General Presidents or Presidential Generals

Last week’s semi-sensational news concerning General Stanley McChrystal’s firing as U.S. commander in Afghanistan spurred quite a bit of comment in the traditional media as well as the blogosphere. One of most salient, and totally inapposite, is the comparison of President Obama action with Harry Truman’s relief of General Douglas MacArthur for publically criticizing U. S. policy on the conduct of the Korean War. The two events are not at all similar beyond both concerning high ranking officers showing disrespect for the traditional civilian control of the United State military establishment.

I say “traditional” because that is what civilian control is. Nothing in the Constitution prohibits the President from being a member of the military establishment. The President, Constitutionally commander-in-chief of the armed forces, a fact known by most Americans, is inherently the military. In fact, two serving Presidents have actually put on the uniform and led troops in the field: George Washington in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion, and James Madison briefly in the War of 1812. All Presidents, however, have emphasized the civilian character of the office. An active duty officer would have to resign or retire nowadays to campaign for office. Two generals ran for President while actually on active duty: Winfield Scott, with his victorious leadership in the Mexican-American War still fresh in the public mind in 1852; and George McClellan opposing Lincoln in 1864, at the height of the Civil War, no less.

A number of comments across the Internet asked whether one of the political (as opposed to Constitutional) qualifications for President should be military experience. Some went so far to say that a President should have experience as a general officer. That sentiment is not new. It is a truism that one should have experience in any activity before endeavoring to become the boss. The Roman Empire, the most successful in history, was essentially a military dictatorship, after the Ides of March in 44, anyway. The contrary opinion is not unknown. Having cut my academic teeth in the mid-1960s, I remember the anti-military sentiment on campuses, brought about primarily by student anxiety over the prospect of being drafted. I recall a fellow student, a history and political science major whom I respected for his intellectual and leadership abilities, proclaim that “we haven’t had a good general President yet.” That sentiment struck me as odd at the time, because the first such President who came to mind was Washington, considered by most academics to be the best President of all. Washington led troops in two wars, and was the general who finally defeated the British to win independence.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look at all Presidents and see if there is a correlation between an effective Presidency and military experience – particularly at the general officer level – or lack thereof.

Although I have a rudimentary knowledge of statistics and statistical method, I in no way consider myself a statistician. Thus, I leave for others to decide the validity of my conclusions and invite them to make their own. I present some historical facts, and opinions of those who have studied them extensively for consideration. For the prior military experience of Presidents, I rely on my general knowledge of American History, which I teach as a member of the adjunct faculty for the Dallas County Community College District. Where in doubt, I have consulted published biographies of the Presidents, or excerpts of those works. My research is not exhaustive.

Rating the Presidents is a trickier endeavor. It is almost necessarily colored by the rater’s ideological or partisan bias. In a effort to eliminate such bias as much as humanly possible, I chose a composite of ratings by scholars reported in a 2000 study sponsored by the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy and the Wall Street Journal. This survey queried 78 academics in history, policy, and law who cut across ideological lines. The ensuing Report was authored by James Lindgreen, Professor of Law at Northwestern University, and contained a ranking based on the ratings of 30 historians, 25 political scientists, and 23 law professors.

I created tables for three categories of Presidents: (1) those who had prior military experience as general officers, (2) those who had prior military experience. below the rank of general, and (3) those with no military experience. I also made note of actual combat experience, branch, and character of the service. For those who had no military experience, I noted their prior public office(s) each held in Congress, the Cabinet, federal judiciary, and state governorships.
Each category was separately listed with the members in chronological order in which they held office. The ratings were numerical ranking by mean score and by groupings of great, near great, above average, average, below average, and failure. These tables are set out as appendices.

In examining the extremes, one finds that there has been one “great” President in each category: Washington the general, Lincoln the Illinois militia captain who served in the Black Hawk War, and F. D. Roosevelt, who had no experience. Two failures are found among the prior generals. Andrew Johnson was a political appointment to military governor of Tennessee during the Civil War and saw no combat. Franklin Pierce, on the other had, saw significant combat and acquitted himself well in the Mexican American War as a brigadier general of volunteers. Among other rated failures James Buchanan served in the militia during the War of 1812. Warren Harding had no military experience.

Among the “near greats” are generals Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower, both of whom had significant accomplishments as combat commanders and leaders. As junior officers, near great Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman distinguished themselves in combat during the Spanish-American War and World War I respectively. Thomas Jefferson and Ronald Reagan never participated in combat theaters.

No generals ranked in the Presidential above average category, but five junior officers did, as well as two with no military background. Two generals were average and three below average. One junior officer was average; five were below average. Among those Presidents with no military experience, four were average, and one was below average.

All this seems to show that there does not seem to be any correlation between prior military experience, of lack thereof, that is necessarily determinative of success as President. There are numerous other variables that have not been considered, such as the times and foreign and domestic conditions. Former generals may also be over represented in the Presidential pantheon, in that each President between Lincoln and McKinley, save one, was a Union Army general in the Civil War. The first of these, Andrew Johnson, so weakened the Presidency by his inept performance (which led to impeachment, but not conviction) so weakened the office that another war, and a hero of that war, Teddy Roosevelt was necessary to restore its prestige.

Prior military experience is perhaps a plus for a President, but not a necessity. Each man (don’t fret, there will be a woman some day) elected to that office inherits a well trained and experienced military establishment. His main job is to appoint those who can effectively lead, manage, and provide competent advice to the top positions, be they civilian officials or generals When I was in the locksmith and alarm business, a competitor once told me that he didn’t have to be real smart to succeed in business (he pronounced it “bidness” – a real homeboy); he only needed to be smart enough to hire other smart people. This competitor seemed successful at the time, and I understand he remained so. That quality may be what really determines Presidential success.

As far as the three great Presidents, it is doubtful they would have attained that status had they each not had a crisis to keep from going to waste. But greatness seems to exact a price; none of those three men long survived their Presidency and the success that made them great.

Table I

Presidents Who Were General Officers Prior to Term of Office
President Rating Combat Experience/ Branch of Service and Notes
George Washington 1 (Great) Significant Virginia Militia, Continental Army, US Army; French and Indian War & commander in chief Revolutionary War
Ulysses S. Grant 32 (Below Average) Significant US Army; Mexican War & Civil War commander of Union forces
Andrew Jackson 6 (Near Great) Revolution Creek War, War of 1812, 1st Seminole War Tennessee Militia, United States Army
William H. Harrison NR Notorious, if not significant US Army
Zachary Taylor 31 (Below Average) Significant US Army; War of 1812, Black Hawk War, 2nd Seminole War, Mexican War.
Franklin Pierce 37 (Failure) Some New Hampshire Militia; Mexican War
Andrew Johnson 36 (Failure) None US Army
Rutherford B. Hayes 22 (Average) Not significant US Army Volunteers; Civil War
James A. Garfield NR Minimal US Army Volunteers; Civil War
Chester A. Arthur 26 (Average) None New York Militia, US Army; non combatant in Civil War
Benjamin Harrison 27 (Below Average) Minimal Indiana Militia, US Army
Dwight Eisenhower 9 (Near Great) Significant US Army; WWII supreme commander allied forces in Europe

Table II

Presidents with Military Service below General Officer Rank
President Rating Combat Experience/ Branch of Service and Notes
Thomas Jefferson 4 (Near Great) None Colonel, Virginia Militia
James Madison 15 (Above Average) None Colonel, Virginia Militia
James Monroe 16 (Above Average) Some Major, Continental Army; Revolutionary War
John Tyler 34 (Below Average) Some Captain, US Army; War of 1812
James K. Polk 10 (Near Great) None Colonel, Tennessee Militia
Millard Fillmore 35 (Below Average) None Major, New York State Militia.
James Buchanan 39 (Failure) None Pennsylvania Militia; War of 1812
Abraham Lincoln 2 (Great) Some Captain, Illinois Militia; Black Hawk War
William McKinley 14 (Above Average Some Brevet Major, US Army; Civil War
Theodore Roosevelt 5 (Near Great) Significant Colonel; US Army (Volunteers); Spanish American War
Harry S Truman 7 (Near Great) Significant Captain, US Army; WW I
John F. Kennedy 18 (Above Average) Significant Lieutenant, US Navy; WW II
Lyndon B. Johnson 17 (Above Average) Some (maybe) Commander, US Navy; WW II
Richard M. Nixon 33 (Below Average) None LtCommander, US Navy, WW II
Gerald Ford 28 (Below Average) Significant LtCommander, US Navy, WW II
Jimmy Carter 30 (Below Average) None Lieutenant, US Navy, Korean War
Ronald Reagan 8 (Near Great) None Captain, US Army; WW II
George H. W. Bush 21 (Average) Significant Lieutenant, US Army; WW II
George W. Bush NR None Lieutenant, Texas Air NG

Table III

Presidents Who Had No Prior Military Service
President Rating Prior Public Office Notes
John Adams 13 (Above Average) Vice-President Participated in naval battle when a passenger on a warship
John Quincy Adams 20 (Average) Ambassador; Secretary of State
Martin Van Buren 23 (Average) Vice-President, Secretary of State, Governor
Grover Cleveland 12 (Above Average) Governor Paid a substitute to avoid draft during Civil War
William H. Taft 19 (Average) Secretary of War; Federal Judge
Woodrow Wilson 11 (Near Great) Governor
Warren G. Harding 37 (Failure) Senator
Calvin Coolidge 25 (Average) Governor/ Vice-President
Herbert Hoover 29 (Below Average) Secretary of Commerce
F. D. Roosevelt 3 (Great) Governor
Bill Clinton NR Governor
Barack Obama NR Senator

Table IV


General/Presidents: 12
Great 1
Near Great 2
Above Average 0
Average 2
Below Average 3
Failure 2
NR 2
Presidents with military experience: 18
Great 1
Near Great 4
Above Average 5
Average 1
Below Average 5
Failure 1
NR 1

Presidents w/o military experience: 12
Great 1
Near Great 1
Above Average 2
Average 4
Below Average 1
Failure 1
NR 2


By bobreagan13

My day job is assisting individuals and small businesses as a lawyer. I taught real estate law and American history in the Dallas County Community College system. I have owned and operated private security firms and was a police officer and criminal investigator for the Dallas Police Department.

I am interested in history and historical research, music, cycling, and British mysteries and police dramas.

I welcome comments, positive, negative, or neutral, if they are respectful.

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