Back to part one.
February 4, 2001
Strakon Lights Up, No.
The twelve worst
Last time, before I started my list of the worst presidents, I declared that neither Bush the First nor Clinton was on it, principally because they came along too late to ruin the country. Almost immediately I began feeling a mite nervous about that, in view of the hundreds of thousands of people whose murders Bush and Clinton arranged. Including the murder by starvation and poisoning of hundreds of thousands of noncombatants. Including children. Instead of those war criminals, I dare list Thomas Jefferson?
I'm going to stick by my guns, however nervously. Though I won't hesitate to flay some of the rulers on my list as mass-murderers, a president's body-count is not my overriding criterion. Available technology has much to do with how many people a despot, however bloodthirsty, can slaughter. Also, some of the early presidents, even though they were not personally barbarized in the manner of their distant successors, founded and nourished institutions that, in time, would naturally seek out weapons of advanced barbarism in order to more efficiently serve the United State. Those founders must be called to account.
The presidents with the worst historical influence were not necessarily the worst criminals. So Mr. Jefferson must stay on my list, although I hardly consider him ropeworthy, unlike some of the rulers who are not on the list. In particular, Bush the First and Clinton deserve to be hanged side by side from the highest tree for their crimes.
Now back to the list, which, for benefit of newcomers, is arranged in order of worsening badness.
9. Dwight Eisenhower.
In the speech at Gettysburg I alluded to last time, historian Michael Beschloss mentioned that in recent years the historical Establishment has rehabilitated Eisenhower, discovering him to be a take-charge, in-charge, can-do executive. In case you're too young to remember, Kennedyite propagandists which is to say, the preceding generation of the historical Establishment used to describe Eisenhower as a mumbling figurehead who did well to keep track of his golf clubs. I've already suggested that being a mere figurehead wouldn't keep a president off my list, but the original account of Eisenhower didn't stop there. We were also supposed to believe that nothing really happened during his two terms, nothing, that is, that wasn't initiated by heroic Democrats in Congress. The new picture of Eisenhower as a scheming, Machiavellian puppeteer, hiding behind a genial, harmless grandfather's smile while seeing to it that Big, Important Things happened in the country and the world, seems to make others think better of him but not me.
In fact, Eisenhower was the second great Cold War president, picking up right where his predecessor had left off. Unlike Nixon, Eisenhower didn't even end the draft. His eight years were marked by a long series of interventions, both overt and covert, around the world. Eisenhower's presidency was the CIA's Golden Age.
The man who had so faithfully served Roosevelt and Truman in the "last good war" of American imperialism was invented as a politician and muscled into office by people we might dub "Roosevelt Republicans" Dark Suits who counted on a growing government to run a growing empire abroad for the benefit of politically connected banks and corporations. Robert Taft, skeptic of interventionism and Eisenhower's non-trendy challenger for the nomination in 1952, could not be so trusted. The Republican Dark Suits counted on Eisenhower not only to continue increasing the power of government but also to continue centralizing it, and he obliged, appointing the deconstitutionalist Earl Warren chief justice of the Supreme Court and then calling out troops to enforce Warren's imperial edicts.
About the only thing leftists, as well as honest pro-peace people, have ever liked about Eisenhower is his remarks in his farewell address about the dangers of the burgeoning military-industrial complex. That warning did prove one thing: whitebread German-Americans from the heartland can show chutzpah, too. It's as if a departing burglar were to leave a note reading, "Thanks for the jewelry. Oh, by the way, it looks as if there's been a burglary here!"
8. James Knox Polk.
Establishment historians, reviewing the dreary succession of presidents from William Henry Harrison through James Buchanan, always perk up when they hit Polk. A pretty good state-builder amid all that mediocrity! That's enough to land him on my list, even though according to family tradition he's supposed to be a distant relative.
Polk was a warmonger and a maker of unjust war. And in making his unjust war on Mexico, he further expanded the already fatally overblown United State, further ensuring its transmutation from decadent republic to empire. Just as the only democracy that's arguably authentic is town-meeting democracy, the only republic that has a prayer of staying authentic is a small republic.
In annexing Texas, Polk wrecked the balance between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies, which did nothing to enhance domestic tranquillity. Though another of his acquisitions, California, was admitted as a non-slave state soon after Polk left office, anti-slavery people were understandably terrified that Texas might eventually hive itself into several slave states, as it had the right to do, and send an entire squad of new pro-slavers to the Senate instead of just two. In the event, Texas stayed together, and slavery proved economical only in a relatively small part of East Texas, but that couldn't be assumed at the time. And if Texas were a slave state, what would be the fate of the Arizona territory next door (now the states of Arizona and New Mexico), which was a de facto satellite of Texas? Old-style constitutionalists and genuine federalists, as opposed to centralizers and consolidators, look on slavery as a creation of the states and something only the several states could rightfully address. Polk's annexation of Texas, however, is an example of direct action by the Central Government to promote slavery in the West.
Texans themselves soon decided annexation had been a mistake and seceded from the Union. Much better to have let them keep their independence in the first place. And as for the Californians, they can't secede too soon to suit me.
7. Andrew Jackson.
Jackson is something of a hero in the eyes of many minarchist libertarians and free-marketeers because of his opposition to central banking and his reputation as a devotee of laissez-faire. However, I think the folks responsible for the Hall of Presidents at Disney World are more in tune with the essence of Old Hickory. (I use the present tense, assuming that the designers and maintainers of that horrifying exhibit have not become hard-edged libertarian revolutionaries since my visit 15 years ago.) The presidents are incarnated (or inplasticated, at least) in the form of animatrons, and those selected by the Disney authorities as hero-presidents each deliver a little spiel about the wonders of their respective regimes. Almost without exception, those spiels center on the state-building, including the unjust warmaking, performed by the statesgod in question.
When it comes the turn of the Jackson robot, the audience is treated to Jackson's belligerent, ineffably self-righteous threat to hang any South Carolinians who dared nullify the edicts of the Washington Congress. I think the Disneyites, in their perverse way, actually hit upon Jackson's principal contribution to our political history: he was above all a defender of the Union and its power.
Without understanding that, we're doomed to be mystified how a man reputed to be a defender of laissez-faire could possibly go out of his way to enforce something called the Tariff of Abominations. It's not that I ever expected Jackson himself to become nullifier-in-chief to stand up and boast about breaking his presidential oath to enforce all the laws but as we all know from recent example if not from the study of history, laws can be enforced, and on the other hand they can be "enforced."
After the first phase of the nullification crisis, Jackson did prevail upon Congress to lower the tariff, but at the same time, Congress passed a Force Act permitting the president to deploy Central Government troops to enforce Central laws in recalcitrant states. South Carolina duly nullified the Force Act, and it soon became clear to anyone who still had any doubts that, for Jackson, the question of the hour had less to do with the tariff, as such, than with consolidating power in Washington. (Jackson was never a principled opponent of a protective tariff anyway.)
Let us recall the "battle of the toasts" at the Jefferson Day banquet in 1830. Jackson offered, "Our federal union, it must be preserved." Whereupon South Carolina's John C. Calhoun, his bête noire, countered with, "The union, next to our liberty most dear." Seen in that light, Jackson comes into focus as a finder of the path and maker of the way for a man who will appear much further down on my list and who also had certain differences of opinion with South Carolina.
There were other things about Jackson that were just bad wrong, to resort to the colloquial, and prominent among them was the old Indian-killer's cheerful presiding over the forced resettlement of peaceful Indians from Georgia to the Western wilderness and the expropriation of their towns and houses and farms. In fairness, that Hitlerite-Stalinist crime was initiated not by Jackson himself but by the state of Georgia, but it contravened a treaty between the Central Government and the Indians. Even the strictest of constructionists might allow for some reaction from Washington City in such a case, but Jackson, so eager to hang South Carolinians, didn't threaten to hang any Georgians. Quite the contrary: he was all for getting the Indians the hell out of the way, and devil take the hindmost. To be clear, as an opponent of state power I'm not going to insist that Jackson should have mobilized the forces of the Central Government to halt the Ausrottung of the Indians. It's just that his inconsistency with respect to the South Carolina and Georgia situations reveals what he really cared about, and it wasn't justice.
It's an old story, and Jackson did his bit to make it so in this country: hard, cunning, and violent men make free with their fists when doing so serves their ambitions, but when it would obstruct their ambitions, suddenly and mysteriously their hands are tied.
More chronicling of famous desperadoes next time.
February 4, 2001
© 2001 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.
To Part three of this series.
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