24 William Howard Taft

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here:https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

William Howard Taft’s biggest failing as president was his complete lack of political skill. He wasn’t a self promoter like his mentor, Teddy Roosevelt, instead he preferred to quietly do the job given him, hoping someone higher up would notice, and promote him into the next position. This worked well for Taft, as he went from one position to another in government until Roosevelt got him nominated as his successor. Taft easily defeated Bryan, in Bryan’s third loss in a Presidential election.

Taft was elected largely to carry out Roosevelt’s programs, and contrary to popular belief, this he did. In four years, Taft withdrew nearly as many acres of land for conservation as Roosevelt did. He also prosecuted twice as many anti-trust lawsuits as Roosevelt. Unlike Roosevelt, however, Taft’s prosecutions were based on the law, whereas Roosevelt cherry picked his suits, prosecuting cases for what he saw as “the greater good”.

In fact, the two biggest differences between Taft & Roosevelt were style and constitutionality. Taft was far more soft spoken and subdued, whereas Teddy was more confrontational & flamboyant. Roosevelt’s outspoken style contributed to the Panics of 1903 & 1907, Taft’s more even tempered tone didn’t frighten business, which led to a far better economy under Taft. The other difference is that Taft was a constitutional President, that was careful not to overstep his bounds. Roosevelt felt  justified in doing anything that was for “the greater good” regardless of how unconstitutional the action was.

Taft got passage of the Mann-Elkins Act, a dubious law that empowered the Interstate Commerce Commission to suspend railroad rate hikes and to set rates. The act also expanded the ICC’s jurisdiction to cover telephones, telegraphs, and radio. Government price fixing, no matter how noble the cause, is never justified, and compounds problems down the road. This law, however, is the type of Act that Teddy Roosevelt would have gladly signed and touted as a major accomplishment.

Taft also proposed the 16th Amendment, which legalized the federal income tax. An income tax not only punishes success, it requires citizens to allow the federal government to investigate their entire financial history. One could argue that such a law goes against the ideals of the fourth Amendments restrictions against unreasonable searches and seizures without just cause. The IRS can audit any citizen at anytime on its own authority.

One area where Taft was willing to take action, where Roosevelt dared not go, was tariff reform. Nearly every president before Roosevelt passed new tariff laws, but the “bull-moose” definitely lacked the courage to touch such a hot button issue. Taft asked for reduced tariffs, and congress sent him a law that reduced them modestly in the Payne-Aldrich Act. This law was reviled by both high-tariff and low-tariff supporters, striking a balance in the middle. Considering that the special interest groups on both sides hated it, it was probably a pretty good law. Historians, who tend to take a low tariff bias, hate the law as well, and deride Taft for the laws passage.

Dollar Diplomacy was Taft’s foreign policy. Rather than sending American troops into other countries, especially in Latin America, to keep other countries from invading by a third party country, as was the policy of Roosevelt, Taft decided to use American dollars as a way of promoting US interests abroad. The failing of such a policy is that it entangles the United States into the affairs of countries all over the world. It was a much better idea than taking over nations “for their own good” as Teddy Roosevelt & Wilson did, but it still left an obligation for the US to protect its investments.

Taft’s downfall in the presidency was also the very thing that gave it to him in the first place, Teddy Roosevelt. After coming home from touring Africa & Europe, Roosevelt obviously became bored of retirement and got the itch to become president again. Had he quietly supported Taft, and simply asked to take over again in 1912, Taft would have most likely obliged, as Taft disliked the presidency. The problem with such a scenario is that Roosevelt loved the lime-light and prestige of the Presidency, and probably couldn’t understand how anyone else couldn’t love it as well. Wanting to regain power again, Roosevelt decided to seize upon an incident where Taft had acted in the only proper way he could, when Gifford Pinchot for insubordination in 1910. Roosevelt used this incident as an excuse start attacking Taft, and to run against for the Republican nomination in 1912. When Roosevelt lost the nomination, he stormed out of the convention and created a third party, ensuring the election of Woodrow Wilson.

All in all, Taft wasn’t a bad president, he just wasn’t cut out for the office. He completely lacked the political skill one needs to be president, and had a mentality that was far better suited to being a Judge rather than a Chief Executive.

25 Zachary Taylor

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

Zachary Taylor was elected President due mainly to his service during the Mexican-American War, but Taylor also  served during the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, and the Second Seminole War. He died little more than 16 months in office.

Taylor surprised many people by being against the extension of slavery, and strongly pro-union, like Abraham Lincoln. Most of his presidency was spent dealing with the issue of what to do with the newly acquired territories from the Mexican-American War. Taylor wanted to allow the new Territories (California & New Mexico) to bypass the territorial phase of government, and immediately be admitted into the union as states. This would avoid the slavery question, and guarantee that they would enter the union as free states. This led some southern states to threaten secession and Texas to threaten it would take the eastern part of New Mexico. Taylor threatened to lead the army himself and to implement a plan that revolved around economic warfare, using blockades to strangle the south as a preferred method over military conquest.

During this time, longtime congressman Henry Clay came up with the Compromise of 1850 to settle all sides of the dispute. The compromise had 5 parts that would give all parties some of what they wanted, but not everything. It would immediately admit California as a free state, set up new Mexico & Utah as territories that would determine slavery when they applied for statehood. Settle the Texas-New Mexico border in New Mexico’s favor, but the US would absorb Texas’s debts. and it would replace the current fugitive slave law with a stronger one. Taylor was against the compromise and said if it passed he would veto it. His vice president Milliard Fillmore, however, favored the compromise. This has led several people to speculate that Taylor was poisoned to get the more agreeable Fillmore into office. Many scholars believe had Taylor survived, the civil war would have happened a decade earlier during his presidency. It’s hard to say whether a war in Taylors term would have been longer or shorter than the war Lincoln faced. It is true that the north grew stronger in those 10 years, but the south also had time to build up its government and defenses during the end of Buchanan’s presidency. It’s also possible Taylor would have had a smaller rebellion on his hands, due to the fact that Taylor was a southerner, so some states might have been less likely to leave the union.

During Taylors term the United States and Great Britain signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which stated that neither side would have exclusive control over a future canal built across Central America. The treaty was a major step in the foundation of our long-lasting alliance with the British.

Taylor also saw the forming of the Department of Interior during his term of office. This department manages federal lands, natural resources, territorial affairs and programs relating to native indigenous people just to name a few of it’s duties.

Had he served longer Taylor certainly had the ability and leadership skills to be a great president, but fate interceded, and Zachary Taylor didn’t live long enough to get his chance at greatness.

26 John Quincy Adams

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

John Quincy Adams usually ranks high in presidential scholars polls, but this is obviously due to things he did before and after his presidency, and not so much for what he did during his residency.

Adams became president in the hotly contested election of 1824. It was four way contest between Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford and Henry Clay. Although Jackson won the most electoral votes, he didn’t get the needed majority, so the election was decided in the house of representatives. By law, the winner would be chosen among the top three vote getters: Jackson, Adams & Crawford. Henry Clay, being the speaker of the house, and fourth finisher, had the power to sway the election. Crawford died before the house met to vote, leaving Clays choice between Adams and Jackson. Clay, seeing that Jackson wasn’t fit to be president, threw his support to Adams. Adams named Clay Secretary of State, leading to cries of a “corrupt bargain” from Jackson and his allies. I always thought the idea of a “corrupt bargain” never really made any sense. Look at Clay’s American plan and the plan Adams outlined at the beginning of his term, they are nearly identical. Not only that, Adams didn’t remove officeholders who were actively working against him. If he was willing to trade a major position to attain office (Secretary of State)wouldn’t he had removed political enemies from lesser offices? None the less, Jackson and his cohorts went about sabotaging Adams’ administration from day one.

In Adams’ First message to Congress asked for a broad program to be enacted. The main thrust of the program was a protective tariff and massive internal improvements including the building an extensive system of roads, canals, bridges, founding a national university & a naval Academy and building an astronomical observatory. The program also included the adding of a Department of Interior, to send representatives to Congress of America, a national bankruptcy law, and a more efficient patent law.

Opponents saw the proposed program as a power grab, as Adams was warned. It unified his opponents. Crawford’s followers, now led by Van Buren were strict constructionists and worried about bigger government. Calhoun’s camp were deathly opposed to tariffs & anything suggesting protection. Jackson’s camp considered the entire administration as illegitimate. Thus was born the Democratic party, an anti-Adams coalition led by Jackson.

Adams did have some successes during his administration. Under Adams the national debt was reduced from $16 million to $5 million. Some of his proposals were adopted, specifically the extension of the Cumberland Road into Ohio with surveys for its continuation west to St. Louis; the beginning of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the construction of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and the Louisville and Portland Canal around the falls of the Ohio; the connection of the Great Lakes to the Ohio River system in Ohio and Indiana; and the enlargement and rebuilding of the Dismal Swamp Canal in North Carolina. Adams also signed the Tariff of 1828, aka the Tariff of Abominations, which led to nullification crisis in South Carolina.

Whereas Adams wasn’t a bad president, he was an inept administrator, and was unwilling to remove people who were working directly against him. He was also tricked into signing the Tariff of Abominations, which severely hurt his reelection chances, as it was unpopular in the west and especially the south.

27 James Polk

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

If ever there was a president whom was ranked on the basis of “the ends justify the means” that president would be James Polk. He generally ranks highly for the land acquired from Mexico, with no second thought to how he went about gaining that territory.

Polk is also given credit for having four stated goals for his presidency, and then achieving the four goals. Polk never publicly stated these goals, and in fact, he recommended a number of measures to congress that were not adopted. The “four goals” myth came from Polk’s secretary of war, George Bancroft, forty-two years after Polk left office, when Bancroft was eighty-six years old. He wrote a letter to historian James Schouler, that Polk had came to him with “four great measures”. Considering Bancroft’s age, the passage of time and the fact that nobody else ever knew of the “four goals” until then, it is quite doubtful that the account is accurate. We will none-the-less focus on the “four goals” of Polk’s presidency.

The first goal Polk went after was the Oregon Territory, which spanned the area west of the continental divide between California and Alaska. The United States and Britain controlled the area jointly under the treaty of 1818. Polk wanted all the territory, which led to cries of 54-40 or fight, referring to the northern boundary of Oregon was the latitude line of 54 degrees, 40 minutes. Polk recklessly courted war with both Britain and Mexico at the same time in his attempt to grab the whole of Oregon. Had Britain been in the mood for a fight, the US would have found itself in a two front war against the strongest Navy in the world. Luckily for Polk Britain was willing to compromise, and set the boundary at 49 degrees, the boundary that was suggested, but not settled upon in negotiations of the Webster Ashburton treaty. Britain’s main contention against this line is that it intersects Vancouver Island, which an exception was made, so that all of Vancouver Island fell into British possession. The only area that the US got that Britain wanted was the area that makes up the state of Washington. Polk is generally given full credit for bringing this territory into the United States’ borders, but it was the Lewis & Clark expedition under Jefferson that gave claim to the land. This is also a case where Polk fell short of a goal, as he didn’t get all of Oregon territory, he only got roughly half.

As for California, Polk tried to buy it from Mexico, when Mexico refused to sell, he sent General Zachary Taylor into disputed territory to invoke an attack. This was several weeks before the Oregon boundary had been settled. Polk even created a letter to congress for war with Mexico before he sent his troops to the Rio Grande. Polk obviously had intended to push the US into war to gain California. Polk even took political considerations into his execution of the war. Wen Taylor was becoming too big of a hero, and a possible presidential candidate for 1848, Polk pulled troops from his army. Polk moved the troops to general Winfield Scott, whom finished off the military campaign. Polk even tried a rather underhanded and odd strategy to end the war. The United States also negotiated a secret arrangement with Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican general and dictator who had been overthrown in 1844. Santa Anna agreed that, if given safe passage into Mexico, he would attempt to persuade those in power to sell California and New Mexico to the United States. Once he reached Mexico, however, he reneged on his agreement, declared himself President, and tried to drive the American invaders back.

The Mexican-American War helped to lead directly to the American Civil War. Southerners wanted the new territories to include slavery, northerners wanted to prohibit further extension of slavery. Under the Missouri Compromise both sides had been kept happy, until the influx of new land in the southwest. Polk sided with his fellow slave owners, and wanted the Missouri Compromise line extended, which would have allowed slavery in Southern California, New Mexico & Arizona. The problem with Polk’s plan was the Wilmot Proviso, which would have banned slavery in any new territory acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso was introduced by Democratic Representative David Wilmot on August 8, 1846. Polk was unhappy with the proviso, and felt that Wilmot had stabbed him in the back by introducing the law.

The United States did win a large amount of territory from Mexico, but not as much as Polk is given credit for. The Republic of Texas actually contained all of Texas and the portion of New Mexico east of the Rio Grand River. In reality Polk added the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Most of Arizona and about a third of New Mexico. He’s generally given credit for far more. He also did so by starting a war of conquest against a weaker neighbor, something that isn’t looked upon admirably in foreign leaders by American historians, but is in Polk’s case.

The third goal was the re-instatement of the Independent Treasury. While Polk did achieve this goal, he was in fact just putting back in place the system that failed in the panic of 1837. The Independent treasury system also led to there being hundreds of different currencies within the United States, as each bank printed it’s own notes, that were convertible in gold, silver or US minted coins. The system led to instability, because if a bank failed, all of it’s currency became useless paper. The system needed to be overhauled during the civil war.

The fourth goal was tariff reform. While it is true Polk was able to get revised tariffs passed, most pre World War II presidents were able to get revised tariffs that they favored, so this really isn’t any type of accomplishment.

James Polk wasn’t a great, or even near great president. Whereas he did accomplish some of his goals, he did so at times in a reckless manner. He courted war with two countries at once, started a war of conquest against a weaker neighbor, and left the United States with it’s worst banking system. For these shortfalls, as well as the inability to see that the spoils of his war would stir up the slavery issue, I rank Polk as a poor president.

28 Jimmy Carter

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

Jimmy Carter entered the presidency as a Washington outsider, and in many ways this hindered his presidency. While being an outsider from Washington politics would certainly endear him to voters, it alienated him from congress. He also found delegating nearly impossible, and was quickly overwhelmed in the White House.

Carter tried to champion human rights in foreign policy, but this led to many poor decisions, as he didn’t take practical realities into account. The Mariel boatlift was a massive emigration of Cubans to the US where Carter allowed Cuba to empty it’s prisons into boats and send them to the United States. Fidel Castro publicly said “I have flushed the toilets of Cuba on the United States.” In Nicaragua, Carter withdrew support from Somoza regime leading to the rise of the communist Sandinista government. In Panama, He gave away the Panama Canal away one of the most strategic areas in the word to a dictator during the cold war.

In negotiations with China, Carter reiterated the Shanghai Communiqué’s acknowledgment of the Chinese position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. Carter also announced the withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel from Taiwan and the end to the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty signed with the Taiwan. Basically Carter gave away a sovereign free nation to a Communist one, while voiding a long standing treaty without getting proper permission from congress.

In 1977 Carter withdrew support for the Shah of Iran, which led to the overthrow of the government and the installation of the radical Islamic Ayatollahs. Iran had long been one of the “Twin Pillars” upon which US middle eastern policy had been built, Saudi Arabia was the other. This quickly led to the Iranian Hostage Crisis, in which 54 Americans were held hostage for 444 days. Carter did try operation eagle claw, a badly planned rescue attempt that inevitably failed.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Carter’s response was a rather weak one. He terminated soviet wheat deal which hurt American farmers. He prohibited American athletes from participating in the Olympics in Moscow. He re-instated the military draft, even though there was no war. Carter further withdrew SALT II treaty.

Carter mediated the Camp David Accords between Egypt & Israel, in which Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in return for peace with Egypt. In order to get a peace agreement passed, Carter bribed both countries with an indefinite payment of $1 billion each yearly.

Carter’s biggest downfall may have been the economy. Rising inflation, unemployment and energy prices combined to overwhelm the inexperienced president. The ever weakening economy and the situation in Iran, combined to make voters oust Carter from the White House.

29 Herbert Hoover

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

Herbert Hoover became president shortly before the October 1929 stock market crash. While many historians paint a picture of Hoover as a do nothing president who was a victim of rampant stock speculation and economic mismanagement during the Coolidge years, the truth is quite the opposite.

You might be asking then, if it wasn’t rampant speculation in the stock market, and economic mismanagement by Coolidge, then what caused the great depression?  It was bad monetary policy by the Federal Reserve and Herbert Hoover’s reaction to the initial economic downturn. The Fed started contracting the money supply in the spring of 1928 and continued until the stock market crash of October 1929. This was the exact opposite of what the Fed should have done at the time, as commodity prices were falling and there wasn’t a hint of inflation. The Fed decided to contract the money supply to reign in what it saw as “out of control market speculation”. further From 1929 until 1933, the fed contracted the money supply by 33%, coincidently (maybe not coincidently) 33% of banks failed.

Many historians have blamed over speculation in the stock market for causing the crash and the depression. Whereas it is true a speculative bubble existed, it wasn’t as big as many have suggested. Less than 1% of Americans owned stock at the time, as opposed to today, where over half the population owns stock in one way or another. How could less that 1% of people losing some or all of their wealth destroy the economy? It couldn’t, but greedy rich people always make a nice scape goat. If you look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) at the time, you can see the bubble wasn’t as big as has been stated. On December 31, 1928, the DJIA hit 300.00 for the first time, where it was at in June of 1929. On September 3, 1929 it was 381.17, the initial market crash bottomed out on November 13, 1929 at 198.60, but recovered to 294.07 on April 17, 1930, where it was on June of 1929. To recap, the speculative bubble started in July 1929, peaked in September, bottomed out in November and recovered by April. After the market crash in October of 1929, unemployment went up to 9%, but it dropped to 6.3% by June of 1930. So what happened? Herbert Hoover! If only he had acted as historians said he did, everything would have been fine. It should be noted that it wasn’t just the crash of October 1929 that did investors in, but the long, continuous decline that occurred from mid-1930 until the summer of 1932.

Herbert Hoover has been painted by historians as a laissez faire do nothing president. The problem is that Hoover did quite a lot to fix the economy, and with every move the country sank further and further in to the depression. Hoover rejected Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s suggested “leave-it-alone” approach, and eventually replaced him with the more activist Ogden Mills.

A month following the market crash Hoover summoned business leaders to implore them not to cut wages, believing that high wages were a way out of the depression. Hoover missed one important point, wages are a cost of doing business. During the depression prices were failing, so wages should have naturally fallen as well. Business honored Hoover’s request not to cut wages, and cut employees instead, leading to mass unemployment. Hoover also had several laws enacted that caused or worsened the depression.

Smoot Hawley tariff 1930 – On June 17th 1930, Hoover got the Smoot Hawley tariff passed, which touched off a trade war against the US. This was done at a time when the US was actually exporting more goods than it imported, meaning the US the needed exports to sustain it’s economy. A petition was signed by 1,028 economists in the U.S. asking President Hoover to veto the legislation. Threats of retaliation began long before the bill was enacted into law in June 1930. U.S. imports decreased 66% from $4.4 billion (1929) to $1.5 billion (1933), and exports decreased 61% from $5.4 billion to $2.1 billion

The Federal Home Loan Bank Act of 1932 – created the heavily regulated savings & loan industry. Things worked fine here until inflation crept into the economy in the late 1960s thru the 1980s, causing an inevitable crisis.

Reconstruction Finance Corporation – The agency gave $2 billion in aid to state and local governments and made loans to banks, railroads, mortgage associations and other businesses

Emergency Relief and Construction Act – an amendment to the Reconstruction Finance Corporation Act which was signed on January 22, 1932. It created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation which released funds for public works projects across the country

The Agricultural Marketing Act of 1929 – created the Federal Farm Board to loan farmers money to hold their products off of the market to keep prices high. The Federal Farm Board’s purchase of surplus could not keep up with the production as farmers realized that they could just sell the government their crops, they re-implemented the use of fertilizers and other techniques to increase production.

Bacon-Davis Act – establishes the requirement for paying the local prevailing wages on public works projects for laborers and mechanics. (i.e., the above market-clearing union wage). The result of this move was to close out non-union labor, especially immigrants and non-whites, and drive up costs to taxpayers.

Norris–La Guardia Act – outlawed “yellow dog contracts” in which employees agree not to join a union as a condition of employment. It also prevents the federal courts from issuing injunctions in nonviolent labor disputes.

Revenue Act of 1932 – Major tax increase
Bottom rate from 1% to 4%
Top rate from  25% to 63%
Corporate taxes raised 15%
Inheritance tax was doubled
Check Tax – placed a 2 cent tax on every check equates to 34 cents today

lowered personal deductions from  $1,500 for single filers and $3,500 for married couples to $1,000 for single filers and $2,500 for married couples. Also levied Consumption taxes on lubricating oil, malt syrup, brewer’s wort, tires, toilet articles, furs, jewelry, automobiles, trucks, radio and phonograph equipment, refrigerators, sporting goods, cameras, firearms, matches, candy, chewing gum, soft drinks, electricity  & a Gas Tax.

The Check tax helped lead to bank runs as depositors took there money out of banks and decided to pay cash as a way of avoiding the tax.

During Hoover’s term spending went from $3.1 billion in 1929 to $4.8 billion in 1933, a 48% increase. Hoover also canceled private oil leases on government lands, which could have aided in economic recovery.

As can be easily seen, Hoover took what would have been a short sharp recession and turned it into the longest economic calamity in history through higher taxes, higher spending and increased governmental interference in the economy.

30 Franklin Pierce

This is a post in My Presidential Rankings series, linked here: https://sdu754.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/presidential-rankings/

Franklin Pierce started his presidency vowing to not reopen the slavery issue settled by the compromise of 1850, unfortunately he was unable to keep this promise. In 1854 Pierce was persuaded by Senator Stephen Douglas and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to go along with the Kansas Nebraska Act. Douglas was even prudent enough to get Pierce to submit a written draft stating his support of the law. Douglas favored the law, because he wanted a transcontinental railroad built with it’s eastern terminal in his home state of Illinois.

The Kansas Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing slavery in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36°30′ parallel. The Act ended up re-opening the slavery issue, which had been settled by the Missouri Compromise & The Compromise of 1850, and fractured the political parties along sectional lines. Bleeding Kansas was another outgrowth of the law, which erupted into actual violence and can be seen as a mini civil war of its own. Violence began in 1855, and ended in 1861 In all 56 people died in bleeding Kansas. The Kansas controversy also led to the rise of John Brown, whom only came to the territory to fight slavery. He eventually committed the  Pottawatomie Massacre, and later his raid on Harpers Ferry. By foolishly going along with Douglas and “popular sovereignty”, Pierce derailed his entire presidency, and became one of the few elected presidents unable to be re-nominated by his party.

Pierce was also an avid expansionists, and he cared not whether the new land would be slave or free territory. During his term he was able to acquire the Gadsen Purchase from Mexico for $10 million in 1853. He had also sought Baja California, but Mexico was unwilling to part with it. He made another bigger attempt with his planned purchase of Cuba from Spain in 1855. Under the  Ostend Manifesto Pierce offered to pay either $120 million of wrest control of Cuba outright. Had it not been for the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854, Pierce might have been able to pull off the acquisition, but after the laws passage, Pierce was seen as a tool of the slave interests.

One other positive of the Pierce Administration was his ability to pay the federal debt down from $60 Million to $11 million during his lone term. Had it not been for the massive error of going along with the Kansas Nebraska Act, Pierce would have been a halfway decent president.