Lincoln may be on top but presidential rankings remain controversial

Lincoln remains nation’s best president according to new historians poll

By Bonnie K. Goodman


The greatest American presidents in history cemented their positions in the latest ranking of presidents by historians. On Friday, February 17, 2017, C-SPAN released their third survey ranking of American presidents entitled “Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership,” where Civil War President Abraham Lincoln again tops the poll conducted by 91 historians. C-SPAN has done the ranking three times each time after the latest president left office in 2000, 2009 and now 2017. This time Barack Obama has his first ranking in the pantheon of presidential greats, and he comes in a respectably high 12th place. Presidential rankings are often controversial whether conducted by presidential scholars or public opinion polls, with both often-generating conflicting results and not indicative of presidential history or greatness.

According to C-SPAN’s survey, the top four presidents after Lincoln are George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and Theodore Roosevelt. Lincoln (1861-1865), has topped the C-SPAN survey all three times. Lincoln served as president during the Civil War, was able to save the Union, put an end to slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, but whose time was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet before he could implement his Reconstruction plan. Washington’s (1789-1797) high status is attributed to his being the nation’s first president and the model all presidents have strived to since.

Franklin Roosevelt (1933-45) had the longest time in office, he was the only president elected to four terms but died in months into his fourth term. Roosevelt created the modern welfare state and expanded presidential powers that no previous president had done, creating the first imperial presidency. Roosevelt’s New Deal program helped the nation recover from the great economic depression and later presided over the country and its involvement in World War II. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), was the first president of the 20th century and the first modern president. Roosevelt instituted some progressive reforms while bringing the country as a major world power. Roosevelt was also the first president to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his foreign policy, brokering peace that ended the Russo-Japanese War.

The majority of the top ten presidents are from the 20th century, with only three from 18th and 19th century, with the addition of Thomas Jefferson, (1801-1809) the nation’s third president at number seven. Half of the top ten are presidents from the middle of the 20th century, serving between 1933 and 1969. Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) in fifth, Harry Truman (1945-1953)  in sixth place, John F. Kennedy (1961-63) in eighth and Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969) in tenth. There was only one president ranked in the top ten from the later part of the century, Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). While three died in office, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, with Lincoln and Kennedy being assassinated.

Historian Richard Norton Smith, an academic advisor for the survey, commented on this mid-twentieth century golden era in presidential history, “Five presidents from this era each rank in the top ten which tells you something about the criteria that historians tend to use. It reinforces Franklin Roosevelt’s claim to be not only the first modern president but the man who, in reinventing the office, also established the criteria by which we judge our leaders.”

On the other bottom of the ranking is the presidents usually considered the worst in history and the worst of the worst remains the same. James Buchanan (1857-1861) is again at the bottom of the list, as the president right before the Civil War, historians blame him the most for the dissolution of the Union as sectional divisions eroded and the fragile balance collapsed.

Buchanan was president while slaveholders and anti-slavery fought in bleeding Kansas over slavery in the state, where he supported the proslavery and rigged Lecompton Constitution in 1857 to resolve the issue and allow Kansas to enter as a slave state. During Buchanan’s tenure was the 1857 Supreme Court decision on Missouri slave Dred Scott that determined that slaveholders could maintain their ownership of slaves anywhere in the country invalidating Congress’ attempt since 1820 to contain the expansion of slavery. John Brown’s Harpers Ferry Raid in 1859 was the last straw; the anti-slavery Brown had previously killed “five pro-slavery Kansas settlers” now wanted to raid the “federal arsenal” at Harper’s Ferry and lead a “slave uprising.” After two days of fighting, he was captured, and later that year hung for treason.

In the second to last spot is Buchanan’s predecessor, Franklin Pierce, who signed the ill-fated Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that led to the disintegration under Buchanan’s tenure. The act allowed for popular sovereignty, allowing the state decides whether they would have slavery or be free soil. Historian Steven E. Siry writing in John E. Findling and Frank W. Thackeray’s “Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century” indicated, “No other piece of legislation in American history has produced such immediate and far-reaching changes.” (p. 10)

Andrew Johnson is perpetually in the third to last spot. Johnson, a Southern Democrat from Tennessee, was Lincoln’s Vice President as part of their 1864 Union ticket; he oversaw Reconstruction after the war and subsequently was the first president ever impeached by the House of Representatives. Johnson hoped to continued Lincoln’s more lenient plan of Reconstruction, allowing the Southern rebels states back into the Union after taking a loyalty oath, a plan most Republicans in Congress opposed leading them implementing a more radical plan after the midterm election in 1866 filled with military occupations of the Southern states.

Johnson was not one to compromise and has been called “the living incarnation of stubbornness” by historians Findling and Thackeray. (p. 123) Johnson’s constant vetoes that the Republican Congress eventually overrode led them to impeach him. Congress used as grounds that Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act for removing his Secretary of War, who supported the radical reconstruction plan. Johnson was acquitted by just one vote in the Senate, affirming the right of a president to disagree with Congress.

Despite the constants in the top and bottom of the list, the greatest interest seems to be the ranking of the latest presidents including the three that successively joined the ranking since CSPAN began their survey in 2000, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now the most recent addition to the former presidents club Barack Obama. Clinton, who presided over the biggest economic boom of the post-war era, but he was also the second president to impeached is seeing his ranking improve since he joined the list in 2000. Clinton began in 2000 at 21st place, but has moved and remained at the 15th position in the last two editions.

Clinton’s good ranking mostly has to do with his economic record, the 1990s job boom, and balancing the budget ending his term with a surplus. Clinton failed primarily in foreign policy by not dealing with the growing terrorist threat that erupted early in his successor’s term and his personal scandals. It was Clinton’s lying to cover up his affair with a White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which started during the 1995 government shutdown that led to his impeachment mostly because of his perjury in a deposition in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against him. Clinton, like Johnson, was able to avoid conviction by being acquitted in the Senate’s trial.

Bush also sees his historical reputation rise, but only slightly, moving up three from 36th place to the 33rd position. Bush united the country in the aftermath of the worst terror attack on American soil in history when on September 11, 2001, radical terrorist group Al-Qaida used planes that hit the Pentagon in Washington, and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, killing over 3,000 Americans.

Bush’s counter attack, initiating over decade-long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, divided the country and mostly resulted in Bush falling out of favor with voters. The unpopular foreign wars coupled with domestic policy mistakes, including the handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the worst economic and housing collapse since the Great Depression led to Bush’s low ranking despite being a two-term president with the highest record approval rating from 2001 on record. Douglas Brinkley, a Rice University professor and C-SPAN historical advisory board member, commented, “The survey is surprisingly good news for George W. Bush, who shot up a few notches.”

After the divisiveness of Bush, Barack Obama came onto the scene, and he was elected in 2008 on a campaign pledge of hope and change. Obama success was most in domestic policy as he remained mired up for years in Bush’s wars in the Middle East before withdrawing all troops later in his presidency. Obama was able to turn the economy around with the help of his stimulus plan passed by a Democratic Congress, but it took six years for any actual recovery. Obama was the first president to succeed and provide health insurance coverage for practically all Americans with his Affordable Care Act, the program known as Obamacare.

Obama however, failed in pursuit of his other goal immigration reform, creating a legal pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants most of whom came from Latin American countries. Legislation in Congress stalled in the Senate, and Obama’s attempts at going it alone in a limited form through executive actions were struck down by the Supreme Court. Obama will be most remembered for his soaring rhetoric, advancement rights for LGBT Americans and being the first African-American president elected in American history.

Still, partisan divisions grew in the country under Obama, who despite promises to unite divided more during his tenure, where he was according to polls the polarizing president in history. His constant wars with the Republican House voted in 2010 and Senate voted in 2014 did nothing to help the partisan divide. Obama was the first black president, however, race relations deteriorated during his tenure, as police violence against Africans Americans rose.

Despite his shortcomings, in his first foray in the presidential ranking, Obama was placed in the generous position of 12th. Obama earned the third spot in the category “equal justice for all” and seventh place “moral authority,” eighth for “economic management” and tenth place for “public persuasion.” Obama’s stature among historians counters his ranking in the public opinion polls where he only ranked ninth out of the twelve postwar presidents based on his term average.

Edna Greene Medford, a Howard University professor and a member of C-SPAN’s historical advisory board thought Obama’s ranking was low, “Although 12th is a respectable overall ranking, one would have thought that former President Obama’s favorable rating when he left office would have translated into a higher ranking in this presidential survey.” Meanwhile, fellow board member Brinkley believes, “That Obama came in at number 12 his first time out is quite impressive.”

As for the survey’s methodology, the historians rated each president with a grade of “one (“not effective”) to ten (“very effective”) scale” on ten attributes, and the average represented their total overall ranking. The attributes consisted of “ten qualities of presidential leadership” which include, “Public Persuasion,” “Crisis Leadership,” “Economic Management,” “Moral Authority,” “International Relations,” “Administrative Skills,” “Relations with Congress,” “Vision/Setting An Agenda,” “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” and “Performance Within the Context of His Times.”

The CSPAN “Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership,” was overseen by an academic advisory team which included, Douglas G. Brinkley Professor of History Rice University, Edna Greene Medford, Professor of History Howard University and Richard Norton Smith, Presidential Historian, and Author. The advisory board chose the historians to participate based on those from “a database of C-SPAN’s programming.” In the end, 91 scholars, journalists or authors decided to participate. A problem with the ranking might be the caliber of historians who participated, most are liberal leaning, although there are some that participated are well known and respected, others are barely known, with some notable scholars glaringly absent.

Presidential rankings history dates back nearly 70 years and is a product of the postwar period, but has expanded greatly at the turn of the millennium. The eminent historian and professor at Harvard University Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. conducted the first presidential ranking in 1948; Schlesinger conducted it again in 1962, with the help of 75 historians, while his son, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. did the third edition of their ranking years later in 1996. Along the way, both colleges and news media have tried their hand at conducting rankings of the presidents aided by presidential scholars.

Among them, include the Chicago Tribune in 1982, Siena College’s Research Institute made their ranking a tradition, publishing it each time after a president left office or ended a term starting in 1982, then 1990, 1994, 2002, and most recently 2010. Sienna College’s ranking often ranked the latest president although they were usually just starting or in their middle of their term, not giving a complete picture or fair ranking. The Wall Street Journal attempted for a fair and unbiased ranking in their two editions conducted in 2000 and 2005 by including an equal amount of liberal and conservative scholars.

Another attempt for balance was William J. Ridings, Jr., and Stuart B. McIver who conducted a poll with 719 scholars, politicians and celebrities between 1988 and 1996. They looked for representations from all states, female historians, and African American historians for their ranking that was published as “Rating the Presidents: A Ranking of U.S. leaders, from the Great and Honorable to the Dishonest and Incompetent.” Recent presidential rankings include, the Times of London conducted one in 2008, the United States Presidency Centre (USPC) at the University of London in 2011, while the American Political Science Association (APSA) produced one in 2015.

Most of the rankings agree that Lincoln, Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt rank in the top three while the bottom consistently includes Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and the scandal-filled Warren G. Harding (1921-23). There have been some differences when conservative scholars are included in the decision-making process.

Wall Street Journal’s polls saw successive Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson ranked lower in 18th  and 17th in 2000 and 15th and 18th in 2005, with both receiving their lowest ranking of all surveys, Kennedy in 2000 and Johnson in 2005. Meanwhile, Republican President Ronald Regan saw his status improve with Conservative historians involved; Reagan had his highest showing at eighth in 2000 and sixth in 2005.

The largest partisan divide is with the ranking of George W. Bush; most rankings have near the bottom of the list like C-SPAN despite his two-terms and high poll numbers dealing with the aftermath of 9/1. Liberal scholars view him negatively as WSJ’s 2005 survey indicated ranking him 37th out of 43, while Republicans considered him in the top 10 in sixth place, both suggest that Bush’s usual low ranking may show partisan bias a major flaw in the rankings. Meanwhile, Obama might be ranking higher than he should in his first outing, because liberals consider him a hero not based on his approval ratings, or any historical perspective because he just left office.

In addition to surveys compiled from expert opinions, there have been numerous polls asking the public their view of who was the greatest president, with even more conducting partial polls looking at the recent postwar presidents. CSPAN conducted a full survey in 2000, as did ABC News, Washington College conducted one in 2005, Rasmussen in 2007 and Gallup in 2011. The results differed greatly from those of scholars, usually more recent presidents fared better either entering the top ten or higher up making the top five. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan consistently did better, as did Bill Clinton, even the public had a more favorable regard for George W. Bush than academics.

Quinnipiac University released a partial survey of “the best and worst presidents since World War II” in January. In the top five best presidents were Reagan, Obama, Kennedy, Clinton, Eisenhower, and George W. Bush in sixth out of the twelve presidents. Of the worst, the top five were Nixon, Obama, George W. Bush, Carter and Reagan with Clinton in sixth place.

Presidential rankings have long been controversial even when they are conducted and are the opinions professional scholars, historians and political scientists. One of the largest problems is rankings in the humanities is not a science, the bias of the historians is always problematic, whether it be political as much academics are liberals or even personal based on their area of research.

Presidents and historians alike find the rankings controversial. Lincoln biographer, Harvard professor, and doyen David Herbert Donald recalled Kennedy’s negative opinion of presidential rankings when they met in 1961. Donald recounted, “No one has a right to grade a President-even poor James Buchanan-who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that came across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions.”

Historian James MacGregor Burns noted the problems with ranking some presidents with major successes and failures. An example is Richard Nixon, (1969-1974) the only president ever to resign because of the Watergate scandal cover up but made significant inroads in Cold War foreign policy with a détente with the Soviet Union, and opened the door to relations with China. Lyndon Johnson is another, his record with civil and voting rights legislation, his war on poverty with his Great Society program represented highs in his presidency marred by the deepening conflict the Vietnam War, which led him not to run for a second full term. As well as Clinton, who had a scandal-filled presidency, complete with impeachment, but had tremendous approval ratings and success with the economy.

Princeton professor and presidential scholar Julian E. Zelizer, considering his influence in the profession was not one of the participants of C-SPAN’s survey, because of his disapproval of the rankings. Zelizer commented in his 2011 op-ed for CNN “What’s wrong with presidential rankings” lamenting that “rankings don’t tell us much about presidential history. The rankings are weak mechanisms for evaluating what has taken place in the White House.” Zelizer claimed presidential reputations change over time with perspective and context. While there are also problems with the criteria evaluating the presidents, assessing presidents with conflicting records as MacGregor Burns noted, and political bias.

Professor Zelizer is right, presidential; rankings are superficial and do not truly indicate historical greatness, and the complicated decisions each president was faced with at the time, as Kennedy argued to Donald. Academics would do better to recommend thorough biographies of each president for students of history and the public for them to have a more nuanced comprehension of presidential history than participating and promote rankings that are almost always rifled with bias and as Zelizer indicated just make great headlines.

Full overall rankings from CSPAN’s 2017 survey:

1. Abraham Lincoln
2. George Washington
3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
4. Teddy Roosevelt
5. Dwight Eisenhower
6. Harry Truman
7. Thomas Jefferson
8. John F. Kennedy
9. Ronald Reagan
10. Lyndon Johnson
11. Woodrow Wilson
12. Barack Obama
13. James Monroe
14. James Polk
15. Bill Clinton
16. William McKinley
17. James Madison
18. Andrew Jackson
19. John Adams
20. George H.W. Bush
21. John Q. Adams
22. Ulysses Grant
23. Grover Cleveland
24. William Taft
25. Gerald Ford
26. Jimmy Carter
27. Calvin Coolidge
28. Richard Nixon
29. James Garfield
30. Benjamin Harrison
31. Zachary Taylor
32. Rutherford Hayes
33. George W. Bush
34. Martin Van Buren
35. Chester Arthur
36. Herbert Hoover
37. Millard Fillmore
38. William Harrison
39. John Tyler
40. Warren Harding
41. Franklin Pierce
42. Andrew Johnson
43. James Buchanan

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