January 21, 2007

Who is the greatest?


Its become a regular occurance in America that historians and others rank the Presidents of the United States in order of greatness. In 1999 for instance C-Span published a list, the Wall Street Journal did another list in 2000 based on the opinions of political scientists and historians. Wikipedia (apologies, normally I don't cite them but here they do provide something probably quite accurate and worth using) provide a collection of these surveys going back over the last fifty years in the United States. There isn't such an institutionalised listing in the UK or elsewhere, that I am aware of, though we all no doubt have our lists of good and bad Prime Ministers- Peter Hennessy in the last chapter of his book on Prime Ministers attempts to list his league of the last fifty years.

The concept of listing is relatively strange. Go and see this exchange at Vino's Poltical Blog to see what I mean, Vino argues that FDR is his favourite US President, and the commenter Edmund argues that what Vino is really saying is not that FDR was great but that FDR was closer to Vino's political beliefs than any of the other Presidents, Vino agrees. Its interesting that the Wall Street Journal survey above explicitly said that it consulted liberal as well as conservative scholars because its editors beleived that the survey was intrinsically partisan- in the search for objectivity it was thought that a wide political sample needed to be taken (though as I will point out a fairly narrow one- where are the puritans or mercantalists?).

Personally I recognise that this is an interesting game- but have my doubts about how far its useful. Peter Hennessy's list of British Prime Ministers comes closest to a good list in my view- Hennessy doesn't seek to list them by ideological preference but by how successful they were at mastering the systems of government to enact what they wanted. Even there though, Prime Ministers have very different ideas of how government should function- some like Blair beleive in an unlimited executive, some like Attlee in traditional cabinet government- and that effects how they can manipulate the resources of government.

So we are forced back to Vino- can you judge a President on the basis that he didn't share your views? Of course you can- but the judgement will be contentious. There is a deeper problem though, in that you are setting a President or a Prime Minister a test he wasn't sitting for. How can you judge say Thomas Jefferson as a socialist, before Marx? How can you judge George Bush the younger as a socialist if he didn't want to ennact socialism? All you are saying as Edmund points out is that you disagree with them. Especially as you go back in time you run the risk of importing your own values to discuss the past with- so George Washington becomes a la Castro a soldier against imperialism, Thomas Jefferson a modern liberal and William Gladstone a progressive. The fact that Washington fought for the British in the 1750s and was liberating a Commonwealth on the basis that these people were white Englishmen who deserved the right of representation given to White Englishmen under the British constitution, that Jefferson was far more interested in the small citizen farmer on the classical model, that Gladstone's political thought had within it the incentives of avoiding hellfire and redemption- that his whole political career was a subset of his religious career, is avoided in a charge to force these men into modern categorisations. We seek to make them fit into our lists of liberal or conservative or socialist progress or regress- and so we lose their individuality as people.

There is always a tension in modern politics between our need to understand our opponents and our need to recognise that they are still our opponents. When it comes to history though- forcing people into parties that they don't particularly fit into and treating them as enemies or allies doesn't really help us learn anything. History is a resource to learn from- its far more interesting and rewarding in the long run not to make up lists but to actually work out why these very intelligent men and women thought the way that they did, why the world looked a particular way to them.

Lists tell us more about ourselves than they do about the past, and introspection has always rightly been accounted a frivolous occupation!

12 comments:

Matthew Sinclair said...

Introspection was the basis of most truly great philosophy. The unexamined life is not worth living after all.

Gracchi said...

Bloody hell Matt that was a quick demolition- I know what you mean it was a throwaway line at the end of a post- but the basic position I think is unaffected.

james higham said...

FDR sold the country down the drain - outlawing privately held gold and instituting fiat money. So did Wilson but he regretted it later.

Andrew Jackson was the first and only with the guts to stand up to the Finance [Nicholas Biddle].

JFK looked like he was going the 'right way' for Them but then got big ideas and sold Them out in favour of the people. In this respect he was great. He also dabbled in the gold standard.

Another who tried to take on the Finance in a way was Abe Lincoln.

Andy Jackson was one of the greatest because he stood up to Congress in the first real test of the division of power.

Jefferson betrayed the country, particularly with regard to the Bank of the United States and he undid much of Washington's work.

dreadnought said...

Lincoln. As Shelby Foote said: he made the USA an 'is' and not an 'are'.

edmund said...

james how did lincoln stand up to the "finance" he supported the bank that Jackson opposed and formed his own (arguablly more modest) version in the civil war?

edmund said...

Gracchi very good very true post by the way - I would say the fact Gladstone was motivated by religon would not stop him being even a modern progressive but I agree that histoins in early stages tended to undeerate that- Morley bieng the first with less excuse for this bias since he knew Gladstone very well!

Vino S said...

As you point out, rankings are subjective. I think of FDR as one of the greatest American presidents because he brought in policies that changed the country (and changed the history of the world) and I think those changes were positive.

He brought in pensions and unemployment insurance to protect people form the vaguries of the market. He introduced public works programmes to reduce unemployment and improve the infrastructure. He also led the country in the struggle against German and Japanese imperialism.

Gracchi said...

FDR is definitely an important President- greatest well Lincoln is probably up there but I do think that the lists are less interesting than writing about the Presidents and the times they lived in.

Political Umpire said...

Great post Gracchi. As I've been blogging this morning, FDR led the country in what he thought was its national interest, not in some ideological crusade against evil.

Gracchi said...

Umpire I agree with you completely.

edmund said...

political umpire (and Gracchi?) I refer you to the link mentioned on this new blog http://vinospoliticalblog.blogspot.com/2007/01/quote-of-day.html



I chalenge you to find anything about Bush;'s poltical opponenets (as opposed to america's ie terroist ect) which is anything like as messianc or vicious as this


and what about the kind of rehtoc used by Nazism by rooselvt- clearly at least as much in terms of an "ideological crusade against evil" s Bush if not much more see this for example http://myhome.naver.com/woomi9/speech/fdr12.htm

eg "they fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and goodwill among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home."


I challenge you to find anything more extreme said by Bush !

It's a very puzzling comment can only think that you're praisngh im with allying with Stalin-thus showing whateverh is idelogical crusade at leat he was willing to ally with some equally great evil?z

Gracchi said...

I don't quite understand this all I was agreeing with was the statement that Roosevelt acted in the national interest of the United States- Hitler declared war on the United States and Roosevelt prosecuted that war. He had his own vision of teh world after the war which encompassed more of Stalin than perhaps I would and saw the biggest threat to world peace as teh British empire. I wasn't agreeing with anything about Bush because that's not what Umpire's post said this has nothing to do with Bush- Bush is engaged as well in supporting the US national interest, that's what his policies are about. Sorry I don't see the criticism. I may just be being dumb- my only point was that when the Umpire stated that Roosevelt's policy was made in the interests of waht he perceived to be the national interest of the US I agreed. Bush wasn't mentioned.