Sunday, July 4, 2010

Presidents for the Fourth Wilson/Harding

I mistakenly omitted mentioning in the previous post that I think Woodrow Wilson is overrated, but I'm glad, because while I was figuring out whether to do a whole item or just update the previous post, I saw what Matt Yglesias argued on the subject:
I think the other president primed for a historiographical re-evaluation is the little remembered Warren Harding. Arthur Schlesinger and the project of post-WWII Cold War liberalism casts a long shadow over popular understanding of a lot of American history, and that project almost requires an underrating of Harding and an overrating of his predecessor Woodrow Wilson. But the Harding administration is an example of the historically rare phenomenon of the civil liberties ratchet shifting in the direction of more freedom. Harding also began the process of raising the status of African-Americans from the low point we reached under Wilson—promoting, for example, an anti-lynching bill that passed the House of Representatives only to be filibustered to death in the Senate.  
Interesting!  I fully agree with him on Wilson, as long-time readers may recall.  And I agree on the historiography: Wilson was boosted by New Deal and then Cold War Democrats, who wanted to ground American foreign policy in a story about the total and complete failure of isolationism.  New Deal-era historians, too, were hardly eager to emphasize either civil liberties or race, since neither was particularly an FDR strength (although he wasn't nearly as awful as Wilson on either count).  Moreover, Wilson's mobilization looks better if you're seeking a patriotic precedent for FDR's National Recovery Administration.  One can overstate the extent to which the Blue Eagle version of the New Deal was fascistic, but it's not wrong, in my view, to say that it shared some family resemblance to Mussolini, even if it's more third cousin once removed than it is sibling -- and so if you're a historian trying to Americanize it, playing up Wilson makes a lot of sense.  Of course, on the biggest issue, New Deal and Cold War historians were eager to see American entry into World War I as an easy call, thinking through FDR's difficulty in moving the nation to war in 1939-1941.  However, the facts of 1914-1917 aren't even remotely similar, and in fact I've never really heard a convincing argument for why anyone should think of Wilson's path to war as a success. 

Now, as for Harding...I think I more or less agree.  Harding sat dead last in the first three Siena surveys, and third-to-last in 2002 and the brand new edition.  As far as I know, Harding was pretty much of a dud as a president, but bottom five does seem like overkill to me.  I'm confident that the Buchanan, Pierce, and Andrew Johnson richly deserve their spots in the bottom five.  Beyond that, I think that I'd prefer to fill the bottom spots with more active and consequential malfeasance than what Harding did.  I'm fairly confident that Harding was safely below average, but beyond that, I don't really know.  But I'm open to argument, here; if anyone has anything to recommend on Harding, I'd be interested in adding it to my reading list. In exchange, I'll recommend Al Stewart's solid track, "Warren Harding", which may not be as good as TMBG's better-known "James K. Polk," but I do think Stewart gets into the head of what it must sometimes feel like to be president: "I just want someone to talk to. To talk to. To talk to."


  1. Personally, liberal-leaning historians have always held a grudge against President Harding, just as many of them have against our last president. Whereas George W. Bush captured consecutive narrow EC majorities (no one else accomplished anything similar in two successive presidential elections), Harding remains a thorn in the side of these academics, in part, due to his record 26.2% margin of victory over Cox in 1920. No one, not FDR, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon or Reagan has matched that number, even if others have topped Harding's then-record popular vote percentage. From what I have read, Harding was a good man in over his head, but he was a better president, policy-wise than Coolidge and in several respects a better politician than Hoover. Given the deep Democratic divide in 1924, it is probable Harding would have won reelection. Others probably credit him too much for his anti-lynching stance, but it was still a better effort than many others.

  2. I fail to see what relevance election results is here. We are rating presidential performance here. Unless you are making the case for party leadership scores? In that case, I'd give GWB some points for his early leadership of the GOP. Of course, the party went their own way when it was obvious what an abysmal failure the presidency was. He was only allotted 7 minutes at the RNC convention, and by remote video, remember. GWB lost the popular vote, of course, in 2000.

  3. It's a bit unfair to 19th-century presidents to rate them on effectiveness alongside modern presidents, who I believe have considerably more freedom of action. If modern presidents are nonetheless "weak" a la Neustadt, presidents of olden days were a lot weaker -- much more creatures of a political party than today, hemmed in by "teams of rivals" they were compelled to take into their cabinets, etc. Lincoln himself said he was carried along by events, and it's obvious from detailed accounts of, for instance, the Fort Sumter crisis that he fumbled for ways to be effective within very narrow constraints (he simply wasn't going to be permitted to give in to Southern radicalism, even if he'd wanted to).

    So, I suspect that the "ineffective" presidents, like Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, were at some level good party men doing what the political faction they represented wanted. It's just that we've since judged that to be the wrong thing to want.

  4. "(no one else accomplished anything similar in two successive presidential elections)"

    Do you mean that this is why "liberal historians" (whoever they are) rank GWB lowly, or are justified in doing so? I'd ask to see evidence of the former, and lightly disagree on the latter, though I will admit Bush's electoral stats don't speak highly of his communication or party leadership skills.

    "It's a bit unfair to 19th-century presidents to rate them on effectiveness alongside modern presidents, who I believe have considerably more freedom of action."

    The problem- well, the first problem- is that we see cohorts who were able to transcend the limitations of the 19th Century Presidency, or at least flourish within them. Jackson, Polk, Lincoln, even Grant, at least in many aspects, were able to avoid those pitfalls.

    "So, I suspect that the "ineffective" presidents, like Buchanan and Andrew Johnson, were at some level good party men doing what the political faction they represented wanted."

    The second problem is that this isn't necessarily true. Yes, Johnson was a southerner by birth and by temperament, but he owed his political career to "National Unity" Republicans, yet he vetoed their bills and had terrible relations with them in Congress. Buchanan may be a closer question, but he tried and failed to push key southern bills through Congress, and he failed to deliver what he promised to Southern Democrats (national unity by weakening abolitionist sentiment in the north).

    OTOH, I doubt anyone COULD'VE kept the union together at the end of Buchanan's term, or prevented the Expansion issue from exploding during Pierce's. But they might've handled the issues in a way that gave future Presidents a better hand to play.

  5. Jeff:
    In fairness to Lincoln on his assassination getting Johnson made into president, there are a few issues to consider.
    First, Lincoln gave the vice-presidents nothing to do. Hamlin was so bored he signed up as an ensign in the Maine Coast Guard. So, in that sense, Johnson was going to be a PURE figurehead unless Lincoln died.
    Second, the assassination attempt was to include Johnson, who was only a couple blocks away at the time. Not sure what to do with that info, but if not for the guy chickening out, Johnson AND Lincoln would be dead and we'd wonder about where to rank President Colfax.
    Finally, maybe Lincoln could be somewhat forgiven for his denial of his mortality. After a long civil war, he was still alive. They got within miles of Lincoln, and he was still standing.

    All that said, yes, Lincoln picked Johnson. But I'm not sure that is a big enough deal to warrant much reconsideration of the rest of Lincoln's legacy. Now, if you want to argue that suspension of habeus corpus is nothing to be proud of, then I could understand an argument lowering Lincoln's ranking. But I'm an oddball on these rankings anyway (one of those who puts TR up there, for example)

  6. Matt, to be honest, I don't know that much about the latter part of the Lincoln presidency (the books I've read all deal with its beginnings), so I don't know what all the calculations were that went into picking Johnson. No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time, but I'm giving Lincoln enough credit for political savvy to have understood that Johnson was not the man to oversee Reconstruction, and that therefore if he ws bound to be in the line of succession, it was important to the country that Lincoln himself stay safe and well.

    And OK, yes, we all deny our own mortality, plus there hadn't been a history of successful presidential assassinations up to that time. But surely part of this whole exercise is that you don't excuse a president for miscalculating things, especially if the miscalculation had atrocious consequences. Maybe if Jonathan is still reading this, he could clarify something about the Siena poll: Did any of its 18 or whatever categories invite an assessment of the president in terms of "providing for succession" or seeing to it that good policies would continue beyond him? Anything like that? Because that strikes me as something that in some cases might be among the most important things a president can do.

  7. The problem with a "providing for succession" element is that once your successor is in place, well, he has his own agency, his own decision-making, and as much ability to buck the limits of Presidential power as you had. Inevitably, he's going to do things differently (and probably should, as he's facing different problems). I mean, if George H. Bush left Reagan's true believers feeling betrayed, I'm not sure you CAN find a running mate who'll do things exactly as you would.

    I'd also point out, specifically for Lincoln, the "best of the bad options" problem. Yes, Lincoln chose Johnson, but, at least at the time, it seemed very clear that he NEEDED a War Democrat to win reelection (with our hindsight of knowing General Sherman was just about to romp and stomp, we can question that, but we should think of the situation at the time). And McClellan's victory in 1864 would've been disastrous. If the options were allowing seccession/slavery OR having a bitter, painful reconcilliation that haunts us to this day (And I think that's a fair summary of the 1864 election, though by no means the only one), then Lincoln came down on a perfectly defensible side. But then, once again, I'm uncomfortable blaming one President for a subsequent President's decisions.

  8. Indeed, now that I think about it, I think Johnson's "betrayal" of Lincoln's policies was very unpredictable. Think about it; even if Lincoln was aware of his mortality (and frankly, the record shows he was ACUTELY aware of it), he should've also noticed that Republicans had huge majorities in Congress. And Congress was still the primary policy-maker, even during Lincoln's term (he limited himself to Commander-In-Chief powers). Government-by-Veto was hardly a common thought at that time. So I'm not sure he- or anyone else- could have predicted the depth of Johnson's intransigence. And if I'm uncomfortable blaming him for someone else's mistakes, I'm even MORE uncomfortable blaming for someone else's mistakes that no one saw coming.

  9. A basic problem with using 'arranging succession' as a metric is that most presidents survived their terms of office, and most of their vice presidents faded into utter obscurity, giving us little to go by.

    My impression is that for much of American history it was universally accepted that VP nominees would be ticket balancing hacks. The idea that the VP should actually be capable of assuming the top job seems a quite recent innovation.

  10. Rick,

    Agreed. The other question is to what extent, over history, it was the presidential nominee's choice. Before recently (1972), my impression is: sometimes yes, sometimes no, sometimes mixed.

  11. Isn't a good part of Washington's awesomeness as president due to the fact that he stepped down (i.e., handled the succession well)? Guess you could argue that Lincoln couldn't have known he was going to be killed, but it was goofy at best for him not to worry about this, esp. given the relatively recent precedent of Tyler.

  12. Interesting discussion here. I have a couple thoughts, for the other presidential history buffs out there. It's always seemed to me that historians were a bit too hard on Harding, and on the other guys who took office and promptly kicked the bucket.

    Anonymous above (not me) has an interesting idea about liberal historians resenting Harding's huge margin. There's something to that. But I don't think the margin itself is all there is to it. Rather, the issue is that Harding's victory reflects the massive public repudiation of Woodrow Wilson, and the degree to which the Democrats' ethnic northern base was isolationist.

    The liberal post-war historians needed Wilson to be a foundational figure for modern liberalism, even though the consequences of his decision to enter World War I included Nazism, World War II, and the Cold War, and notwithstanding that the man was extreme in his bigotry, even at a time when bigotry was the norm. And they also wanted to minimize their party's antiwar, anti-interventionist history, having committed to the hawkish, violent internationalism of FDR and Truman.

    And another point in Harding's favor: he pardoned Eugene Debs, whom Wilson had shamefully locked up as a political prisoner.

  13. "And Congress was still the primary policy-maker, even during Lincoln's term (he limited himself to Commander-In-Chief powers)."

    That's an understatement. Lincoln actually believed in what was called the Whig theory of the presidency, which held that the president's veto could only be used if he believed legislation to be unconstitutional. This tradition died with Grant, who had not been politically aware during the Jackson vs. Clay arguments.

  14. Before we rush to rehabilitate too much here, I ask that people read "Only Yesterday" by Frederick Lewis Allen, written in 1931 and still the best book on America in the 1920s ever written. Harding was a stupid, corrupt figure who did nothing to help the economy, nothing to help regular people. Yes, he freed Eugene Debs and he finally stopped the last of the Palmer Raids. That was his decent side showing, and was more about returning to the "normalcy" of giving everything over in the mainstream to business. The Teapot Dome scandal was not something small, but concerned major bankers and oil companies, and others in the engine of the American economic elite.

    So again, let's not get carried away here with this rehabilitation of Harding. Grant, too, can be easily overstated. The reason these guys don't look so bad is we just went through Bush II, who may be the worst president ever.

  15. Matt Jarvis,

    I know this is a bit late, but there would have been no President Colfax, the President if Johnson had been assassinated would have been Lafayette Sabine Foster of Connecticut, and a new Presidential election would have been held in November. The new president would serve for a full four year term and all futere presidential elections would have followed this new calendar. (ie. a presidential election in Nov. of 2009)

  16. @ Anonymous, 6:52

    I didn't know that, but it makes sense given that he WAS a Whig. :)

    I think that mitigates Lincoln's "poor judgment" even more, then. With huge Republican majorities in both chambers and a prevailing governing philosophy that the President was NOT involved in making domestic law, it was pretty hard to conceive that Johnson would fuck up as much as he did. Indeed, even the attitude of Congressional Republicans seemed to be, "We can work with this man" until they went home on recess.


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