Not the best ten. Just ten interesting holders of the highest office in the land.
The American presidency has always had an allure unique among worldwide offices. It grants many of the powers assumed by Augustus, first emperor of Rome. The caveat is that office holders have a relatively short time to govern and that they must be chosen.
Not just the greatest President. Not just the greatest American. Truly one of the great figures in world history. Without his calls to action and leadership, the American Revolution likely dissolves into a society of complainers and philosophy students. Guided the Constitutional Convention, often with glances instead of words. Defined what a president should be and how one should act.
Those who downgrade his accomplishments forget that he had to also establish international respect for America's territorial integrity and national credit during a world war.
Not placing Washington in the top spot as president is sheer trolling.
Washington believed strongly in the dignity of office, even among close friends as Governeur Morris found to his embarrassment. His belief in republican simplicity extended to wearing black suits instead of military dress and forbidding music or announcements when he entered a room. If a president deserves respect and attention, he will get it without the extra fuss.
Obviously not a digital photo of the real John Adams. This is Paul Giamatti from the outstanding HBO miniseries based on the outstanding David McCullough book.
Modern students of history love John Adams. We all know someone like Adams. Or maybe some of us are this guy. Brilliant beyond measure. But also jealous (rightfully) of not getting the credit he deserves. Often grumpy and cynical (these traits usually soothed, but also occasionally stoked by his also brilliant wife Abigail. And held legendary grudges against Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and others.
Adams just didn't fit in. Not on his diplomatic missions to North Africa, Britain, and elsewhere; not with the intellectual set at the Constitutional Convention; not with men of action like Washington.
But without his intellect, work, and guidance, our Republic may not be here. His 20 hour days keeping things together at the Continental Congress built the nation. His presidency is remembered more for its foolish acceptance of bad laws than its creation of the United States Navy and successful fight against France.
The second president proves that social awkwardness and unchained, stubborn, untactful brilliance can succeed somewhere besides social media. Then again, in our time, Adams may never have been able to break free of Facebook argument.
By the way, Adams owes David McCullough big time.
Jackson needs more attention. It is tempting to judge him directly on a single action, the Cherokee removal. Here, Jackson violated property rights and federal law to assist gold prospectors (basically the kind of crony capitalism that happens regularly in Washington today.)
That being said, Jackson represented a new democracy that in many ways diametrically opposed his removal of the Cherokees from their home. He stood for property rights, individual freedom, limited government, and workable state sovereignty. For the first time, the West had a voice in government through the figure of the backwoods warlord. William Henry Harrison, James Polk and Lincoln would follow after.
Jackson's impact on the Democratic Party lasted longer. Mistrust of big business and big government alike permeated the Southern backwoods. Belief that the Democratic Party represented these values only died in the last generation.
James K. Polk
Polk was neo-con when neo-con wasn't cool. This surprisingly Mel Gibson looking president represented the Democratic Party's return to running backwoodsmen who could pass as commoners (after the one term of New York businessman Martin van Buren.) Polk stood for election on annexing Texas and Oregon. As it turns out, most of the nation agreed. As did Texas and the region of Oregon Territory ultimately added to the Union.
Polk gets blamed for the Mexican War. Historians cite both Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee as sources blaming land greed for a war they deemed wrong. Grant and Lee were also both in the Whig Party, which could give some context to their opposition.
Fact is that Polk may have wanted a war with Mexico. But he did not want war worse than the Mexicans themselves. Mexico picked fights repeatedly during the mid 1800s and lost all of them, including (I kid you not) the Pastry War with France. The Mexicans refused Polk's offer to pay for Texas annexation, which was completely unnecessary under international law. They declared war. If Polk had set a trap, Mexico walked into it.
Polk's handling of the Mexican War should have blown up in his face. He removed Zachary Taylor from command out of fears that the general would grow too popular and become president, a correct prediction. But Mexico, under the leadership of Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, lacked the organization and the economic strength behind the American forces.
Polk promised to serve one term. He kept his promise. That alone is worth remembering.
No Lincoln here
The most written about man in human history, which would have surprised him. No need to write more.
Ulysses S. Grant
This is how America should remember Grant. Grant's most well-known Civil War era picture shows the 21st century what swagger truly is. Against his enemies both in the Confederacy and in the Union Army itself, Grant applied slow, steady, relentless pressure. He used Northern economic and population superiority to wear down the South, while relying on Lincoln's support against military command rivals.
But America remembers the image that goes along with fifty dollar bill Grant. Rounder face, protruding stomach tightening his suit. History associates this Grant with his poor choices of friends and officeholders, many of whom betrayed him and the public trust.
Grant, however, earned his enemies while president by doing the right things as well. He aggressively used the power of the new Department of Justice and the military to stamp out Ku Klux Klan terrorism. Grant worked to treat Indians as humanely and respectfully as possible, blaming much of the friction on settler troublemakers. These grew unpopular as Reconstruction lasted 12 years longer than the Civil War itself and as political officeholders found themselves booted from Indian Affairs jobs.
He also lost support during one of the worst depressions in American history. Grant and the Republican Congress strengthened the dollar and did little else. The economy bounced back in four years, as opposed to much longer stretches under Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama. All of these unpopular moves required courage in the face of certain declines in popularity.
Grant was a great general. He was also one of the great autobiographers in history. But his virtues as a military man and a writer failed to serve him as a president or a businessman.
Rutherford B. Hayes
At the time of his nomination in 1876, Hayes had earned the description of "the good gray governor." This came from a lifetime of being quietly competent and just.
Hayes' Civil War service started in the backwoods of western Virginia. He was among the first to encounter the rise of guerrilla fighting as he marched his columns through narrow valleys. Despite the frustrations, Hayes rarely let the situation get the better of him. He upbraided a subordinate for the punitive burning of a courthouse. Toward the end of the war, Hayes escaped the raid that captured two other Union generals. He, Washingtonlike, shared the discomforts of his men by camping with them in frigid February 1865. the other two stayed in a lavish hotel with few guards.
Reconstruction ended in 1877 as part of the deal bringing Hayes to office. The razor thin margins threatened to unleash another Civil War. Neither side particularly supported the quid pro quo and its contribution to the long term establishment of Jim Crow is undeniable.
So why is Hayes "interesting?" Because he and his wife "Lemonade Lucy" (named so because she did not allow alcohol in the White House) may be the most boring of First Families. Hayes lived quietly, administered the government, did not seek attention, and stepped aside after one term. Like his military career, his presidency was quiet, effective, competent, and forgettable due to its success. No one ever writes about cruise ship captains who never wreck. And few are interested in a president so lacking in the dazzling show that the office has become.
And that is precisely why he is worth remembering.
Last of the Civil War officer presidents. McKinley, like Garfield, Harrison, and Hayes all served in the West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky theater of war.
McKinley ushered in a generation of Republican Party dominance and straddled eras. He was the last front porch campaigner who sat at home in the traditional way and let subordinates do all the work. But his campaign started the use of mailed campaign literature. Historians lump him with the 19th century presidents, but his annexation of the Philippines marked the United States' entry into international affairs.
McKinley fails to make the grade of "great presidents" in most academic lists. He, however, won a war against Spain that he personally tried to head off. Under McKinley the national economy boomed (albeit under anti-free market and probably unnecessary protective tariffs.)
It's hard to argue with success.
History's problem with McKinley is that he served right before Theodore Roosevelt, who was never supposed to be president. Had McKiney not died by an assassin's bullet, he likely would have been succeeded by another honest competent senator, West Virginia's Stephen Elkins who was seen as the next Republican option. McKinley was, however, assassinated by a terrorist and the polymath Roosevelt took office.
William Howard Taft
Taft, like Adams, has earned a spot in the hearts of historians (if not their rankings) because of his humanness next to a blue star of a predecessor.
He did not want to go to law school in the first place. His father, however, insisted that law school provided more of a future than catching for the Cincinnati Reds.
Taft worked well when working with someone else. Under Theodore Roosevelt, he solved problems across the globe, most notably in the Philippines where his conciliatory policies quelled a revolt.
He never wanted to be president. Mrs. Taft, however, had enough ambition for both of them. Jealous of the spotlight on her husband's friend Teddy, she allied with the president to badger Taft into a job he didn't want.
Roosevelt expected his friend to remain his cipher, following his policies to the letter. The lawyer Taft, however, made decisions based on rule of law, as opposed to the Roosevelt way of favoring friends and skewering enemies. This made an enemy out of Roosevelt who skewered Taft in the election of 1912, bringing an ignominious end to the political careers of both.
Taft got the last laugh, ending up with the job he coveted more than any other. Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, making him one of the most accomplished men in US history that few remember outside of a certain bathtub incident.
Less talk. Only acted when necessary. Country remained at peace. National economy boomed.
And he wore a dazzling array of cool hats.