Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Virginia Mafia

The third and fourth presidents, Messrs., Jefferson and Madison respectively rate high on the Siena poll. I would rate Jefferson down a few and Madison way down. I think I am square with them on Monroe, they last of the Virginia Mafia.

Jefferson: I would rate Jefferson high, but down a few notches. He gets points for the peaceful expansion through the Louisiana Purchase, domestic policy effectiveness (I usually judge this distinctly different from the effect of those same policies), and for being a game changer. There have been only a handful of presidents who have altered the political environment through policy and style and Jefferson was the first. Then Jefferson starts to lose points with me. There was the embargo. One the one hand I think (on a purely academic level) that it was a neat idea to keep us out of war. On the other it was a miserable failure and one of the federal government's biggest ever efforts to restrict freedom. In the realm of foreign policy Jefferson was in a tough position trying to assert neutral rights as France and England slugged it out. To me his biggest mistake was in leaving the country essentially unarmed in the midst of this crisis. The army shrunk, the navy mothballed, and reliance placed on the militia. The War of 1812 showed the clear folly of this policy. We were fortunate that the effects were not worse.

Madison: I don't get this one at all. I tend to view Madison as a very poor president, certainly not #6. He botched entry into war (I recommend Stagg, Mr. Madison's War on this). Madison followed this by becoming the worst war leader in our history. If there was one saving grace it was that he did not engage in any efforts to restrict civil liberties as Adams, Lincoln, and Wilson did during their administrations. It was a leaderless war, with no national strategy or objective. The war was enormously important not because we won, but because the Native Americans lost and tens of thousands of American settlers flooded into the Ohio River Valley. States formed in quick succession. Thus his presidency produced important, long-term consequences, but his involvement in that outcome was purely a coincident nature.

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