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Recently by Gail Jarvis: Waiting for Govdough

The segment "Jaywalking" is a popular feature of the Jay Leno show. Mr. Leno asks people on the street incredibly easy questions, many about American history. Although their lack of knowledge is astonishing; for instance, one adult respondent named Benjamin Franklin as our first president, you can’t help but laugh. However, it’s not so funny when you realize that quite a few of these people have formal educations; while others are even teachers and professors. So it seems that outside of the knowledge required to perform their given jobs, many are woefully uninformed. Are these "people on the street" that Leno interviews an anomaly? Or do they represent a microcosm of a larger portion of our society?

My opinion is that they are indeed representative of a sizable segment of the American public; a segment appallingly uninformed regarding American history. In addition to being uninformed, I maintain that many are also misinformed as a result of having been schooled by the new generation of educators, educators influenced by cultural changes since the 1960s. Sadly, impressions made by teachers and college professors linger for some time after students leave college and continue to affect their perceptions of political issues as well as voting preferences.

The mindset of many of today’s professors is revealed by a recent "best and worst" poll. These polls are more than a little subjective, whether they rank movies, cities, countries, or other subjects. This particular poll was based on responses from college professors and it ranked American presidents from the best to the worst. Of course, presidential polls have been around for years but rankings change as political ideologies change and this poll is no exception.

The Siena Research Institute recently asked 238 professors to rank our presidents according to predetermined categories. The Siena poll was released on July 1st and many, including myself, found the selections a little baffling. We were especially baffled by their ranking of Barack Obama as our fifteenth best president, even though he had been in office less than 18 months. Apparently his inclusion is what prompted one observer to use the term "premature" in describing the poll.

("Premature" also describes the Nobel Committee’s choice of Obama for its peace prize after he had been president for only twelve days. Prior to the selection of Obama, only two American presidents had been awarded the prize — Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter. Although their peace-making efforts were not overly successful, and certainly not long lasting, these men did work toward their goals for more than 12 days, providing the Nobel Committee with at least something to base its judgment on.)

Of course, Obama’s inclusion is not the only problem with the Siena presidential poll. Because the selections are heavily influenced by modern-day liberal values, some former presidents didn’t fare as well as they might have. But should presidents in prior generations be judged by political opinions currently in fashion? Shouldn’t more weight be given to the circumstances and attitudes existing during their time in office, especially those who served over a century ago?

I think you can sense the influence contemporary attitudes had on poll results by looking at our nation’s fifteen best presidents as selected by these "scholars":

  • Franklin Roosevelt
  • Theodore Roosevelt
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • George Washington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • James Madison
  • James Monroe
  • Woodrow Wilson
  • Harry Truman
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • John Kennedy
  • James Polk
  • Bill Clinton
  • Andrew Jackson
  • Barack Obama

Naturally the poll has been criticized, prompting those on the left to come to its defense. One annoyed blogger stated: "The right-wing media has, of course, already begun deriding the list because it was decided upon by a group of liberal, elitist professors — in other words, scholars who have actually done some research on the subject of presidents." Other scholars, those without liberal credentials, have also done some research on the subject of presidents. And their research would result in quite a different ranking.

As for the reasons the professors made the selections they did, I could find only one brief comment from Dr. Douglas Lonnstrom, Founding Director of the Siena Research Institute. As justification for the selection of Franklin Roosevelt as America’s best president, Professor Lonnstrom claims: "He got America out of a depression and a war."

I am surprised that any serious scholar would claim that Roosevelt ended the depression. Many economists would argue that Roosevelt’s policies actually made economic conditions worse and that the depression would have ended sooner without his meddling. One school of economists maintains that it took the manufacturing build-up for World War Two to end the depression. Another school makes the persuasive argument that the economy didn’t rebound until Roosevelt’s death allowed the cutback of some of the government’s massive interferences with market forces. A gradual recovery then began as entrepreneurs and investors regained confidence in the market place.

Of course, Roosevelt was our Commander in Chief during most of World War Two and when he died on April 12, 1945, an Allied victory was close at hand. (The official date given for the end of the war is September 2nd.) Roosevelt probably did what he thought best for the war effort. But Professor Lonnstrom seems to imply that Roosevelt accomplished things that some of our other presidents might not have been able to accomplish under the same circumstances. This is a questionable assumption.

Although this Siena poll did include Washington, Jefferson and Madison among the top fifteen best presidents, I suspect that their rankings will sink lower in future polls. As our nation continues its move toward the left of the political spectrum, concepts of the Founding Fathers, which are already being neglected, will be even further ignored. Indeed there is a strong feeling among progressives that the process of legally amending the constitution is too cumbersome and time-consuming. Instead they advocate what they call a "living constitution" — a flexible constitution that allows for hassle-free expedited interpretations that bolster whatever political agenda is currently in vogue.

If rankings were based solely on whose administration did the most long-term good or the most long-term harm to our country, I would place Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln near the bottom. But if we move to the bottom of the Siena list and see the five worst presidents as picked by the professors, we will find the usual suspects:

39. George W. Bush

40. Franklin Pierce

41. Warren Harding

42. James Buchanan

43. Andrew Johnson

(The list includes only 43 rankings instead of 44 because Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms.)

It is fashionable nowadays to disparage Andrew Johnson, primarily because of his opposition to the Reconstruction of defeated Southern states after the Civil War. Today’s up-to-date versions of Reconstruction portray it in a positive light that "corrects" the previously held negative versions of that dubious social experiment. As a result of public indoctrination since the 1960s, many Americans no longer question the federal government’s right to alter the internal affairs not only of states but schools, privately owned companies, indeed, any organization. But in Johnson’s time the idea of a federal government that could rework the structure and functioning of an individual state had not yet come to fruition.

Like his deceased predecessor Lincoln, Johnson also took a lenient approach to the readmission of seceded Southern states back into the Union. All he required was that they repeal secession ordinances, take a loyalty oath and abolish slavery. But the Radical Republicans in Congress wanted not only to reconstruct the South but to punish it. Johnson courageously held firm against their pressure. The Radical Republicans became so frustrated that they tried to remove him from office. Luckily they failed.

I suspect that one of the reasons for professors ranking Franklin Pierce’s presidency so low is that he signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This Act allowed newly formed states in the Western territories seeking admission to the Union to decide for themselves whether or not they would allow slavery. Anti-slavery forces wanted the federal government to impose an outright ban on slavery in the territories. But at that time, our country was still a voluntary union of states who could determine their own fate. Franklin Pierce was a firm believer in states’ rights, as were many of his contemporary New Englanders.

The currently sanctioned version of this historic episode claims that the South wanted to expand slavery into the territories, while the North wanted to prohibit it. Consequently this Act created a serious conflict in Kansas that resulted in violent clashes between the two factions, and a vast number of lives were lost. This local conflict escalated into a national conflict that became one of the leading causes of the Civil War.

A more impassive appraisal of events will reveal that Southerners who migrated to the Western territories were, like their Northern counterparts, simply seeking a better livelihood, and choosing to escape the diminishing opportunities in the East. In the so-called Kansas bloodbath, less than 60 lives were lost. Persons who died were killed primarily by border ruffians, including the infamous fanatic John Brown. Those who migrated from North and South to Kansas actually cooperated with one another, coordinated their efforts and in a few years they were able to seek admission to the Union as a free state rather than a slave state.

By signing the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Franklin Pierce made the kind of political and pragmatic decision that many presidents have had to make. Our generation should not find fault with his decision.

I cannot end this commentary without a sympathetic mention of that most maligned of presidents, Warren Harding. His administration is usually described as scandal-ridden but it wasn’t nearly as scandalous as other administrations, especially that of Ulysses S. Grant whom the professors ranked much higher than Harding. I suspect that Harding ranks low in the Siena poll because it favors presidents who imposed radical changes on our society. But coerced governmental changes have always been plagued with problems, especially unintended consequences that are often detrimental. Although Warren Harding did accomplish many things during his administration, he was wise enough to know when laissez-faire was needed: when government should stand aside and let Adam Smith’s "invisible hand" do its work.

Mr. Harding is also criticized for keeping the United States out of the League of Nations. But looking back on the League and its successor, the United Nations, after all these years, Harding’s decision seems well justified

Although I obviously disagree with this presidential poll, I’m not overly concerned about it. It’ll soon be replaced by yet another poll that will revise its rankings. But I am concerned about what the poll’s participating professors might be teaching their students. The presidents with high rankings are obviously the ones the professors admire, those presidents who are noted for expanding the role of the federal government. We can rightly assume that the professors are presenting their students with a version of American history that disparages limited government and promotes an all-powerful central government.

Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.

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