Re-evaluating presidents: the biais of historians?

dimanche 11 juillet 2010 ·

First of all, I have to apologize to our readers for my prolonged absence while settling back home after returning to Quebec from England. On my way back, I sadly missed the annual publication of the ranking of the greatest US Presidents. So it went unnoticed until it was sent my way by a colleague. As usual, Franklin Delano Roosevelt reigns supreme at the top of the ranking while the utterly forgotten James Buchanan dwells at the very bottom.

I am always unsettled to see FDR at the top. His policies regarding economic recovery most probably lenghtened the Great Depression by a few years and made Americans suffer more. Furthermore, he attempted unsucessfully to rob the Supreme Court of its power by attempting to pack it with liberal justices to stop the opposition from Justices McReynolds, Van Devanter and Butler. He is often hailed for his refusal to take dictatorial powers at the height of the Great Depression as certains like his wife and Hugh Johnson pushed him too. However, I fail to acclaim him to greatness on this sole factor.

At the same time, I am wondering why Presidents like Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding have such dismal scores. By all standards, the "return to normalcy" of Harding allowed the United States to return to pre-war life settings. He pardonned several individuals that the Wilson administration had imprisonned for opposing the regime. He massively curtailed the federal government and its reach that had expanded during the Great War. True, at every reading of Warren Harding, I see an unimpressive man. But here is something I wonder: should we value greatness of characters?

When Lord Acton proclaimed that power corrupts while absolute power corrupts absolutely, could it go beyond the person with power? As historian when we see a statesman perform great actions of reforms like FDR, that gives us the stuff we need to make a living. However, I don't see how this makes a president a better man. Maybe historians are corrupted by the power they evaluate. Would it be necessary to begin a re-evaluation of presidents according to their records of restraint to use power in their context?

After all, President Coolidge - like Harding - is cast negatively for not doing anything. However, Coolidge is often described as an "alert inactive" in the sense that he was always on the lookout to protect individual liberty while respecting democratic life and the rule of law. Could it be that his restraint actually had long-term benefits or invisible benefits that make him hard to adress. True, there are some studies - like this one - that re-evaluates Presidents with regards to their record on peace, liberty and prosperity. A good start in my opinion, however somewhat ideologically tainted.

But heh...that was just my two cent on the task of the historian...I don't really have a great answer

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Bryan Breguet est candidat au doctorat en sciences économiques à l’université de Colombie-Britannique. D’origine Suisse, il a passé les cinq dernières années au Québec au cours desquelles il s’est engagé en politique provinciale malgré le fait qu’il ne possédait pas encore la citoyenneté canadienne. Il détient un B.Sc en économie et politique ainsi qu’une maitrise en sciences économiques de l’université de Montréal. Récipiendaire de plusieurs prix d’excellences et bourses, il connaît bien les méthodes quantitatives et leurs applications à la politique.







Vincent Geloso holds a master’s degree in economic history from the London School of Economics, with a focus on business cycles, international development, labor markets in preindustrial Europe and the new institutional economics. His research work examined the economic history of the province of Quebec from 1920 to 1960. He holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the Université de Montréal. He has also studied in the United States at the Washington Centre for Academic Seminars and Internships. Mr. Geloso has been an intern for the Prime Minister’s cabinet in Ottawa and for the National Post. He has also been the recipient of a fellowship from the Institute for Humane Studies and an international mobility bursary from the Ministère des Relations internationales du Québec. Currently, he is an economist at the Montreal Economic Institute.

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