The rise of Ron Paul in the Republican primary season has raised questions about what Americans expect from the executive office. The accepted interpretation of presidential powers and executive effectiveness centers on the “use” of the office. “Active” executives, such as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, are usually considered “great,” while those who did “little” in office round out the list. For example, a 2010 Siena Research Institute survey included both Roosevelts and Lincoln in the top five while Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman were in the top ten. The bottom dwellers included Andrew Johnson, John Tyler, James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce. Grover Cleveland and Martin Van Buren were also in the bottom half.
Even lists of great “conservative” presidents like the one produced for Human Events last year include Lincoln, a man who was never considered “conservative” in his time, Dwight Eisenhower, the intellectual progenitor of “compassionate conservatism” (he called it “dynamic conservatism”), and Harry Truman, the man who nationalized portions of the American economy and built his 1948 re-election campaign around an attack on conservatism! Each should not be anywhere near such a list. The mark of a great conservative president should be his adherence to the Constitution. “Constitutional” and “conservative” are synonymous and if exceptions are made, then all the table-thumping about the Constitution falls flat on its face. Exceptions cannot be made. Either American conservatives want constitutional government or they do not. Any acceptance of a “gray area” leads to further arrogation of power in the executive branch and the destruction of the Constitution as ratified by the founding generation. With that said, here are the top five most underrated presidents as defined by their devotion to their oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States:
1. John Tyler: Short of George Washington, Tyler is perhaps the greatest president in American history. Tyler used his veto power the way Washington intended, as a check on unconstitutional legislation. He vetoed the re-incorporation of a central banking system, as well as bills involving internal improvements and a protective tariff. The Whigs expelled him from the party for “gasp!” following the Constitution. His administration laid the groundwork for the settlement of the Oregon dispute with Great Britain and brought Texas into the Union.
2. Grover Cleveland: Cleveland is well regarded in conservative circles, but he is still generally underrated. Cleveland issued more vetoes than any other president until FDR, and he did so to thwart unconstitutional legislation. He favored low taxes, light spending, low debt and low tariffs. He was the last traditional American conservative in the executive office, and he railed against the growing push for American imperialism.
3. Martin Van Buren: Van Buren advocated low taxes, low debt and low tariffs as president and pushed for a sound money policy. His “independent treasury” eventually rescued the American economy from inflation and a deep depression. He sought to continue the founding tradition by making the United States a peaceful trading partner with the world. Peace at home and abroad was his primary goal.
4. James Monroe: Monroe was the last of the founding generation in the executive office, but is generally ignored by the American academy. Like the other men on this list, Monroe used his veto the way Washington intended. He vetoed an internal improvements bill because he could not find any authority in the Constitution for Congress to pass such legislation. The “Monroe Doctrine” of 1823 codified the American tradition of non-intervention.
5. James Buchanan: This one may shock everyone reading this article. Buchanan is typically in the bottom two of any presidential ranking. But, in contrast to the man who succeeded him, Buchanan worked to avoid war. It must be remembered that there were still eight slave states in the Union in March 1861 when Lincoln took office. Buchanan, in his refusal to attempt to coerce the seven seceded states of the Deep South, forestalled war in the hope of peace. Even Lincoln’s own advisers — most importantly Secretary of State William H. Seward and his top general Winfield Scott — attempted to persuade him in 1861 that war could be avoided. He refused to listen, whereas Buchanan did. Buchanan should be commended not scorned for such action. He also favored light taxes, low, revenue-only tariffs and the Union of the Founders, meaning one section or group of states (in our day an urban/rural or taxpayer/non-taxpayer split) should not be allowed to abuse the others. How refreshing.
Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009) and The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), as well as the forthcoming Forgotten Conservatives in American History with Clyde Wilson (Pelican, 2012). You can find his Facebook fan page here.