This being the weekend celebrating American presidents, and I with degrees in History and Political Science, I thought it would be fun to share my personal evaluations on the greatest.
1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
FDR led America through two of its greatest crises– the Great Depression and World War II – and served four terms. That alone must be recognized as distinguishing. That he was effective in working outside the traditional box of American culture and economics to reduce the pain of the Depression while we worked our way back into a healthy economy and successfully guiding us to victory over fascism makes his inclusion in anyone’s Top Five mandatory.
2. Abraham Lincoln
Successfully lead the country though its greatest crisis and you are a great president. Free the slaves and grant them equal footing in the democratic process, land ownership and the right to work, you are near sainthood. Lincoln not only held the Union together despite overwhelming pessimism on several fronts, he held the Northern states together when the political will was eroding and diversified opinion grew on what the North’s goals should be. Emancipation and preserving the Union makes Lincoln the only candidate to perhaps deserve a higher ranking.
3. Thomas Jefferson
Although we don’t recognize the significance of his methods and regrettably many today fail to realize the significance of the accomplishment, Jefferson’s fiscally conservative purchase of the French Louisiana Territory significantly doubled the size of our country. He was the champion of the democratic franchise, the master of putting the need for independence into words and the hero for those who argue for strong state rights.
4. Theodore Roosevelt
A no-nonsense leader who introduced progressivism into our vocabulary and government policy while fighting the wealthy tycoons of the Gilded Age and leaders of his own Party. He successfully broke up monopolies and trusts; reformed labor laws; improved education and living conditions; established our first environmental and conservation goals; and built a strong national defense. He was the first president awarded the Nobel Prize.
5. George Washington
While his military leadership is partly responsible for his christening as Father of Our Country, to be unanimously chosen to be our first president etched it in stone. His greatness is in establishing the precedents for others to follow which kept the powerful office from slipping into an imperial position if not an authoritarian one.
6. Woodrow Wilson
The 20th Century version of “first in war, first in peace,” Wilson led during World War I having felt no recourse but war with Germany, despite earlier efforts to not participate, after Germany first sank the passenger ship Lusitania killing 128 Americans and then ignored American demands to end U-boat attacks on non-combat vessels. Followed by the discovery that Germany was coaxing Mexico into attacking the US. Wilson led the peace as he sought to avoid a future Great War, nearly sacrificing his life trying to convince America to support his League of Nations.
7. James K Polk
Campaigning for president he made four promises: expand U.S. territory to the West coast; settle the border dispute with Great Britain; reduce tariffs and reestablish an independent Treasury system. He succeeded on all four and, thus, was widely popular. Yet he didn’t run for re-election. Polk had fulfilled his promises, so he saw no reason to continue in the office.
8. Harry Truman
Truman may ultimately be judged on whether he was right to end WWII and reduce the potential loss of life by the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities. When doing the math, recognizing the casualty forecasts for both sides if Japan was invaded, the majority consensus is he chose the lesser of two evils. True recognition of where he should be ranked is his post war leadership, including the Marshal Plan; his policy to contain communism as opposed to recommendations to consider strong action in economic, diplomatic and military terms against the Soviet Union; the formation of NATO.
9. John F Kennedy
Historical passersby write off Kennedy as a president who should be remembered solely as the man who was right for the times. He goes beyond that due to his handling of the Cuban missile crisis. The Soviet nuclear missile threat was deadly serious. Numerous options were presented on how to address it. Kennedy choice proved successful: a naval blockade and diplomatic knockout punch of the Kremlin at the United Nations. Rescuing the U.S. from a threatening enemy nuclear base off of the coast of Florida is reason alone to rank JFK highly.
10. Dwight Eisenhower
Balanced the budget three times; sponsored the first civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction; created our highway system; ended the Korean War and employed effective diplomacy when dealt Cold War crises, including Hungary, Berlin and the Suez Canal. The former career soldier foresaw and warned us of the coming costly military industrial complex.