We Have Always Loved
Ranking Things, Particularly American Presidents
Douglas Brinkley Offers a Brief History of Political Listicles
As secretary of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1788, Charles Thomson kept meticulous journals documenting the swirling debates over the creation of the United States. At Independence Hall, he was the grand impresario—the record keeper—of the nation’s founding. A true-blue leader in the Sons of Liberty movement, praised by John Adams as the “Samuel Adams of Philadelphia,” Thomson’s name appeared with John Hancock on the first published Declaration of Independence. But in 1800, when his friends John Adams (Federalist) and Thomas Jefferson (Democratic-Republican) ran against each other for president, giving birth to the two-party system, he feared that the young nation couldn’t survive such brutal elections every four years. Defamation of character would destroy national unity. At the very least, Thomson reasoned, once the winning candidate was sworn in as president, the entire public needed to accept them as the executive voice of the nation.
To drive the point home, Thomson, in a strange act of conscience, burned his Continental Congress journals. He didn’t want Jefferson or Adam to be tarnished in history by their sometimes petty and petulant 1775-1776 stances. Thomson believed that US presidents needed to be elevated to greatness by the aristocratic intelligentsia, irrespective of political party affiliation, cultivated as enduring heroes for the ages. From George Washington onward, he insisted, presidents needed to be honored for time immemorial. Once Parson Weems mythologized George Washington in a popular book called The Life of Washington, then voila! The cult of the US presidency was born. To honor presidents, Americans have built monuments and put presidents’ faces on currency. Presidents’ Day is a national holiday. And, in recent years, the American way of grading past presidents’ performances in office has become the historian’s poll.
In the 18th century, when the Republic began, ranking the American presidents was not much of a discussion. Washington was a demigod, and Adams acted like one, making him a bitterly controversial second choice. From 1800 onward, however, as more presidencies piled up, the debate expanded, but only in a cracker-barrel way. Someone would pose the question, “Who is the best president?” and answers would fly. Party loyalties tended to temper the rankings, as in an idle discussion recorded in print by a bystander in 1848. Typical for its time, it took place in a precinct office in Virginia between two men who were passing the time:
WHIG VOTER: Do you know who was the best president?
JOB APPLICANT: I do not. Some people say that Jackson was. Some that Polk was. Some that Jefferson was. I believe that Jefferson was.
WHIG VOTER: No! Washington was the best president, and the first, and he was a great warrior. And General Taylor will make as good a president as Washington was.
Needless to say, General Zachary Taylor was a Whig who would please that voter by winning the election that year.
James Bryce, the Irish-born diplomat, made a bold survey of the presidents in his 1888 book, The American Commonwealth, which was a hugely influential assessment of American government at all levels. He didn’t quite rank the chief executives, but he did group them according to their abilities and achievements. His opinions were barbed, as when he dismissed most of the presidents between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln by making the point that “they were either mere politicians, such as Van Buren, Polk, or Buchanan, or else successful soldiers, such as Harrison or Taylor, whom their party found useful as figureheads. They were intellectual pygmies beside the real leaders of that generation—Clay, Calhoun, and Webster.” Those three senators (Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts) are not household names today, but in the nineteenth century, they were indeed more revered than any of the contemporary presidents. In Bryce’s viewpoint, Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant belonged together and belonged, as well, to “the history of the world.” For that reason, Bryce’s top tier of presidents was composed of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Lincoln, and Grant.
In the early 20th century, the ranking of the best and worst presidents was the stuff of school assignments, as young people took on a problem that most historians of the time sidestepped. To many scholars, the application of empirical parameters to a study as nuanced and yet thunderous as presidential history was inappropriate. Using numbers to bring order out of chaos might fit college football rankings or lists of the best movies of all time, but dozens of complicated administrations couldn’t be nailed into a lineup so easily. In addition, hyperbole went against the grain of presidential historians, who felt that “best” and “worst” were strokes of a housepainter’s brush on a canvas better penned with the finest nib.
The modern way of thinking met the field of presidential history when Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. accepted an invitation from the editors of Life magazine in 1948 to conduct a ranking of the nation’s chief executives. Life was a popular magazine, respected for its clean writing and excellent photography, but it was a far cry from the type of publications with which Schlesinger was normally involved. A Harvard professor of history, he served as an adviser for The Journal of the Massachusetts Historical Society and was a founder of the highly literate New England Quarterly. Schlesinger’s own work tended to look for order within the tumble of events, as with his Tides of American Politics, published in the Yale Review, which traced alternating 16-year cycles of conservative and liberal leadership in America. When Life asked for a ranking, Schlesinger had the stature and the outlook to take a stab.
Life magazine understood the pulse of the nation, a fact that brought it continuous criticism from intellectuals who considered that it reflected all too perfectly the middle thinking of middle America. What Life perceived in the late 1940s, however, was that the common attitude about the federal government had changed. Possibly, the timing was significant. Franklin Roosevelt had changed the role of the president from a mere executive to a nearly daily presence in American homes, along with his active family. In both respects, FDR was not just the president. To many people, he was the federal government—omnipresent in ways that none of his predecessors had been. With Franklin Roosevelt, fascination with the presidency grew quickly. For better or for worse, Americans began to look at the history of their nation in terms of the presidents. Perhaps that was natural; the English, notably, had long looked at the life of their country in terms of the reign of one monarch or another, or even in terms of their prime ministers. The Chinese spoke in terms of dynasties rather than dates. Personification of more than 150 years of American history was apparently a fresh, yet time-tested, idea when Life scheduled its feature in 1948.
After Schlesinger conducted what he called an informal poll of 55 colleagues in the field of American political history, he separated his list into “Great,” “Near Great,” “Average,” “Below Average,” and outright failures. In his accompanying article, he used the rankings to look for similarities among the presidents sharing the various categories. The main thing that Schlesinger’s ranking showed, however, was that there was a tidal wave of interest in this new way of looking at all the presidents simultaneously. In his memoir, he wrote of the bags of colorful letters he received afterward from all corners, many of them lambasting him for the results of the survey. At this point, only three years after the death of Roosevelt, his place among the “Greats” elicited the most ire. “I will agree that FDR was great,” wrote one New Yorker, “if by that is meant great liar, great faker, great traitor, great betrayer.”
Aside from those who made a new sport of disagreeing with the first ranking, there were many who saw otherwise forgotten presidents in a new light. James Polk, for example, was accorded fresh interest by his inclusion with the “Near Greats.” James Monroe rose in standing.
While Schlesinger’s ranking was fodder for many an after-dinner debate, it also made its way, slowly at first, into the thinking of academics. By the late 1950s, they were often making reference to the list—without mentioning, of course, its origin in Life, sandwiched between ads for Hunt’s tomato sauce and Bayer aspirin. They were also increasingly fascinated by the truth behind Schlesinger’s remark that “a judgment of historians is not necessarily the judgment of history, but at any given moment, it is the best available without awaiting the sifting process of time.” He used that line several times in print. It pointed to the favorite aspect of any product in the postwar era: instant gratification. The apparent weakness in his defense of the ranking—that the judgment of historians locked in a certain date did not necessarily coincide with the sifting process of time—was also the strength of a new use for the ranking, as future academics would discover.
In 1962, Schlesinger conducted a second survey for The New York Times Magazine. He included 75 “students of history” on the jury and narrowed the scope of the exercise by specifying that the assessment be based solely on performance while in office. A fabulous general, for example, couldn’t gain votes for battles won long before he entered the highest office. The notable change from the 1948 ranking was the drop of Andrew Jackson from “Great” to “Near Great.” No president was as controversial in his own time, and ever after, as Jackson. The fact that Jackson was held in lower esteem in 1962 than in 1948 intrigued scholars, who embraced the idea of the presidential ranking as a dual measuring stick—first of the respect for the presidents, and second of the attitudes toward history, which were in flux to a greater degree than was realized.
As rankings proliferated, either fully enumerated or in the form of books with titles such as America’s Ten Best Presidents (Morton Borden, 1961), the rankings themselves became controversial. “Is there any rationale for our comparing the administration of Chester Arthur with that of Franklin Roosevelt,” inquired Curtis Amlund, a professor at the State University of North Dakota, “Coolidge with Kennedy; or Hayes with Truman?” Once again, a scholar grounded in detailed analysis was objecting to the process of labeling a president “strong” or “weak” and making a list based on those two words or ones like them. “The appropriate terms to characterize presidents are not ‘strong’ and ‘weak,”‘ insisted Professor Amlund. “Rather, what the presidency most requires is adaptability.”
Other scholars were as rigorous in their approach to the burgeoning field, as studies were made to learn whether the rankings were skewed by the political leanings of the respondents. No such evidence was found. Others argued that the snapshot aspect of the various rankings didn’t allow for the rankings to become live, that is for them to give a deeper understanding of presidential greatness and even predict it in individuals.When the responses of those who might be called caring amateurs didn’t stray far from those of the professional historians, the question of elitism was put to rest.
That criticism and others like it inspired new approaches to the burgeoning field of presidential rankings. In 1982, Douglas Lonnstrom and Thomas O. Kelly II started something new at the Research Institute at Siena College, near Albany, New York. They designed a survey that included twenty different categories of assessment for the presidents. Sending it out in the usual manner to about 250 authorities, they planned it as a tracking survey to be administered on an exact schedule: in the second year of each new administration, in order to chart the rising or falling stars in the ranking.
The science in political science caught up to the field of presidential ranking with the work of Jeffrey E. Cohen, professor at Fordham University. He developed models using the statistics in previous rankings to determine with numerical precision the effect of scandal, such as that which plagued Bill Clinton’s second term, on the lasting reputation of a president. Dr. Cohen also wondered, as did many others, about those authorities and experts who were surveyed, some of them repeatedly, for each new iteration of rankings. There were those who considered that people who made a living in the study of presidents might be insulated from the values of the general public. In the coarsest terms, they wrote books largely for one another, they listened almost exclusively to one another in conferences, as well as the faculty lounge, and they had at least a degree of the academics’ disdain for views of the populace. To whatever extent such charges were true, it couldn’t be denied that the type of experts invariably consulted for rankings didn’t reflect the American citizenry at large.
The Gallup organization has occasionally polled Americans on the presidents, the results differing markedly from the academically based rankings. Four presidents were at the top of every one of the many previous academic rankings: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. In the 2011 Gallup poll, the top four were Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and John F. Kennedy. While it may be that these were the best four, and the academics were wrong, the Gallup poll is noticeably tilted toward more recent times; of the fourteen presidents who received at least one percentage point, only three predated 1900. Only three of the thirteen presidents who served from 1932 to 2011 were left off of the list: Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. While Reagan may well have been the best president and Grover Cleveland may equally deserve a place in oblivion, the Gallup poll seemed to be skewed by a subfactor: which presidents the respondents had heard of. In seeking to temper the academics’ rankings with a wider base of opinions, some means of identifying informed members of the public was needed.
C-SPAN has the means to blend the best of both worlds. A staple of intelligent television in the noisy cable era, C-SPAN televises extensive programming on individual presidents, both in studio interviews with authors and other specialists, as well as in on-site tours of places important to an understanding of each of those individuals. The audience for such programs came from all walks of life but had one thing in common: a serious interest in the full scope of presidents, including, but beyond, Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. When C-SPAN embarked on a ranking of the US presidents in 1999, it duly engaged 58 authorities in the field. Moreover, for ten days in late 1999, audience members could submit their own responses to the same survey. Just over 1,100 did so. When the responses of those who might be called caring amateurs didn’t stray far from those of the professional historians, the question of elitism was put to rest.Trump’s awareness of history is in the framework of rankings, as when he asserts that “nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president.”
Like Lonnstrom and Kelly at Siena, C-SPAN polled respondents on a variety of sub-values, rather than simply asking “who’s the best?” Moreover, the specificity of the sub-values made the C-SPAN ranking invaluable to those looking for greater insight into the occurrence of greatness in the White House. Like the rest of us, presidents could be superlative in one area but abysmal in another, a fact clearly reflected in the C-SPAN style of ranking. The polls were repeated on an occasional basis, giving the nation a well-received barometer of the moving fates of the commanders in chief. It also gave social scientists am multilayered perspective on the American people and their history.
Jefferson, the third president, resisted the aggrandizement of the presidency overall and certainly that of the sitting president, especially when he held the office. He did oversee the building of a magnificent residence and office in Charlottesville, Virginia, as architecture was a pursuit he couldn’t resist. He specially left instructions not to mention his service as US president on his cemetery tomb. Overall, Jefferson conducted himself with the humility of a village mayor. The difference between him and the current occupant of the White House, Donald Trump, is stark in their attitudes toward the presidency. Trump disdains the traditions of the White House, but he undoubtedly enjoys the spectacle and the spotlight that now accompany the US president at home and abroad. His awareness of history is in the framework of rankings, as when he asserts that “nobody’s ever done a better job than I’m doing as president.”
More than ever, presidents worry how history will view them, a trend that has intensified since the advent of rankings. Legacy matters. All modern presidents, quite naturally, when entering the White House dream of Mount Rushmore-worthy stature (or at least hope to make the top twenty in the up-to-date C-SPAN poll). On his first time out, Barack Obama landed a respectable number-12 spot, but only time will tell if he holds it. So, Trump, upon leaving office, won’t have the last word on where he ranks as president; C-SPAN’s historians’ poll will. And, while the space on Mount Rushmore is pretty crowded with Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Harry Truman in waiting, President Trump should be wary of the presidential loser’s club. William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, delivered the longest inaugural speech in US history on March 4, 1841, refusing to wear a winter coat in the bitter cold to enhance his rough-and-ready reputation. He died just one month later. And yet, five presidents—James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, and John Tyler—are ranked below Harrison in the 2017 C-SPAN poll, which means that their White House tenure was a net negative. That is the sand trap the current and future presidents must avoid. There is nothing wrong with being in the middle, but being last is legacy losing writ large.
Excerpted from The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best—And Worst—Chief Executives, by Brian Lamb, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.