Sunday, July 18, 2010

Ranking of the Presidents

Greetings all and welcome to the inaugural post of my history blog.

Siena College recently released its poll of 238 scholar's rankings of the presidents of the United States. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. started this game back in the 1940s and various organizations have conducted similar surveys ever since. Scholars and academics are the traditional judges, but several years ago C-Span compared the views of the ivory tower with plain old Americans who used the same system. Some of the polls have been very elementary, simply asking participants to rate the presidents in order. Others have asked for scores for individual categories, such as domestic policies, foreign policies, etc., that were then compiled in some weighted formula to arrive at a final overall ranking. Siena followed this latter approach and rated presidents on background, imagination, integrity, intelligence, luck, willingness to take risks, ability to avoid critical mistakes, court appointments, domestic accomplishments, executive appointments, foreign policy, handling of the economy, party leadership, relationship with Congress, ability to compromise, communication ability, executive ability, leadership, and overall ability. I find this to be an interesting collection of categories. How does one measure luck? That is always the heart of the problem of these types of polls anyway, it always comes down to a subjective opinion. Another flaw is that one's political views tend to bias the results as well. A conservative will not rate Franklin Roosevelt well for his handling of the economy as where a dyed in the wool progressive could not possibly give Ronald Reagan good marks in that category either. But they are fun intellectual games to play. In my own rankings of the presidents I take civil rights/liberties into account. That seems to me to be an important category for rating a president. This obviously hurts some of our traditionally more higher rated presidents, such as Lincoln, FDR, and Woodrow Wilson. Of course, with those presidents one could argue that Lincoln's freeing of the slaves might compensate for the suspension of Habeus Corpus and victory over the Hitler would mitigate some of FDR's lost points in the civil rights category because he interned the Japanese Americans in the Second World War. The big question is if these acts were necessary for the achievement of the larger aim. This is not to say that I would suggest selling out freedom for security, but it is a question for the historical balance sheet, such as it is in this goofy game of presidential ratings.

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

I was surprised that Theodore Roosevelt ranked so high. He is one of my favorites, but I cannot make a case that he did better than George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. I was also surprised by the placement of Benjamin Harrison. I think he was a better president than where he landed on this list. A couple other seemed a more than a few paces from where I would place them, and I will cover those in future blog postings. President Obama and the hapless William Henry Harrison should probably not be included on the list. One has not completed his term and the other served 30 days in office, almost all of it prostrate in his bedroom dying. It is even debatable if Garfield who served six months, but half of that time also prostrate and dying, should be on the list. Of course the inclusion of the current occupant generates the necessary media coverage.

Over the next few weeks I will make a few comments on the presidents and their ratings using the Siena rankings as my guide.