How to Rate a President — or Not

More than the Roman emperors, the Popes, the English monarchs, the czars and czarinas, the sultans and the Chinese emperors, the American presidency is unique in the political history of the world. Reacting against both the weakness of the executives in the states under the Articles of Confederation, and the arbitrary prerogatives of the English monarchy, the Framers of the American Republic sought to merge two opposing principles: a vigorous unitary executive within a limited and limiting constitutional republic. Whether their experiment was successful or not has depended from the start largely on the personality and character of those who occupied the office.

Also from the start, the presidency was a pearl of great price. All knew that the electors would place George Washington in the presidential chair in 1789 and 1792—and not surprisingly, unanimously. But there was already jousting among those who vied for the second spot and thereby the vice presidency (each elector at that time had two votes to cast for President).

John Adams was bitterly resentful when he garnered only 34 out of a possible 69 electoral votes in the election of 1789. He did somewhat better in 1792 (despite Alexander Hamilton’s lobbying against him), winning 77 out of a possible 134 votes. Similarly, in 1796, when Adams narrowly bested Thomas Jefferson for the presidency, Aaron Burr was miffed at Virginia for casting most of its second electoral votes for Samuel Adams and not for him. Burr no doubt carried that resentment into the tied election of 1800, when he coyly allowed the Federalists in Congress to seek (ultimately unsuccessfully) to place him the presidential chair over Jefferson.

As men’s ambitions propelled them to try to become the foremost vote-getter, academics have similarly sought to determine how the Presidents should be ranked. Since 1948, there have been dozens of attempts to rank them, but most efforts to do so start from a preliminary political or ideological point of view, ranging from Progressive to conservative, which colors the authors’ conclusions. The academic quest to choose “winners” and “losers” belies the hoary saying that “History belongs to the victors,” or “History is written by the winners.”

That maxim has no certain attribution, and even though the thought has inspired art—see the 1962 film Harakiri—it seems but a cliché. Whatever its provenance, it is false. History is not written by the winners: history is written by the historians.

Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., began this baleful trend in 1948 when he surveyed historians on their relative views of America’s Presidents.[1] Most members of the guild, including Schlesinger and his son, were Progressives and partisans of a strong executive, particularly of the liberal sort. They tended to rank those Presidents highly who had extended presidential power or used it in a unilateral way. Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were at the top of the list. Those at the bottom were Ulysses Grant and Warren Harding. I think it was actually intellectual prejudice that consigned Grant and Harding to the lower realms.

Grant was ranked low not just because of the corruption in his second term (it was true that he chose his subordinates unwisely and trusted them too much), but because historians, many from the South, had absorbed the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War. Reconstruction was not only a mistake. It was dictatorial. The Southern society had been undermined by an invasion of northern “carpetbaggers.” Andrew Johnson was a hero for successfully resisting the attempt by Congress to make the President their underling. Not until the 1960s did revisionist historians, such as Eric Foner, definitively scotch that “understanding” of the post Civil War era.

In fact, Grant had a very successful foreign policy. He prevented the country from going to war in Cuba. He set the stage for resolving the frictions with Great Britain arising from the Civil War. Domestically, he brought stability and hope to a country that had been wounded by the deaths of so many and the racist endeavors of Andrew Johnson. He vigorously prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan and sought to guarantee political equality for blacks, although decisions of the Supreme Court stymied his efforts. He had to contend with the Panic of 1873, but brought postwar inflation under control.

My guess is that Harding, likewise, trailed most of the field not just due to the self-dealing of his cabinet members (he didn’t choose or supervise well, either), but because historians wanted to save the “legacy” of Woodrow Wilson, whose last two years in office were a legal, economic, moral, and foreign policy disaster. Whereas Wilson wanted to remake the entire world order, Harding, with his secretary of state, Charles Evans Hughes chose the more effective and practical option of diplomacy. Harding and Hughes split the alliance between Japan and Great Britain, stopped a naval arms race, and placed Britain and the United States on a plane of diplomatic and military equality and cooperation.

In addition, Harding rationalized the federal budgetary process, brought the debt under control, began to dig the U.S. economy out of recession, and commuted or pardoned many, including Eugene V. Debs, whom the Wilson administration had jailed for opposing the Great War and the administration’s policies. Wilson had refused to pardon Debs. Harding gave only one condition to his pardon of Debs: that Debs agree to be received by the President in the White House.

In 1996, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., reviewed the numerous polls about the Presidents who had served since the time of his father, and then Schlesinger fils added one of his own.[2] Except for the rise in the reputation of Dwight Eisenhower over the years, the poll had the same unsurprising bias towards activist liberal Presidents, the “Great” being Lincoln, Washington, and FDR, and the “Near Great” including Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Harry Truman, and James K. Polk. And guess who inhabited the basement of “Failures”? Why, Grant and Harding, of course—with Nixon thrown in for good measure. Schlesinger, Jr.’s only analysis of Harding consisted of a quote from the arch and oft-times cruel Alice Roosevelt Longworth: “Harding was not a bad man. He was just a slob.”

Nor was the result much different in 2000, when the Federalist Society, in a much more sophisticated and nuanced survey, published its rankings—except that, not surprisingly, Ronald Reagan and Eisenhower rose to the top tier (8th and 9th), while Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter swam nearer the bottom.[3]

The Harding and Grant presidencies were still considered failures. (James Buchanan was the absolute worst President.) But the study did point out why, despite their evident accomplishments, those two are ever the goats of the presidential competition:

Rating presidents is an odd practice. No one can be an expert on all periods. Many presidents (e.g., Ulysses Grant, Calvin Coolidge, and Warren Harding) are probably rated more on received wisdom than on assessments of their records.

Then there is the presidential survey that C-Span has conducted for the last few years, which canvasses the views of a wide range of historians. The criteria used by this survey (about which Greg Weiner wrote in February) happen to overlap considerably with criteria I devised while teaching a course at Princeton called “The Successful President.”

Here are C-Span’s criteria: “public persuasion,” “crisis leadership,” “economic management,” “moral authority,” “international relations,” “administrative skills,” “relations with Congress,” “vision/setting an agenda,” “pursuing equal justice for all,” and “performance within context of his times.”

And here are mine: 1) “protection of the country from foreign and domestic threat”; 2) “adherence to the rule of law and the President’s constitutional role”; 3) “administrative competency”; 4) “political skill”; 5) “economic policy”; 6) “preservation of liberty”; and 7) “integrity, or what the Framers understood as public virtue.”

As I say, these sets of standards have a lot in common, but four of the 10 in C-Span’s survey canted toward the liberal activist model that had shaped most previous surveys: “public persuasion,” “crisis leadership,” “vision/setting an agenda,” and “pursued equal justice for all.” Inasmuch as each participant was to give equal weight to each of the 10 criteria, it was not really surprising that the C-Span list continued to value highly such Presidents as John F. Kennedy (8th), Barack Obama (12th), and Clinton (15th). Nonetheless, other Presidents, previously disfavored for evidently partisan reasons, fared better than before: Eisenhower (5th), Reagan (9th), William McKinley (16th), while some previous favorites had fallen: Wilson (11th), Jackson (18th).

And at last there was some movement further down the line. Grant was now 22nd, but Harding still lagged near the bottom at 40th. Buchanan was again the worst.

As for my criteria, I strove to develop ones that were neutral. Thus, “protection of the country from foreign and domestic threat” awarded recognition to those chief executives, such as Eisenhower, or Grant, who had worked to avoid a crisis, as much as those who overcame one.

Nonetheless, discussions I have had with Fellows at the Liberty Fund demonstrated that some of my standards, at least, were clearly normative, and that I, like others, had devised standards that pointed toward a particular view of the presidency. “Adherence to the rule of law and the President’s constitutional role” set a standard at odds with the activist or imperial presidency, and implied an originalist point of departure. Similarly, “preservation of liberty” led in a different direction from the primacy of equality in C-Span’s “pursued equal justice for all.”

After a semester of detailed study of the Presidents, students in my class were to gauge whether a presidency was “successful,” “not successful,” “unclear” or “insufficient information.” In some ways they were freer to judge the Presidents independently on the evidence than academics like me, whether liberal or conservative, who had internalized a particular point of view after long years of study and writing. I was gratified to see the students apply a disciplined analysis to the subject.

Here is the list of Presidents that the students found were the most to the least successful.

Politics 332

The Successful President

On balance, was the presidency

  1. A) Successful
  2. B) Not Successful
  3. C) Unclear
  4. D) Insufficient information
President Weighted score
George Washington 32
Abraham Lincoln 32
James K. Polk 32
Theodore Roosevelt 32
Thomas Jefferson 30
James Monroe 30
Franklin D. Roosevelt 30
Dwight D. Eisenhower 30
James Madison 29
Calvin Coolidge 29
Harry S. Truman 29
William Howard Taft 28
John F. Kennedy 28
Ronald Reagan 26
Chester A. Arthur 21
William McKinley 19
Ulysses S. Grant 18
Woodrow Wilson 17
John Adams 16
Lyndon Baines Johnson 16
Zachary Taylor 15
Warren G. Harding 12
Benjamin Harrison 11
Gerald Ford 10
Millard Fillmore 8
Jimmy Carter 8
John Quincy Adams 7
Andrew Jackson 7
Herbert Hoover 7
Richard Nixon 7
James A. Garfield 6
Rutherford B. Hayes 4
Grover Cleveland 4
William Henry Harrison 2
Martin van Buren 1
John Tyler 1
Andrew Johnson 1
Franklin Pierce 0
James Buchanan 0

There are, as one can see, some surprises. The students ranked Calvin Coolidge highly because of his handling of the economy. They also found William Howard Taft’s administrative skill and fidelity to the Constitution admirable. Although Zachary Taylor was not seen as clearly successful, students praised his stance against nullification. Reagan was ranked somewhat lower, and Kennedy higher, than I expected. John Quincy Adams, though applauded for his civic virtue, was seen to have lost control of his administration by his appointment of political enemies to his cabinet. He was ranked surprisingly low. The real differences from other rankings were to be seen with regard to the presidencies of Wilson and Jackson—Wilson’s because of his actions against black Americans, and Jackson’s because of his Indian removal policy. For students, such racialist attitudes were anathema.

In the end, however, I believe that the systems that C-Span and I used were intellectually coherent: Establish a set of (more or less) objective criteria and use standards such as “effectiveness” (C-Span’s) or “successful” (mine) rather than a championship contest ranging from “Great” to “Failure.”

[1] Arthur M. Schlesinger, “Historians Rate the U.S. Presidents,” Life, November 1, 1948.

[2] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., “Rating the Presidents: Washington to Clinton,” Political Science Quarterly 112:2 (Summer 1997), 179-190.

[3] James Lindgren, Rating the Presidents of the United States, 1789-2000: A Survey of Scholars in History, Political Science, and Law, Federalist Society, November 16, 2000, available at http://www.fed-soc.org/publications/detail/rating-the-presidents-of-the-united-states-1789-2000-a-survey-of-scholars-in-history-political-science-and-law.