How Can You Tell Whether a President is Great or Not?

by Burt on October 26, 2011

Not by polls of historians. My fellow historians have a knack for giving the highest ratings to presidents who drive the nation into more debt or start foreign wars. But instead, what if we had a president who served two terms, won his elections easily, and during his eight years as president, abolished the federal income tax, and then ran budget surpluses every year of his presidency? What if he also successfully promoted a law to redeem all of our paper money with gold—and thereby boosted the soundness of U.S. currency and credit? What if he then signed a law to diminish racism, won the black vote, and then watched the most prominent black leader in the nation applaud the president’s “moral courage?” Finally, what if he was a great war hero but, as president, he avoided all foreign wars, and when he left office the nation was more unified than it had been in more than a generation?

Would you say that man was a great, or near great president? I would, but I’m almost alone because every poll of historians since 1948 has ranked him as a terrible president—usually either the worst, or the next to worst, president in U.S. history. But Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president of the United States from 1869 to 1877, accomplished all of those things mentioned above. Grant did have problems during his administration with corruption by some of his appointees, but he accomplished much in the realm of civil rights, debt reduction, and establishing a sound fiscal policy. However, the late professor Thomas Bailey, who taught at Stanford University for almost 40 years and wrote a best-selling U.S. history text, expressed the opinion of many historians when he said, “Grant was an ignorant and confused President, and his eight long years in blunderland are generally regarded as a national disgrace.”

What if we had a president who almost quadrupled the U.S. national debt two times during his presidency? What if his federal spending was so wasteful, and so politicized, that Congress passed a bill to limit it, and later formed a special Senate committee to try to stop it? What if this president refused to sign a tax bill unless it taxed the income of millionaires at 94%? What if even this president’s son admitted, “My father may have been the originator of the concept of employing the IRS as a weapon of political retribution”? What if this president lost money on almost every personal business investment he ever made and, even into his presidency, urgently needed the regular allowance his mother sent him? What if his five children were married nineteen times, leaving a trail of divorce and disrupted families?

Would you say this president was a failure? I would, but almost every poll of historians rates Franklin D. Roosevelt as the best, second best, or third best president in U.S. history. I have written New Deal or Raw Deal? and my wife Anita and I have written FDR Goes To War to set the record straight on Roosevelt. That has been an important task. We encourage the people of the United States to reject the historians’ judgment and refuse to give FDR a pat on the back and Grant a boot in the rear. Only if we examine our political leaders with accuracy, using the facts of history, can we know the policies that truly benefitted our great country and continue those policies for the benefit of all Americans.

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