Jeffrey Rogers Hummel on President Martin Van Buren (1837–1841)
Martin Van Buren was the least bad president in American history. Although other chief executives had some libertarian accomplishments, he was by far the most consistent. Domestically, Van Buren kept government spending and taxes low, and also brought to culmination the Jacksonian program for the “divorce of bank and state,” despite the country being engulfed in a severe depression. But Van Buren’s most stunning achievements were in foreign policy. Mainstream historians usually rate presidents according to their forceful leadership, which biases them toward presidents who drag the country into wars, permitting displays of decisiveness and energy. But if we instead applaud maintaining peace, Van Buren has the unique distinction of keeping the country out of two possible wars. By blocking annexation of Texas, he forestalled a war with Mexico that unfortunately came about a decade later. He also calmed two major disputes with Canada, either of which could have instigated full-fledged conflict with Britain. One involved border incidents resulting from a revolt in Canada, and the other a clash over the Maine boundary. The unpopularity of these libertarian and diplomatic measures, even within Van Buren’s own party, contributed to his failure to win reelection in 1840 and renomination in 1844.
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel is a professor of economics at San Jose State University. He is the author of Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: A History of the American Civil War.
Ivan Eland on President John Tyler (1841–1845)
John Tyler was generally in favor of limiting government — both domestically and internationally — much to the chagrin of his own Whig Party. It advocated a revival of the national bank and high tariffs, both of which would fund federal canals and roads. As an unelected president who had taken over after William Henry Harrison had died only a month into his term, Tyler exhibited amazing political courage in vetoing his own party’s platform. In the process, his cabinet resigned. His party expelled him and then unsuccessfully tried to impeach him. Tyler, like many of the best American presidents who stuck by their principles, was not asked back for a second term.
Tyler’s greatest triumph may have been in reversing the terrible policies toward Native Americans perpetrated by his predecessors, Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren (an otherwise admirable president). Tyler settled the longest and bloodiest American Indian war in history by allowing Seminole Indians to stay on their reservation instead of being expelled by armed force west of the Mississippi River — a solution Van Buren had rejected. Tyler then was able to cut the size of the US Army by a third.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the book Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.
Lawrence W. Reed on President Grover Cleveland (1885–1889, 1893–1897)
Unless you grade politicians on the curve, the vast majority would flunk right out of the gate. But Grover Cleveland, America’s 22nd and 24th president, was one of the best. He exercised good judgment on so many occasions — from supporting lower taxes and freer trade, to vetoing more bills than the previous 21 presidents combined, to opposing the paternalistic nanny state — that it’s hard to pick just one decision to rate as his finest.
But I’ll choose his staunch opposition to the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, passed during the tenure of the man between Grover’s terms, Benjamin Harrison. The act required the US Treasury to purchase (with newly printed paper money) virtually the entire output of American silver mines, precisely 4.5 million ounces per month. Furthermore, it forced the Treasury to pay twice what the silver was worth, mint it into silver dollars, and redeem it for gold on demand at half of what gold was worth. Dumb— really dumb. It was a subsidy for silver interests and a surefire prescription for undermining confidence in America’s money and economy. It was the primary cause of the Panic of 1893 and the depression that followed, even though it had strong support in the Congress and around the country.
While recovering from a secret, life-threatening operation for cancer in his mouth, Cleveland beat Congress into submission and secured the act’s repeal. “Patriotism,” Grover thundered, “is no substitute for a sound currency!”
Lawrence W. Reed is president of FEE.
Burton Folsom on President Warren G. Harding (1921–1923)
What if I were to tell you that we once had a president who, in his first two years in office, was able to lower tax rates and still cut the federal budget in half while slashing unemployment from 11.7 percent to 2.4 percent? Would you believe me?
Warren G. Harding accomplished all three of those things in his short presidency from 1921 to 1923. When he was elected in 1920, he (and his vice president, Calvin Coolidge) faced a stagnant economy and a ballooning national debt left over from World War I. Harding decided to cut the size of government.
“We need more business in government and less government in business,” he said. That would give entrepreneurs incentives to invest. Harding was right. With tax rates cut for all groups, Americans invented or expanded such businesses as air conditioning, talking movies, radios, refrigerators, telephones, and air travel.
The Roaring ‘20s launched with Harding’s assumption that greater freedom and less government would increase prosperity for all groups. The 1920s would also become the last decade in US history to see annual budget surpluses every year. Almost one-third of the federal debt disappeared under Harding and Coolidge.
Do historians celebrate Harding’s achievements? No; they collectively rank him in presidential polls as the worst president in American history. They criticize his appointments—some of whom were indeed corrupt—but others, such as Andrew Mellon, were superb). Historians also deplore Harding’s philosophy of limited government. But if we judge presidencies by results, we have to rank Harding as one of the better presidents in US history.
Burton Folsom Jr. is a professor of history at Hillsdale College and author (with his wife, Anita) of FDR Goes to War.
Amity Shlaes on President Calvin Coolidge (1923–1929)
Action is the main characteristic voters seek today. Yet, inaction can benefit a nation more, as President Coolidge demonstrated. He was our “Great Refrainer.”
Where others strutted, Coolidge stood. Where others exhorted, Coolidge held his tongue. The 13th president emptied even his writing of action — and active verbs. A classic Coolidge sentence: “The growing multiplicity of laws has often been observed.” Nine out of 10 English teachers would grade such a sentence down. Nine out of 10 would be wrong.
Example: When Coolidge was still governor of Massachusetts, patrolmen struck, the port city rioted, and the police commissioner fired the police. The union petitioned the governor, begging Coolidge to intervene. But the governor refused, insisting only the commissioner had that authority. Coolidge knew that public-sector strikes hurt the public too much to be warranted. Man had his place in the world, but man alone could not do everything: “Men do not make laws,” Coolidge wrote. “They do but discover them.” As president, Coolidge vetoed 50 bills. This was the boy with the finger in the dike, stopping a great progressive tide.
To honor Mr. Understatement, an understated sentence suits best: America could do worse than elect another Great Refrainer.
Paul G. Kengor on President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989)
In the case of Ronald Reagan, this is a difficult assignment, one that I’ve been kicking around ever since Larry Reed kindly requested my input. I’ve settled on the following example.
Reagan was, of course, a free marketer. He was also the world’s leading optimist — an optimism particularly on display during the lingering recession of 1982–83, when the effect of his 1981 tax cuts seemed slow. “He is absolutely convinced that there will be a big recovery,” one Reagan adviser told Time. “My God is he an optimist!”
There was immense pressure on Reagan to reverse his tax cuts. The naysayers were not only external but internal. Reagan, however, hung in there. He was undeterred. He knew that the market needed to be freed to perform and work its magic, which it eventually did.
Freeman readers are familiar with the data:
After a slow start through 1982–83, the stimulus effect of Reagan’s tax cuts was extraordinary, sparking the longest peacetime expansion and recovery in the nation’s history: 92 consecutive months, far surpassing the previous record of 58 months.
Contrary to liberal demonology, women and blacks and other minorities did extremely well during the Reagan years. In the 1980s, there was a 40 percent jump in the number of black households earning $50,000 or more. Black unemployment actually fell faster than white unemployment in the 1980s. The number of black-owned businesses increased by almost 40 percent, while the number of blacks who enrolled in college increased almost 30 percent (white college enrollment increased only 6 percent).
Overall, the “Reagan Boom” not only produced widespread prosperity but — along with the attendant Soviet collapse — helped generate budget surpluses in the 1990s.
These impressive results were the product of a president’s optimism, his common-sense knowledge of markets, and his confidence to stay true to a course he knew would work.