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The Worst President Ever on Civil Liberties?

In an informal poll last year, professional historians rated George W. Bush the worst president ever in American history. It is a bit early to begin rating a president who still has two more years to serve, and time and events could change that judgement.

On civil liberties issues, Bush clearly has the worst record of any president. He has led an all-out assault on the separation of church and state, abortion rights and gay and lesbian rights. The USA PATRIOT Act is packed with threats to freedom of speech and due process protections. His administration has justified holding people indefinitely without charges, and in a broader sense it has made sweeping claims that it is not bound by legal precedents or existing human rights standards.

But if some people imagine that a liberal Democratic president would vigorously defend individual rights in a time of crisis, they need to take a closer look at the historical record. Democratic presidents have been responsible for some of the worst violations of civil liberties. Woodrow Wilson suppressed free speech during World War I, while Franklin D. Roosevelt interned 120,000 Japanese-Americans in World War II.

A review of presidents and civil liberties is important for several reasons. First, it puts President Bush in historical context. Second, it is appropriate to ask how well our presidents have defended or attacked the principles of free speech, due process, equal protection and privacy that form the core of our system of liberty. Third, there is the matter of how historians have addressed this issue. Since Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.’s first poll in 1947 there has been a very strong consensus of opinion among historians, with Washington, Lincoln and FDR consistently rated the as “great” presidents. When you read the text accompanying the various surveys, however, you find that civil liberties issues nearly vanish. Wilson’s suppression of free speech and FDR’s internment of the Japanese-Americans are barely mentioned. What accounts for this?

Finally, and perhaps most important, examining presidents and civil liberties tells us a lot about American society and how it has changed over time. How and why did church-state issues become such a central controversy in American life? What forces made privacy a major social and political issue? In the end, presidential administrations are a lens through which we can better understand the changing dynamics of civil liberties issues in American society.

I examined the civil liberties records of the sixteen presidents from Wilson to George W. Bush. Wilson is the proper starting point because while there were important civil liberties controversies in earlier years (notably the Alien and Sedition Acts and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus), they never became a permanent part of national political and legal life. That all changed with World War I and civil liberties have been a permanent and increasingly important part of our political life ever since.

How well have civil liberties been served by these presidents? The short answer is, not very well.

Although usually ranked among the “near great” presidents, Woodrow Wilson’s record is one of the very worst. He authorized the massive suppression of free speech during World War I and earlier imposed racial segregation among federal employees. His support for the Women’s Suffrage amendment was his only effort in support of a civil liberties issue.

The presidencies of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover are almost devoid of presidential action on civil liberties. In the 1920s, however, we can see civil liberties issues percolating on the margins of American society. The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial was the opening gun in a battle over church and state that is now at the center of American politics. Free speech controversies erupted in local communities across the country. The Supreme Court’s 1927 decision inBuck v. Bell portended controversies over the limits of government power over sexuality and personal autonomy. The 1920s illustrates the point that the fascinating and important story is not what presidents did but how a changing society eventually thrust church-state, free speech, and other civil liberties issues to center state.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s record is arguably the most contradictory of any president on civil liberties. The internment of the Japanese-Americans, one of the most shameful episodes in American history, will forever stain his reputation. On the positive side, he appointed two of the greatest civil libertarians ever to sit on the Supreme Court: Hugo Black and William O. Douglas. Cabinet members Frank Murphy Harold Ickes, meanwhile, gave active support to civil liberties and civil rights.

The case of FDR dramatizes the difficulties in attempting to “rank” presidents. How are we to strike a balance between his positive and negative actions with regard to civil liberties? And how do we factor such a grotesque event as the Japanese-American internment into an overall “score” on a president. In the end, ranking presidents is less important than learning about how American society has changed.

Harry Truman’s record is equally ambiguous. He exercised courageous leadership on racial equality, appointing the first presidential commission on civil rights and desegregating of the armed services, risking his reelection in the process. But he also created the Federal Loyalty Program in 1947, including the infamous Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations, establishing the principle that government could inquire into political beliefs and associations.

Eisenhower was severely criticized while president both for failing to provide strong leadership on civil rights and not criticizing the excesses of Senator Joe McCarthy. As with the 1920s, however, the fascinating aspects of the Eisenhower years from a civil liberties perspective are the changes that swept through American society. There was a rising popular discontent with censorship of the arts. Church-state issues had reached the Supreme Court and were roiling local communities. The sexual revolution was well under way, with potent implications for birth control, abortion, same sex relations, and the rights of women.

Complexities and contradictions abound with respect to the remaining presidents. Kennedy was very weak on civil rights until forced to act by demonstrations in the streets. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but was responsible for violations of civil liberties related to the war in Vietnam. Nixon sought to change the Supreme Court, but on many issues he now looks surprisingly moderate compared with today’s neo-conservatives. And so it goes.

In the end, no president has an unblemished record on civil liberties. And no political party has a monopoly on virtue when it comes to defending the principles enshrined in the Bill of Rights.