We are launching an exciting new series of essays cataloging the long list of everything wrong with the Presidents.
Readers, we have a special treat for you this President’s Day. Normally today is supposed to be reserved for some sort of “national recognition” that the President nobly and disinterestedly rules over us for our own good. Through the magic of constitutionalism and the mystical force of statism, the President is said to represent us all, marching the nation forward to a singular tune. Of course, no one actually seems to celebrate President’s Day this way. Instead of using it as intended–to worship at the altar of government–it is a day when students escape from their standard forced servitude in public schools, when government workers enjoy vacation time or extra hours at taxpayer expense, or the day when (for some reason) furniture goes on sale everywhere.
Check out the first installment of this series about William Henry Harrison here.
Why the disconnect between ideology and action? Could it be that American nationalism—and with it, the outsized influence of statism throughout our culture—is truly past its prime? In its original 19th century strands, nationalism meant simply a proclivity to identify oneself with or through the national unit into which you were born. In world historical terms, nationalists ran the gamut from anti‐imperial independence activists to hyper‐militaristic fascists. There were democratic and republican nationalists every bit as much as there were imperialistic and genocidal nationalists. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans increasingly identified themselves, their personalities, and their cultures with reference to the larger nation‐state. Their widespread beliefs in “Manifest Destiny,” racism, and herrenvolk democracy placed them somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.
Whether the United States ever achieved anything approaching the 19th century visions of Manifest Destiny is here immaterial; for at least five decades all Americans have supposedly shared the burdens and responsibilities of government equally. Yet we all know that this is still no government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” and an ever larger number of people seems to be questioning whether there is an American people at all. The very suite of technologies which nationalists believed would homogenize us has encouraged an explosion of subcultures and alternative lifestyles which have fundamentally disrupted the nationalist project. So could it be that people now instinctively know that the president cannot possibly live up to the ideal we are all taught in school? He cannot possibly represent us all and any identity we share with him is fictitious at best. In the light of modern technology and social integration, not even President Obama can match the demi‐gods we have enshrined in marble and the impulse toward iconoclasm seems to grow with each election cycle. Every president fails somewhere. Every president is despicable somehow, to someone, for some legitimate reason. All you have to do is look closely enough at the record.
So!—I come now to our special surprise. Today we launch an exhaustive survey of the Presidents of the United States and everything they did wrong while in office. “Everything Wrong with the Presidents” will be a sharp departure from your standard presidential histories, rankings, surveys, and biographies. Here, we have no interest in criticizing the man while maintaining “respect for the office.” The office itself is the problem, after all, and practically anyone you could throw into it would make a proper mess of the whole affair. Endlessly, we hear of the godlike heroes who presumably salvage the reputations of the rest; and endlessly, we hear long trains of scholarly hedging about how people are “products of their time” or limited by circumstance. We’re told that Washington and Jefferson were hardly cruel despots and hypocritical aristocrats—they were captives of British colonial policy and extremely sticky racial politics which their generation inherited and at least tried to correct. We hear that Lincoln freed the slaves and saved the country; our teachers rarely discuss the fact that the Emancipation Proclamation positively protected slavery in Union territory. And far less often do we hear that the Thirteenth Amendment still allows government slaveholding so long as the slaves have all been “duly convicted” of a crime. We hear that Teddy Roosevelt electrified audiences with his robust personality, that Woodrow Wilson made the world safe for democracy, that Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism from itself and the whole world from fascism. We learn that Truman had to drop the bombs on Japan, that the United States had no choice but to defend the “free world” from atheistic communism, and that without the most massive government the world has ever seen liberty would not exist anywhere on the planet.
Well, perhaps some of us have learned better history than all that. But nonetheless, these are our great national myths of the presidency—these and many, many more.
It’s high time to take on the myths, shred them, and finish the job by tackling each and every other president along with the “greats.” The more people realize that the office itself is the problem—that the concentration of power into the hands of a single individual is necessarily toxic to liberty—the closer we may come to reclaiming those liberties we have lost and the many more we have failed to recognize. No American president has managed to wield the power of their office and do so within the limits of both the Constitution and the rights, liberties, and interests of the people. In fact, this task is impossible and the attempt is more damaging than helpful. Even those few presidents who have entered office with the best of records, the best of intentions, and the best of methods have been abject failures in their own ways. In the end, we hope, after a thorough survey of American presidential history, audiences of all kinds will be better able to see through the mystique of office, the cloudy fog of nationalism, and undo the historical brainwashing they have experienced at the hands of a power‐worshipping educational structure and political culture.
Every president was awful. Every president should be remembered as an infamous and immoral rogue who unjustly claimed to rule many millions by arguments no better than magic. Every president deserves either our scorn, our disgust, or at the very least, our criticism; some deserve trials for war crimes and others have escaped all scrutiny by hiding in relative obscurity.