Presidential Greatness

IMG_5154President’s Day is a day to consider the history of the forty-four men who have served as President of the United States. South Dakota is the home of Mount Rushmore, a monument to presidential greatness. Borglum’s selection of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt indicated his “ranking” of greatest presidents at that time.

It’s not squarely within the scope of this blog, but in addition to studying South Dakota history, I have always enjoyed studying the history of U.S. Presidents. One way to consider that history is through the various scholarly efforts, beginning with Arthur Schlesinger in 1948, to rank the presidents, from best to worst.

C-SPAN has conducted such a survey of historians three times, released in 2000, 2009, and 2017. Using my children’s president blocks, I created the attached graphic, displaying the 2017 C-SPAN rankings (starting at the top, going left-to-right). The C-SPAN rankings rate presidents on each of ten subscores, which are averaged to create an overall ranking.

Today on Twitter I posted several observations about these rankings, which I’m including here with some light editing:

  • The United States was particularly well-led from 1933-69 according to this poll; all 5 presidents from that time are in the top 10. The triple crises of the Great Depression, World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War created opportunities for greatness, but the nation was still very fortunate.  Having said that, a recency bias may be at work here; seven of the top ten presidents in this ranking served since 1900.
  • It is interesting to see how historical opinion changes over time. Eisenhower was 21st when he was first included in a survey, in 1962. He was 9th in 2000 poll and has moved up to 5th in 2017; he is now behind only the “big four” of Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts. I think he has been underrated but most people wouldn’t hold him that high.
  • Another big mover is Grant, from 33rd to 22nd. Like Eisenhower, he has received a favorable reassessment from historians. Eisenhower and Grant were not particularly ideological and both led a tumultuous, post-war period with an “invisible hand.”
  • Reagan has rated as low as 22nd in the past; he was 11th in 2000 and is now 9th.
  • I think George H. W. Bush, currently 20th, is likely to move up over time. Like Eisenhower and Grant, he led subtly in a complicated environment. His current standing at 20th is close to where Eisenhower and Reagan once stood; both have risen into the top ten. The outpouring for Bush when he died last year signals a reassessment.
  • Two big droppers have been Wilson (6 to 11) and Jackson (13 to 18) – both probably due to new scrutiny of racism. Wilson was racist even relative to society during his time; his handling of entry into WWI has also been reassessed. He was 4th in the 1948 Schlesinger poll, ahead of even Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. (I think Wilson used to do well, in part, because he was a Ph.D. political scientist and president of Princeton, and he appealed to academics taking the survey. His race record wasn’t held against him during that time.)
  • Jackson’s freefall has been going on for some time. He was 6th in the 1948 Schlesinger poll, and consistently 6 or 7 through the 1980s.
  • I cannot explain Cleveland’s fall by six spots from 17 in 2000 to 23 in 2017. I can only think that more interesting and memorable presidents keep moving ahead of him.
  • It’s hard to know how George W. Bush will fare over time; he is currently 33rd. His record is similar in some ways to Truman; both were eventful presidencies. Truman led the nation through the end of World War II and created the institutions and policies that fought the Cold War. He left office unpopular, as the Korean War became unpopular and the economy suffered. Bush’s record with 9/11, the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Great Recession parallels Truman. Truman’s standing rose as, over time, the wisdom of his decisions became more clear. Bush has often said he doesn’t care how history remembers him because he’ll be dead; in his case that’s probably true.
  • Madison ahead of John Adams seems wrong to me. Adams had the impossible job of replacing Washington and kept the United States neutral between Britain and France. Madison got us into War of 1812. I also think that, particularly among the Founding Fathers, non-presidential accomplishments tend to bleed into the ratings. Madison probably benefits from his status as “father of the Constitution,” even though that was two decades before he became President.
  • Coolidge has recently been revisited by conservative scholars; that isn’t really showing up in the surveys as he ranks 27th. I think that seems a bit low.
  • William Henry Harrison died after 30 days in office and didn’t do anything; he ranks 38th. That doesn’t say much for the five presidents who rank below Harrison: Tyler, Harding, Pierce, Andrew Johnson and Buchanan. Buchanan was rated the worst in all three C-SPAN polls and seems to have a grip on that position. I personally would place Andrew Johnson in dead-last but I’m certainly not a Buchanan advocate either.
  • Finally, it’s probably fair to assume that Trump will not do well in these surveys, at least at first. Like him or not, the people taking these surveys are typically professors of history or political science; not exactly his crowd.

Finally, I was asked on Twitter to post my personal “Top Ten.” Here is my list:

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. George Washington
  3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  4. Theodore Roosevelt
  5. Ronald Reagan
  6. Harry S. Truman
  7. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  8. Thomas Jefferson
  9. George H. W. Bush
  10. James K. Polk


Comparing my list to 2017 C-SPAN:

  • My top four are the same as C-SPAN. The top three are easy; nearly every one of these rankings have those three, in that order, and I agree with that.
  • Spots #4-8 were close in my mind. I ultimately agreed with C-SPAN with Theodore Roosevelt at 4th. He did a great deal to establish the United States as a world power and his embrace of progressivism was a major turning point for the nation. Unlike the top three, he achieved greatness without serving during some epochal event.
  • I placed Reagan four spots higher than C-SPAN did; I placed greater value on his leadership in ending the Cold War, a pivotal event in American and world history.
  • I flipped Truman ahead of Eisenhower, although they are close in my mind. Truman made perhaps the most difficult decision in presidential history when he chose to use the atomic bomb. He created the key institutions and programs to win the Cold War: NATO, the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the CIA. He also made the politically difficult decision to fire General MacArthur. Eisenhower ended the Korean War and masterfully led the institutions that Truman had created. Only now is he getting the credit he is due for his skillful administration.
  • Jefferson benefits in part from achievements outside the presidency, such as his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. In his first term he set aside his ideological rigidity to purchase Louisiana territory, and he navigated the foreign policy tug-of-war between England and France. But his second term went off the rails with a disastrous trade embargo and foreign policy that led to the War of 1812.
  • I dropped JFK and LBJ out of the top ten. I think they were both good presidents. JFK’s signature achievement was his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis; beyond that he is remembered for his public image and his rhetoric, and his advocacy for programs, such as the civil rights legislation and the moon landing, that were achieved by later presidents. As for LBJ, he stepped in and passed those civil rights bills, as well as the Great Society package of social programs, but was drug down by the morass of Vietnam.
  • Replacing JFK and LBJ on my list are George H. W. Bush and James K. Polk. I addressed Bush above; in just one term he masterfully managed of the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and Desert Storm in Iraq. In some ways, Bush worked himself out of the job; his resolution of nearly every important foreign policy issue made him “yesterday’s man” and allowed the nation to reject him in favor of Clinton, who focused on domestic policy. As for Polk, he fought and won the Mexican War, securing Texas, California, and the southwest; he also negotiated with Great Britain to secure the Oregon Territory. He declined to run for a second term because he’d achieved everything he wanted to do. The United States would look very different today if not for Polk.