Monday, February 20, 2017

Presidential Rankings Unreliable For Many Reasons

C-SPAN’s new list of presidential rankings (along with the Sienna Research Institute's sporadic rankings) is part of what has become a new tradition of telling us what academics think the truth is about American history. C-SPAN polled more than 90 historians. (The Sienna survey throws more political scientists into the mix.) Among the problems with these polls is that they are skewed left because liberals outnumber conservatives, few historians have thoroughly studied the presidents they consider least effective or important, and the latest trend in scholarship has more influence than objective information. For an example of the last problem, President Dwight Eisenhower rose precipitously in these polls immediately after a respected historian wrote a new and flattering biography of the president. Before that Eisenhower could not break into the top ten.

The top ten, according to C-SPAN, are Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry S Truman [C-SPAN incorrectly puts a period after the “S”; Truman’s middle initial stood for nothing], Thomas Jefferson, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson. The bottom ten are Martin Van Buren, Chester A. Arthur, Herbert Hoover, Millard Fillmore, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. It is difficult to see how a president who died in office can be fairly compared to one who served a full term. Kennedy (ranked eighth), for example, served nearly three years but Zachary Taylor (ranked 31) served just over one year and James A. Garfield (ranked 29) and William Harrison (ranked 38) both served considerably less than a year.

Part of the problem is that just because a historian has studied American history, this does not mean that he or she is well-versed in every era or the ins and outs of every presidential administration. Who for example has made an in-depth study of President Millard Fillmore? In the C-SPAN survey, Zachary Taylor is ranked 31 and Fillmore 37. (In the Sienna survey, Fillmore has usually been ranked below Taylor, his immediate predecessor, but in one edition of the Sienna rankings, Fillmore—no doubt due to a statistical fluke—was ranked just above Taylor.) I would argue that both surveys are wrong, and that there is always good reason to put Fillmore above Taylor.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor died after fifteen months in office. Before the presidency, he had been an army general and a successful one in the recent war with Mexico. It has been said that he was so apolitical, that he never voted before he ran for president. As president, he did have some strong views. (Although a slave holder, he was adamantly opposed to the idea of any state seceding from the Union.) Nevertheless, he was a relatively indecisive president, and when he died, his successor inherited a great many problems. A case might be made that Taylor left all of those problems because he died in office, but some issues had been on hold since Taylor’s administration began, and yet a surprising number of them were resolved within a year after Fillmore took over.

Millard Fillmore

Upon taking office, Fillmore found that the United States still had unsettled relations with Mexico. There were those who feared that there might be another Mexican war. There were others who would have welcomed such a war. Fillmore sent diplomats to settle the conflict with Mexico. There was also a conflict with Peru, and Fillmore settled that, too. Fillmore might be faulted for his reluctance to go to war with anybody, seemingly at all costs, although the United States usually kept its dignity (for the exception, see below) in the deals that Fillmore made with foreign countries. There was a particularly tricky dispute with both France and Great Britain. The United States could have wound up at war with either or both. The country, circa 1850 was not in a position to fight a war with any of the European powers, so the Fillmore administration defused that situation without losing face.

An instance where the administration lost some face was in a serious dispute with Spain over Cuba. It is hard to believe that just over 40 years later the United States would trounce Spain handily, but in 1850, the outcome of a war over Cuba was more likely to favor Spain. Recognizing this, Fillmore backed down from a situation that was not of his making. Some American adventurers had taken it upon themselves to invade Cuba, and when Spain captured them and put them in chains, the United States was forced to make concessions to get the prisoners back. It was, perhaps, Fillmore’s greatest humiliation. (This is, perhaps, reminiscent of President Kennedy’s humiliation over the Bay of Pigs invasion a little over a century later.)

In 1850, the United States was tearing itself apart over slavery. Congress voted on separate bills that aimed to settle the controversy by making some concessions to the slave states that allowed slavery to spread into the some of the western territories but limited it elsewhere. In general, the Compromise of 1850 led to an uneasy lull before the Civil War broke out a decade later, but it also created fertile ground for the conflicts that led up to the war. Not least of the problems was the Fugitive Slave Act, which Fillmore signed into law. It would have been a deal-breaker if it had not become law. The South very likely would have seceded then and there. Unfortunately, it also highlighted the hypocrisy of the slave states' claim to base their case on states rights, because the Fugitive Slave Act violated the right of the non-slave states to have nothing to do with slavery. The Act forced them to recognize and cooperate with the efforts of slave states to recover “property” that had fled to the free states. Many northern states were up in arms in protest against the law. Nullification and civil disobedience became commonplace from Massachusetts to Wisconsin.

Commodore Perry

The overall, short-term result of the Compromise of 1850 was relative calm before the storm. Fillmore left the White House with the nation nominally at peace at home and abroad. Other things that he achieved include the launch of Commodore Matthew Perry’s mission to open trade with Japan. Fillmore does not usually get credit for this because Perry did not arrive in Japan until after Fillmore’s successor, Franklin Pierce, became president. Although journalist H.L. Mencken famously claimed that Fillmore’s only achievement was to put a bathtub in the White House, it is more certainly attested that Mrs. Fillmore established the first permanent White House library. (Although Mencken was both a serious scholar and a humorist, historians too often have assumed that his remark about Fillmore’s tub was entirely serious.)

Abigail Powers Fillmore, First Lady,
former school teacher, responsible
for first White House library
Fillmore was called a dandy or clothes-horse by some. He was always well-dressed by his era’s standards, which became a common criticism leveled against him by his detractors. Fillmore had many of detractors. He had come up in New York State politics and had had to navigate his state’s famous political machines. When he got to national politics, he made the decision to cut loose from the parochial interests of his state, and the machines never forgave him. The earliest biographies of Fillmore were written by these enemies, and a lot of the personal hits against Fillmore’s historical reputation have their origins in his political enemies’ slights.

Another knock on Fillmore was that, after serving as the last Whig Party president, he ran on the American or Know-Nothing Party ticket for president in 1856. By this time, the Whig Party was virtually defunct and already being replaced by the Republican Party. Many Whigs joined the Republicans, but Fillmore joined some of his Whig comrades who had persuaded the American Party to stand for other issues besides nativism and anti-Catholicism. Little did the Know-Nothings know (appropriately enough), but while they were nominating Fillmore to be their presidential candidate, Fillmore, who had gone on a tour of Europe, was having an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome. In the general election of 1856, Fillmore actually did very well for a third-party candidate, partly because he could trade on his name recognition, but also because of die-hard Whigs.

Fillmore is widely regarded as being at least better than President James Buchanan (ranked 43), who presided over the actual slide into the Civil War. When Buchanan took no action against Southern states that captured and raided federal armories in 1860, Fillmore came out of retirement long enough to publicly criticize Buchanan for his inaction.

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