Wilson's, Jackson's Legacies Take Hits, Grant's Stock Rises
Since World War II, historians, newspapers, and institutions have performed surveys of presidential reputations. There is unanimous agreement placing George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson at the top of the list. Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, and James Buchanan are consistently at the bottom.
However, there are several Presidents whose reputations have either significantly improved or worsened since these surveys started. Some examples follow below.
Andrew Jackson was the first president to come from a humble background. Before Jackson, the first six Presidents were college-educated aristocrats from either Virginia or Massachusetts.
Jackson was the founder of the modern day Democratic party. He considered himself the “champion of the common man.” The movement was called, ‘Jacksonian Democracy.’ One of his signature issues was opposition to Bank of the United States. He felt this institution had too much power and favored the wealthy. After a fierce political battle, Jackson succeeded in eliminating the bank. Jackson also strongly supported the Union against South Carolina’s attempt to nullify a Federal tariff bill by threatening the use of military force. State’s rights and nullification later became issues leading up to the Civil War.
For supporting the expansion of democracy to the “common man” and creating the modern-day Democratic party, Jackson had long been considered one of our nation’s better presidents.
However, more recently, Jackson has come under criticism for his treatment of Native Americans. Through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, he supported relocating Native Americans from their historic lands in the Southeast to lands west of the Mississippi, in present-day Oklahoma. Many were forced to move along the “Trail of Tears,” a consequence of these actions. Removing President Jackson’s image from the $20 bill is now under consideration. The annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, held as a fund-raising event by the Democratic Party, may lose its name as a result of these concerns.
Ulysses S. Grant
Until a Wall Street Journal survey in 2005, Grant was always rated as one of the worst presidents in our history because of the many scandals during his administration. Examples include the “Black Friday Gold Panic” in 1869 where some financiers attempted to corner the gold market using Grant’s brother-in-law to influence the president. In another, known as the “Whiskey Ring,” corrupt officials profited by diverting tax money into their own hands. Grant testified on behalf of the defendant in this case, which did not help his reputation. Rumors that Grant was a drunkard also hurt his standing.
Recent surveys now place Grant as an average president. The primary factor is his strong defense for African-American civil rights in the South. When Grant became president in 1868, the South was resisting African-American rights through laws, violence, and intimidation. During Grant’s administration, laws were passed protecting civil rights. Grant signed legislation creating the Justice Department to enforce the 14th (Citizenship) and 15th (right-to-vote) Amendments and related federal laws in the South.
In 1871, the Ku Klux Klan Act authorized the president to impose martial law. Grant sent federal troops, and the Klan's power collapsed. Elections in the South saw African Americans voting in record numbers during Grant’s presidency. His Postmaster General used patronage powers to appoint many African American men and women as postal workers across the nation. In 1872, Frederick Douglass released a pamphlet entitled “U.S. Grant and the Colored People,” in which he praised Grant’s “wise, just, practical and effective friendship.”
Initial surveys placed Wilson as one of the best U.S. presidents. His administration implemented several progressive reforms, including the creation of the Federal Reserve System, implementation of the first income tax, and creation of the Federal Trade Commission to regulate business practices. In foreign affairs, he was an idealist, favoring self-determination, arms reduction, and a League of Nations to maintain peace. He based our entry into World War I on these ideals, known as the “Fourteen Points.” Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
More recently his reputation has taken a hit due to the publicity of his racist behavior. During his administration, many federal departments were re-segregated. In 1919, numerous race riots across the U.S. resulted in hundreds of deaths. Wilson declined to take any action to protect African Americans in what became known as the “Red Summer.” Princeton University, where Wilson had served as president, is facing protests to remove his name from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Another criticism of the Wilson administration is the Sedition Act of 1918, making it illegal to criticize the U.S. government, a restriction of our civil rights. Finally, Wilson suffered a severe stroke with 18 months left in his term, leaving him incapable of performing as president, but he refused to give up the office.
It is too early to evaluate a president’s record shortly after leaving office. Policies that looked sound at first may not stand the test of time. Or vice versa. We should give these men credit for doing one of the hardest jobs in the world – and using their judgment to do what they thought was best for the country at the time given the facts and circumstances as they understood them.
A final example. In 1976, Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon after Watergate because he felt it best for the country. The decision was extremely controversial at the time and may have cost him his re-election. In 2001, 25 years later, Ford won the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for that decision. Ted Kennedy, in presenting the award stated:
"At a time of national turmoil, America was fortunate that it was Gerald Ford who took the helm of the storm-tossed ship of state. Unlike many of us at the time, President Ford recognized that the nation had to move forward and could not do so if there was a continuing effort to prosecute former President Nixon. So President Ford made a courageous decision, one that historians now say cost him his office, and he pardoned Richard Nixon. I was one of those who spoke out against his action then. But time has a way of clarifying past events, and now we see that President Ford was right.”