No matter what party partisans say, no American president is perfect -- to say the least. But when historians get around to ranking our greatest presidents, the top spots invariably go to the usual titans -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the Roosevelts, Teddy and Franklin. Ivan Eland, a senior fellow at The Independent Institute (independent.org) and an expert on defense issues, begs to differ with the standard consensus -- by about 180 degrees.
In his book "Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty," Eland doesn't rank our commanders in chief according to how many wars they won or how many new federal government social or regulatory agencies they fathered. He ranks them on how well they adhered to the principles of limited government as put down in the Constitution by our Founding Framers -- which is why obscure John Tyler is Eland's No. 1, under-appreciated Grover Cleveland is second, derided Warren Harding is sixth, ridiculed Jimmy Carter is eighth, revered Abe Lincoln is 29th, hallowed FDR is 31st, beloved Ronald Reagan is 34th and progressive icon Woodrow Wilson is dead last. I recently talked to Eland by phone from his home in Washington, D.C.
Q: Can you give us a quick, "elevator-ride" description of your book?
A: The reason it's called "Recarving Rushmore" is because I believe historians, political scientists and journalists evaluate presidential success based on the wrong factors. They often use charisma, whether the president was a bold activist, or whether he served in wartime or crisis, even if he had contributed to the crisis or didn't prevent it or made it worse. I try to evaluate presidents only on their policies. I try to block out all extraneous factors, whether you liked them or not or whatever, and just go on whether their policies promoted peace, prosperity and liberty and whether they stuck with the original intent of the Framers of the Constitution to limit executive power.
Q: Who would be the four presidents that you'd put on Mt. Rushmore?
A: They are very obscure presidents, and they're kind of boring, actually. But I go on the premise that the American people -- with their hard work, values, etc. -- are the people who really make the country and the government should stay out of their way. I picked presidents who were for limited government, a limited executive role and a restrained foreign policy as the Founders wanted -- and those would be John Tyler (1), Grover Cleveland (2), Martin Van Buren (3) and Rutherford B. Hayes (4). The general public probably hasn't heard of any of them.
Q: John Tyler -- a Whig -- was president from 1841 to 1845. What makes him No. 1?
A: He took over from William Henry Harrison, who only served a month. So he served almost four years. He was almost impeached by his own party because he stuck up for a limited government, a restrained foreign policy and a limited chief executive. As an example, in foreign policy he settled America's longest and most bloody Indian war, the Second Seminole War, and he did something that is unique in American history; he actually settled it to the Indians' advantage. He let some of them remain on the reservation, which is all they wanted to do because this reservation had been promised to them and they were being run off it. He also prevented a few other wars. Presidents rarely get credit for staying out of wars. They usually get credit for starting them, even if they are blatant aggression like the Mexican War to grab territory. So Tyler deserves a lot of credit.
Q: What was the methodology you used when you did your rankings -- for Ronald Reagan, for example?
A: I had a 60-point scale: 20 for peace, 20 for prosperity and 20 for liberty. Of course, you don't want to over-quantify the thing, because it is a value judgment in the end. As far as Reagan goes, he wasn't the small government president that his image made him out to be. I think that's the case of a lot of presidents -- their image somewhat deviates from reality. In Reagan's case (ranked 34) it was quite great. He was perceived as a macho guy in foreign policy, defeating the Soviet Union. He was also perceived as a small-government president, but of course he increased government spending as a percentage of GDP. This was something that I discovered in my research, which I never would have realized: the two presidents who reduced government spending as a percentage of GDP are Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and those are Democrats. Eisenhower did pretty well; he held it constant. But people like Reagan and,of course, George Bush increased the government as a portion of GDP. I think that's very important.
Q: Your politics obviously skewed your rankings.
A: I make that explicit in the introduction. Most of the rankings that you'll get on Presidents Day include all these historians, but of course they all have political biases as well, but they're never stated. I state mine up front. I'm not partisan, because I found great and good presidents from both parties and really poor and bad presidents from both parties. I don't think I have a partisan bias, but I do have a bias toward limited government in all aspects of things and a restrained executive and a restrained foreign policy. I think that's the bias of the Founders. If the Founders were here today, they would be loosely and broadly libertarians.
Q: Who needs to read your book and get the message?
A: I think people from all political stripes should read this book. Peace, prosperity and liberty -- I think for liberals, conservatives, Green Party members, libertarians, those should be the goals that we're striving for and to stay within the Constitution ... It's very important to stay within the Constitution and stick up for peace, prosperity and liberty and that's what we want the government to do.
Ranking the presidents, according to Ivan Eland:
1. John Tyler Whig 1841 - 1845
2. Grover Cleveland Democrat 1885 - 1889 and 1893 - 1897
3. Martin Van Buren Democrat 1837 - 1841
4. Rutherford B. Hayes Republican 1877 - 1881
5. Chester A. Arthur Republican 1881 - 1885
6. Warren G. Harding Republican 1921 - 1923
7. George Washington Federalist 1789 - 1797
8. Jimmy Carter Democrat 1977 - 1981
9. Dwight D. Eisenhower Republican 1953 - 1961
10. Calvin Coolidge Republican 1923 - 1929
11. William J. Clinton Democrat 1993 - 2001
12. John Quincy Adams Democrat 1825 - 1829
13. Zachary Taylor Whig 1849 - 1850
14. Millard Fillmore Whig 1850 - 1853
15. Benjamin Harrison Republican 1889 - 1893
16. Gerald R. Ford Republican 1974 - 1977
17. Andrew Johnson Democrat 1865 - 1869
18. Herbert Hoover Republican 1929 - 1933
19. Ulysses S. Grant Republican 1869 - 1877
20. William Taft Republican 1909 - 1913
21. Theodore Roosevelt Republican 1901 - 1909
22. John Adams Federalist 1797 - 1801
23. James Buchanan Democrat 1857 - 1861
24. Franklin Pierce Democrat 1853 - 1857
25. James Monroe Democrat 1817 - 1825
26. Thomas Jefferson Democrat 1801 - 1809
27. Andrew Jackson Democrat 1829 - 1837
28. James Madison Democrat 1809 - 1817
29. Abraham Lincoln Republican 1861 - 1865
30. Richard M. Nixon Republican 1969 - 1974
31. Franklin D. Roosevelt Democrat 1933 - 1945
32. Lyndon B. Johnson Democrat 1963 - 1969
33. George H. W. Bush Republican 1989 - 1993
34. Ronald Reagan Republican 1981 - 1989
35. John F. Kennedy Democrat 1961 - 1963
36. George W. Bush Republican 2001 - 2009
37. James K. Polk Democrat 1845 - 1849
38. William McKinley Republican 1897 - 1901
39. Harry S. Truman Democrat 1945 - 1953
40. Woodrow Wilson Democrat 1913 - 1921
Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.