|James A. Garfield accepting surrender of US Grant at the 1880 Republican convention after 36 ballots.
Since I posted my Presidential rankings for the C-SPAN 2009 Historians Survey a few days ago, I’ve received pointed questions from friends about some of my choices. (See January 18 post below.)
For instance, how could I put Gerald Ford so high on the list, in the top ten, for God’s sake? And what was I thinking in ranking James Garfield, who served only four months before being shot in the back, above LBJ and both the Adamses? And, in putting George W. Bush at the near-bottom (#41 out of 43), wasn’t I just following a liberal fad that will disappear in a few years, much as Harry Truman has gained popularity over time.
Over the next few days, I will tackle each of these. Yes, Gerald Ford deserves his high spot. Yes, James Garfield outranks LBJ, John Adams, and John Quincy. And no, George W. Bush’s bottom status is no passing liberal fancy. Bush is no Harry Truman. He will be considered as much a bottom-feeder a century from now as today.
I’ll start with James Garfield, only because this was the first challenge to come up. Stick with me.
The basics are simple: James Garfield, a Civil War veteran and career Congressman, was elected President in 1880, inaugurated in March 1881, shot by Charles Guiteau four months later, and died about two months after that. He was mourned by hundreds of thousands, respected for confronting political bosses, and credited with the modern Civil Service system adopted after his death.
During his term, he prevailed over Sen. Roscoe Conkling, dictator of the NY Republican machine, in a high-profile brawl over abusive patronage. His Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, started the country on a strong foreign policy that culminated in TR’s “big stick” approach twenty years later. Here (above) is my favorite cartoon of Garfield, by PUCK artist Joseph Keppler, showing Garfield accepting the surrender of Ulysses Grant at the 1880 Republican Convention after Grant’s 3rd term movement collapsed on the 36th ballot:
It was my friend David Stewart, author of the terrific book THE SUMMER OF 1787: The Men who Invented the US Constitution, who blew the whistle on me. “Whoa, big fella!,” he wrote, knowing of my own book about the Garfield assassintion, (DARK HORSE). ” James Garfield ahead of Lyndon Johnson and both Adamses? We’re dishing out some home-cooking here. Remind us again, what did Garfield do as president?”
Good question. So let’s deal with it squarely.
Ranking presidents means making choices. James Garfield’s presidency had only a small impact because it was so short. Even giving him maximum credit, he stand mid-pack, slightly above center, which is where I ranked him, at #18.
Now let’s look at the competition.
Lyndon Baines Johnson? We can start and end the conversation with one word: Vietnam. I don’t recall James Garfield ever going out and getting the country stuck in a full-scale land war half-way around the world, commiting half-a-million troops to the effort, most unwilling draftees, all based on bad intelligence and bad advice, then misleading the country as tens of thousands died, then allowing the war to spin out of control and destroy his domestic agenda, causing the country then to react by electing an even worse leader in Richard M. Nixon.
This is LBJ’s legacy. Yes, he had a sterling record on Civil Rights and passed a boatload of Great Society legislation. But his own Democratic Party was ready to kick him overboard when he declined to run for re-election in 1968. Without his Civil Rights record, Vietnam easily would have sunk LBJ to the bottom half of the list. As is, I gave him much credit for his domestic agenda, with an overall rank of #19. I think he owes me a “thank you.”
Then there are the Adamses. Let’s start with John Adams, the second president, serving from 1797 to 1801, the first to be voted out of office. Yes, he came across wonderfully in that terrific HBO miniseries where he was play by the fine actor Paul Giamatti, based on the biography by David McCullough. And yes, John Adams was a sterling patriot and fine man during most of his life.
But his presidency was a sorry mess. Its emblem was the Alien and Seditions Acts. I do not recall James Garfield ever pushing Congress to pass a law allowing him to throw dozens of newspaper editors in jail for the simple act of publicly opposing his foreign policy, as well as locking up large numbers of immigrants on trumped up claims of disloyalty — as did John Adams. The abuse was flagrant.
Adams showed his bad temperament again after losing re-election in 1800 by refusing to act civilly toward Thomas Jefferson, the person who beat him, at Jefferson’s 1801 Inauguration. I rated Adams the best I could given a bad record. He ranked #31 on my list, just above Rutherford Hayes and William Howard Taft. Once again, I am ready to accept a “thank you” note from the Adams family.
Finally, there is John Quincy, whom I rate well above his father at #25, though still mediocre. Another fine man; another disappointing president. From the moment he entered office, his political opponents branded his Administration the product of a “corrupt bargain,” and for four years the albatross stuck, fair or not.
That’s the explanation. I am very comfortable with where I placed James Garfield, notwithstanding LBJ and the Adamses. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about Gerald Ford.
Thanks for listening. –KenA