In the spirit of March Madness, I’ve begun to work on a series (that will take as long as it needs to) of blog posts for a presidential bracket. I think it is a fun way to look at some of the lesser known attributes of some of our Chief Executives, to think about what makes a good president, and to perhaps rethink some of our own prejudices and notions about America’s political history. 44 presidents (including two Grover Clevelands) will compete in four different regions for the title of best president of all time. The selection committee has set the field, divided into four regions (East Wing, West Wing, Oval Office and Rose Garden Regions) and the participants will compete based on several criteria:
- Problems that the president faced internationally or domestically and how he dealt with them.
- Problems that he caused internationally or domestically and how he dealt with them.
- How the president affected the prestige of the office or conducted himself.
- Short term positive or negative effects of the presidency.
- Long term positive or negative effects of the presidency.
- How did the president upheld the oath of office?
- How did he use presidential power?
- How the president changed or shaped the presidency–was he shaped by events or did he control the narrative?
Fill out your brackets, argue about it with your friends and family, and then strap yourself in for this series. We will start the tournament off with the Rose Garden Region’s play-in games.
The Rose Garden Region:
Zachary Taylor (8) v. John Tyler (9)
This is a matchup of two of history’s worst regarded presidents, and is a marquee matchup of the 8 and 9 seeds in the Presidential Pool’s Rose Garden Region. John Tyler is a slight underdog in this underwhelming matchup.
Zachary Taylor’s is a cautionary tale of the perils of electing supposed political outsiders (especially generals) to the presidency. A slightly ill-kept war hero with little formal education, Taylor had never voted, much less held elected office when he was swept to office. Brendan Miniter writes in Presidential Leadership, that as a blank slate candidate voters could read into Taylor’s candidacy whatever qualities they wanted. Unfortunately he probably did not fulfill any of those hopes.
Taylor assumed office during a prosperous time. The Mexican War that Taylor starred in had just been won and the U.S. had added vast swaths of territory that included California, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. With all of that new territory, the issue of slavery, like for most presidents of this period, shaped Taylor’s presidency. While the Whig Party did not end in his term (he died in office after a year and a half, and his running mate oversaw the end of his party), Taylor’s handling of the issue of slavery tore the party apart. In his short time in office, the delicate balancing act of compromising between Northern and Southern Whigs over the issue of slavery and hair-brained attempts to contain slavery which became a hallmark of Whig politics also spelled the end of an entire political party.
Though he served in a time in which the presidency was much weaker, Taylor failed to use the still considerable power of his presidency to either oppose slavery or to effectively find political solutions, even secretly conspiring in the failed plan to bring California and New Mexico into the Union as free states in order to offset the expansion of slavery (even though he too owned slaves) into newly acquired territories. The one bright spot of his Administration was amidst an otherwise lackluster foreign policy record–that was the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which led to closer U.S. and British relations. Spanning from 1849 to 1850, Zachary Taylor’s is definitely not the worst presidency, but he has perhaps been the worst president should we pro-rate his term.
John Tyler, the 10th president and another Whig, was elected as Vice President to William Harrison as the latter half of Tippecanoe and…Well, Tyler too. Widely regarded as a very bad president because he was kicked out of his own party during his term, Tyler was not as bad as history gives him credit for. Tyler was a staunch proponent of the Constitution and states’ rights. He was selected by the Whigs as a way to attract votes from the South, since he was a former Democrat. When he accidentally became president, Tyler’s agenda was in stark opposition to the national party, which favored a national bank.
Considering that Tyler entered office having virtually no constituency and heading a party which was naturally hostile to his agenda, Tyler set some important precedents as president. He was the first president to assume office after the death of his predecessor, so by defining the role of the V.P. in regard to the line of succession, Tyler created a precedent that has been followed today. It might seem weird today to question this since it is a bedrock principle of the modern presidency, but John Tyler is the reason why. As John Baker points out, many at that time interpreted the Constitution to mean that upon the president’s death, the vice president remained vice president and was “acting president.” Tyler instead assumed the presidency itself, not just the “powers and duties” that the Constitution specifically proscribed. This is not really a radical expansion of the Constitution’s intent, but merely a place where the Constitution was vague and Tyler used his office to define its meaning.
Tyler was a constitutional originalist as well. His running mate William Harrison (another general) had agreed to basically be a patsy for Congress and had also agreed that all presidential actions would be determined by majority votes from his cabinet. Tyler did not abide by either agreement.
An oddly moderate blend between Jeffersonian Republicanism and Whig politics, John Tyler found himself an unelected president without a party when the Whigs expelled him after he executed the veto power without abandon in order to oppose Henry Clay and the Whigs’ nationalist policies. It can be said that Tyler could have been a grand compromiser but in his ignominious predicament it is hard for me to see how this is so. Despite his cordial but tumultuous relationship with both his cabinet and Congress which resulted in Tyler being the first president to face impeachment proceedings, Tyler was a statesman whose actions seemed to always bear in mind his Constitutional role as president and the well-being of his country.
Though the divide between North and South widened during his presidency, Tyler was faced with a Congress and a climate where this was largely unavoidable and Tyler carefully used his power and his office to diffuse this tension. He brought Florida and Texas into the U.S. over Whig opposition before he declined to run for a second term beginning in 1845 and endorsed the Democrat James Polk against his Henry Clay hand-picked opponent, Martin Van Buren.
John Tyler is a blowout upset of an over rated opponent in Zachary Taylor in this matchup of flawed presidencies due primarily to his few successes, the precedents he set, and his principled leadership.
Next: Barack Obama (6) v. Jimmy Carter (11) and Calvin Coolidge (7) v. William Harrison (11)