Who was the Greatest President in U.S. history? Most historians tend to share common ground when it comes to ranking U.S. presidents. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt receive the top honor in practically every single poll. However, recent attention has fallen to a far more unusual candidate…Grover Cleveland.
Who was Grover Cleveland?
Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, making him the only President to serve nonconsecutive terms. He is largely remembered for the economic meltdown that took place during his second term, including the second-worst depression in U.S. history as well as a series of vicious labor strikes. While not ranking as low as President John Tyler, he fares no better than 19th in Wikipedia’s aggregate of various scholarly polls. Who in the world would possibly consider Grover Cleveland to be the greatest President in history?
Was Grover Cleveland the Greatest President in History?
In his book, Recarving Rushmore, Ivan Eland argues that the reason most historians overlook presidents like John Tyler and Grover Cleveland is because of flawed ranking systems. He points out four particular biases exhibited by historians:
- Effectiveness: Scholars tend to focus on a president’s ability to enact an agenda without considering the positive or negative results from that agenda.
- Charisma: Historians place undue emphasis on exciting personalities at the expense of dull ones.
- Service during a Crisis: Many historians will only rank a president highly if he served during a great war or financial crisis, giving little credit to those who avoided war or kept crises from happening in the first place.
- Activism: Presidents who did a lot are ranked higher than those who preferred minimal government.
Eland takes a unique approach to evaluating presidents. Instead of ranking them on the usual stuff, he ranks them on how well they achieved peace, prosperity, and liberty. Presidents earn points for avoiding “wars of choice,” pursuing economic freedom, and respecting individual freedoms as well as limits on presidential powers.
His analysis leads to some interesting conclusions that differ wildly from most polls. George Washington is still fairly high at #7. But he ranks Abraham Lincoln (#29) and FDR (#31) far lower than pretty much any other historian. His top five are John Tyler, Grover Cleveland, Martin Van Buren, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Chester A. Arthur. These presidents are barely remembered by most Americans today which, in a way, is the point. Their terms were boring, thanks to their decisions to avoid wars and pursue policies that led to economic success as well as personal freedom.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
So what about Grover Cleveland? Well, he refused to annex Hawaii and avoided war with Spain over the Cuban rebellion (a policy that would later be reversed by President McKinley). He restored sound currency and avoided the New Deal style programs that lengthened the Great Depression. He was “relatively benevolent” to Native Americans.
As for the depression that marred his second term, it was largely caused by the actions of his predecessor, Benjamin Harrison. During his term of office, President Harrison instituted the McKinley tariff, increased federal spending, and supported the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, which increased the money supply while reducing the government’s gold reserves.
President Grover Cleveland’s record wasn’t perfect. He signed the Interstate Commerce Act which “provided the underpinning of the Progressive movement.” To get lower tariffs, he agreed to bring back the income tax. He also “backed segregation as constitutional.” That being said, in terms of promoting prosperity, peace, and liberty, Grover Cleveland outranks nearly every other President, with the possible exception of John Tyler.
Shortly after his second term ended, the Democratic Party underwent a sea change, abandoning the classical liberal ways of President Grover Cleveland and his fellow Bourbon Democrats. The Bourbons fled the Democratic Party when FDR instituted the New Deal and were eventually absorbed into the Old Right. The Old Right, in turn, largely collapsed in 1952 when Eisenhower effectively stole the Republican nomination from Robert Taft. Since then, President Grover Cleveland’s legacy has appeared all but dead. However, the rising popularity of Dr. Ron Paul – who counts Grover Cleveland among his heroes – seems to be changing that. Will future historians cast a kinder eye on President Grover Cleveland? Only time will tell…
Grover Cleveland was a principled classical liberal. But even while serving as president, his own Democratic Party was deserting him as the forces of statism and unlimited democracy, unleashed by the death of states’ rights in 1865, were beginning to dominate American politics. He was the last American president in the Jefferson/Andrew Jackson/John Tyler tradition, and the last good Democrat to serve in that office. For the most part, his successors (in both parties) have ranged from pathetic panderers to dangerous, megalomaniacal warmongers, or both.” ~ Thomas DiLorenzo, The Last Good Democrat