or served during a time of national crisis. This book essentially tries to rank the presidents as the Constitutions framers might havehad they been around to do it. Figuratively speaking, Ivan Elands Peace, Prosperity and Liberty (PP&L) rankings show that recarving Mount Rushmore is long overdue.
Abraham Lincoln, often ranked as one of the three greatest presidents in U.S. history, helped to provoke a bloody civil war and then pursued it ineptly and brutally. The war nominally ended slavery, but for many decades African Americans experienced only marginally more freedom from bitter white southerners than before their emancipation. Peaceful alternatives to Lincolns policies might have achieved better results more quickly. Far from the being the number one president, Lincoln earns a low PP&L ranking of 29, placing him in the category of bad presidents.
Thomas Jefferson, although a proponent of small government, imposed a trade embargo that curtailed the liberty he championed rhetorically and led to starvation in America. His unconstitutional approach to making the Louisiana Purchase and his forced relocation of Native Americans to less desirable land farther west set bad precedents for acquiring new territory. Jeffersons PP&L ranking is only 26, placing him near the top of the bad presidents category.
George Washington expanded the role of the federal government and the powers of the presidency beyond what most of the Constitutions framers envisioned. He also set other bad precedents, including unconstitutionally crushing the Whiskey Rebellion. Washington earns a high PP&L ranking of 7, placing him solidly in the category of good presidents, because, despite his shortcomings, he had republican intentions, shunned becoming a king or dictator, and left office after two terms.
Barack Obama and George W. Bush are usually considered very different in their political outlooks and philosophies, but their policy track records show striking similarities. As for Barack Obama, this updated edition of Recarving Rushmore rates him as one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, ranking him slightly higher than George W. Bush. Like his predecessor, Obama has pursued ruinous domestic policiesincluding massive bailouts, Keynesian fiscal stimulus, nationalization of industries, and increasing public debtas well as substantial infringements on civil liberties. Yet despite significant flaws, to his credit Obama has had the most restrained foreign policy since Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, making his presidency slightly better overall than that of George W. Bush.
Who were the best and worst U.S. presidents, and what criteria should be used to make a meaningful comparison? Presidents are often judged by their personal charisma, intellect, oratory skills or management stylebut are these traits the most important ones for a president to possess? Couldnt a very intelligent, well-spoken, charming taskmaster, who served during a time of national crisis, also be a lousy president if his policies undermined freedom, hampered economic progress, and made the country less safe? Conversely, couldnt a boring president with average intellect and unexceptional skills excel in the Oval Office if he also possessed other qualities in abundance, such as a firm commitment to
the principles behind the Constitution?
Recarving Rushmore takes a distinctly new approach to evaluating the presidents. While academics and pundits have often paid natural respect to war heroes and to those who have expanded presidential power, Ivan Eland (Senior Fellow, The Independent Institute) cuts through bias and political rhetoric to deliver the first no-nonsense presidential ranking system based purely on what they did. Profiling every president from George Washington to Barack Obama, Eland analyzes each mans policy decisions and ranks them based on the core principles of peace, prosperity, liberty, and adherence to the Constitutions limitations on presidential
powersin other words, as the Founders might have rated them.
Throughout this book, readers will find constant reminders that the executive branch has vastly increased its powermore than what the nations Founders and the Constitution ever envisioned, writes Eland in the books introduction. Also, this book criticizes an activist government at home and abroad, which both liberals
and conservatives have perpetrated.
Biases in Evaluating
Academics and pundits on the political right accuse their counterparts on the left of a tendency to rank the presidents according to their own agendasand vice versa. The prejudices that analysts bring to a ranking of the presidents, however, are more complex than that, Eland explains. Presidents are often judged by their personal charisma, intellect, oratory skill, or management style. Their chances of being deemed a great president improve significantly if they served during a war or other crisis; bland men in boring times usually get little respect. Moreover, analysts often overemphasize the importance of presidents who presided before Woodrow Wilson, when the size and scope of
the executive branch was much smaller.
Eland makes the case for ranking the presidents based on whether their policies promoted peace, prosperity, and liberty (PP&L). He ranks the presidents on each of those three components and compares his PP&L rankings with the alternative rankings made by the Federalist Society/ Wall Street Journal, the Siena Research Institute, and free-market economists
Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway.
The Peace Presidents
The Founders of the republic recognized that the United States had a fairly secure position against most military threats, with weak neighbors at its borders and two oceans buffering it from the worlds conflict zones. These advantages allowed the United States to stay out of most foreign wars and to avoid maintaining large standing armies in peacetime, which the Founders viewed as a threat to civil liberties. More recently, however, presidents have tended to abandon that foreign policy for one of overseas interventionism, a trend Eland views as
counterproductive and costly.
Consistent with the Founders visionand in stark contrast to rankings that often reward presidents simply because they provided leadership during wartimeElands ranking method gives presidents credit for avoiding wars and for conducting only necessary wars of self-defense. Presidents receive demerits for conducting wars of choicethat
is, most wars in U.S. history, Eland writes.
In the category of promoting peace, Eland gives his highest rankings to three presidents: John Tyler, Warren Harding, and Herbert Hoover. Tyler exercised restraint in dealing with an internal rebellion, a bloody Indian war, and a boundary dispute with Canada. In foreign policy, Harding was exceptional, keeping the U.S. out of the entangling alliance of the League of Nations, negotiating a separate peace with Germany, and securing the first significant arms control agreement in U.S. history. Hoover, although a proponent of U.S. interventionism abroad, showed restraint in foreign policy by avoiding sanctions and not threatening force against Japan after its invasion of Manchuria and by eschewing Wilsonian interventionism in Latin America.
Eland gives his lowest peace rankings to six presidents: James Madison (invasion of Spanish Florida, the War of 1812), James Polk (Mexican War), William McKinley (Spanish-American War), Woodrow Wilson (World War I, massive U.S. meddling overseas), Harry S Truman (Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Cold War, Korean War, interventionism in the Middle East and elsewhere, the military-industrial complex), and George W. Bush (Iraq and Afghanistan)with John F. Kennedy (Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam) and Lyndon Johnson (Vietnam) tied for the second lowest rankings in the peace category.
The Founders of the American republic generally believed that free-market policies would lead to prosperity, and the nations economy became the largest on earth based on that principle. Accordingly, although other analysts assessments often reward presidential activism in the economy, Eland deducts points for activism that violated the Founders original ideas and rewards presidents who encouraged the private sector to resolve problems with minimal government intervention in the economy. It is crucial to keep in mind that economic performance during one administration can be determined by policies enacted by prior administrations. Jimmy Carter experienced stagflation during his administration, which was primarily caused by LBJ and Nixons Vietnam War and their economic mismanagement, Eland writes. Yet Carter fostered economic policies that eventually led to the prosperity of the Reagan years and set a precedent for policies that led to renewed
prosperity during the Clinton years.
In the category of promoting prosperity, Eland gives his highest rankings to John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, and Rutherford B. Hayes. Tyler supported a sound policy of limiting the growth of the money supply, and generally opposed high tariffs, a national bank, and federal welfare to the states. Van Buren showed proper restraint during an economic crisis and worked toward limiting federal and executive power. Hayes returned the United States to the anti-inflationary gold standard (which helped pull the economy out of a recession), restored the nations credit, and kept federal troops out of a violent labor dispute. Eland gives his lowest prosperity rankings to two presidents: Franklin D. Roosevelt (the New Deal, wartime expansion of the state) and Lyndon Johnson (the Great Society and other federal programs). Closely behind are William McKinley (new taxes, favoritism for select businesses, progressivism), Woodrow Wilson (Federal Reserve System, Federal Trade Commission, renewed antitrust activism, groundwork for expanded government), and Harry S Truman (Fair Deal, intervention in labor
disputes, increased economic intervention).
Many presidents have expanded the executive branch beyond what the Founders envisioned. This inflation of presidential power has distorted the original system of checks and balances at the expense of the legislative branches of government, and has resulted in the imperial presidency and the
erosion of U.S. citizens liberties.
Presidents often claim that they are preserving liberty while, at the same time, they
are taking actions to subvert it, writes Eland.
Eland ranks George Washington as the best president in the category of preserving liberty, with John Tyler and Grover Cleveland tied for second place. Although Washington expanded executive power beyond what the Constitution envisioned, he also limited presidential powers in crucial ways, stepped down after two terms, and ensured the survival of the new constitutional system. Tyler favored limited government but fought members of his own party on this principlethereby torpedoing his chances for a second term. Cleveland pursued benevolent policies toward Native Americans, including trying to protect land in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) from white settlers, giving them U.S. citizenship, and doling out reservation land for individual Indians to farm under the Dawes Act.
Eland gives his lowest rankings in the liberty category to Woodrow Wilson (Palmer raids, Espionage and Sedition Acts), with Thomas Jefferson (Embargo Act, Indian policy) and Harry Truman (domestic surveillance, persecution of alleged communists, erosion of constitutional checks and balances) tied for the second lowest ranking. Tied for third lowest place are John Adams (Alien and Sedition Acts), James Polk (war to grab land intensified conflict over slavery, Indian casualties), William McKinley (suppressed freedoms abroad), Ronald Reagan (Iran Contra scandal, signing statements), and George W. Bush (expanded executive
power, erosion of civil liberties).
Elands top presidents for the PP&L composite rankingsTyler, followed closely by Cleveland, Van Buren, and Hayessound obscure to many today. At the same time, Elands low rankings for Reagan, Kennedy, and FDR also put him out of step with most academics, pundits, and the public. However, if we value peace, prosperity, and libertyand, especially, adherence to Constitutional stricturesthen the presidents must be judged according to their enthusiasm for principles which themselves may
often run counter to popular prejudice.
Most of the excellent presidents are remembered as bland men with gray personalities, but they largely respected the Constitutions intention of limiting government and restraining executive power, especially in regard to making war, writes Eland. They realized that America is great not because of its governments activism at home and abroad, but because of the hard work and great ideas of private American citizens living in freedom. In other words, they realized that peace, prosperity, and liberty are best achieved by the framers
notion of restricting government power.
In the intriguing book, Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland reassesses the record of all U.S. Presidents based on the constitutional principles that each swore to uphold. While conventional accounts glorify the flagrant misdeeds of the Imperial Presidency, this insightful and crucial book provides an inspiring vision for both conservatives and liberals on the crucial need to rein in White House power and restore peace, prosperity and liberty.
Ron Paul, former U.S. Congressman and candidate for President of the United States.
Recarving Rushmore is colorful, entertaining, and profound. Ivan Eland shatters the grand illusion that great presidents are those who wage war or deprive people of their liberty, either here or abroad. The new gold standard for measuring presidential performance, this book upends what we know about Great presidents and will challenge your view of political history, one president at a time.
Jonathan Bean, Professor of History, Southern Illinois University
Eland engagingly shows why the conventional wisdom on the American presidency is all wrong and why presidents like Van Buren, Arthur, and Harding in fact ably advanced the nations interest, while iconic names like Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and Wilson caused serious harm. Recarving Rushmore is must reading.
Richard K. Vedder, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Faculty Associate, Contemporary History Institute, Ohio University
Judging presidents by a deceptively simple metrictheir impact on peace, prosperity, and libertyleads Ivan Eland in to reach radical conclusions about the rankings of presidents. Whether you agree that Coolidge was a good president and FDR a bad one, youll never again glibly think to yourself that its obvious which presidents are good and bad. It isntand Eland shows us why.
Richard Shenkman, Editor, History News Network; author, Presidential Ambition and Legends, Lies, and Cherished Myths of American History
Recarving Rushmore calls into question our whole conception of presidential greatness. In this well-written book, Eland offers readers insightful surveys of every president from Washington to Obama. Along the way, he makes a compelling case that many of the so-called greats were not so great after all when it came to preserving liberty, peace, and prosperity. Readers will never see the presidency the same way again.
David T. Beito, Professor of History, University of Alabama
According to American historians, the best presidents are the ones who get us into the biggest wars, impose the most interventionist economic policies, and trample civil liberties by expanding executive power beyond what the Constitution permits. The more European-style fascism the better seems to be their criterion. Thats why Lincoln and FDR are always at the top of their lists. In Recarving Rushmore Ivan Eland makes a novel proposal: Why not rank presidents according to the traditional American values of peace, prosperity and liberty? Read this important new book and find out why John Tyler may be Americas greatest president!
Thomas DiLorenzo, Professor of Economics, Loyola College in Maryland; author of The Real Lincoln and Hamiltons Curse
Recarving Rushmore stands as a much-needed corrective to the history of America we are all taught in our schools. We are propagandized to adulate all American presidents simply by virtue of the office they held, regardless of what their record might have been. Indeed, it appears that the worse they trampled on civil liberties the higher the regard in which they are held. Dr. Eland has provided a far more accurate account of the actions of these men (and they are indeed men, not gods), pointing out the manner in which most abused their power and oppressed the nation. Historians who are dedicated to the truth are indebted to him for his efforts.
Ronald Hamowy, Professor Emeritus of History, University of Alberta, Canada
By focusing on peace, prosperity, and liberty, Recarving Rushmore moves us miles closer to a proper evaluation of Americas presidentsespecially those of the 20th centurythan the hallowed (but misleading) Schlesinger poll of prominent historians. Eland makes an eloquent and persuasive case, for example, that Harding and Coolidge were better presidents than were FDR and LBJ.
Burton W. Folsom, Charles F. Kline Chair in History, Hillsdale College; author, New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDRs Economic Legacy Has Damaged America
Of the four presidents exalted glory on Mount Rushmore, only George Washington deserves the honor, writes Ivan Eland, whose intriguing new book is appropriately titled Recarving Rushmore. The author argues that Theodore Teddy Roosevelt was overrated by historians and scholars; Thomas Jefferson hypocritically violated his lofty rhetoric of liberty; and Abraham Lincoln provoked a civil war that achieved far less than believed. Mr. Elands book profiles and ranks every U.S. president on the merits, including his oath to uphold the Constitution. Surprisingly, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter are anointed the two best modern presidents, and Bill Clinton is declared in some respects more conservative than George W. Bush.
Recarving Rushmore is a very good book of concise historical assessments of each U.S. presidential administrations domestic, defense and foreign policies regarding peace, national prosperity, and individual liberty. This book is better in terms of the depth of the analysis of each administrations role in an evolving process of shaping the legacy of prior administrations for their successors. And the book is best in the ways it provides insights into how a libertarian perspective on these issues is meaningful for the broader policy debates within U.S. society.
Edward A. Olsen, Emeritus Professor of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School
Well-written and fascinating, Recarving Rushmore provides a long-overdue reassessment of the actual record of all U.S. presidents. Thanks to Ivan Elands efforts, the traditional classroom narrative of our great presidents and their glorious deeds lies in well-deserved ruin.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., Senior Fellow, Ludwig von Mises Institute; author, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History and 33 Questions About American History Youre Not Supposed to Ask
Recarving Rushmore is a fine book, a thought-provoking study on national leadership in the United States from the perspective of a free society. His rankings and rationales will provide provocative material for discussions of leadership where individual liberty is a priority. Avoiding the usual popularity contest of presidential rankings, Eland weighs practical realities of policies and accomplishments to come up with rankings that are sometimes surprising and always interesting.
T. Hunt Tooley, Professor of History, Austin College
With the righteous chisel of liberty, Ivan Eland chips away at the war-making, state-building great presidents and sculpts an alternative gallery of Americas finest chief executivesmen of peace, of liberty, of a becoming modesty. Down with Wilson and the Bushes; hail to Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, and John Tyler!
William Kauffman, former Associate Editor, American Enterprise; author, Aint My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle American Anti-Imperialism
Independent Institute Senior Fellow Ivan Eland has his criteria ready. In Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, he uses them to rank 40 previous presidents, yielding results that, he says, surprised him. Elands assessment of each of the 40 is thoughtful and judicious. He neither obscures nor trumpets where hes coming from ideologically. Hes for prudential foreign policy, free-market economics, and personal freedom. Hes against entangling alliances, government aid programs, and second-class citizenship. Despite occasional dull wording, his writing provokes sober reflection about what a president ought to be. Reading him may be quite an adventure for an awful lot of citizens, including, perhaps, the first citizen.
No matter what party partisans say, no American president is perfectto say the least. But when historians get around to ranking our greatest presidents, the top spots invariably go to the usual titansWashington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute and an expert on defense issues, begs to differ with the standard consensusby about 180 degrees. In his book Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty, Eland doesn't rank our commanders in chief according to how many wars they won or how many new federal government social or regulatory agencies they fathered. He ranks them on how well they adhered to the principles of limited government as put down in the Constitution by our Founding Framers.
This provocative, profound and enlightening book by a respected scholar presents an intriguing and novel proposal on how to evaluate presidential effectiveness based on domestic, foreign and defense policies as they relate to peace, prosperity and individual liberty. Eland judges presidents not by who they were, how they led or how they governed, but by what they did. He explores the criteria that most political scientists, law professors and journalists use to evaluate presidential performance and points out why these do not accurately reflect a presidents actual service to our country.
Rocky Mount Telegram
The majority view, that Lincoln was the best and Buchanan was the worst, results from shortcomings in the way US historians rate presidents, says Ivan Eland, author of Recarving Rushmore. Eland thinks presidential ratings are too easily swayed by charisma, activism and service during a crisis. In his book, he ranks the White House occupants according to how much they fulfilled the aims of the Founding Fathers to bring peace, prosperity and liberty to the country.
BBC News Magazine
Ivan Eland, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace and Liberty at the Independent Institute, takes on what many may consider an almost impossible and certainly thankless job of arriving at some reasonable metric for fairly assessing presidential performance into some type of framework to classify presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. . . . Certainly, not everyone will agree with the authors scoring system or how he placed presidents into their categories; however, the book has value in that it covers in synopsis format selected major high points and low points of each presidents administration in office. There is also valuable information on each president such as term dates, party affiliation, born and died dates, the name of each presidents spouse, the Alma Mater of each president, their occupation before occupying the office and each presidents religion. This information is followed by selected details in how each president performed on the Constitutional values of Peace, Prosperity and Liberty which may not be complete or be the sole characteristic of each presidents performance in the times during which he served. However, this information is strong enough to launch lively reflection and discussion among the thoughtful and reflective. In the final analysis, is it imperative or even important that U.S. presidents be evaluated on a selected metric of performance; and, would agreement ever be reached nationally on how that evaluation metric would be designed and applied?
White House Studies
Gold Medal IPPY Award Winner (Awarded by The Jenkins Group and Independent Publisher)