Vin Suprynowicz

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

Well Then, Who Was America's Greatest President?

by Vin Suprynowicz

MARCH 22, 2000

My February column on America's greatest mass murderer, Abraham Lincoln, launched a welcome dialogue with historian Jeff Hummel (from whose great and recent book on the tyrant, "Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men," I quoted) on the topic of just how freedom-loving Americans should rank our 40-odd chief executives, to date.

Jeff referred me to his article in the Fall, 1999 edition of The Independent Review (published by the Independent Institute, Oakland, Cal.), titled "Martin Van Buren, The Greatest American President."

While conceding Van Buren's continuation of Jackson's ruthless program of Indian removal, culminating in 1838's Cherokee "Trail of Tears," Hummel details the dedication with which Van Buren otherwise rejected opportunities to expand the size and authority of the central government, especially the numerous "opportunities" to field an army to annex Canada, meantime courageously resisting the endless badgering of Whigs like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster to use federal power and funds to create a federally controlled and subsidized, credit-expanding and inflationary banking system.

Hummel credits Van Buren's rigorous refusal to meddle in the economy as the major factor that prevented the panic and deflation of 1839-1843 from becoming the same kind of national tragedy that busy meddlers like Hoover and Roosevelt managed to make of the startlingly similar slump of 1929-1933, when federal interventions scorched the earth by preventing wages and prices from falling.

American schoolchildren today are routinely fed a diet of the Great Emancipator claiming he fought the Civil War to protect "government by the people" (in fact, in an 1848 speech, Congressman Lincoln had included secession among the inalienable rights of any people.) Imagine if instead our children were encouraged to memorize Van Buren's message to the special congressional session of 1837, in which he warned:

"All communities are apt to look to government for too much. Even in our own country, where its powers and duties are so strictly limited, we are prone to do so, especially at periods of sudden embarrassment and distress."

But to yield to such temptation would be a mistake, Van Buren reminded the Congress, pointing out that "All former attempts on the part of government" to "assume the management of domestic or foreign exchange" had "proved injurious."

Instead, what Van Buren called for was a "system founded on private interest, enterprise, and competition, without the aid of legislative grants or regulations by law," one that embodied the Jeffersonian tenet "that the less government interferes with private pursuits the better for the general prosperity."

What a sharp contrast to the "Let's track and control every dollar in every bank account" approach of our current crop of heavy-handed puppet-masters.

"Though traditional historians have subjected this era of relatively unregulated banking to trumped-up charges of financial instability," Hummel concludes, "many economists are coming to agree that it was probably the best monetary system the United States ever had."

In private correspondence, Hummel volunteers "I would put Grover Cleveland a close second" among the great leaders of a free America, while "tied for third and fourth place would be Calvin Coolidge and Warren G. Harding, who "with the brilliant fiscal policies of Andrew Mellon, did roll back tax rates significantly from the highs of Wilson and World War One, and very few presidents can claim even that. ...

"As for George Washington, the country would have gotten along fine without his two terms, although the counter-revolutionary Constitution may not have survived. Which is why, along with suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, setting up the first tariffs, approving of the First National Bank, appointing Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury, going along with Hamilton's excise taxes, plus Washington's aggressive militarism in the west, the first president definitely belongs toward the bottom (though maybe not quite among the worst ten).

Jeff Hummel's list of our 10 greatest presidents?

Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland, Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Garfield, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The 10 worst at obeying their oath of office and preserving our precious liberties?

Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bush, Herbert Hoover, John Adams, and William McKinley ... just edging out James Madison.

History taught from this perspective would surely be a lot truer to America's founding principles than what the little inmates of our unionized government propaganda camps receive today, though I did feel obliged to challenge the estimable Mr. Hummel on one inclusion in his list of "best" presidents.

Next week: The Lost Opportunity of Dwight David Eisenhower.


Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
His new book, Send in the Waco Killers is available at $24.95 postpaid from
Mountain Media, P.O. Box 271122, Las Vegas, Nev. 89127; or by dialing 1-800-244-2224

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18 mar 2000