Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Most Libertarian U.S. Presidents

According to, the most libertarian U.S. presidents are as follows:

1. Calvin Coolidge

2. Grover Cleveland

3. James Madison

4. Thomas Jefferson

5. John Tyler

6. Martin Van Buren

7. George Washington

8. Rutherford B. Hayes

9. Zachary Taylor

10. Ronald Reagan

The comments that go along with these ratings express qualms as well as justifications for these rankings. My own pet peeve is that I prefer Millard Fillmore over Zachary Taylor. In presidential ratings by historians and political scientists, Fillmore has only come out ahead of Taylor once, which is only a hint of the extent to which those sorts of polls are fickle, with a president moving up or down in the ratings only because somebody happened to have published a book about that president that particular year.

Taylor is problematic because his term was cut short by his death in office. The above website points to his opposition to the Compromise of 1850, but Taylor did not live long enough to fully deal with that potential crisis. Everything that was incomplete when Taylor died was dumped into the lap of his vice-president, Millard Fillmore. Fillmore was the one who had to decide whether to sign the various bills that made up the compromise. To his perpetual discredit, Fillmore signed the unconstitutional Fugitive Slave Act into law, but, in doing so, he was only following the dictate of principle that one of his successors, Abraham Lincoln, stated as preservation of the Union at all costs, whether it meant preserving slavery or abolishing it; Fillmore thought that he could only preserve the Union by signing the Slave act. Having been an abused indentured servant in his own youth, signing that law could not have been his favorite moment in his presidency, but Fillmore did it because he thought he had to. This was probably why, more than twenty years later, the New York Times said in Fillmore's obituary that he was a politician at a time when America needed a statesman, but 20-20 hindsight is cheap.

On the other hand, President Fillmore passed up about six different opportunities to get the United States into wars. If they had had the Nobel Peace Prize in those days, Fillmore would have deserved it. It is annoying how many of these rankings of U.S. presidents favor the ones who presided over wars. (Admittedly, the libertarian survey mentioned above does not do that; the only president on the list who presided over a war was James Madison, and he is remembered more for his many other accomplishments.) Even James Knox Polk gets rated fairly highly even though about the only thing he accomplished was getting the United States into the Mexican War. During the Taylor-Fillmore administrations, there was an opportunity for a rematch with Mexico, but Fillmore averted it. Unlike successors as well as predecessors, he avoided war with Spain over Cuba. He also avoided potential wars with other European and Latin America countries. Most notably, if controversially, Fillmore's signing of the Fugitive Slave Act probably postponed the Civil War.

Instead, the United States enjoyed relative economic prosperity during Fillmore's tenure, a prosperity that continued during the administration of his immediate successor even though all of it was underlain by the coming storm. (When James Buchanan allowed Confederates to capture federal armories in the run-up to the Civil War, Fillmore did lambast the sitting president for his inaction against these outrages.)  Quite possibly, however, Fillmore's postponement of the Civil War had a positive effect: the war's taking place ten years earlier than it actually did might have led to a Confederate victory, resulting not only in the end of the Union but the continuation of slavery for the rest of the nineteenth century.

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