The three greatest presidents were Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Franklin Roosevelt, in that order. That’s the verdict of the latest poll of historians and academics, and it tracks closely with nearly all such polls conducted since Harvard’s Arthur Schlesinger Sr. pioneered this particular form of presidential scholarship in 1948. There isn’t much debate about which presidents occupy the top of the presidential pyramid.
This latest installment in the Great Presidential Rating Game comes to us from C-SPAN, which conducted an extensive survey—its third since 2000—aimed at ranking all presidents in order of greatness (or presumed greatness). Participating in the poll this time were 91 presidential historians (including myself), who were asked to rate presidents on a one-to-ten scale on ten qualities of presidential leadership, including public persuasion, crisis management, economic management, moral authority, international relations, relations with Congress, vision, etc.
Polls are nice—and probably represent the closest thing we have to the judgment of history at any given time. But in our democracy, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion on such matters of civic interest, and I’m nagged by a few things here. It seems that political sensibilities and perhaps even prejudices may have guided some of the outcomes.
For example, Barack Obama comes in at No. 12, a ranking that will not hold given the essential middling performance of this president who entered office with grand ambitions and ended it with forces swirling around the polity bent on crushing his limited legacy. Few presidents ranked as great or near-great in the polls ever found themselves beset by such a magnitude of swirling forces of opprobrium upon leaving office.
Likewise, John Kennedy is ranked at No. 8, which is sadly ridiculous. We can’t know what kind of first-term record he might have accumulated by reelection time had he not been killed, but we know his agenda was stymied in Congress and he didn’t seem to know how to get it moving. He certainly possessed impressive political and personal attributes, and perhaps he would have been reelected and gone on to heights of historical greatness. But, based on his three-year record, it remains an open question. Generally, it isn’t possible to render a definitive judgment on his presidential performance because he never got a chance to demonstrate what he could accomplish.
An interesting aspect of the C-SPAN poll is the changing fortunes of particular presidents. Dwight Eisenhower, who entered the academic polls at a middling position after his presidency ended in 1961, continued his steady ascent, reaching No. 5 in this latest poll, four notches above his 2000 ranking. In reaching the top-five circle (along with the standard top three and Theodore Roosevelt), Ike bumped Harry Truman down to No. 6. This Eisenhower rise is one of the most intriguing phenomena of the body of polling that has emerged since his presidential tenure. It seems clear that the early judgment was tinged with partisan sentiment, which eventually was eroded by the gritty sands of time.
But Woodrow Wilson dropped five notches, to No. 11, which corresponds with my oft-repeated suggestion that he is probably history’s most overrated president—a man, after all, who shredded civil liberties, failed spectacularly in his effort to shape the world through U.S. involvement in World War I (thus contributing significantly to a global mess), and left office with the country’s economy in freefall.
Another president who lost considerable ground (also five notches) was Andrew Jackson, who now resides at No. 18, a far cry from his earlier near-great status. Jackson is the victim of political correctness, which subsumes his considerable accomplishments under an abhorrence of his ownership of slaves and his brutal Indian-removal policies. Of course, Thomas Jefferson, ranked No. 7, also owned slaves, as did No. 2 Washington. And Indian removal was pretty much the prevailing U.S. policy long before and long after Jackson. Never mind; the ongoing assault on Jackson has seeped into academic thinking in a big way.
But the greatest presidential gainer was Ulysses Grant, who ranked at an abysmal No. 33 in C-SPAN’S 2000 poll but now resides at No. 22—right in the middle of all the presidents. This remarkable rise is attributable to major changes in thinking among academics about Reconstruction. For decades, historians viewed Grant as a puppet of the Senate’s so-called Radical Republicans, who imposed harsh Reconstruction policies upon the South and thus—in those historians’ view—exacerbated the nation’s sectional divide. But more recent scholarship has washed away this negative view of those Republican radicals and portrayed them instead as forerunners to the country’s later civil-rights activists devoted to equal justice for freed blacks. Grant’s embrace of those sentiments now elevates his status.
But for followers of this website and readers of our magazine, probably the most intriguing entry is that of Ronald Reagan, ranked in this latest C-SPAN survey at No. 9—conferring upon him “near great” status. While this is just two notches above Reagan’s 2000 C-SPAN ranking, it represents a huge leap from his standing among academics immediately after he left office. At that time Robert K. Murray of Penn State University and Tim H. Blessing of Alvernia College conducted an extensive poll encompassing 19 pages and 164 questions. Fully 18 percent of respondents considered Reagan “a flat failure,” while 44 percent ranked him “below average.” Only 1 percent considered him “great,” while 20 percent rated him as either “above average” or “near great.”
While Reagan presided over what the poll managers called “one of the longest and largest [economic] expansions in American history,” only 17 percent of respondents were willing to give Reagan any credit for the favorable economic numbers, while some 35 percent allowed that perhaps he deserved at least a little credit for them. Regarding the president’s tax-cut initiatives, a huge majority (89 percent) believed the country’s wealthier Americans already were undertaxed when Reagan took office (though the top rate was 70 percent).
“In short,” wrote Murray and Blessing, “it appears that the majority of historians do not believe that Reagan can claim credit for the economic advances of the 1980s, and a substantial number would redefine the meaning of the term ‘economic advance’ as applied to the Reagan years.”
These academics manifested equally negative views of Reagan’s actions on social and cultural issues. As Murray and Blessing summed up, “Reagan stands accused of racism, sexism, flawed judicial policies, underfunding of social and domestic programs, and creating and ignoring the homeless.” Further, 92 percent of respondents considered Reagan intellectually unqualified for the presidency and 54 percent considered him unqualified in terms of both intellect and experience (the latter despite two successful terms as governor of California).
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this poll outcome was polluted with political prejudice, a knee-jerk impulse to refuse any credit to Reagan irrespective of what good might have occurred during his presidency. Since most of these respondents despised his policies and the direction he set for the country, they simply had to annihilate his historical standing if possible.
But, lo, something interesting happened then. A more measured and dispassionate judgment began to appear about a decade later, and Reagan, like Eisenhower before him, enjoyed a slow ascent in the rankings—to No. 11 by 2000 and to No. 9 today. That’s a far cry not only from the Murray-Blessing poll but also a 1996 survey by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., published in The New York Times Magazine. That poll had Reagan at No. 25, down with Chet Arthur and Rud Hayes. Now he resides with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman.
And thus do we see that, yes, these fascinating surveys sometimes manifest traces of prejudice and wrongheadedness. No poll will get it all right, and not even collections of polls taken together can be considered definitive. But viewed collectively and over time, they show trends in the country’s political thinking and offer a pretty solid overview of presidential performance—while also offering plenty of fodder for discussion and debate. Reagan’s rise stands as testament to their value. Now perhaps conservatives should go to work on Calvin Coolidge.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, DC, journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His most recent book was Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.
Want to hear more? Listen to the author’s public radio interview.