Nobody faced a greater range of challenges than FDR during his 12 years as president, nor met them quite so ably. Contrary to some revisionist scholarship from the last 30 years, the New Deal was largely a success, and if anything was a few sizes too small to fully meet the depth of the Great Depression. FDR stablized a shaky banking system, enacted Social Security, and artfully moved a nation inclined to isolationism into engagement and participation in the Second World War.
Monroe presided over an "Era of Good Feelings" largely free from partisan rancor, and his policies expertly moved the U.S. from a Jeffersonian collection of sovereign states and into a coherent nation. He also had the best cabinet of any president-- with J.Q. Adams, John Calhoun, William Wirt, and William Crawford rocking the sundry departments- all among the best to have served. Many presidents served during times of crisis. Monroe avoided crises.
A curious mix of the Progressive and the imperialist. Energetic and wildly intelligent, TR helped preserve our country's natural beauty, and initiated a series of cautious trust-busting legislation. He also deserves credit for inviting a black man to the White House, Booker T. Washington, for a social visit, an act which was poisonous in the Jim Crow South. While his ventures into Latin America are troubling, Roosevelt is a crucial transition president, and among the first to use the powers of his office to temper the excesses and abuses of an unfettered market economy.
One of the nation's least experienced presidents coming ine, Lincoln nevertheless grew in office and was transformed by the office like no other president. The learning curve was steep, one that cost the Union lots of early victories, and led to thousands of lives lost in the cause of Union. Yet, as Goodwin, Shenk, and countless other biographers have pointed out, Lincoln had a flair for the moment, an overarching vision. He thought, and acted, on a greater and higher level than any other president. For better or worse, he turned the U.S. into a single and indivisible nation that could not be rent assunder.
Where you rank LBJ says a lot about what you look for as a spectator of American history. You have the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and Voting Rights Act, you have an expansion of government under Great Society, and you also have an escalation of Vietnam. There's no way around the Vietnam quagmire, but at the beginning of LBJ's presidency, a black man in Dixie could be killed for trying to exercise his right to vote. By the end of his presidency, the federal goverment was prepared to defend and support that right, by bayonet if necessary. For that reason alone, LBJ and his considerable skill with Congress deserves to be among the highest eschelon of presidents. Great Society was largely a triumph, a more just America where poverty stung less, and indeed went down by over 40% during his administration.
The greatest one-term president, Adams may not have been popular, but he was astute and wise. He threw his party under the bus to avoid a potentially ruinous war with France. The Alien and Sedition Acts, the historical albatross around his neck, have been made too much of my the textbooks-- these were commonsense laws that only punished those who knowingly published untrue material about the government.
I may be an unreconstructed McGovernite, but I give credit where credit is due. GHWB was a capable, largely ideology-free president who got the job done with aplomb. His "prudence" in handling the collapse of the Soviet Union and his work to get international consensus on the Persian Gulf War deserves praise. He also understood that sometimes, the responsible course of action is to raise taxes, even if you promised not to.
Severely overrated and over-remembered. We tend to project our unfulfilled hopes for the 1960s onto the martyred Kennedy. JFK had glamour, wit, and most importantly of all, vision, but he wasn't quite ready for prime time. His policies-- Peace Corps and Food for Peace, were creative ways of handling the Cold War battle for the hearts and minds of the Third World, though, and these programs introduced a new generation of young people into public service.
A fussy bachelor with a long history of public service, our teleological praise of Lincoln often means that Buchanan becomes an unwitting dupe in our narrative of the Civil War. Yet, Buchanan was a foreign policy genius, and the groundwork that he laid meant that Britain and France would not align with the Confederacy, even though it was in their economic interest to do so. He had to contend with secession, and tried to do so with the minimal amount of bloodshed, a commendable act in its own way, especially given the constitutional fuzziness of the matter. And he gave Lincoln his most important trump card-- Fort Sumter intact by the end of his term.
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