Reappraisals (repost from 2011)

by John Quiggin on June 30, 2020

  • As Princeton has just repudiated Woodrow Wilson, I thought I’d repost this from 2011, which seems relevant to a lot of current discussion*

As an Australian, I’m not much accustomed to think of political leaders in heroic terms[1], something that reflects the fact that nothing our political leaders do matters that much to anybody except us, and even then most of the decisions that really mattered have always been made elsewhere. So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

What has brought this to mind is running across George Will’s campaign against Woodrow Wilson, who always seemed to be presented in hagiographic terms until relatively recently. Much as it goes against the grain to agree with Will on anything, he surely has the goods on Wilson: a consistent racist, who lied America into the Great War, and used Sedition acts and similar devices to suppress opposition. His positive record appears to consist of a variety of “Progressive” measures (in the early C20 sense of the term) many of which were inherited from Teddy Roosevelt, and few of which were particularly progressive from a left viewpoint[2], and his proposal for the League of Nations, where he comprehensively screwed up the domestic politics, leading the US to stay out of the League.

Now that I’ve got started, what is it with the adulation of Clay, Calhoun and Webster? Sure, they were the leading figures in the US in the decades leading up to the Civil War, but isn’t that like saying that Clemenceau, Hindenburg and Chamberlain played comparable roles between 1919 and 1939?[3]

And how about Thomas Jefferson? He was good in theoretical terms, but he was a slaveowner who (unlike Washington) could not even manage to free his slaves on his death. And except for the ban on the transatlantic slave trade, he did nothing to retard the growth of slavery and plenty, most importantly the extension of slavery to the Louisiana purchase, to expand it. He seems to bear as much responsibility for the Civil War as anyone.

I should say right off the bat that I’m not claiming anything about the way these figures are viewed by actual professional historians – I don’t know and would be interested to hear. But in general discussion, they seem always to be referred to in a kind of tone that suggests the inappropriateness of any criticism.

fn1. Like most on the left side of Oz politics, I’m an admirer of our wartime Prime Ministers Curtin and Chifley, as well as the leading reformers of my own younger days, Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan. But good as they were, they all made some big mistakes, and certainly no one would think of naming political philosophies for them (except perhaps pejoratively in the case of Whitlam).

Update Over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley posts a very qualified defence of Henry Clay, while Erik Loomis is much more critical of my dismissal of Daniel Webster. In objecting to my comparisons of Clay and Webster to interwar European politicians including Neville Chamberlain, Loomis makes the observation

one huge thing in favor of the Compromise of 1850 is that the Union would have had much more difficulty defeating the Confederacy in 1850 than a decade later.

But this is precisely the argument made by Chamberlain’s defenders, who suggest that Britain couldn’t have fought Germany successfully in 1938. Still, you don’t have accept the Guilty Men caricature of Chamberlain to conclude that, in the only test that really mattered, he failed disastrously.

fn2. The rightwing animus against him appears to relate to the establishment of such bodies as the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve. I don’t have any real thoughts about the FTC and, while I suppose a central banks is a necessary part of a modern economy, it’s not exactly a force for progress.

fn3. Those comparisons (except perhaps with Hindenburg) are flattering to Calhoun, who was a figure of unmitigated evil, a warhawk, slaver and secessionist.



J-D 06.30.20 at 11:45 am

So, I’m fascinated by the US activity of ranking presidents and other political leaders, and eager to try my hand.

When I told my daughter about how this activity takes place (something I first found out about from a book called The Book Of Lists), she broke into laughter (genuinely amused, but derisive) even before I’d finished, and I was struck at once by the greater acuity of her initial response than my initial response when I first read about it many years ago. Actually, I can’t remember what my initial response was, but it wasn’t the correct one of recognising fatuity. Who was the greatest US President, and which was the best dinosaur?

The instinct to debunk hagiography is absolutely sound.


Matt 06.30.20 at 1:49 pm

and which was the best dinosaur?

Triceratops. Don’t be silly.


DCA 06.30.20 at 2:37 pm

The WP column is now paywalled so I don’t know what Will actually said.

I’ll probably be back later with a comment on “lied America into the Great War” (short version, not in the same sense America was lied into Iraq or Vietnam). But on Chamberlain: yes, he badly misjudged Hitler’s agressiveness and duplicity, but he wasn’t alone: so did Stalin, who no one would accuse of being soft on anything.

From a modern progessive perspective, the political choices of the period (on a national level in the US) were not great: a basically plutocratic Republican party, or an unavoidably racist Democratic one (given its base in the South). Roosevelt was something of an outlier, and, at first, an accidental President.


Andres 06.30.20 at 4:05 pm

Princeton’s removal of Wilson’s name is deserved but here also I would argue against damnatio memoriae, which is the negative version of hagiography. Wilson did lie the U.S. into entering WWI, no doubt about it. But the long-term balance of this action was positive: it ended the war sooner (thanks more to U.S. armament production going to Britain and France than to the significant contributions of the AEF in France), and it prevented Europe from falling under the dominion of a militarist German regime that was much worse than the (flawed) post-war structure that Britain and France imposed on Europe. The League of Nations and Wilson’s pre-Versailles vision of a new European order embodied in the 14 Points was also seriously flawed, but was infinitely better than the nationalism and Napoleonic imperialism that led Europe into the war.

And Wilson did help to create the Federal Reserve, which for all its flaws has done quite well in terms of macroeconomic stabilization once it was freed from the constraints of the gold standard after 1933. Right wing screeds from Friedman and Rothbard aside, most macroeconomic historians take a dim view of both the gold standard and pre-1913 free banking in the U.S.

Overall, Wilson presents a paradox: even more of an arch-racist than Jefferson, contributing to a 50-year political hegemony for the Lost Cause, but having a better understanding of the big geopolitical and economic picture than any Gilded Age Republican, Teddy Roosevelt being the only exception (and he had his own major flaws as well). Certainly not deserving of monuments, but also not deserving of being either demonized or being completely forgotten.


Michael McGovern 06.30.20 at 4:13 pm

The Confederate constitution outlawed the importation of slaves.
Jefferson might have opposed it for the same reason.
Life expectancy went up after the slave trade was outlawed
in 1808. Maintaining property values was the main reason.


Hidari 06.30.20 at 5:48 pm

Naming ‘The Best American President’ is like naming ‘The World’s Tallest Dwarf’.

More seriously, and to get back to our current situation, we could avoid all this nonsense if we either just stopped putting up any more goddamn statues (who really needs them, or cares about them), stopped naming streets after people (again: who gives a shit?), or if we have to, just restrict all statues and street names etc. to people of science or philosopher or artists or musicians. It won’t solve the problem (the views of some scientists/artistic types have been horrendous) but at least, it will remove a whole class of people (i.e. people who actually did terrible things, as opposed to those who just talked (or sang) about them).

Fascinating fact: most streets in Japan don’t have names.

Equally fascinating fact: because of Islam, the vast majority of countries in the Islamic world simply have no statues that are portrayals of human beings, either living or dead.

We don’t have to have this problem. We choose to have this problem and then tie ourselves in knots about this problem we have created for ourselves.


bianca steele 06.30.20 at 6:36 pm

I don’t remember a hagiography of Wilson at all. I remember being taught that he was professorial and snobbish, didn’t work well with Congress, and was responsible for forcing the “self-determination of nations” by ethnic group on Europe, hence Yugoslavia, as well as the collapse of the League of Nations. This was presumably more or less what one needed to pass the AP exam. We didn’t get told about resegregating the civil service and so on, however.


steven t johnson 06.30.20 at 7:58 pm

This is a fun game! And everybody can play!

On Thomas Jefferson, the abolition of the international slave trade helped the internal slave trade, shifting surplus slaves in states like Virginia and Maryland to the West and South. It wasn’t even an anti-slavery move, as such. At best, it was meant to undercut the slaver states in Africa by depriving them of the US market. To be sure, fewer man-stealing expeditions and deaths in the notorious Middle Passage were a better thing… in Africa.

The people of the time believed the South would grow faster on the frontier, being richer for one thing. I suspect Jefferson was smart enough to conclude that abolishing slavery in the old Northwest would mean fewer free states, as they were–correctly—believed would be settled from the free states of the North. And Jefferson believed there would eventually be more slave states in the South where slave labor would settle the lands faster. And the slave states would gain an nearly invincible grip on the federal government in the Senate and the EC. The error was thinking the slave system was actually superior enough to grow faster than the North. But then, a slaveholding gentleman would be prone to imagine “his” future greatness, wouldn’t he?

On the other hand, practically speaking, Louisiana the state had to be admitted as a state, in order to pacify the Creole population (and the free black/mulatto population, where the few of those who owned slaves likely held undue sway.) Given that, it was not possible for the federal government to legally abolish slavery, even if Jefferson wanted to, which seems unlikely. If the national government wasn’t going to abolish slavery in D.C., it wasn’t going to abolish slavery already existing on a mass scale, even if it was technically in a territory subject to federal control.

Lincoln was absolutely correct the Constitution sanely read did not permit this. The excellent reason this should be so is, it was written that way. The inability of the federal government to interfere with slave property is why the new constitution might be compared to the Directory in France, a reactionary phase in liquidating the supposed excesses of democracy in earlier, more turbulent times.

Although Jefferson can’t really be given a bum rap for not abolishing slavery in Louisiana, he can be given a bum rap for giving support to the restoration of slavery in Haiti. Fortunately he was no more successful than William Walker, his spiritual successor despite the lack of high culture.

As for responsibility for the Civil War goes, a much overlooked contribution was Jefferson’s creation, with Madison, of the doctrine of States’ Rights=democratic freedom, in the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions. The doctrine reached its antebellum perfection with Calhoun.

A final note on Jefferson: I think any rational historian should consider Jefferson of the most incompetent presidents, saved only by the Haitians kicking Napoleon’s ass so that he gave up his nightmarish plans of colonial empire. Gold bugs may still believe only government deficits ruin money and paying off the national debt is a kind of apotheosis. No one else should, I think. The deranged behavior in the Burr trial, the insane belief that US trade policies would force British surrender, the creation of West Point the school of treason, the enormity of the Embargo Act, the sectional venom directed against New England, the list is long and damning. In my judgment, of course. But then, I think any rating of US presidents that puts US Grant in the bottom five is badly flawed.

On the general question of how Clay, Webster and Calhoun are sanctified, I’m not so sure this is true. Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” seems very like the opposite of sanctification! Ichabod, indeed. But in particular, the notion that Clay ever managed to enact his American system is truly mystifying. The Whigs were largely the Out Party, in practice, which explains the otherwise extraordinary careers of John Tyler and Millard Fillmore.

But insofar as it’s true, it’s because they are falsely attributed the success in keeping the (white) people of the US together, instead of that madness of fratricide between (white) brothers. As it says, following the link, “Clay of the West, Calhoun of the South, and Webster of the North loved and served their country greatly. The generation that followed produced no leader that could unite the country without the force of arms.”

For Robert Heinlein readers, his juvenile Tunnel in the Sky manages to cite both the Hayne-Webster debate and the Kentucky and Virginia resolutions as unperishable documents of freedom still learned in schoolrooms centuries hence, on planets far from Earth.

The idiocies and swindles of Farley and Loomis would make a too-long comment break the data bank!


John Quiggin 06.30.20 at 8:08 pm

“Fascinating fact: most streets in Japan don’t have names.”

That is fascinating. This kind of thing is one of the reasons I keep on blogging, long after the world has moved on.


HcCarey 06.30.20 at 11:12 pm

I’m a US historian for a living and even even occasionally filled these things out. They end up being pretty much a record of “who got stuff done” rather than a record of who you approve of or who you want to have a beer with. Wilson got a lot of stuff done, so he ranks fairly high, even though both right and left hate him now. Grant’s stock has gone way up lately because he got a lot done during reconstruction, although conservatives have to disapprove of Reconstruction because of big gummit. they can’t openly endorse the KKK. So grant moves up some, not as high as Wilson


Donald 06.30.20 at 11:20 pm

Decades ago I had picked up the idea that Wilson was supposed to have been a good President. I don’t remember where. I was disabused of this later on.

Put up statues of beloved fantasy heroes. You could do worse than Frodo and Sam. Admittedly there are some racist lines in LOTR but Sam himself seems pretty woke when he sees the dead Haradrim soldier and wonders if he wouldn’t rather have stayed home.


Donald 06.30.20 at 11:22 pm

I forgot the somewhat problematic master servant relationship between Frodo and Sam. So just make it Sam.


peterv 06.30.20 at 11:52 pm

“Fascinating fact: most streets in Japan don’t have names.”

Traditionally, intersections were named, and nearby buildings numbered in the order of their construction. One consequence is that retiring postal delivery workers need to train their successors. Another consequence was great demand for fax machines, so that businesses could fax a map to intending visitors.


J-D 07.01.20 at 1:21 am

I’m a US historian for a living and even even occasionally filled these things out.

Are you appropriately embarrassed now?

Put up statues of beloved fantasy heroes.

I’ll bet you every beloved fantasy hero is problematic to somebody. If we’re going to have statues of human figures at all, I think I’d prefer them to represent generic figures (for example, ‘The Liberated Slave’ or ‘The Loyal Companion’) or personified abstractions (for example, ‘Compassion’ or ‘Friendship’). What’s more, many or all of those would be better represented by figure groups than by individuals, which I think is probably all to the good.


Thomas P 07.01.20 at 6:07 am

Donald, but then it was Sam’s intolerance that drove Smeagol back to being Gollum while Frodo tried to be nice to him. So dump Sam as well.

I fear any literary character good enough to be a totally uncontroversial statue will also be too boring to be an interesting statue.


Bill Benzon 07.01.20 at 11:27 am

“greatest US President, and which was the best dinosaur”

Teddy Rex?
Tyrannosaurus Roosevelt?


William Roark 07.01.20 at 2:34 pm

@ John Quiggin, # 9

Dear Prof. Quiggin,

You might take an interest in this concerning Japanese streets and how you find a location:

Sounds eminently rational to me.


hix 07.02.20 at 6:44 am

Those kind of questionaires with all those indirect questions that hope to reveal our true inner selfs are always questionable. To be fair however, the more you are trained to apply formal logic to them the more ridiculous they get. So a philosophy Prof or really anybody working in academia is the worst possible test subject.


J-D 07.02.20 at 8:35 am

I fear any literary character good enough to be a totally uncontroversial statue will also be too boring to be an interesting statue.

How about Cthulhu? Can there be two different opinions about Cthulhu?


tm 07.02.20 at 12:39 pm

Also, memorials to figures of science, music, literature etc. are not unproblematic as long as most of them depict white males. And many sculptures depicting allegories or generic figures are based on certain cultural biases. But then, any art is influenced by the cultural biases of their creators. We should be able to handle this conflict in a productive way. I think the current debate is a great opportunity for us as a society to learn. Those who claim that any memorial is a priori sacrosanct are the ones who refuse to learn.


Donald 07.02.20 at 2:00 pm


I should have thought of that myself, darn it. That scene where Sam wakes up and snaps at Smeagol is one of my favorites.

Okay, maybe Merry and Eowyn. Killed the number two bad guy and I can’t think of anything they can be cancelled for.

I might be wrong, of course.

Plan B— Bill the pony.


Matt McKeon 07.02.20 at 4:20 pm

Calhoun is spectacularly Satanic for “slavery is a positive good” and “the South will secede if you dare touch a hair on slavery’s head!” But his most enduring influence, IMO is his conception of property rights over all. Regulating business is depriving someone of their property, because it costs money to comply with the regulation, and the Constitution states you can’t deprive people of their property without due process. Its a potent influence well into the 20th century.

Of course he formulated this in the service of protecting slavery(property).

Calhoun is Cthulhu: the goat with a thousand young!


ph 07.02.20 at 10:58 pm

From Smithsonian Magazine:

Fair-minded dispassionate discussions of historical facts may be the better approach. But where’s the fun in that?


J-D 07.03.20 at 4:17 am

Calhoun is Cthulhu: the goat with a thousand young!

Shub-Niggurath, not Cthulhu, was the goat with a thousand young.


Tm 07.03.20 at 9:34 am

23: how many monuments in the US honor Native American slaveholders? How many history books used in US schools engage in hagiographic glorification of Native American leaders?

Honestly, I think the „better approach“ would be to stay silent if you have nothing to contribute to the discussion.


Jim Buck 07.03.20 at 9:38 am

@23. I’ll get back to you— just reading this book:


Hidari 07.03.20 at 9:40 am

One related point about statues: it seems to me that this ‘debate’ is a huge argument in favour of modern art. Anti-representational or conceptual artwork (either pictures or ‘stuff on walls’ or statues) is always going to be less controversial (at least in terms of politics/morals) than representational artwork.


ph 07.03.20 at 10:28 am

How many?

You’d think that basic common knowledge, or just reading the linked article might be a good place to start. Slavery is badly understood. Given the attitude on display it’s not hard to understand why. We must have our narratives.

“cherokee trail of tears monuments”

“cherokee trail of tears textbooks”

“cherokee trail of tears documentaries”

All the shackles, branding irons, whips, and “negro clothing” part and parcel of owning slaves had to be transported along the trail with the rest of the native’s “belongings.”

Don’t see African-American slaves figuring in these long-honored tributes. Surprised?


Donald 07.03.20 at 12:46 pm

I’m not willing to give up on representational art, Hidari. Maybe we are approaching this thing from the wrong direction. We should be erecting statues of people who are universally despised. People could express their feelings of civic virtue by throwing rotten vegetables at them, attracting insects to eat the vegetables and birds to eat the insects, thereby enhancing biodiversity in an urban setting. Win- win.

The problem would be in deciding who should be universally despised. Those of us who are fine with toppling Confederates would now want the statues back up so we could strengthen our throwing arms, while the Lost Cause advocates would sheet up in time honored fashion and try to pull them back down.

Nonrepresentational art has its own problems as not everyone likes it and so you would be implicitly canceling their artistic preferences. Also, it would be speciesist to limit it to the products of human artists. I am personally impressed by the aesthetics of bowerbirds and would pay them tax dollar money and supply them with trinkets to attract females in public spaces.


J-D 07.04.20 at 8:27 am

We should be erecting statues of people who are universally despised. People could express their feelings of civic virtue by throwing rotten vegetables at them, attracting insects to eat the vegetables and birds to eat the insects, thereby enhancing biodiversity in an urban setting. Win- win.

The problem would be in deciding who should be universally despised.

As above, I again suggest the option of generic figures (‘The Slanderer’, ‘The Torturer’, ‘The Miser’) or personified abstractions (‘Cruelty’, ‘Spite’, ‘Ingratitude’).


Tm 07.04.20 at 8:40 am

„how many monuments in the US honor Native American slaveholders?“

The answer ph gives in 28 appears to be zero – Big surprise! or am I missing something?


Kiwanda 07.04.20 at 8:42 pm

“how many monuments in the US honor Native American slaveholders?”

Wikipedia both shows a bust of Chief Seattle (namesake of a city) and mentions that he owned (Indian) slaves. Enslavement was hereditary among the Haida and Tlingit in the Pacific Northwest, including before 1492. But so what? Slavery and caste are extremely widespread, common features of human history.

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