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In honor of President’s Day 2018, FreedomWorks has taken a trip through American History to compile a list of the all-time most conservative Presidents. Enjoy!
George Washington (1st President; 1789-1797)
“The Constitution is the guide which I will never abandon.” - George Washington to the Boston Selectmen, July 28, 1795
We couldn’t leave out the birthday boy. Washington’s legendary Farewell Address forewarned against partisan politics. Washington, in two of the most significant shows of executive restraint in American history, voluntarily relinquished power following the War of Independence, and then imposed on himself a limit of two terms in the Presidency. Washington easily could have accepted the role of an American King, but opted against it. These decisions served as precedents for years, keeping executive power limited. Moreover, Washington’s first term is a model for constitutional governance. He kept his power limited to the enumerated powers of the Constitution, and refused to overstep his bounds. The Republic has been far better for his example and leadership.
Thomas Jefferson: (3rd President; 1801-1809)
“A wise and frugal [government] which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement.” - Thomas Jefferson: First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801
The author of the Declaration of Independence advocated states’ rights and strongly opposed a centralized federal government. He famously stated “That government is best which governs least, because its people discipline themselves.” Jefferson knew his role as President was to ensure that the federal government did not overstep its authority and to enforce laws in keeping with the Constitution. He did not want to be the “chief legislator” or an American monarch. Throughout his term, Jefferson sought to eliminate taxes, reign in wasteful spending, and ensure the judiciary did not grow out of control. His example still serves as a model for small government advocates today.
James Madison (4th President; 1809-1817)
“I own myself the friend to a very free system of commerce, and hold it as a truth, that commercial shackles are generally unjust, oppressive and impolitic — it is also a truth, that if industry and labor are left to take their own course, they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive, and this in a more certain and direct manner than the wisdom of the most enlightened legislature could point out.” - James Madison to Congress, April 9, 1789
Madison is known as the Father of The Constitution, and his writings in The Federalist Papers have been used by scholars for centuries to determine the proper scope of the federal government’s powers. He also, as President, vetoed internal improvement legislation. These bills, while widely popular, exceeded the government’s constitutional authority, and Madison was willing to take the political hit to preserve the document that he had fostered in the earliest days of the Republic. It is that kind of political courage that we desperately need in our country today. Madison also carefully navigated the country through its first war as a nation in the War of 1812. He went through the proper procedures, and did not limit liberty as a means for security.
Martin Van Buren: (8th President; 1837-1841)
“The principle that will govern me in the high duty to which my country has called me is a strict adherence to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution as it was designed by those who framed it.” - Martin Van Buren: First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1837
Van Buren, a strict constitutionalist, believed that government had no duty in alleviating private suffering. As a response to the Panic of 1837, the Van Buren Plan consisted of free-market policies rather than government intervention which was a state’s rights victory. Van Buren’s unwillingness to greatly expand the size of government to try and stabilize the economy likely cost him re-election in 1840, but he sacrificed himself in the name of upholding his oath to defend the Constitution. Van Buren was also an avid defender of hard currency, and thought all government issued money should be coins, or backed by precious metals. He did not believe in the type of wasteful printing that is all too common nowadays.
John Tyler: (10th President; 1841-1845)
“I am called to the high office of President… understandingly to carry out the principles of that Constitution which I have sworn ‘to protect, preserve, and defend.’” - John Tyler: First Inaugural Address, April 9, 1841
Tyler was very vocal about the proper use of veto power. When vetoing the Third Bank of the US, he told Congress that it would have required him to violate his oath to defend the Constitution to approve of such a venture. He vetoed a tariff bill that he personally liked on the basis that it was implemented in an unconstitutional manner. He ended Second Seminole War and was disciplined when waiting for congressional authorization to use military force. Tyler was an ardent states’ rights advocate, and considered state sovereignty to be the default rule of any constitutional interpretation. This was true over his entire career, as, when he was a Senator, he was the lone vote against Andrew Jackson’s plan to initiate a federal takeover of South Carolina.
Franklin Pierce: (14th President; 1853-1857)
“Is it not the better rule to leave all works to private enterprise, regulated, and when expedient, aided by the cooperation of the State?” - Franklin Pierce: Second Annual Message, December 4, 1854
Pierce strongly advocated a strict interpretation of the Constitution and vetted his cabinet and his judicial nominees to make sure they felt the same way. He vetoed nine bills believed to be unconstitutional. A strong believer in federalism, he allowed Western states to enter the Union under their own policies. Pierce viewed very little role for the federal government and thought everything should be left to private companies with federal consultation only if absolutely necessary. Pierce showed restraint during the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis by waiting for congressional approval to dispatch federal troops. Pierce also rejected a rogue State Constitution in Kansas that would have established a separate entity. Pierce cited the constitutional provision that no state shall be formed within the existing boundaries of another without the expressed approval of the state legislature. This reflects a deep knowledge of the Constitution that was a theme of his presidency.
Grover Cleveland (22nd/24th President; 1885-1889, 1893-1897)
“I pledge to be guided by a just and unstrained construction of the Constitution, [and] a careful observance of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government, and those reserved to the states or to the people.” - Grover Cleveland: First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1885
Considered to be the last “small-government” Democrat and the last classically liberal (economically speaking) President, Cleveland is the only President to serve non-consecutive terms. He is remembered for fighting corruption, tariffs, high taxes, and imperialism. Preventing waste was a priority, and he dedicated countless hours to ensuring no fraud took place in granting Civil War pensions. He was also a staunch defender of the Constitution, and vetoed 414 bills in his first term that he deemed unconstitutional. This is the most ever in one term for a President. He advocated for the Gold Standard and reduced number of government employees. Cleveland also believed strongly in separation of powers, and made it a point in his first term not to interfere with congressional deliberations.
William Howard Taft: (27th President; 1909-1913)
“The President can exercise no power which cannot reasonably and fairly be traced to some specific grant of power… Such specific grant must be either in the Constitution or in an act of Congress passed in pursuance thereof.” - William Howard Taft, 1916
Taft is widely considered the last President to regard the Executive Branch as subservient when it comes to policy making. He did not subscribe to the notion that the President had unilateral authority to make law and set the agenda, as most all of his successors did. Our 27th President also used his nomination power to transform the judiciary into a model of protection against invasions of property rights and an overreaching government. Taft was also a foremost believer in strict separation of powers, as he would refuse even to try and swing public opinion in his favor, because he believed it undermined Congress’s ability to function independently. During his presidency, Taft fought against the early progressive movement’s anti-business policies and fought the 17th Amendment, on the grounds that Congress should not have two directly elected chambers, but one of the people and one of the states. Taft was the first President to apply an originalist interpretation of the Constitution to the modern world, and can serve as a model for future Presidents who would choose to do so as well.
Calvin Coolidge (30th President; 1923-1929)
“The Constitution’s framers intended to establish a free government, which must not be permitted to degenerate into the unrestrained authority of a mere majority or the unbridled weight of a mere influential few.” - Calvin Coolidge to Congress, 1926
“Silent Cal’s” peaceful administration championed Laissez-Faire and Free-Market policies. He believed firmly that the Constitution granted the right to contract freely, and he refused to allow the government to get involved in business matters. Coolidge was also perhaps the last President to hold the belief that the federal government had no role in alleviating individual suffering, and that that should be left to private enterprise. He fought corruption by convicting those involved in the Teapot Dome oil-lease scandal. He reduced national debt by one-third and cut spending by 43%, vetoed farm subsidies, and cut taxes by a whopping 50%. He famously said, “Perhaps my greatest accomplishment was minding my own business.”
Ronald Reagan (40th President; 1981-1989)
“If no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.” - Ronald Reagan: First Inaugural Address, January 20, 1981
“The Gipper” advocated Laissez-Faire and free-market policies. He cut taxes, budgets for non-military programs, federal assistance to local governments and discontinued many artificial price controls. Reagan also oversaw the phasing in of deregulatory measures that helped jumpstart the American economy. Reagan was also an advocate for small government and adherence to the Constitution during a time when many in politics were content with varying forms of big government politics. He injected liberty into the national awareness, and his talking points are used as a justification and example for many pro-liberty activists today.