Sunday, July 04, 2010

Presidential Scholars on Crack

In a post yesterday, I highlighted a newly-released list of presidential rankings based on the opinions of "238 presidential scholars." I'd like to take a closer look at the components that led those alleged experts to the moronic conclusion that that Millard Fillmore was our sixth worst present.

I am not going to go into turgid detail explaining the events of Millard's presidency to which I refer in the discussion below. For more detail on most of the events, go to this post and follow the links.

Background (Family, Education, Experience): 40 out of 43. Total rubbish. Millard grew up dirt poor, pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became a lawyer and leading citizen of the then-thriving port town of Buffalo, NY. As I've remarked before, his family background and educational attainment are remarkably similar to that of Abe Lincoln. Millard had more legislative and executive experience. Abe is ranked 28th. Bias anyone?

Party Leadership: 41. Since Millard was unexpectedly elevated to the presidency on the death of Zachary Taylor, he's a bit hampered on this one. Because he tackled and solved issues that had split both parties by region, his ability to lead the Whigs suffered, and he was denied nomination for another term in 1852. Millard is in effect being penalized because he placed country over party. Would the experts have preferred it otherwise?

Communication Ability (Speak, Write): 40. Millard served in an era when presidents did not give many speeches. Basically, their inaugural addresses were about it, and an occasional Gettysburg Address. Millard didn't start a war, so he didn't have that opportunity. Not too many people deliver great speeches on compromises. But on the written side, Millard shone. His August 6, 1850 message to Congress on Texas is one of the most effective communications ever sent to that body. By putting the Texas-New Mexico issue front and center Fillmore paved the way for resolution of the Crisis of 1850.

Relationship with Congress: 38. I suppose it depends on what "relationship" means. Millard effectively dealt with tough issues that divided Congress and both parties. As a result, compromisers hailed him and radicals, both north and south, vilified him. So what? I'm amused to see that Andy Jackson is ranked no. 14 in this category.

Court Appointments: 35. Millard had the opportunity to nominate only one Supreme Court Justice. His pick was one of the finest ever made: Benjamin Robbins Curtis of Massachusetts, who wrote a brilliant dissent in the Dred Scott case.

Handling of US Economy: 33. Not sure what to do with this one. Presidents before the Civil War really didn't have the power to "handle" the economy. In addition, the economy hummed along just fine throughout Millard's presidency, so there was nothing to "handle" except to leave it alone.

Luck: 25. Here I'd disagree because the rating is too high. Millard was unexpectedly elevated to the presidency in the middle of the greatest crisis the country had ever faced. He'd been largely frozen out the previous administration and disagreed with its approach. You call that lucky? It was Branch Rickey, I think, who said luck was the residue of design. Millard helped resolve the Crisis of 1850 through good appointments (Daniel Webster, see below), intelligent planning, and effective execution. He wasn't lucky, he was good.

Ability to Compromise: 25. 25! For God's sake, the man was a principal facilitator of the Compromise of 1850! Lincoln, who led the country into civil war, is rated no. 1. Are these people on crack?

Willing to take Risks: 37. More nonsense. The experts hear "compromise" and apparently assume no risk was involved. Every decision that Millard made was fraught with risk.

Executive Appointments: 35. One of Millard's first decisions was to nominate Daniel Webster as Secretary of State. Need I say more?

Overall Ability: 38. Let's see. After two months in office Millard had had a substantial part in resolving the greatest crisis the country had ever experienced. He opened Japan to the West. He "handled" the economy just fine by leaving it alone. Clearly the bottom of the barrel. Idiots.

Imagination: 36. Resolution of the crisis brought on by the Mexican War and the Wilmot Proviso eluded two prior presidents and the Great Triumvirate. Millard helped resolve it in two months by shifting the focus from California to Texas and New Mexico. Imagine that.

Domestic Accomplishments: 35. So utterly stupid I am left speechless.

Integrity: 36. Ludicrous. Before, during and after his presidency, Millard was integrity personified. Even his political enemies realized that. Not a breath of a scandal ever attached itself to him or his administration.

Executive Ability: 38. In the context of the time, it's hard to know what to make of this category. On top of it, Millard was a Whig, and the Whigs prided themselves on legislative primacy. That said, Millard's appointment of Daniel Webster as Secretary of State, his ability to redirect the deliberations of Congress from California to Texas, and his willingness to throw down the gauntlet to Texas mark him as a first-rate executive.

Foreign Policy Accomplishments: 33. Japan's not bad.

Leadership Ability: 39. I can only shake my head. No, Millard did not lead in the style of Teddy Roosevelt. But his understated yet firm style fit perfectly the tenor of the time and the delicate situation in which he unexpectedly found himself.

Intelligence: 39. Again, I'd liken Millard to Abe. Both were smart enough to raise themselves out of rural poverty and establish themselves as leading men in their communities. There isn't a reason in the world that the intelligence ratings of the two men (Abe is rated no. 3) couldn't be reversed.

Avoid Crucial Mistakes: 30. His second-highest ranking, but still absurd. What mistakes did Millard make?

The famed historian David M. Potter concluded (and I have quoted this before) that "Fillmore settled a very inflamed crisis . . . with such adroitness and seeming ease that history has scarcely recognized the magnitude of his achievement." Unfortunately, these farcical presidential rankings suggest that Millard's skill does not fully explain his obscurity.

It's pretty clear that these rankings are deductive. The alleged experts decide up front who they like and who they don't - FDR great, for example. They then back into their conclusions by making up individual category rankings that even someone strung out on acid would recognize are insane - let's give FDR a "1" for his "Handling of U.S. Economy"!

In Millard's case, my guess is that it boils down to a visceral dislike of compromise and the Compromise of 1850 in particular. Millard shouldn't have compromised, he should have led the country into war and wiped slavery off the map! I've discussed before why we should be grateful that Millard was not so rash. The advantage of being an expert is that you don't have to worry about such subtleties.

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