Who was the Greatest President?

While conservatives and liberals disagree on many issues, they tend to share some common ground when it comes to ranking U.S. presidents. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt receive the top honor in most polls. However, a recent book argues that none of these Presidents deserves to be ranked #1. Its choice is…John Tyler?

Was John Tyler the Greatest President in U.S. History?

Was John Tyler the Greatest President in U.S. History?
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who was John Tyler?

John Tyler was the 10th President of the United States. He was known as “His Accidency,” on account of the fact that he took over after William Henry Harrison’s untimely death. Most of his cabinet resigned during his term and his own party expelled him from its membership. According to Wikipedia, an aggregate of various scholarly polls rate Tyler as one of the worst presidents of all time. Heck, even the extremely controversial George W. Bush outranks him. Who would possibly consider President John Tyler #1?

Reevaluating the Presidency of John Tyler?

In his book, Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland argues that the reason most historians overlook John Tyler is because of flawed ranking systems. He points out four particular biases exhibited by historians:

  1. Effectiveness: Scholars tend to focus on a president’s ability to enact an agenda without considering the positive or negative results from that agenda.
  2. Charisma: Historians place undue emphasis on exciting personalities at the expense of dull ones.
  3. Service during a Crisis: Many historians will only rank a president highly if he served during a great war or financial crisis, giving little credit to those who avoided war or kept crises from happening in the first place.
  4. Activism: Presidents who did a lot are ranked higher than those who preferred minimal government.

Eland takes a unique approach to evaluating presidents. Instead of ranking them on the usual stuff, he ranks them on how well they achieved peace, prosperity, and liberty. Presidents earn points for avoiding “wars of choice,” pursuing economic freedom, and respecting individual freedoms as well as limits on presidential powers.

His analysis leads to some interesting conclusions that differ wildly from most polls. George Washington is still fairly high at #7. But he ranks Abraham Lincoln (#29) and FDR (#31) far lower than any historian I’ve ever read. His top five are John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Chester A. Arthur. These presidents are barely remembered by most Americans today which, in a way, is the point. Their terms were boring, thanks to their decisions to avoid wars and pursue policies that led to economic success as well as personal freedom.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

So what about John Tyler? Well, he ended the Second Seminole War and exhibited restrained responses to an internal rebellion and a border dispute with Canada. He also vetoed his own party’s wishes to enact high tariffs and create a national bank, which ultimately cost him a second term. His record on preserving individual liberty is considered “very good.”

Eland’s book is a decidedly libertarian look at American presidents. Conservatives and liberals alike will find much to debate within its pages. However, while some may disagree with his criteria or his rankings, his study is an important one. It forces us to take a whole new look at how we judge presidents and whether the ones we choose to remember are really deserving of that honor.

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