President John F. Kennedy once said, “There is no experience you can get that can possibly prepare you adequately for the presidency.”
Kennedy was right in that there is no job in the world more difficult and demanding than the presidency, and there is no “how-to” guide for being a success. As powerful as the office of the presidency is, it nevertheless has its limitations. Some presidents were sunk by the circumstances of their times, some became great because of their circumstances, and a few even rose to the challenge of their time and placed America and the world on a path of their choosing.
Although Americans love to trash their most hated presidents, this list is dedicated to appreciating the men who very capably served as president, but have been criticized or under-appreciated by both historians and modern Americans. Each man on this list has warts and flaws, but all strengthened and improved his country in at least one key way.
1.) Warren G. Harding
All Warren G. Harding wanted to do as president was to return the United States to a state of “normalcy”. Harding was a newspaper man from Ohio who had served as the state’s Lieutenant Governor and Senator before being selected as a compromise candidate by the Republican Party in 1920 and defeating Democratic challenger James Cox in the presidential election.
Before being nominated to run for president, Harding asked his friend Harry Daugherty, “Am I a big enough man for the race?” Daugherty said,” Don’t make me laugh. The days of giants in the presidential chair is passed. Our so-called Great Presidents were all made by the conditions of war under which they administered the office. Greatness in the president is largely an illusion of the people.”
The thought of being president terrified Harding, nonetheless, he surrounded himself with a number of truly great cabinet members, Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes, Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and perhaps one of America’s greatest Treasury Secretaries, Andrew Mellon, as well a few of his Ohio political cronies, like Harry Daugherty. The latter would end up sinking Harding’s reputation for good by linking him to the unseemly but somewhat overblown Teapot Dome scandal in which a few members of Harding’s administration were bribed to sell land cheaply to oil companies. Some of those men went to jail, but Harding was never personally involved in the scandal.
Harding inherited a catastrophically bad economy from Woodrow Wilson and the country was locked in a recession when he entered office. However, Harding turned the economy around by introducing an economic program opposite of President Obama’s. Harding’s economic policy was essentially one of public sector austerity. He reduced taxes, dramatically cut government spending and ended many regulations, dropping unemployment to just under two percent by 1926. In addition, he dramatically reduced the federal government’s debt. These policies jump-started what became known as the Roaring Twenties, during which the country experienced almost a decade of incredible economic growth.
Harding did not just return the country to “normalcy” he unleashed its incredible economic potential. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, has been revived by Ronald Reagan and modern conservatives as one of America’s great, successful presidents, but it’s time that Harding gets some credit too.
2.) James K. Polk
“Who is James K. Polk?” That was the slogan his Whig Party opponents ran on during the 1844 campaign. Polk, a Democrat who was closely associated with the policies of President Andrew Jackson, was even given the nickname “Young Hickory” because of his striking similarity to the former President. A Tennessean who served as the Speaker of the House during Jackson’s presidency, Polk had a solid but unspectacular career before he was chosen to lead the Democratic presidential ticket at the 1844 convention.
Polk would have the last laugh in the 1844 presidential election as his two strongest opponents, Henry Clay of the Whig Party and former Democratic President Martin Van Buren aligned themselves against Texas annexation. Along with most Americans, Polk supported Texas annexation, a stance that won him the election.
Because his predecessor, President John Tyler, had annexed Texas just before Polk’s entry into office, and because of Polk’s insistence that the boundary between Mexico and the United States be at the Rio Grande River, war between the two countries was practically inevitable. The Mexican-American War had the highest casualty rate of any American war compared to how many served, but it remained, for the most part, a smashing success. The United States acquired parts of modern-day Texas, Kansas, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and California. It was a massive increase in territory and nearly completed America’s “Manifest Destiny,” which Polk spoke of in his inaugural address.
The Texas annexation and the war would open up a debate over the extension of slavery that would eventually rip apart the Democratic Party and the nation less than twenty years later. Nevertheless, Polk really did “extend the area of freedom,” as Andrew Jackson would say. Besides the territorial acquisition from Mexico, Polk established an independent treasury, which remained the United States national banking policy until the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913. He also reduced tariffs and negotiated a peaceful settlement over Oregon territory with Great Britain.
Polk was America’s only successful one-term president that wasn’t assassinated, staying true to his 1844 campaign vow to never run again. Polk kept his promise, a rare feat for politicians of any era.
3.) Thomas Jefferson
Although Thomas Jefferson is almost universally seen as a great Founding Father and is rightly praised for writing the Declaration of Independence, few point to his presidency as a shining example of success beyond the Louisiana Purchase, which basically doubled the size of U.S. territory at a reasonable cost.
Jefferson only mentioned being the founder of the University of Virginia, the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom on his tombstone, but he did indeed have an incredibly important presidency. His first term was filled with more success than almost any other American president.
On top of the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson achieved a huge number of successes in his first term. Except for tariffs, all federal taxes were eliminated and the government was generally more decentralized than it was during the Federalist-dominated eras of George Washington and John Adams. Even more incredible is that even with this elimination of all direct federal taxes, the federal debt was placed on a clear path to extinction. This would bear fruit during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, when the debt was literally gone in 1836. It was the only time in history that a major world power actually eliminated its debt and it was a consequence of the small-government policy of the Jeffersonians.
Unfortunately, in his zeal to cut costs, Jefferson cut much of the budget for the military, which was the primary expense of the government at that time. This decision would come back to haunt Jefferson and his followers in his second term, but in the meantime it both saved a lot of money and was popular with his supporters.
On top of the spectacular successes in domestic policy, Jefferson also conducted a successful, interventionist war against the Tripolitan pirates of the Barbary Coast. Using the frigates that were built by the previous administrations and originally opposed by both Jefferson and his followers, Jefferson stopped the pirates from raiding U.S. shipping.
Jefferson deftly gained power over Congressmen in the years leading up to his election through the power of his ideas and his personality. Congress did his bidding without coercion, which was an incredible political feat. Jefferson was a master statesman and politician, and practically stomped the Federalist Party out of existence. Jefferson’s first inaugural address in which he said, “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists,” is often seen as a speech of healing and bipartisanship, but it really signaled his near complete victory of his Federalist opponents who never really managed a serious challenge for the presidency ever again.
Jefferson’s second term was almost ruinous. His administration placed numerous embargoes on France, Britain and Europe to try to stop the fighting in the Napoleonic wars and assault on American ships, to no avail. The military also ended up being ill-prepared for the war of 1812 because Jefferson had cut off funding.
Jefferson’s presidency ended in failure, but the success of his first term was equal to any president of any time. Few presidents have ever been able to reverse the growth in the size of government and so ably held together their followers; Jefferson deserves more recognition as a president and statesman than he usually garners.
4.) William McKinley
The “Idol from Ohio” could barely be picked out of a lineup by most Americans, and had the unfortunate fate of being overshadowed by the incredible charisma of his vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt. However, William McKinley may be properly understood as the first “modern president” and had enormous success in both domestic and foreign affairs.
McKinley’s economic policies were typical for Republicans of his era. He supported hard money, was pro-business, was willing to crack down on labor unions that threatened the public good and supported high tariffs. He had to call out federal troops to keep order when coal miners were striking in Idaho, and passed the Erdman Act of 1898, which created a mechanism of solving wage disputes between workers and management.
McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act in 1900, which stabilized the U.S. economy. He also came to believe, later in life, that tariff policies like the ones he supported when he was in Congress partially caused severe economic downturn in 1893. McKinley was really the first Republican president that started to change his position on the tariff issue. On the last day of his presidency, before he was killed by an anarchist at the Pan-Am Exposition in Buffalo, New York, he came out in support of free-trade policies.
The importance of having a strong navy to protect sea lanes and American interests abroad was certainly not lost on McKinley. McKinley worked closely with his Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, in his first term to modernize and make the navy an effective, world-class fighting force. This would pay major dividends for the McKinley administration and American foreign policy. McKinley successfully conducted a number of short wars—the Spanish American War, the Boxer Rebellion and the Philippine Insurrection—and brought a large number of island territories under the jurisdiction of the United States, including the future state of Hawaii. He was an effective war leader and used the new forms of communication, like the telegraph, to conduct them.
McKinley brought America into the 20th century as a world power and should be recognized for it.
5.) Ulysses S. Grant
It is clear from the other example on this “most underrated” list that scandals in an administration can bring down a president’s reputation, even if the president is not directly involved. This is exactly what happened what happened to Ulysses S. Grant, as his administration was absolutely wracked with one major scandal after another, most prominently the Whiskey Ring scandal.
While the scandals reflected poorly on Grant’s administration as a whole, his policies and national leadership skills were quite strong, and after two terms in office another Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, was able to wiggle into office.
Grant did a good job of maintaining order in the South and took strong measures to stem the violence. He passed the Ku Klux Klan Act which did a great job of breaking up the power of the organization and curtailing its influence.
A major victory for the Grant administration lay in his ability to get concessions from the British government to pay for the damages caused by the ships they sold to the Confederacy during the Civil War. This represented a major shift in U.S.-British relations and demonstrated that America could finally stand on nearly equal footing with the British, at least in the Western hemisphere.
Although Grant will probably never be recognized as a truly great president he certainly did enough to be more well thought of than presidential failures like James Buchanan and Jimmy Carter.
Each one of these five men had flaws and significant failures during their time as president, nevertheless, each contributed to making the United States a greater country. While none crack into the top tier of presidential greatness, all deserve to have their records examined and their reputations revived.