Adam Weishaupt illuminating a boat

Presidential Rankings #22: George Washington

I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government

The Father of His Country, George Washington was, of course, the first president of the United States (under the Constitution, at least), and his words and deeds would have an outsized effect on American history, for good or for ill. As such, it is unfortunate that the general was so thoroughly under the sway of Alexander Hamilton, that tireless enemy of liberty and solvency. Many of the presidential traditions that have been passed down through the years originated with George Washington, from the annual "State of the Union" address to the two-term limit (violated only once, by the megalomaniacal Franklin Roosevelt) to, sadly, the use of military power to collect taxes. It is there that we begin our analysis.

At the dawn of 1791, at the suggestion of then-treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton, the Washington administration asked for (and received) the first excise tax in American history: a tax on domestically-produced spirits. Hamilton viewed this as a win-win proposition; it would bring in money for the federal government (which still owed tens of millions of dollars to creditors who helped finance the Revolutionary War), while, as a "sin tax," would discourage people from consuming spirits. In traditional Hamiltonian fashion, of course, the tax was designed such that it benefited large, entrenched interests at the expense of everybody else, since the tax was assessed by the gallon or as one large flat fee. The largest producers of spirits, obviously, would pay the flat fee, which pushed their per-gallon tax burden far below that borne by the smaller producers, thus artificially strengthening the large firms’ ability to compete on the market. Worse still, for many people living on the American frontier, whiskey wasn’t just a recreation; Spanish silver (the widely-accepted coin of the realm) didn’t often make its way out far from the urban northeast, and whiskey, due to its comparatively long life, ease of divisibility, and ubiquity became the de facto currency. A tax on whiskey, therefore, wasn’t just a "sin tax" that would discourage people from behaving in ways the eastern elite didn’t approve of; rather, it was a tax on every facet of daily life. Americans responded to this tax the same way they responded to the onerous excise taxes imposed by the British in the days leading up to the revolution: they ignored it.


Nasty, big, pointy teeth!

Presidential Rankings #23: Jimmy Carter

We cannot resort to simplistic or extreme solutions which substitute myths for common sense.

Whatever else one has to say about the presidency of James Earl Carter Jr., one must admit that he was not a warmonger. A technocrat, yes; a utopian socialist, probably; a warmonger, no. The Carter presidency brought the United States as close as it has been to peace since the days of Herbert Hoover; sadly, with the cold war still raging and the Iranian people overthrowing the American puppet Shah, president Carter would find himself dragged into foreign entanglements all the same. Still and all, it was something close to peace, and that’s not nothing.

President Carter had the good fortune to be the first president since World War II not to inherit any military boondoggles in the far east. This was, in fact, part of the reason he won the election of 1976; as a relative unknown with no nationwide name recognition, he was at a steep disadvantage running against a sitting president during the bicentennial. However, the Carter campaign nimbly took advantage of president Ford’s two main areas of weakness: Watergate and Vietnam. As an outsider, Carter sold himself to the American people as a "reform" candidate who wasn’t enmeshed in any of the national political scandals, as against president Ford, who was still suffering from issuing the Nixon pardon two years prior. He was also able to tar Ford with the eventual final disgrace in Vietnam. In other words: Jimmy Carter ran on a "hope and change" ticket, spinning his inexperience and remoteness as a positive.


Lt. Commander Data

Presidential Rankings #24: Andrew Jackson

I know what I am fit for. I can command a body of men in a rough way, but I am not fit to be President.

Martin Van Buren had a plan. The year was 1824, and Van Buren was disgusted by the corruption that had soaked through the Republican party. The Federalist party had long since ceased to be, and politics in the United States had become a one-party game; as such, with no competition to keep it in check, that one party became a magnet for every type of disreputable political behavior. Having soundly defeated Hamilton’s Federalists, the Republicans then went on to become what they beheld, adopting all the old Hamiltonian policies they had once stood against: protectionist tariffs, internal improvement spending, foreign adventurism, ballooning central government, and even that most hated of institutions, the central bank. Aided and abetted by a life-tenured federal judiciary that had long been usurping powers never given to it by the Constitution, it seemed as though the permanent enshrinement of the Hamiltonian system was a foregone conclusion.

But Martin Van Buren had a plan. If there existed no opposition party to oppose the slide into tyranny and corruption, he would create one. Having long been possessed by that quintessentially American spirit of fundamental — if somewhat inchoate — distrust of centralized political power, he traveled to Monticello to meet with the man who he believed, more than anyone else, was capable of helping him refine his ideas into a viable political platform: Thomas Jefferson. Van Buren emerged from that meeting energized, and, ever more convinced that the vestiges of the Federalist party were rapidly dominating the Republicans, assured the former president that

you are not sensible my dear Sir, of half the respect, the reverence, & warm affection, entertained for you by all the old and uncorrupted Republicans. and notwithstanding the late rewards for apostasy, you may rest assured, that the number of those is yet larger Sufficiently So, I hope, to rescue their cause from ruin & their country from misrule.


Jay Ward, creator of Rocky & Bullwinkle

Presidential Rankings #25: William Howard Taft

Enthusiasm for a cause sometimes warps judgment.

In the popular recollection, the Progressive Era is dominated by the madness of Theodore Roosevelt and the evil of Woodrow Wilson. Stuck in between them is the forgotten progressive, William Howard Taft — Roosevelt’s protégé, though later disowned. Taft is often regarded as a more conservative interlude in between two bastions of progressivism, but nothing could be farther from the truth; in reality, Taft was, in many ways, far more progressive than either of his better-known contemporaries; he was more aggressive about regulation and trust-busting, for example, and far more willing to meddle in the affairs of foreign countries to serve American interests. Taft was, however, not a warmonger — this may seem odd, considering that Taft was not only Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor but also his Secretary of War, but he alone among the progressives truly appeared to desire peace.


President William Denali

Presidential Rankings #26: William McKinley

The mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation.

The War to Prevent Southern Independence was a horrible, senseless waste of capital and human life. There were, in fact, only two unequivocally good things to come out of the war. The first, and most obvious, was the abolition of slavery — while it was certainly not the purpose of the war, and while no war was necessary to achieve it, the end of slavery was nonetheless a consequence of the war, and was of course an unalloyed good in and of itself. The other beneficial consequence of the war is that it took the United States off the path of empire it had been treading for fifteen years; the people were so busy with the attempt to rebuild a devastated and depopulated nation, and the would-be tyrants so busy attempting to establish and support the military junta assigned to rule over the conquered Confederate States, that scarcely a thought was given to foreign conquest, and, in the postbellum years, America no longer went abroad in search of monsters to destroy. All of this changed on 15 February 1898, when the USS Maine sank into Havana Harbor.