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U.S. Presidency II: Choosing Mediocre Presidents

Presidency Syllabus.
Previous Lesson.

– Chapter 2, “Choosing Presidents,” of Presidential Power: Unchecked and Unbalanced, by Matthew Crenson and Benjamin Ginsberg.

We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
(I died in thirty days!)
We… are… the…
Adequate, forgettable,
Occasionally regrettable
Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!
(source: The Simpsons

Decision outcomes are determined not only by a final vote, but by the process of selecting the alternatives among which we choose. The Framers of the Constitution did not provide for a means of selecting presidential candidates, so “extra-constitutional” methods were developed out of necessity. As those methods changed, they favored different types of candidates, resulting in different types of presidents. In the mid 1800s, this resulted in a series of “executives who seemed to grow progressively more obscure.”

The Importance of Alternative-Selection Processes
The Framers of the Constitution did a poor job in structuring the process of presidential selection. It’s well-known that they bungled the electoral process. Failing to foresee presidential and vice-presidential candidates running as a slate, they gave each elector two votes (inadvertently setting up the tie between Jefferson and Burr, and the resultant 36 ballot fiasco in the House in the 1800 election) a procedural defect corrected by the 12th Amendment. But it is less well known that they bungled—or rather, failed to provide at all for—the process for selecting candidate. They may have thought that the electors would act as a de facto nominating convention for House selection, since in the absence of any candidate receiving a majority of electoral votes the House would select from among the top five. Certainly there were those in the convention who criticized this mode, and a proposal to allow a plurality of electors of greater than 1/3 to be sufficient for the presidency was rejected. And they may have assumed that—post Washington, the obvious choice for first president—electors would mostly choose eminent men from their own state (hence the requirement that one of their votes be for someone not from their state).

But the selection of nominees for the electors to consider turned out to be more contentious than they had apparently expected. If electors could have voted only for someone from their own state, it might have remained merely a state-level issue, but because one of their votes had to be for someone from a state other than their own national-level candidate selection quickly became an important issue.

Political scientists (and allied economists) now know the importance of determining how alternatives for final selection are themselves selected. If the final selection is to be made only from alternatives that are on the table, then what alternatives are actually on the table is of critical importance, and how alternatives get onto the table or are kept off is a crucial question. In a nutshell, if I can control the selection of alternatives, I can control the outcome while allowing you to make the final choice. Initially, the only alternatives on the table were heroes of the revolutionary era, and for electors it was just a matter of choosing among them. But what happened when that generation’s pool was tapped out?

King Caucus and the Hobbling of the President
The first three presidents were strong men of great ambition, but their ambition had not originally been directed toward gaining the presidency, since the office did not exist when they came to prominence. It was their ambition that led to their distinction that led to their becoming president, and it was the combination of their ambition, distinction, and the inchoate functioning of the new political system that enabled them to be strong presidents. They owed their position to no particular definable group, so they were free to be their own men as president.

But Thomas Jefferson inadvertently kicked off the next stage in presidential selection—while we were still in the Revolutionary heroes era—by creating the groundwork for the first true American political party. His Democratic-Republican party did not select him, but was created to provide electoral organization to support his presidential bid. But after Jefferson, the party did find itself in the position of having to choose a candidate to field against the candidate the Federalists selected—and the Federalists had to choose a candidate to field against the Democratic-Republicans–and the effective power to do so was co-opted by both parties’ members in Congress, resulting in the congressional nominating caucus.

The caucus system did not last long, little more than a generation, because it never achieved a sense of democratic legitimacy (“King caucus” was a derisive term criticizing the congressional stranglehold on candidate nomination.) But while it lasted it shaped the type of presidents by determining which potential candidates ultimately got their names on the list from which the actual presidential electors could choose.

Caucus-selected presidents were now beholden to their party’s power players in Congress, and unable to act aggressively in the absence of congressional consent. Whereas Jefferson had resisted congressional pressure to take Florida by force of arms, Madison found himself maneuvered into the War of 1812 against his better judgment, in part because his renomination depended on his party in Congress, which favored the war. Presidents couldn’t even exert effective control over their own branch, because their cabinet members’ real constituency was the congressmembers who they hoped would favor them as the party’s next presidential candidate. Madison’s successor, James Monroe, fully realizing how he as a member of Madison’s cabinet had focused on cultivating Congress, used his own cabinet members as a conduit for building congressional support for his administration, an implicit recognition of his dependence on Congress.

The Convention System
The failure of the caucus system to establish a sense of democratic legitimacy helped pave the way for the party convention system. This probably was a political inevitability. The caucus worked as long as parties were not fully organized as bottom-to-top political organizations because they filled a political vacuum. But once the parties became more fully established, state party activists naturally sought a role in the candidate selection process. Once again this led to the selection of weak presidents, but through a different mechanism than the caucus system.

Whereas the caucus system led to Presidents Madison and Monroe being beholden to congressmembers for their selection (and in their first terms, for their re-selection), the convention system produced candidates who were the least offensive to the various factions within the party. Any highly ambitious person who has aggressively put themselves forth in politics, and who has strong positions on the issues, has alienated someone, so any politically prominent would-be candidate found themselves opposed by a significant portion of the caucus. This was especially true for the Democrats, who—to keep their regional divisions from splitting the party apart—required a supermajority of 2/3 of the convention delegates to achieve the nomination. The candidate selection process put a premium on political inoffensiveness, which in practice meant political invisibility.
This claim may seem questionable, given that Andrew Jackson and James Polk stand out as exceptions to a field of presidents that include Fillmore, Tyler, Van Buren, Buchanan…names that generally fill in the bottom tier in lists of presidential greatness. But each, in his own way, demonstrates the accuracy of the argument. The party convention system was essentially constructed by Van Buren for the purpose of helping war hero Jackson win the presidency, after he was robbed of it—in his view—in 1824. The convention system freed Jackson from any electoral debt to Congress, but did so before the different party factions figured out how to use the convention to effectively press their own interests. Or perhaps his war hero status over-rode those interests. At any rate, he benefited from being the first candidate of the convention system, the one for whom the system was initially constructed, before the system took on a life of its own independent of the control of any candidate.

Polk is, by some measures, the most successful president ever, adding half of Mexico to the union through war, resolving the disputed northern border with Canada through negotiation, and creating an independent Treasury, all in a single term. But Polk could do this in large part only because he had pre-committed to a single term, knowing that such aggressive actions would alienate various party factions. And of course he was the classic dark horse candidate, someone who, although not an unknown, had seen his political star fade; who did not expect to be the nominee and was not even on the first ballot, but was suddenly selected as a non-objectionable candidate on the 9th ballot. Basic statistics show us that if you make enough essentially random selections you will get an occasional outlier—the real product of the system is shown by its normal product, not its unusual one.

Notably, in this era publicly putting oneself forth for the presidency, actually campaigning for the office, was sufficient grounds for being denied the opportunity. Serious candidates frequently dared not even appear at the convention until after they had been selected. In this way, the most driven candidates, those who most strongly self-selected and engaged in a pitched battle for the office, were the ones least likely to attain it. The process, far more than today’s process, tended to weed them out and select men of comparative mildness, of comparatively moderate political ambition.

The Civil War and Beyond
The chapter we’ve used for our text here focuses solely on the antebellum era. But the post-bellum era was not significantly different. Other than the war hero Grant, the convention system gave us such luminaries as Hayes, Arthur and Cleveland. The type of presidents we get does not really begin to change until we get to McKinley, whom some classify as the first of the modern presidents. But there is a long period of unsteady transition in the late 19th and early 20th century, as we get not only a McKinley and a Teddy Roosevelt—strong active presidents—but a Harding and a Coolidge, men who would not have been out of place as presidents decades prior.

One might be tempted to point to Lincoln as another argument against the type, but imagine Lincoln without the Civil War. What is there in his history to suggest he would have been anything more than another Buchanan? His politics were quite mild; he preferred to continue “the American System” of Henry Clay, using tariffs to promote internal development and infant domestic industry, and opposed slavery but pledged not to move against it. It’s not that he was a man without talent—he undoubtedly proved that wrong—but that in the absence of southern secession he would not have had any call to employ those talents, and doing so in any lesser of a crisis could have resulted in his legacy being that of yet one more one-term president.

Other than Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, historians’ lists of great presidents always have a distinct 20th century bias. This is not solely because of a bias toward the contemporary—it is because the size of the office has grown, and the type of men who occupy that office has changed. And they have changed in large part because the process for selecting candidates has changed—men of little ambition no longer need apply; only those of intense personal ambition have any hope of making it through the candidate selection process.

We’ll come back to that in a future class session. But first we’ll look at what the office is like today, and how it came to take its current shape. The first step in that, next week, will be to look at how the presidency was conceptually re-conceived from an office that took its lead from Congress to one that would lead Congress, a fundamental reorganization of America’s conception of its political system.

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80 thoughts on “U.S. Presidency II: Choosing Mediocre Presidents

  1. For my writing project, I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the 1948 and 1952 presidential elections, as my history is going to deviate from the actual history. I found it very interesting that as late as 1952, the primaries (granted, most states didn’t have them) were completely disregarded when they produced an unacceptable candidate. I actually took a college class on US History from 1946-60 and either they didn’t spend too much time talking about the Democratic primaries (because Eisenhower) or I just completely forgot about it in the intervening years.

    It’s interesting that in the earlier days the president was so beholden to congress. Which in its own way puts it more in line with a parliamentary system (though with very important differences, to be sure). A part of me things that congress might actually do a better job of selecting nominees than our primary system does. It would allow the party’s to more directly set their own trajectories instead of letting party voters do. Party voters would still be involved, of course, but not quite in the same way.

    There are a lot of reasons to dislike this, of course. First, history disagrees with it. I do think though, that for good and for ill, it would be different in the modern age. The parties back then were much more ideologically heterogeneous and so more blandness would be required. For good, it would help congresscritters keep their eye on the ball by giving them a stake in national elections and not just their local ones in largely noncompetitive districts. For ill, congressional views can be quite out of sync due to those noncompetitive districts and it’s not hard to imagine what monstrosity a political party might produce. On the other hand, one cycle or two might get that out of their system.

    Of course, “weak” here means a couple of things. Such a system not only produces bland candidates, but also candidates desperately relying on congressional support. The cart driving the horse, in comparison to what we see now. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Presidents are only re-nominated once. In the second term, the pressures would be similar to what they are now (you keep in good with congress so that they will keep you popular and buzzing). There are also other reasons that the presidency has become so much more powerful, apart from being less beholden to congress.

    To go back to the parliamentary system, the fear today would be that it wouldn’t retain enough of what the parliamentary system has in order to port over many of its benefits. Presidents would still have fixed terms so that a betrayed congress couldn’t do much about it. That the congresscritters are independently elected means that you would still lack any sort of controlling authority within parties.

    This is all, of course, mental mastication. For the same reason we have directly elected senators, it’s really hard to imagine any system in which the average voter doesn’t get to roll up his or her sleeves and participate in the candidate-selection process. Even if the participation is largely illusory, which it may well be.


  2. It may well be that, without the Civil War, Lincoln would be just another timeserver. But Lincoln’s election precipitated the seccession; however tepid his (initial stated) opposition to slavery is to modern ears, it was clearly offensive enough that a large chunk of the country was alienated to the greatest possible degree.


    • With or without Lincoln the country was destined for conflict over slavery. It had been bubbling since before the compromise of 1850 and John Brown tossed plenty of gas on the fire. The country had no way of dealing with the Slavery vs. Free State conflict.


      • I agree with the inevitability of conflict. But of course a Buchanan or Fillmore might not have managed to preserve the union (assuming we think preserving the union was worth >600,000 battle deaths).


      • My knowledge of history says that the war wasn’t worth it.

        This assumes there was a scenario in which war could have been prevented, that going to war was somehow a choice between competing alternatives. My understanding of history suggests that there was in fact that no such choice or alternative existed.

        Would abolitionists have permitted the south to secede and preserve slavery? I think the suggestion that they would have – or could have – misunderstands the dynamics leading up to the war.


      • greg’s right. The Civil War was essentially being fought already, since 1854, on a small scale in Kansas and Missouri. The compromises that only served to confuse the situation in the territories, in the long run, were going to cause the violence to spread to the rest of the country the moment anyone who didn’t support slavery in the territories, or the status quo in the territories, was elected.

        The South knew it was on the losing end of demographic and electoral trends, and its only hope was the territories or violence. When the territories were threatened, it had to go with violence.


      • Stillwater,
        I think the South could have been allowed to secede without putting the North’s Military Might behind stopping it. Give it forty years, and it would have been the Union again, anyhow. The south was terribly fractitious and unstable, it would have been reabsorbed piecemeal.

        Would the abolitionists have fought? Yeah, probably. Or the North might have started more concerted spycraft focused on freeing slaves (I don’t know if the abolitionists would have approved of such, but many were kept busy on the Underground Railroad).


      • Stillwater,
        ayiyi. I’m seeing recorded uses of it back to 1897 (yay google), but you’re probably right…

        my copy’s at home… Right alongside the CRC handbooks (yes, we have multiple. different years).


      • Is there any truth in the theory that I see put forward occasionally that one of the other concerns that made it difficult for the North to allow the South to go was Southern control of the lower Mississippi, and the potential to extract large tariffs for shipping between the Midwest and the Gulf ports?


      • What I said was the Lincoln precipitated the secession, not caused it. The underlying conditions made it inevitable, but it was triggered at that precise time because of Lincoln. Lincoln’s hostility to slavery was specifically mentioned in the South Carolina’s “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union”.


    • Alsotoo the rising tensions lent themselves to Lincoln. Had there been less fractiousness within the Democratic Party, a leader with the ability to bridge it’s factions, Lincoln might have done no better than Fremont had before him.


    • Interesting question. Veto power is generally seen as just a negation, but it’s actually a form of agenda setting from the back end, by saying “don’t bother putting X on the table, because it won’t get through.”

      In practice, veto power is almost never absolute. Even if the veto player cannot be formally overridden, s/he may be forced into a contest of wills by those trying to set the agenda from the front end (those who do the initial selection of alternatives).

      In the case of the electoral college, it is, and always has been, theoretically possible for them to veto all offered candidates and select their own, but it’s never come close to happening, nor can I quite imagine a plausible scenario in which it does happen (short of finding out post-election that the prez and vice-prez candidates for both major parties are all collaboratively engaged in something like child pornography or selling plutonium on the black market).


  3. Couldn’t it be argued that the bias towards modern presidents being “great” is also due to the USA herself moving into a consequential and then world power position mainly in the last century? I would think it’d be much harder to be a “great” when helming a nation the other worlds nations consider a regional power or a provincial backwater.


      • No, but we’d have become a big player on the world stage even without them, by dint of size and resources and population and accidents of geography. We needed Jefferson and Polk to push our boundaries west. After them, the Roosevelts and Wilsons and Trumans have a degree of inevitability, although it was for the better that such men were on tap.


      • I agree, to some extent, with the inevitability. But it was an inevitability that required more than just size, resources, and geography. In fact I’d argue that geography is a limiting factor that slowed our emergence as a world player due to our relative distance from a host of other countries, and it only became a strongly positive factor in and after WWII, when it allowed us to remain unbombed.

        But keep in mind how slow China was to emerge as a world player, how India and Brazil still haven’t fully emerged as world players. How Britain managed to be a world player without size or vast resource reserves. There’s something more going on, and I’d argue it’s primarily about political structure. But for now I’ll be cagey and not give more detail.


      • how India and Brazil still haven’t fully emerged as world players.

        Brazil was what came to my mind. They’re probably the closest thing we have to a twin apart from Canada (which lacks a key similarity, population, to be comparable in this context).


      • I’m honestly not sure I can. I simply can’t visualize just how that might have played out politically (which means I’ll never make my fortune writing a compelling alt history of it, I guess). At the risk of derailing the threads of my own post, do you have any plausible thoughts on that?


      • I’d object to your comparisons for geography, prof. China is geographically plagued with huge deserts and mountains as a proportion to it’s arable land (a much more unfavorable ratio than the US has). It also has a massive ancient population that makes comparing the two apples to oranges.

        India suffers much of China’s problems and Brazil was, of course, mostly tropical which has presented its own problems up until the advent of modern climate control. Canada, conversly, is mostly frozen wasteland and near useless taiga. The US was pretty unprecedented in terms of a mixed culturally young polyglot nation spread across a vast expense of enormously rich and temperate geography. Really the US was destined for greatness so long as she had adequate or pedestrian presidents/governments. Great ones were just icing on the cake.


      • Not specifically. You look at our country’s tendency to swing from isolationism to aggression, and you can certainly see it having gone a number of different ways, or perhaps multiple ways over time.

        I think what I most have in mind, though, was how, given our relative cultural homogeneity to that point in our history or at least our not accepting of our own diversity, we would have reacted to such an assault. We (the common folks, not the governing elite) were quite innocent in some ways (not others) on the global stage, in my view, all the way up to the outbreak of WWII. If our cities had been bombed in the sustained way that Germany’s were by, say, Japan, I just shudder to think about the depths of xenophobia that would have been created.

        If you look at Europe or Asia, you see much longer histories of nations with different cultures being at war for extended periods. Without a doubt, this creates its share of hatreds. But the constancy of that state of affairs, in my way of looking at it, has also caused people to learn to govern those impulses – to recognize and not let them dominate thinking quite so much. I wonder whether a smoldering America would have had that kind of experience to fall back on in 1945.

        So I imagine a wounded, angry, but nevertheless newly dominant America emerging from the war, possibly embarking on a less-restrained, xenophobia-fueled effort to not just push back Soviet expansion, but to more overtly dominate larger parts of the world in the name of “Never Again.”

        But, as I say, that’s just one possible outcome. Things might not have been that different, or we may have swung back to introversion. It’s a fearsome thought, though.


      • Wow… imagining the impact of a bombed out US is mind boggling… If we imagine that Hawaii fell and the Axis somehow had strike capability across the Atlantic and Pacific from France to the east US and Hawaii to California then we could imagine a bombed out eastern coast and west coast. That’d have left the Midwest Chicago region even more paramount in a post war period (I cannot imagine a scenario where the American interior could be reached, I’m stretching imagining the coasts being hit).

        A couple things, there’d have not likely been a Marshal plan. Perhaps we’d have seen a USA significantly less interested in committing to the cold war with the USSR. That then prompts responses based on your inclinations:
        >A neocon might say that the USSR would then have tromped all over Europe and even more of its environs and we’d have seen a much longer cold war or possibly a world domination of communists.
        >A liberal might say that without American belligerence the USSR wouldn’t have been so bristly and aggressive and perhaps would have either figured out the failures of communism more quickly or liberalized faster.
        >A centrist would probably observe that we’d probably be about thirty years or so behind where we are today economically, scientifically and perhaps socially.


      • North,

        I’m dubious about the geography as destiny argument. But I have to read about inequality, and whether the world’s poor are helped or hurt by globalization right now now. That’s more than enough to chew on, so I’ll have to cede the field until later in the day, by which time the conversation likely will have moved on. ;)


      • “No, but we’d have become a big player on the world stage even without them, by dint of size and resources and population and accidents of geography. ”

        It is very plausible to me, though, that without key players like Jefferson, Polk, and Lincoln, we wouldn’t have those accidents of geography that produced a singular, continent-spanning political entity at the turn of the 20th century.


      • Kolohe, I come to the civil war as a Canadian educated person so I don’t think I got the whole “saved the union” stuff about Lincoln that American students did. My own (admittedly vague) impression of the civil war was that it was a brutal grinding process but was one the Confederates were nearly guaranteed to lose by virtue of relative population size and industrial capacity. Would an adequate President have presided over a war that ground on for longer but was ultimately won? I’m inclined to say yes though this is a whole separate debate.
        My understanding is the Louisiana Purchase was done more by Jefferson’s subordinates than it was by the man himself. Even in the absence of the Louisiana Purchase, however, let’s be real. The US was going to take that land pretty much how they’d taken the land up to those boundaries: waves of settlers moving in, insufficient population and loyalty of the population in the land to resist it and eventual annexation by the US. I’ll grant Polk but that’s just a chunk of the southwest so the US was still pretty much destined to span the continent assuming merely competent rather than great leadership.


      • North, there were many more fission points than just southern secession. New England thought about breaking away around the War of 1812. Burr tried his empire in the Mississippi. And mixing it up with British Canada (again) in Polk’s time would have likely brought the US Northern border down below the Great Lakes, and/or created a buffer nation astride the Ohio.

        I agree that westward expansion by European settlers into the Mississippi watershed was a geo-historical inevitability in the 19th century. But those people didn’t need to be ‘American’ per se. What kept the unity between settlers and new state governments west of the Appalachians, and the government of Washington, was the latter continually accepting incursions by the former on previously agreed to Native American land deals – and occasionally, like in the case of the Jackson administration, creating new deals of the US Government’s own volition.

        If at sometime during the Manifest Destiny phase had the US Government said ‘ok, we need to honor these Native American treaties’ – like the second Adams* administration did, or like the Brits did pre-1776** – and stuck by their figurative and literal guns, it is entirely likely that the west would have seceded to form its own nation to fulfill its own Manifest Destiny.

        *despite the fact that it was Henry Clay, master of the West, that got JQA in office in the first place. Plus, a John Quincy Adams re-elect would have precipitated a political crisis no matter what.

        **one of the listed grievances in the Declaration of Independence.


      • I generally concur Kolohe, my base assertion is merely that the expansion of the US to span the continent and the coherence of those polities in the form of the US required only adequate or mediocre presidents to ride herd on the expansion and not fish things up, rather than great ones.

        And my baser base assertion was that it became much easier for Great presidents to arise once their nation was also Great*.

        *With great in this context being defined as significantly weighty and of world consequence


      • Brazil was what came to my mind. They’re probably the closest thing we have to a twin…

        Could you expand on that? Brazil lacked (as I run through some history in my head) the kind of coastal water power that drove early industrialization in New England, the huge coal resources that drove later US industrialization, and the enormous temperate grain-producing steppes. Oil and natural gas situation is, I believe, similar to coal: limited domestic resources have forced them to go in different directions. Much later start on electrification because the best resource is hydro, and most of that is far from the population centers. The usual handicaps of a tropical climate.


  4. Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that although men like Franklin Pierce and James Garfield didn’t overtly campaign for the Presidency, they nevertheless angled for it? They sent proxies and lieutenants to canvas support and serve as convention floor leaders. As long as they personally publicly adhered to the Cincinnatus-Washington model of not wanting leadership but answering the call to serve, they in fact could direct things behind the scenes and people “in the know” we’re well aware of who actively sought the White House.


    • Some of them clearly weren’t angling for the presidency, and some were explicitly angling for the vice presidency. Which isn’t to say that there weren’t people angling for the presidency, or that we can say with any certainty that none of them ever achieved it. But I think the subtle back room dealer is a different sort of person than the overt claimant. The subtle angler is not characterized by aggressive self-aggrandizement, the need for attention, or the desire for overt command.

      They were all political beasts, certainly. But there are different types of players in the game, and how we define the rules will determine which players have the advantage, just as in sports.


    • I think there’s a lot of truth to what you’re saying. Lincoln is another example. Technically, he did not overtly campaign for the Republican nomination or the presidency in 1860; but he did spend the previous two years (after losing the senate race to Douglas) traveling around the North, giving speeches and meeting with bigwigs of local state parties. He gave a keynote speech at the Wisconsin State Fair, for example, and he made a tour of New York and New England, speaking at Cooper Union and other places. Meanwhile, he always shrugged off reporters’ questions with “Only events can make a president.”


      • “How do you think he’d do in today’s candidate-centered, media-driven, campaigns?”

        An interesting question.

        I think that Lincoln was a pretty savvy political operator, and so that makes me think that he would size up the rules of the game and adapt to the current style of campaigning (much like that more recent Illinois politician tailored his primary campaign in 2008 to adapt to the rules of the Democratic caucuses in certain early states).

        We know Lincoln was an effective orator. That would certainly help. I imagine he could more than hold his own in debates (whether primary debates or the big three general election debates).

        All that said, Abe Lincoln was not the most photogenic of presidential candidates — even his contemporaries noted this. There are no recordings of his voice, but by all accounts it had a certain high-pitched, whining quality to it.

        I shudder to think of what modern media and opposition research would do with Mary Todd Lincoln.

        In the particular context of the 1860 GOP nomination process (and OP hints at this), Lincoln won his party’s nomination in part by being the least offensive last man standing — Seward and others having been painted as too extreme, etc., especially after John Brown’s raid. So Lincoln won the GOP nomination in a way similar to Mitt Romney in 2012.

        Lastly, Lincoln was a major shareholder in some German-language newspapers in the Mid-West that appealed to recent German immigrants (citizens after 5 years) and German households; Lincoln and others wanted to bring the German-speakers into the Republican fold. I think we can imagine what hay some segments of the modern GOP would make of that.


      • Lincoln invented the President as Personality model.
        “I’d have said FDR. Care to expand on that?”

        What Pub Editor said, and also Lincoln was the first president to use a sense of humor to political advantage.

        (also, there was no public outpouring of grief when either WH Harrison or Taylor dies in office, though death from not wearing an overcoat and death from too much ice cream doesn’t exactly martyrdom make.)


    • Keeping in mind that all such rankings are highly subjective, see here for a good roundup on the various rankings of presidents.

      It’s worth clarifying that when I say “great,” I am referring to these sets of rankings–the general consensuses (consensi?) of presidential scholars, not to my own preferences. So, yes, Wilson frequently gets ranked highly. And, yes, I am dubious about as well.


      • That needs an addendum, I think. “Great” usually refers to what they did with the office, and the magnitude of the things they accomplished. There’s a bias in the rankings toward active presidents who did lots of obvious things we can put a finger on. The president who presides over a time of peace and prosperity, choosing not to shake things up by making changes or taking big actions, may avoid being in the bottom of the rankings, but has essentially no hope of being seen as great. A president who gets us into an unnecessary war, invading a country and stealing half its territory, gets ranked much more highly.

        As we as that nationalistic “great man” bias, there’s also some degree of ideological bias. So initially Reagan was not generally rated highly, but as we have gained distance from his presidency, the focus has shifted from the content of his actions to the size of his actions, as well as to his management of the role of president, and he has risen in the rankings. This is clearly evident in his row in the link I have above.

        I don’t share the great man bias. Most presidential scholars seem to me to be both too nationalistic and too desirous of heroes to worship. I see both of those, and especially in combination, as latently fascistic.


      • I do not get the Kennedy as a great president thing. I think his positive handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis is counterbalanced by the Bay of Pigs and proto-Vietnam. Apollo was conceived by Ike and completed by Nixon. He wasn’t a bad president and gave a lot of great speeches, but to put him ahead of guys like LBJ and Polk, who had a massive influence on the direction of the country is ludicrous.


      • “I do not get the Kennedy as a great president thing.”

        I think it’s the James Dean Rule. If you die in a very public way when you’re really good looking and famous, you are assumed a mantle of greatness that you never would have achieved had you lived. Musician, actor, politician, writer, painter, athlete — the James Dean Rule applies to any profession were “fame” is considered a feature.

        But you have to die young and be really good looking.


      • In addition to what Tod said, I think there’s a generational issue, too. My experience has been that there are a number of political scientists of a particular age, who were coming of age in the early 60s, and they tended to revere JFK. Political scientists (and historians) my age and younger don’t have the emotional connection and tend to have a more modest interpretation of his presidency.

        The moon, though. We have to give him that. ;)


      • Speaking of the moon, choosing to do things specifically because they are hard is the dumbest justification ever. Though I guess, “We want to have a base at the top of Earth’s gravity well to lob missiles at the Russkies,” doesn’t sound airy and inspirational.


    • That requires defining the word “great.” If ” greatness” implies normative approval and endorsement, then Wilson fans are indeed unfashionable in certain quarters these days. But if “greatness” is a measure of the transformative efficacy of the leader, I don’t see how you keep him off the list.


  5. It should be pointed out that Filmore was nominated and elected Vice President, Zachary Taylor ran the race and won. (He was a hero of the Mexican War). However he died in office in 1850, making Filmore president. So since he was selected as a ticket balancer with little thought to his becoming president, its at least partly excused.


  6. It’s not that he was a man without talent—he undoubtedly proved that wrong—but that in the absence of southern secession he would not have had any call to employ those talents, and doing so in any lesser of a crisis could have resulted in his legacy being that of yet one more one-term president.

    Absent 9/11, I think you just described the Bush secundus Presidency.


  7. What about Harding? By all accounts he was rather incompetent if not actually corrupt and he was picked as a dark-house candidate. He was the cigar-smoke filled room candidate.

    The debacle with the 1924 Democratic convention is what happens when factions cannot agree and led to the famous Will Rogers quip: “I’m not a member of an organized political party, I’m a Democrat.”


  8. Most elected politicians in any democratic government should be mediocre or average even for top positions. One of the advantages of democratic government is that, despite recent history, makes electing really horrible politicians harder. You sacrifice the worse and the best for a sort of average competence. Really extraordinary ability in a politician is usually a sign that times are rough. Nearly all of our best and most loved Presidents, while realizing that this is a matter for debate, were Presidents during eventful times.


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