EDITOR’S NOTE: In an arrangement with the Institute of Economic Affairs in the United Kingdom, Pileus will be posting occasional commentary by historian Stephen Davies. Davies holds a Ph.D. from St. Andrews University in Scotland. He is currently the Education Director at the IEA. Before joining the IEA, he was a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the author of several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).
The United States Presidency Centre of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (part of the University of London’s School of Advanced Study) has just published the results of a survey of 47 UK academics who specialise in the study of American history and politics. They were asked to evaluate the performance of every president since the Founding in five categories:
- domestic leadership
- foreign policy leadership
- moral authority
- positive historical significance of their legacy.
The results were both striking and depressing. Generally speaking, presidents from the early years of the republic did well while those from the periods both before and after the Civil War did badly. The twentieth century got a mixed response, with some presidents ranked very highly (as we shall see) but others graded very poorly. However what is striking about the results is the kinds of president who attracted high, favourable ratings from the academics once the chronological biases have been allowed for. These show the influence of hidden assumptions about what it is that matters in history and what should count as admirable or important. The top eight in order were; Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan. Lyndon Johnson came in at number eleven, Andrew Jackson at number thirteen.
Some of these results are questionable to say the least. Lyndon Johnson was by most standards a disastrous president, responsible for a foreign war that was, to say the least, morally dubious, and a failed domestic policy that contributed mightily to the economic problems faced by the US and the wider world during the 1970s and early 1980s. All of the figures in the top ten (apart perhaps from Washington) were highly controversial figures who attracted fierce criticism. Are we to believe that all of that criticism (as for example of Lincoln’s suppression of civil liberties during the Civil War or FDR’s economic policy during the 1930s) is simply to be discounted? The point is that the top ranked Presidents are not only ranked highly relative to others, they are given high scores on the five criteria in absolute terms.
One response, which has been made to the very similar results of polls like this in the US is that these evaluations reflect the leftish sympathies of academics who favour presidents such as FDR who pursued conventionally left leaning policies. However in that case it is hard to explain the high placings of people such as Jefferson, Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt, and Jackson. The real reason is more profound. The high marks are given to presidents who firstly, played a significant part in the founding, sustaining, and developing of the modern state and secondly, had occasion to make use of executive power. Presidents who generally chose not to use the powers they had and adhered to constitutional limits such as Grover Cleveland, James Tyler, and Martin Van Buren get mediocre rankings at best (21st, 37th and 27th respectively). Underlying the exercise and the categories employed is a narrative in which the central element is the growth and use of political power and a particular nation state (in this case the US). Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute has suggested different criteria such as respect for constitutional order, observance of civil liberties, and promotion of peace. By these Cleveland comes top and only Washington survives from the list here.
What this survey shows is that the worship of power by intellectuals is as strong as ever, along with the related propensity to admire, apologise for, and generally suck up to those who have it and enjoy exercising it. This is not a good state of affairs.
This article was first published on the Institute of Economic Affairs blog.