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Monday, February 17, 2014

American Presidents: The Tops and the Bottoms

President’s Day, besides being a day off work, is a day when Americans supposedly reflect on two men—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln—about whom most could tell you pitifully little. The assumption (not mine) is that the country’s first and 16th Presidents were our best.

I’m reluctant to rank any President as “the best” because the makeup of my own list of the better ones fluctuates a lot. Same with my list of “the worst.” For any lover of liberty, all these guys must be graded on the curve by the very nature of the job. So in an effort to be both unconventional and faithful to my principles, I suggest three “tops” and three “bottoms.” Simply consider them as “among the best” and “among the worst” and in no particular order. For more detail, I recommend the 2009 book by Ivan Eland, “Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity and Liberty.” I share some, but not all, of the author’s assessments.

The Tops:

Grover Cleveland – A man of impeccable character who actually meant it when he swore to uphold the Constitution and protect our liberties.

John Tyler – Exercised restraint in all areas of federal power, opposed big government for all the right reasons, and endured exile from his party because of it.

Martin Van Buren – A sound money man who resisted every attempt to raid the federal treasury even in the midst of a central bank-induced depression.

The Bottoms:

Woodrow Wilson – Ugh. Wrong on everything except when he was accidentally right, which I think was on a Tuesday. Repressive at home, interventionist abroad, statist to the core.

Theodore Roosevelt – The bully in a Progressive pulpit, he was admirable in his personal life but arrogant, superficial, and power-hungry in his public life. His ego gave us Woodrow Wilson in 1912.

Franklin Roosevelt – Promised one thing, gave us quite another. Prolonged the Depression by at least seven years and bequeathed us a government that’s too big to succeed.

Of parties and Presidents, my late friend and political humorist from Tennessee, Tom Anderson, quipped that “Switching from one to the next is too often like leaving a spoiled diaper on a baby and just changing the safety pin.” That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t honor the good deeds of the best ones, but on this President’s Day, I’m likely to think less of men of power and more about it being a day off from all of that.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is