Monday, July 5, 2010

Presidents for the Fourth Johnson/Jackson

Andrew Jackson's stock is falling.  New Deal historians loved Jackson, which makes sense in the same way that it makes sense that they loved Woodrow Wilson.  As the Democratic Party moved away from its traditional defense of bigotry, however, loving Wilson and Jackson has become far more problematic for newer generations of historians.  Jackson used to be a great president, finishing comfortably in the top ten in these sorts of surveys; Siena College now has him in the next tier down, at #14, which is consistent with where others have placed him recently.  In Siena's categories, Jackson scores very high on Leadership (#5), Party Leadership (#2), and Executive Ability (#6); he's at the low end on Ability to Compromise (#38), the economy (#28), and low on Integrity and Intelligence (#23, on each). 

Lyndon Johnson has settled in more or less in the same area.  He's 16th in Siena's survey;.in the fourteen such surveys in wikipedia's entry, he's as high as 10th and as low as 18th.  Within the rankings, however, Johnson is like Jackson, with plenty of extremes.  Siena has him the very best at Relationship with Congress, and third at Party Leadership.  He's 5th in Domestic Accomplishments.  On the other hand...he's dead last in Foreign Policy Accomplishments, 37th in "Avoid Crucial Mistakes," 34th in Integrity. 

Let's see...first of all, on LBJ, I think the party leadership score is way too high; they don't (at least in their release) define what "Relationship with Congress"  means but it deteriorated pretty badly by the end, so I'm not sure that I'd put it in the top ten -- although he obviously had as much legislative success as any other president.  Again, it's how you define the terms, and how you count things.

Which is sort of my overall point in this post.  Granted, this is just a parlor game to begin with, but even as a parlor game it basically breaks down when you try to deal with these two presidents.  How do you average out Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Immigration...and Vietnam?  How do you average out the achievement of, well, Jacksonian democracy, with all that that implies, positive and negative?  Yes, Siena includes a category for "integrity," but there's no category for "Actions of a Moral Monster" -- and if there were, how would you weigh it? 

So I can't say that either Jackson or Johnson is overrated, or underrated...they just don't work in the Rating the Presidents Game, as far as I can tell.


  1. I agree that both are heavily polarized on their scores. Jackson was contemptible in many personal and political ways, introducing the full-blown Spoils System (which we've never truly been able to eradicate over the decades) and treating the indigenous population like vermin. On the other hand, he suppressed a possible secession crisis in the whole "Nullification" affair (threatening to hang John C. Calhoun, a plus in my book), and heavily pushed for universal suffrage (for white men, at least).

    Same goes with Johnson. Yes, his relationship with Congress was awful at the end, but before that, he was both extremely effective as President and as Senate Majority Leader in getting tons of major domestic legislation passed (his Great Society programs, in particular). On the other hand, Johnson's foreign policy-making was simply appalling, with a horrifically muddled Vietnam policy rising from his trust in Robert McNamara and his constant warping of foreign policy strategy for the littlest bit of domestic political advantage.

  2. Wise Bass,

    Afraid I'll have to dissent on one issue: the spoils system. The whole Jacksonian (/Van Buren) idea of mass, decentralized, mostly non-ideological, participatory parties was, in my view, one of the great American inventions. I'm not quite 100% with Plunkitt against civil service, but I'm a lot more sympathetic to him than I am to Common Cause types.

  3. >Siena includes a category for "integrity," but there's no category for "Actions of a Moral Monster" -- and if there were, how would you weigh it?

    I'm not going to open a PDF right now, so let me ask: does it have a category for lasting impact on the nation? This seems to me to be the elephant in the room. To call LBJ's passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and Medicare mere "domestic accomplishments" is to miss the larger picture. Of course impact is something that cannot be seen in full until at least a generation has passed, which is why I'd prefer that presidential rankings only consider presidents long passed, and certainly not the current occupant!

  4. Kylopad,

    No, it's just "domestic accomplishments." I haven't seen the questionnaire, so I don't know whether there are more detailed instructions, or not. Basically, I'd say two things: I wouldn't put a whole lot of confidence in the methodology, but on the other hand in general form I think it's fair to say that the top choices are in fact well regarded, the bottom ones are in fact thought to be failures, and we can trace changes over time...I just wouldn't get real excited about small shifts, since that's probably just noise.

  5. The whole Jacksonian (/Van Buren) idea of mass, decentralized, mostly non-ideological, participatory parties was, in my view, one of the great American inventions.

    You mean the whole system of throwing out nearly all of the officials from the previous administration (good-bye institutional experience) and replacing them with party favorites as "rewards", then collecting fees on their salaries? If that's a "great American invention" in your book, I'd shudder to see what you consider a uniquely American vice.


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