United States presidential history is rife with complexity: each leader governed according to (or against) his own mores, channeled his unique skills (or lack thereof), was buffeted by the social, economic, and political winds of his time, and made decisions both good and bad for the nation.
How can historians wring order from the chaos? It helps to start with a list. Since 2000, at the end of each administration, C-SPAN has asked a group of presidential scholars to rank each U.S. president on a scale of 1 (least effective) to 10 (most effective) in ten areas: public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, pursuit of equal justice for all and performance within the context of the times.
These anonymized scores are then averaged to produce a list of presidents ranked from best to worst. The fourth such report card, published this week, considers all 44 presidents no longer in office: from George Washington, who maintained his number 2 position, to Donald J. Trump, who debuted at a dismal 41st place.
Trump was not ranked worst overall, though some historians, such as survey participant and NYU historian Tim Naftali, argued he should be. The 45th president earned his highest scores in “public persuasion”; in the categories for “moral authority” and “administrative skills,” he ranked last.
As Gillian Brockell notes for the Washington Post, Trump beat out only three people: Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan, who came in dead last. All three men have been widely condemned by historians for severely mishandling the beginnings and aftermath of the Civil War, the worst crisis in national history, as Jeremy Stahl writes for Slate.
Buchanan’s “disastrous” presidency and failure to confront the budding Confederacy led to secession and civil war, per Slate. As journalist Robert W. Merry told Smithsonian magazine’s Megan Gambino in 2012, the 15th president exacerbated ongoing debates about slavery, to the point that it “festered and got worse.”
By comparison, Buchanan’s successor, Abraham Lincoln, maintained his tight grip on the top spot for leading the nation through the Civil War and abolishing slavery. He’s the standalone figure in a string of worst-ranked presidents that stretches from 1837 to 1869, notes the Post.
In general, time tends to be on the side of presidents like Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower, who were unpopular with historians at the time of leaving office but are highly ranked on 2021’s survey, as participant and Lyndon Johnson historian Mark K. Updegrove points out in a New York Times op-ed. With regards to recent presidents, George W. Bush debuted at 36th place in 2009 but jumped 7 places this year to spot 29; and Barack Obama rose two spots to break into the top 10 presidents this year.
Ulysses S. Grant also seems to be on track for a kind of redemption: He rose 13 places to number 20 this year, a jump that Brockell of the Post attributes in part to a spate of sympathetic biographies that give him more credit for the Reconstruction.
“Grant is having his Hamilton moment,” quipped Rice University historian and survey adviser Douglas Brinkley in the C-SPAN statement.
New information and shifting social mores can also have the opposite effect on a president’s reputation, per Updegrove in the Times. Andrew Jackson fell from number 13 to number 22 this year, perhaps a sign that historians are taking his well-documented role as the engineer of a genocide against Native Americans more seriously.
The C-SPAN list is not definitive or even scientific. The list of surveyed scholars has changed from year to year, as Rachel Katz, survey project coordinator, tells the network’s Pedro Echevarria in an interview. Rather, the results can serve as a springboard into deeper discussions about what makes a successful leader and the tricky task of evaluating historical figures.
“[The survey] is a way to start a conversation, get people talking about it, get them thinking about what makes for a good president,” Katz adds.
This year, C-SPAN sent survey packets to a pool of 142 historians or “professional observers” of the presidency. Compared to 2017’s selection of 91 scholars, this group was selected with an eye toward “reflecting new diversity in race, gender, age and philosophy,” per a C-SPAN statement.
Yet even with an expanded group of scholars, prejudices endure. At least 12 men on the list enslaved people during their lifetimes, including Washington, Grant, Thomas Jefferson (ranked 7th) and James Monroe (ranked 12th).
“Despite the fact that we’ve become more aware of the historical implications of racial injustice in this country and we’re continuing to grapple with those issues, we still have slaveholding presidents at or near the top of the list,” said Howard University historian and survey adviser Edna Greene Medford in the statement.
“So even though we may be a bit more enlightened about race today, we are still discounting its significance when evaluating these presidents,” Medford adds.
Alexis Coe, a biographer of Washington invited to participate in the survey for the first time in 2021, wrote in her newsletter Study Marry Kill that historians were given “months” to consider their ratings. She “agonized” over some decisions, such as how to measure the scandals of Warren G. Harding against the bad choices he made in his personal life.
Even Lincoln, who historians ranked first in the “moral authority” category this year, was far from perfect. Among other faults, he espoused racist views and was not a full-throated supporter of equality for African Americans.
“I’ve yet to study a president who’s a perfect 10,” Coe adds.