With Presidents Day coming up, historians often try to curry favor from our past leaders, living and dead, so that they don't have to be faced by Zombie Lincoln or Vampire Van Buren in their dreams. The list of top presidents of all time often doesn't fluctuate much--the ones with the three big memorials in D.C. are usually the top three, and with good reason. Washington (my vote for the greatest) truly set the right balance of effective yet non-tyrannical leadership that became precedent for all future presidents to follow, which is why even with an evil bastard like FDR in office we never went to full-blown dictatorship in over 200 years. Jefferson doubled our country's size in his terms, and led the cause of limited federal power. Lincoln saved the Union at its time of greatest crisis and untimately caused the end of slavery.
But what about our lesser-knowns? Are there any truly underrated presidents, or presidents who deserve more scorn than they get? Let's run down a few:
1) Somehow, James Buchanan doesn't get quite the vitriol from historians that he should. This guy after all was completely feckless at a time when the country was ripping apart. His presidency was about as disastrous as one could be. He may get a bit of a pass because it's hard to see anything he could have done to really stop the South from seceding--calling up a peacetime army any earlier may only have provoked the secessionists further (as happened when Lincoln did it) and it didn't look as though the seceding states could have been accomodated.
2) My disdain for FDR is already known--war criminal, racist, power-mad, and Com-symp all rolled into one. He's in hell right now with his buddy Stalin. To his credit though, some aspects of the New Deal were positive (and the New Deal itself, while not the panacea Democrats consider it to be, was also not deserving of the scoff it gets from the Right) and his fight against Hitler made a huge difference.
3) JFK was an overrated moron who bungled Cuba into a near-war, got us into Vietnam, and chickened out on civil rights. A handsome face, slick playboy charms, liberal speeches and a gunshot to the head somehow have made him a liberal hero.
4) Woodrow Wilson was a mess. Why the hell did we have to get involved in WWI again??? It's like watching chimps get into a poop fight and then saying "hey I gotta get in on this!"
5) Franklin Pierce was a great American. He knows why.
6) Andrew Jackson rightly gets excoriated these days for his treatment of Indians. He should also be shamed for his fights against national banks, as this economically backward opinion may have prevented earlier economic expansion in the country. He did squelch a secession crisis though so that deserves points.
7) James Madison may have been a great Founding Father (Bill O'Rights, etc.) but his War of 1812 was pretty much a disaster. It also kept us from invading Canada which we really should have done because then I'd no longer get stuck with Canadian quarters in my change jar.
8) One of our presidents could write in Latin with one hand simultaneously while writing in Greek in the other hand. And I forget which president it was, that's how uninteresting his term turned out to be.
9) How will Bush and Obama turn out? This is for another post.